Atlantic City’s Ducktown was once the hub of the local mob, a powerful group that at one point owned the city’s mayor, its unions and even handpicked its police chief, according to a book by the former underboss.
“We had the kind of power ... where we could start a citywide strike with a single phone call and literally shut down the casinos,” Philip Leonetti wrote in his new book, “Mafia Prince: Inside America’s Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra.”
“We also had the kind of power that, if people didn’t do what we told them to do, we’d kill them and everyone knew that,” Leonetti wrote.
Movies and television glorify the mob, Leonetti said during a telephone interview with The Press of Atlantic City this week. But “the only similarities would be people getting killed.”
Leonetti has made sure he’s not one of them. He lives under a false identity because his uncle — jailed mob boss Nicodemo Scarfo — put a half-million-dollar bounty on his head for turning informant nearly a quarter-century ago.
Going against the family was a difficult decision for the man raised under the themes of loyalty and honor, with an understanding that not following the rules could be a death sentence. Sentences Leonetti himself once dished out with a gun.
When casinos first came to the resort in 1978, Gov. Brendan Byrne stood on the Boardwalk and warned organized-crime leaders: “Keep your filthy hands out of Atlantic City.”
Just a few blocks away, “Little Nicky” Scarfo and his nephew, known at the time as “Crazy Phil,” had a laugh watching the speech live.
“What’s this guy talkin’ about?” Scarfo asked Leonetti. “Doesn’t he know we’re already here?”
A few years later, Mike Matthews wanted to be mayor, and they had the power to make that happen. They gave him $200,000 for his campaign and got the unions to support him. They also went to a police officer who grew up in the neighborhood, Joe Pasquale.
“You make sure everybody votes for Mike, and I guarantee you, you’ll be the chief of police,” Leonetti says of the conversation.
Matthews became mayor in 1982. Within two years, Pasquale was the chief. Leonetti insists Pasquale was not dirty.
“Joe was always a legit guy,” Leonetti said when asked about the now-deceased former chief. “My uncle used to compare him to (former Philadelphia police Commissioner and Mayor) Frank Rizzo. He never did anything illegal for us, and we would have never asked him to.”
There were two reasons to help Pasquale: “Because we knew him from the neighborhood, and because he was Italian.”
Matthews, however, was a business deal. In return for his position, he was firmly in the mob’s pocket. After getting out of prison, Matthews denied those connections.
“He listened to whatever we told him to do,” Leonetti said, “except not to talk to any FBI agents.”
Matthews, of course, didn’t know he was talking to an FBI agent when he was arranging a deal for the city’s H-tract — a former dump where the Borgata now is located.
He and Leonetti wound up arrested.
Things got worse in 1987, when Leonetti, his uncle and 15 others went on trial for participating in 14 murders and attempted murders, along with a list of racketeering offenses, including extortion and bookmaking.
During an afternoon break, a lawyer told Leonetti and his uncle that Scarfo’s youngest son, Mark, hung himself inside the family business. The 17-year-old was alive, but it didn’t look good.
“I’ve got tears in my eyes,” Leonetti wrote in the book. “And my uncle — this no-good evil (expletive) — has absolutely no reaction, no emotion, nothing.”
Instead of worrying for his son, Leonetti said, Scarfo “felt like it was more of an embarrassment that Mark was weak and would hang himself.”
It was then that he made a decision: If he won the case, he and his family would disappear. If he lost, he would cooperate with the federal government, even if he still went to prison for the rest of his life.
They lost. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. And then, he talked to the FBI. He was out in five years.
Leonetti had been taught of the importance of honor and loyalty his whole life.
But “there was no honor in our life. There was no respect,” he says. “It was all just a farce.”
The true men of honor ended up being the FBI agents he spoke to. They kept their word to keep him and his family safe, and some remain friends.
They even warned him when they believed a young Atlantic City attorney who had represented his uncle knew his identity and where he was.
James Leonard Jr. was called to the Knife and Fork Inn to meet someone who said they needed legal help. But when he looked up to see the man standing at his table, it was Leonetti.
“My first reaction is that he was going to kill me,” Leonard said when asked about the meeting.
Instead, Leonetti just made sure his identity — and that of his wife and son — wasn’t in danger. Leonard assured him it wasn’t.
“I can’t recall a single conversation I had with Nicky Jr. where the name Philip Leonetti was ever discussed,” Leonard said. “That night at the Knife and Fork, Philip said that it was his uncle who wanted to kill him and that the uncle wouldn’t die until he did.”
But Leonetti sees himself as lucky.
Scarfo’s three sons were all ruined by their father. The eldest broke all ties, including abandoning the family name. Mark remains in a coma. And Nicky Jr. is now in jail with two cases pending, each that could put him away for the rest of his life.
“He suffers because he wants to be a good son,” Leonetti said of his uncle’s namesake.
Meanwhile, he enjoys his new life. He does take precautions: He takes different routes to a job he won’t discuss, and is always on the lookout for anyone who might be out to harm him or his family. These were tactics ingrained in him at a young age.
Leonetti was only 8 when his uncle took him along to get rid of a truck that had been used to dispose of the body of a man Scarfo killed inside a Vineland bar. The cops wouldn’t bother a guy with a kid, Scarfo told him.
His first murder was at 23, when he shot a man to death in broad daylight in the parking lot of the Ensign Motel on Pacific Avenue.
“It was easy,” Leonetti said. “I hate to say that. But, just everything went so smoothly. It was, like, natural.”
Three years later, on Dec. 16, 1979, he would kill his partner in that hit, Vincent Falcone, as he got ice for drinks in a Margate kitchen.
Leonetti is now married to the woman who was dating Falcone at the time. They’ve never discussed the killing, he said.
They live a happy life. Leonetti has returned to Atlantic City a few times, including a visit to the old house last December. A picture in the book commemorates the occasion.
“I love coming back to Atlantic City,” he said. “I love leaving, also.”
It’s no longer home. It’s also no longer a little bit of Italy.
He even watches “Boardwalk Empire,” rooting for the main character, Nucky Thompson, to get killed. He also questions the reality.
“Here’s a guy that’s running Atlantic City with no mob,” Leonetti says. “I’m trying to figure out how he’s doing it.”
The mob is his one regret.
“You always have choices,” Leonetti said. “I don’t blame my uncle. My mother didn’t want me to be involved with him.”
But he looked up to the man of such little stature who wielded so much power.
“I wanted to be a man of honor and respect, just like he was, and it was a mistake,” he said. “It was a big mistake.”