April 19–26, 2001
Trouble With a Capital N
Newark — a major part of the Philadelphia underworld — serves up as many problems as profits.
"Newark has always been an aggravation for Philly. All of North Jersey has. There’s so much money to make there, but it’s a big fuckin’ headache," a member of the Philadelphia mob explained in a recent interview with City Paper over sandwiches at Pagano’s, the lunchtime haunt of the attorneys defending reputed mob boss Joey Merlino and his six co-defendants.
"Newark is so far from South Philly, and so close to New York. And you know what that means," he said. "Trouble!"
Just what the North Jersey faction of the Philly mob means to the local underworld will be the subject of some of the testimony from North Jersey crew-leader-turned-government-snitch, Pete "The Crumb" Caprio, who is scheduled to testify against Merlino and his crew. Starting perhaps as early as next week, Caprio will tell jurors about the murders and other crimes he committed on behalf of Philly mob bosses. And on Monday, Merlino’s attorney Edwin Jacobs Jr. told reporters that his client would be charged with murder in a North Jersey racketeering case.
So how did a little slice of Newark and the northern New Jersey suburbs come under the control of gangsters 91 miles away?
At the turn of the last century, Newark had a thriving population of Italian immigrants, and a small percentage of them were involved in the criminal underworld. But the most powerful influence in that city’s rackets were the Irish gangs.
By the end of the 1920s Irish influence in the underworld began to fade just as the Italian mobs began to flourish, thanks to Prohibition. The Irish mobs couldn’t monopolize the production and distribution of booze.
(An academic study of ethnic groups involved in bootlegging operations in 50 U.S. cities found that 50 percent were Jewish, 25 percent Italian and 25 percent Irish, Polish and other ethnic groups. But the Italian gangs had a major advantage because they were evolving into regional organizations based on the structures and rituals of the Sicilian Mafia and Italian Camorra. A small group of Italian-American gangsters formed national alliances and local crime families.)
By the early 1930s, Mafia crime families from New York City were eyeing the local rackets in Newark. Coincidentally, the strongest gang leader in Newark at that time was an old Mustache Pete — that’s how the new generation of Americanized Italian criminals disrespectfully referred to older Italian criminals who preferred an "Old World approach" to crime in the New World.
Gaspar "Mustache Pete" D’Amico was shot and seriously wounded Feb. 22, 1937. The word on the street was that the boss of one of New York’s five crime families, Joseph Profaci, ordered D’Amico hit so that he could get his hands on some of the Newark rackets. D’Amico recovered and fled to Italy. The Newark crime family was dissolved and much of its operations parceled out to the New York Mafia.
A year earlier, a mob assassination in Philadelphia had set in motion the alliance that was to grow between the Newark and Philadelphia underworlds.
In 1936, the boss of the Philadelphia mob, John "Nazone" Avena, was shot and killed in a gunfight in South Philadelphia. (Avena’s son Salvatore grew up to become a defense attorney for Philly mob boss John Stanfa in the early 1990s. The government indicted and tried Salvatore Avena for racketeering but he was found not guilty.)
In 1936, a new Don of the Philadelphia Mafia emerged. He was Joseph Bruno — no relation to Angelo Bruno — and he ran the Philadelphia mob first from Bristol, PA, and then from New Brunswick, NJ. Joe Bruno had a lot of underworld connections in New York and Newark and some of them became associates, and eventually made men in a crime family based all the way down in Philadelphia.
By the time Angelo Bruno Annaloro became boss of the Philadelphia mob in 1959, a large percentage of his crime family still lived in South Philadelphia. But many others were living in places like Birmingham Township, Upper Darby and Yardley and across the river in cities from Camden to Vineland to Atlantic City and north to Trenton, Voorhees and the suburbs of Newark.
Angelo Bruno’s consigliere, the number-three man in the mob, was Antonio "Tony Bananas" Caponigro, who lived in a north Jersey suburb and owned a club in Newark.
Tony Bananas had quite a temper. In 1974 the New Jersey Commission on Investigation wanted to interview Caponigro about the North Jersey faction of the Bruno crime family. The commission had been trying to serve Caponigro with a subpoena for months but Tony Bananas had been ducking them. He had moved to Manhattan and occasionally sneaked back to his home in Verona, NJ.
Two days before Christmas, Tony Bananas was lurking in his home in New Jersey prior to his next trip back to New York City when he spied a man he believed to be a process server sitting in a car that was blocking his driveway. The enraged consigliere crashed his car into the other automobile. It turned out the other man was an FBI agent and Caponigro ended up doing 30 months in prison.
New York mobsters in the Genovese crime family were jealous of Caponigro’s gigantic gambling operation and were busy scheming how they could take it over. They knew that Tony Bananas didn’t like reporting to Angelo Bruno so they encouraged him to assassinate Bruno, telling him that the New York Mafia would back him as the new boss of the Philly mob.
On March 21, 1980, Angelo Bruno was killed by a shotgun blast to the head as he sat in his car chatting with his driver, John Stanfa. Angelo Bruno’s friends in the New York Mafia and in crime families across the country were numerous and powerful — many were current or former leaders of organized crime in New York, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New Orleans, Tampa and Boston. They were furious that anyone would dare murder a boss — and they worried if an example was not made someone might do the same thing to them.
