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Thursday, October 27, 2011

The South Philly mob has faded away but it still casts a long shadow just ask George Martorano

"I copyrighted this thing called The Cheesesteak Theater," George Martorano tells me during a conversation frequently interrupted by a succinct and monotone recording: "This call is from a federal prison."
"I write the plays," George continues. "They buy a ticket and get a free cheesesteak."
I'm speaking on a borrowed BlackBerry, and George gets only 300 minutes on the phone each month, so I make plans to follow up later by email. The phone gets passed down an eager line of family, neighbors and former schoolmates from St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, most catching a smoke break on the sidewalk outside La Locanda Restaurant, which is tucked into a strip mall so indistinguishable from its neighbors that I drove past it twice down a highway in the South Jersey suburb of Voorhees.
Inside, a well-dressed crowd is gathered for a fundraiser to support George, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for drug trafficking. Although subject to the brutal uniformity of a Florida federal prison, he has remained a committed Philadelphian — and become a prolific author and playwright. He is the son of mobster Raymond "Long John" Martorano, but he was never accused of a violent crime and, by all accounts, was never a member of the mob. Now 60, George has been inside a prison cell since age 32, when he pled guilty to trafficking heroin, cocaine, methaqualone and marijuana. His supporters contend he received his harsh sentence as punishment for his father's sins, and for refusing to tell prosecutors things, back in an era of rampant gangland bloodletting, that he says he did not know.
George now teaches writing to fellow prisoners and counsels those on suicide watch. The dinner fundraiser is for George's legal defense and also for an organization to promote literacy that he founded. Men in Hawaiian shirts with smoothly gelled hair chat with women with dyed-black hair, curled. Stephen Ritrovato, whose business card identifies him as a "vocalist/personality," has donated his time to sing lounge anthems, Sinatra included, over a synthesized beat. The South Philly accents have stuck despite a neighborhood diaspora that stretches from South Jersey to South Florida.
A large photograph of George, dressed in his dull-olive prison uniform, is displayed at the front of the busy restaurant. In a more recent photo on the program's cover, George looks older, with grayer hair and a face creased with wrinkles. Friends tell stories to animate the still images: George down the Shore, in the neighborhood, at school. George exists in many points of memory. But not here.
"He's serving this time for things in Philadelphia that George had nothing to do with," says John Flahive, one of George's brothers-in-law. "I hope you focus on who George is today. All of that Philadelphia shit, that doesn't have anything to do with it."
No one here wants to dwell on the Philly underworld. When my questions stray toward the Mafia, faces tense up: Please don't write a Mafia story. And yet that world casts an inescapably long shadow. Even the walls of the restaurant, which has donated the fundraiser's food, are lined with posters for The Godfather and other mob films — a reference to Italian-American pop culture that strikes me as curious but which most guests don't seem to notice.
"If I believed for one second," says Flahive, "that if George were out today that he would do anything ..."
"He's his own man," interjects Deborah Scarpa, a Miami transplant from South Jersey and a dedicated "Free George" activist. "And his own story."
George's elderly mother, Evelyn, does not care for storytelling. "I don't talk to no reporters," she says, turning away, but not before recounting that she once threw Inquirer mob reporter George Anastasia out of a restaurant (an incident Anastasia does not recall). And even Anastasia sympathizes with George's plight.
"Long John Martorano was a major player in the underworld, and made a lot of money in the underworld doing things that were illegal," says Anastasia, the undisputed dean of Philly mob watchers. "Whether it was loan sharking, extortion, illegal gambling or drug dealing. He paid a price for that, and so did members of his family."
After years of dead-end appeals, George's supporters are eager to tell the story of a man whom one of his lawyers, Ted Simon, believes to be "the longest-serving first-time offender for a nonviolent federal offense in the U.S." While they seek to win over the court of public opinion, his lawyers have the much tougher job of winning over a three-judge panel on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. This will probably be the last attempt to set George free.
