March 11-17, 2004
Skinny Joey's Victory Party
Mob Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
NEWARK, N.J. -- Rita Merlino and her entourage had just ordered lunch at the Green Street Cafe across from City Hall when somebody's cell phone rang Monday afternoon. All conversation ceased at two tables in the back of the Italian restaurant.
"The verdict is in," a middle-aged man in a leather jacket mumbled to Rita, who put her head in her hands as if in sudden and deep prayer. In her unmistakable raspy voice, she cried, "Oh, God!"
She couldn't bring herself to cross the street to learn whether her only son, Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino would be found guilty of the 1996 slaying of North Jersey mobster Joseph Sodano, a rap he'd once beaten as part of a wide-ranging racketeering trial.
Respectfully, one of the young men who hurried from the cafe shouted, "We'll call you soon as we know."
Rita's hesitance was understandable. She'd already lost her husband, Salvatore "Chucky" Merlino, to prison for the rest of his life for crimes he committed as a Mafia underboss. Her brother-in-law, who disappeared into witness protection after becoming a government snitch, died under an assumed name somewhere out west and was shipped back to Jersey in a coffin. And in 1984, Rita's oldest daughter, Maria, had been engaged to mob capo Salvatore Testa. When Testa called the wedding off, he turned up dead, leaving Rita and her heartbroken daughter to endure a very public spectacle involving television cameras and whispered jokes that dating a Merlino could get you killed.
Now, if her 42-year-old Joey was found guilty, he too would spend the rest of his natural born life locked in a cell.
So already having asked for God's acquittal powers and given Joey's attorneys the St. Rita's medal and a rosary that sat on the defense table throughout the trial, there was nothing to do but wait.
Meanwhile, over in court, the jury foreman, an African-American man dressed casually in a New York Jets football jersey, read the not-guilty verdict. Joey and his two attorneys, Eddie Jacobs and Chris Warren, smiled.
Joey then turned to spectators and opined, "Poor Martha Stewart, my heart breaks for her."
Some of the young men in the Merlino group, including an alleged soldier in the North Jersey branch of South Philly's La Cosa Nostra facing a racketeering trial of his own, flashed their thumbs up.
Back in the restaurant, the atmosphere turned celebratory. Endless trays of drinks and platters of food flowed to the Merlino tables on the shoulder of waiter Jack the Wack, who joined Rita and friends in toasting their good fortune.
"I'm happy for my granddaughters and my son," Rita told City Paper. "It's about time that we got treated fair."
Sometime during the party, Jack the Wackâ who says he's good friends with a cast member of The Sopranos, was invited down to South Philly for drinks with the Merlino crowd.
"I'm going," he said. "Why not? These are all nice people."
The owner of the Green Street Cafe, a middle-aged Sicilian man, also stopped by the table where a few reporters were watching the acquittal party.
"I was a federal policeman in Palermo. I was on the other side of these people," he said in a thick Italian accent, smiling as he gestured toward the young reputed mobsters seated around Rita's table.
Joey's wife, Deborah, came into the restaurant late, soaking wet from the freezing rain and sleet that drenched the city all day long. She rushed past the reporters in the bar and hurried back to join the revelers. Jacobs arrived next.
"Just another impossible case," Jacobs told City Paper. When he left a few minutes later, Jacobs quipped to a few reputed mobsters at the back table, "I'll see you at the next trial."
In South Philly several hours later, a single yellow balloon marked the entrance to Rita's house where friends and family had gathered to continue the celebration, just like they did after Merlino's 2001 trial. Joe "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, the darkly handsome alleged mob boss, stood outside.
"We got some good news today," the normally quiet boss offered. "Very good news today."
As Ligambi was leaving, Michael "Mikey Penknife" Virgilio arrived with congratulations. (Virgilio, a reputed mobster and alleged hit man, got his nickname because of his father, a now-deceased mob soldier who was called "Nick the Blade.")
Of course, Joey was a no-show, since he has the remainder of his federal racketeering sentence to serve. He's eligible for release in 2011.
"He'll be back," one mob associate offered. "He'll be back and in his prime. He'll be the boss of the mob one more time."
Shaken, Not Stirred
You can usually find reputed mob underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino at the bar inside Lou’s Crab House at 11th and Moyamensing, sipping martinis and chatting with a few pals. A slim, short man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and an intense stare, he listens more than he talks.
Last Friday, Mousie was in state court in Camden, pleading guilty to running an illegal gambling and loan-sharking ring in South Jersey and South Philadelphia. Fittingly, the 53-year-old, who was dressed in black slacks and shoes and a black zipper pullover, refused to answer questions as he left the courthouse.
"Are you a mob leader?" one reporter asked. Dangling a cigarette in his left hand, Massimino just smiled and kept walking beside his lawyer.
Massimino allegedly became the No. 2 man in the mob in 2001 after Merlino and his crew were convicted on federal racketeering charges. Through the years, he’s been arrested more than 30 times for everything from assault to drugs. A day before his own appearance in state court, Massimino and Ligambi had gone up to Newark to see how Joey Merlino was doing at his trial. Massimino faces a 10-year sentence but will probably only serve five.
He’ll be sentenced in May, so Massimino and Merlino will probably both be coming home around the same time.
"It’ll be like a reunion," a mob associate said.
Next on 60 Minutes: The Fat Rat
An interview with Ron Previte, the former cop turned mob capo turned FBI informant, will air on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes Sunday night. Next Tuesday, the 6-foot, 300-pound turncoat will have a new book out, written by Inquirer mob scribe George Anastasia, called The Last Gangster.
Previte, a former Philadelphia Police officer who joined the mob and ran a part of La Cosa Nostra from Hammonton, N.J., while working undercover for the feds, still lives in the area.
"He never moved away," one law enforcement source tells City Paper. "He’s got a book. He’s on national TV. He says he’s not afraid of the mob because there is almost no one left out on the street. I hope he’s right."
Twenty years ago, the Philadelphia crime family had 44 made members, more than 200 associates and alliances with a half-dozen mob families, outlaw biker gangs and criminal networks.
Today, even though there are just 12 made members of Philly’s La Cosa Nostra, the bad guys say Previte needs to watch his back.
"Previte is a fat rat. But who really cares about him now? Everybody he testified against is in jail. We’re on to making money and other shit. That’s all yesterday. But he’ll always be looking over his shoulder," a mob associate tells City Paper. "If he’s ever hangin’ in the wrong place, he’s not gonna make it. No doubt about it. He won’t live to write another book."