The very same leaders in the Genovese crime family who had encouraged Caponigro to execute Bruno now volunteered to the other Mafia bosses to get to the bottom of this mess and punish the guilty. Tony Bananas and his driver, Alfred Salerno, were last seen on their way to a meeting with a Genovese captain named Vincent "The Chin" Gigante. Tony Bananas was found shot to death in the trunk of a car in the Bronx. He had been tortured and repeatedly shot. Torn $20 bills were found scattered around the trunk of the car. Salerno, also tortured and shot to death, was found in a mortician’s body bag a mile away.
As a reward for finding Bruno’s assassins, the Genovese were given Caponigro’s lucrative gambling rackets.
When "Little Nicky" Scarfo came to power, his underboss, Phil Leonetti, became very close to the North Jersey crew and socialized with them often. After Scarfo went to jail in 1989, someone shot his son, Nicky Jr., in a restaurant in South Philadelphia on Halloween night. (Ralph Natale has told government investigators that Joey Merlino and Michael Ciancaglini were responsible for the attempt on Scarfo Jr.’s life.)
After the shooting, Nicky Jr. was sent to live in North Jersey under the protection of the Newark faction of the Philly mob. George Fresolone was a mob associate of the North Jersey branch of the Philly mob. He was also one of Nicky Scarfo Jr.’s protectors.
In 1988, Fresolone became a government informant. At that time he was working not only as an associate of the North Jersey crew of the Philly LCN, but as a mob go-between for legal and illegal deals involving three crime families in New York and the boss of New Jersey’s LCN crime family, the DeCavalcante mob.
When Nicky Scarfo went to prison, his cousin, Anthony "Tony Buck" Piccolo, became acting boss of the mob. In July1990, Piccolo initiated Fresolone into the Mafia and Fresolone taped the ceremony for the Feds. In 1990, on evidence gathered by Fresolone, the New Jersey authorities indicted 41 mobsters, including John Riggi, boss of the DeCavalcante crime family, as well as members of the Genovese, Gambino and Lucchese crime families and Nicky Scarfo Jr. and several powerful members of Philly’s North Jersey crew.
Of course, not everyone in the North Jersey crew was happy to be reporting to a mob boss in Philly. In 1982 Nicky Scarfo had initiated Newark mobster Joseph Sodano into the Philadelphia crime family. Sodano ran a large bookmaking operation, and every month sent Scarfo $4,000 as a share of the profits. But as soon as Scarfo was convicted in 1989, Sodano stopped sending money to Scarfo’s cousin, the acting boss.
Several years later, with John Stanfa firmly in charge, Sodano was paying again. But he was complaining again, too. This time it was in 1992, and Sodano was whining to John Stanfa about the changing nature of the Mafia, the lack of loyalty from the younger generation of mobsters and showboat mob leaders like John Gotti. Sodano’s conversation was caught on a government wire.
Shortly after his conversation with Stanfa, Sodano began serving a 10-year sentence on a state racketeering charge — Sodano was one of the men that mobster-turned-government-informant George Fresolone had taped for New Jersey authorities. But after serving only two years of his sentence, Sodano was out on parole. And he had a new boss.
Ralph Natale came to power in 1994 at the same time that Joseph Sodano was back running a very large loan shark and gambling operation and trafficking in stolen goods. He was making a lot of moolah, but he was refusing to send any tribute south to the new Godfather.
On Dec. 7, 1996, Joseph Sodano was found shot twice in the head behind the steering wheel of his SUV, which was parked in the lot of a senior citizen complex in Newark.
When Ralph Natale became a government witness, he told authorities that Sodano was murdered because he had failed to show respect to him and Merlino. During the Merlino trial, Natale testified that Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio gave the hit to Philip "Philly Faye" Casale, who lured Sodano to a meeting. Casale hopped into the passenger side of Sodano's sports-utility vehicle and shot Sodano in the right side of the head. As the SUV started to roll backward, Casale jumped out, dashed around the front, pulled open the driver's door and shot Sodano again, in the left side of the head. Then Casale took $12,000 in cash out of the dead man’s wallet and a piece of jewelry from Sodano’s body. He split Sodano’s money with Caprio.
Defense attorneys in the ongoing racketeering trial have played tapes in which Ralph Natale appears to be sending messages through a go-between to the North Jersey faction of the Philadelphia LCN headed by Caprio. Not long after these messages were sent, Caprio and two members of his crew, along with some crime soldiers from the Genovese and Gambino crime families, plotted to kill Merlino’s co-defendants Stevie Mazzone and Georgie Borgesi. They also plotted to whack Borgesi’s uncle, Joseph Ligambi. Mazzone, Borgesi and Ligambi were supposedly running the mob for Joey Merlino. With those three out of the way, the North Jersey crew planned to take over the Philly Mafia and split up its gambling rackets with their underworld pals from the New York crime families.
But in March 2000, Caprio was arrested, and soon thereafter he and his right-hand man Casale became government witnesses.
Defense attorneys in the racketeering trial allege that Ralph Natale persuaded Caprio to turn informer to help him wreak havoc on Merlino and his men. They claim that Natale’s and Caprio’s statements about the Sodano killing are suspiciously identical, which raises a question: Did the two gang leaders strategize and coordinate their "confessions" to settle their own vendetta against Merlino and his allies?
But for the Philly mob, this is just the latest headache courtesy of their not-so-reliable members in Newark.