To make his final push for freedom, George retained new and rather high-powered attorneys in 2010. Simon is a Philadelphia lawyer who represented Amanda Knox, the American student convicted and then this month acquitted on appeal for a salacious murder in Italy. Miami lawyer Roy Black has defended Rush Limbaugh against drug charges, Kelsey Grammer against statutory rape accusations, and represented William Kennedy Smith in his notorious 1991 rape trial.
This star legal team is pursuing what they say are two brand-new arguments, which rest on complicated points of sentencing law. But to understand George's case, and to understand George, one must dig into the equally murky South Philadelphia of the early 1980s, a bloody period in an underworld that stretched from Oregon Avenue to Atlantic City and South Florida.

PERIOD PIECE: George in 1980, in a photo supplied by his family.
The stable and insular world of the South Philly mob unraveled the night of March 21, 1980, when a man with a 12-gauge shotgun walked up to a parked car at 934 Snyder Ave. and blasted a hole into the side of Angelo Bruno's head. Bruno, known as the "Gentle Don," ruled a mob that put a premium on discretion and used violence sparingly. Bruno's day job was as a commissioned salesman for Raymond Martorano's vending business. Though Bruno reported an income of $50,000, according to Anastasia, he died a millionaire. Nearly a year later, on March 15, 1981, a bomb ripped through the porch of Philip "Chicken Man" Testa, killing Bruno's successor and creating a chaotic power vacuum.
Seizing the opportunity was a man named Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, who took control. Scarfo loved the spotlight and flaunted his riches, keeping a photograph of Al Capone — whose flamboyant style was diametrically opposed to Bruno's — hanging in his office. The angry man whom Bruno had sidelined to Atlantic City in 1964 went on to unleash a wave of terror that lasted from 1981 until his 1987 arrest, and later conviction, for murder and other charges.
Scarfo took the close ties that bound the South Philly mob together like family and remade them into a noose. Twenty-one mob murders took place from 1980 to 1985, full of jealous double crosses and betrayals. Scarfo's penchant for brutality and unbridled greed left the organization wide open to government informants who would have failed to penetrate the Bruno mob.
It was during this period that George's father, Raymond, a convicted drug dealer long suspected to be a mob associate, became a made member after allegedly orchestrating the murder of roofers' union president John McCullough. The conviction was overturned 15 years later due to prosecutorial misconduct.
With his father behind bars for drug charges, George and his partners worked together to fly a planeload of marijuana from Jamaica to Florida. But when he pulled a Winnebago full of pot into a Philadelphia garage in late 1982, George and a number of accomplices were arrested. One of his partners, it turned out, was a federal agent.
George was represented at his 1984 trial by Bobby Simone, a second-generation Italian-American born in South Philly. Simone was the lead attorney for whichever local don happened to be in charge. But he became Scarfo's close friend, and more (he was later sentenced to four years for racketeering, accused of being the Philly mob's "unofficial consigliere").
That George was a drug dealer was not, by and large, in dispute, so Simone advised him to strike a deal and plead guilty. Simone, says George, told him that he would face 10 years. Maximum. It turned out to be a plea without a bargain: Judge John B. Hannum sentenced George to the maximum of life without parole.
"The fact is that George 'Cowboy' Martorano was a major drug dealer. So was his father. But what I don't get is why he got a life sentence when he pled guilty," says Anastasia. "Why it played out that way, only two people can tell you: Bobby Simone and Judge Hannum. And they're both dead."
The circumstances of George's case were incredibly bizarre: After George pled guilty but before he was sentenced, Hannum took to the stand in a neighboring courtroom as a character witness for the very same Bobby Simone, who faced charges of income tax evasion.
This is how George explains it all in an email: "First Simone says he had a private deal with Judge Hannum for 10 years. Then when the bad press came out of Simone and Hannum [regarding being a character witness] ... then Simone rush[ed] to see me, saying 10 wouldn't look good, and ... that it would have to be 15. But he was playing me along with the OK from Nicky Scarfo. Right before the sentencing day, Simone came to see me late one night asking for $150,000 for Hannum, to assure me the 15 years."
In appeals throughout the '80s and '90s, George's attorneys used Hannum to make their case, arguing that the judge had sold George down the river to protect himself from accusations that he had struck a secret deal with Simone.
There is much in the way of speculation, says Anastasia, including that Hannum "didn't know what was going on" or "the conspiracy theory is, and I don't buy into it, this was Scarfo getting back at Martorano through Simone. But that's a real stretch."
Rumors swirl around this case. Over time, they have hardened into layers of uncertainty and suspicion.

CHILD 'HOOD: The South Philly block where George Martorano grew up is now home to trendy businesses.
The streets of South Philly that now summon hipsters were then a war zone. And George, says another brother-in-law who asked not to be identified by name, was, if not quite an innocent bystander, taken down in the metaphorical crossfire.
"It was just a racketeering mob," he says. "Wasn't no death, wasn't no shooting. But when Scarfo became a boss, he was a serial killer." Scarfo's sadism makes it tempting to romanticize Bruno's mob, and makes it easy to imagine that Bruno would not have allowed George to fall through the cracks. Regardless, George's sentence is as difficult to explain as it is harsh. And the reason for the sentence, much like the shadowy underworld that George was born into, has long since passed into history.
The violent, bloody mob of that time is gone. Consider alleged mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, who was indicted this May alongside a dozen associates. The charges? Gambling and loan sharking. Not a single murder charge. The storefront at Camac and Moore where Scarfo's soldiers carried out an 18-month war against Harry "The Hunchback" Riccobene abuts a now-gentrifying Passyunk Avenue corridor, profiled in the The New York Times travel section, that features artisan gelato and a Doggy Style pet boutique. Big Ralph's Saloon, owned by mob associate Big Ralph Costobile, is now the craft-beer bar Pub on Passyunk East, or POPE. The corner of Ninth and Christian, where Salvatore Testa, the assassinated son of assassinated mob boss Phil Testa, had a clubhouse, is squarely in the middle of an evermore Mexicanized Italian Market.
Aggressive federal prosecution has decimated the mob, which lives on more as a marketing device than criminal threat, although sports bookmaking, video poker machines and loan sharking continue. Meanwhile, gangs from Russia, Mexico, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America — and terrorists — control the lucrative global black market in drugs and weapons. American consumers, however, are eager to make the mysterious la cosa nostra ("that thing of ours") a thing of theirs.
George's cousin, celebrity chef Steve Martorano, is one of the country's most successful promoters of kitsch Italian-American culture. Steve owns CafĂ© Martoranos in Florida and Vegas and recently released a book of recipes and old neighborhood reminiscences titled Yo Cuz!. In his book, Steve describes himself as "the son of a part-time loan shark [who] took one of Philadelphia's most notorious names and made it into its most delicious." He deejays music while screening mob classics for celebrities like Luducris and Mo'Nique — both of whom wrote introductions to his book.
"The Mafia has almost become like a brand now, like Versace or Dolce & Gabbana," says Anastasia, a few weeks before I see a press release announcing "Mob Wives Star Karen Gravano to Grace Cover of Mob Candy Magazine." "It's almost a shell of what it used to be," Anastasia continues. "Part of it is that the best and the brightest are lawyers and doctors. So you're really scraping the bottom of the barrels with these guys. It's really part of the assimilation story. Two Supreme Court justices are Italian-Americans. There are no more barriers."
That drive to be seen as American can take on a sharp edge, as with Joey Vento, the conservative and recently deceased founder of Geno's cheesesteaks who sparked a national uproar over his "This is America, when ordering, 'Speak English'" sign. His father was James "Jimmy Steaks" Vento, a mob associate convicted of murder, and his brother, a drug dealer who Scarfo tried to force to pay a "street tax," got locked up, too. Joey encouraged his brother to pay Scarfo. But more than anything, he wanted him out of the game.
"Get out, and get a fuckin' job," Joey Vento told his brother, according to a recorded conversation over a prison phone reported by the Inquirer in 1987. "And stop all this bullshit. That's the proper move. But evidently you don't want to hear that. ... But I say, don't put me in the middle of it. I'm just trying to sell fuckin' steaks."
When I met George's brother-in-law for a beer, he suggested we drink not at some old Italian South Philly haunt, but at a new German beer hall, where he gushed over the business acumen of the venue's owners. At the fundraiser, he had told me that one day Americans will have interbred to the extent that our offspring will be racially indistinguishable — and that, he said, would be fine. "If you move to Argentina, you're not an Italian-Argentinean. You're Argentinean. Only in America are you Italian-American."
So much for the tight-knit, Italians-only creed depicted in The Sopranos — the world that still follows George and tethers him to a cell in Florida.
George last saw Philly earlier this year, when he was transported for his trial. "I looked at it out the window for seven months, but never got to set foot in my city," he tells me, now looking forward to his appeal later this fall. "I hadn't been in Philly since the '80s, and the city changed. All I could see was the skyline."
But the old neighborhood days refuse to disappear completely. Back in 1998, 15 years after George's arrest, his 23-year-old son, Raymond, was arrested trying to unload more than 400 pounds of marijuana from a truck into a South Philly garage. According to an Inquirer report at the time, the assistant U.S. attorney asked the judge to hold Raymond without bail, in part because of his family history.
A judge dismissed the case, but Raymond was later killed in a 2001 motorcycle wreck, soon after George's wife died of cancer. In 2002, just a little over two years after his release from prison, Raymond "Long John" Martorano was shot to death in his Lincoln Town Car.
"I don't know," muses Anastasia. "Things are so fractured down there in South Philly. There isn't anybody prominent. There aren't any names. When Long John was shot and killed, there were rumblings that he was trying to put something together. But I don't think there's anything there. It is the end of an era. He's from that period of Angelo Bruno and Nicky Scarfo. Those guys are either in the their 80s or dead."
He continues, "That way of life is over for most of them. There's no upside. You end up dead or in jail. You look at the Martorano family, it underscores that. Dead or in jail. Was it worth it?"
For his part, George busies himself with ambitions of joining a literary world he never knew but hopes to find upon his release. "On this day September, 20, 2011, I have been in prison 15,242,400 minutes. I have been in 254,040 hours," George writes in an email. "I know now I must believe I have been chosen to endure, change and carve out some of my own history upon the grey stone of prisons. Yet as it looks me in the face the facts of it, the fact that the cell door still will not open. I have let the steel door witness all of the good I can bring, all of the words I can write, all of the tears I can cry."
George initially suggested a story of old world intrigue and omertĂ . But as we spoke over the past months, our conversation drifted to questions having more to do with the boarded-up row homes of black North Philly than with the changing South Philly neighborhood where he grew up: Why does America lock up so many people, for such a long time, over drugs?
"What I've seen in Philly is the federalization of the poor and minorities," George says. "These kids from North Philly, Southwest Philly, with 9, 10 grams of crack. What about the rich kids in Malibu? Why don't they lock them up?"
That George's concerns transcend his personal injustice is remarkable, having come from a city divided into neighborhoods where racial difference was the key to both identity and political outlook. After all, the mural of former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo, hated by poor blacks and lionized by working-class whites, now overlooks an Italian Market that's half Mexican.
George, like South Philly, has changed. A closed neighborhood tied to the old world is increasingly scattered, along with its loyalties. During his early days behind bars, George shared a cell with John Gotti. By 2003, he was keeping different company, and was elected community connections chairman, and later vice president, of his prison's NAACP chapter.
"Yes, I was the only white member," says George, who did not seem to understand my curiosity. Within the prison, he explains, "I see the same suffering of all."



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