They met in a Dunkin’ Donuts near the beach in Boca Raton.
Nicholas Stefanelli, a 60-something mobster from North Jersey, was full of propositions and ideas for “business” ventures.
Joey Merlino, recently turned 50 and out of jail for about a year, was all ears.
Merlino was looking for a fresh start in Florida, or so he said. Stefanelli had come recommended from a defense attorney in Newark who had worked on one of Joey’s cases.
They talked for about an hour. At first, Stefanelli focused on ideas for bars and restaurants, businesses he knew Joey was interested in. Money and backers were available, he said. They could make something happen, he promised. Then he steered the conversation to past events in the world in which they both operated.
Stefanelli, known as “Nicky Skins,” was a soldier in the Gambino crime family.
Merlino, who everyone knew as “Skinny Joey,” had been or was (depending on your frame of reference) the boss of the Philadelphia mob. He had just finished a 14-year stint in a federal prison. He had no desire to go back. So when Stefanelli started asking about some of the guys up north and talking about pending criminal cases, Merlino pulled back.
There are certain things you don’t talk about, especially with someone you’ve just met.
“He asked me about Joe (Ligambi, one of several prominent Philadelphia mob figures then awaiting trial on racketeering conspiracy charges),” Merlino recalled. “I said he was a nice guy and I hoped he beat the case.”
Then Stefanelli asked about Nicky Scarfo Jr., who was in federal prison awaiting trial on charges that he and an associate had looted a Texas-based mortgage company, siphoning out more than $12 million through bogus business deals and phony consulting contracts.
“When he asked me about Scarfo, I said it was a shame what happened to that kid,” Merlino said. “I said his father (jailed mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, an unindicted co-conspirator in the fraud case) was going to get him 100 years … And I meant it.”
The meeting at the Dunkin' Donuts was in December 2010. A year later, Merlino learned that Stefanelli was recording everything they said when they sat down over coffee that day.
“The fuckin’ guy was wired,” Merlino said. “I got the tape. In fact, I got two from Joe Ligambi’s lawyer. He thought I had talked to the guy twice. But we had only met once."
"There were two tapes because the guy was wearing two wires, one on his body and one in his watch," Merlino said. "He shoulda fuckin’ been electrocuted. The feds sent him down here to set me up. I told him I’m legitimate. I don’t want nothing to do with any of that other stuff … What else could I say?”
Merlino is sitting in a posh restaurant in the W Hotel on Beach Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, a short drive from the condo in Boca Raton where he has been living with his good friend and former South Philadelphia neighbor Donnie Petullo.
For the first time since his release to a halfway house in Florida over a year ago, Merlino has agreed to talk publicly about himself, about where he is and what he hopes to do with the rest of his life.
“It’s beautiful down here,” he says. “Great weather. No stress. People come here, they live to be 100.”
At 51 (his birthday was in March) he is a little over halfway there. And it’s clear he hopes to make it the rest of the way. He said repeatedly and emphatically during two days of interviews earlier this week that he has no intention of returning to Philadelphia.
The only things he misses, he said, are his family – and by that he meant blood relatives like his mother Rita, his sister Natalie, and others still living in South Philadelphia – and the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day.
He hardly mentioned the other Family, but that was like the 500-pound gorilla in the room during two days of interviews. Always circumspect and cautious, Merlino is savvy enough to know what to say and how to say it. He also is aware that a return to the streets of South Philadelphia and the clubs and restaurants where his mere presence caused a stir – “Joey’s in the room. It’s Merlino.” – would attract major law enforcement attention and ultimately lead to potential criminal problems.
Joey's life as a wiseguy during the 1990s was Entourage in the Underworld. The popular HBO series about four young, good looking guys making it in the movie business and making it with every beautiful broad they came in contact with was not that much different from Merlino's days as Philadelphia's one and only celebrity wiseguy.
Over lunch at Steak 954 – ironically a restaurant opened in Fort Lauderdale's W Hotel by Stephen Starr, the iconic Philadelphia restaurateur -- Merlino did some quick math to explain how and why he has decided to turn his life in another direction. By his own count, he has spent close to 19 years behind bars. If you add in the time he’s spent in halfway houses, the number is close to 20. That’s a big chunk of his adult life.
He missed his daughters – both now teenagers – growing but says he wants to be around to see them go off to college. They and his wife live in North Jersey where the girls attend school. He didn’t want to disrupt that, but they’ve visited on holidays and spent about six weeks with him last summer.
He’s working for an advertising agency, but looking to start his own business. He’s talked about restaurants, cafes, a Philly cheese streak shop -- "It's hard to get rolls down here" -- and a cigar bar. Nothing yet, but everything is still in play. There's also talk about a book, a movie and a reality TV show.
“Anybody can be an actor,” Merlino says at one point.
“Look at Kim Kardashian,” adds Petullo. “What did she ever do?”
Everyone at the table agrees that Kardashian has parlayed her physical attributes into a money-making career. Merlino doesn’t see any reason whey he can’t cash in as well. He may not have a big ass, but he's got a lot of other things going for him. The only stipulation, he said, is that whatever he does has to be legitimate.
“This Stefanelli said he had plenty of investors and said we could do things,” Merlino said over a lunch of lobster bisque and a crab cake. Then he rolled his eyes.
“When I mentioned the cheese steak shop, he said we should franchise it. Call it Merlino’s and get investors," Merlino said. "He started talking about selling 10 or 12 franchises. The 'Old’ Joey would have gone for that. But that’s not me now."
“I’m not gonna sell something I don’t have," he said. "If I had opened a cheesesteak place and was in business and somebody wanted to talk about a franchise, then it’s legit. But I’m not gonna sell something that doesn’t exist.”
That’s the 'New’ Joey.
He still looks and sounds like the guy who was the John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue, the reputed mob boss who held Christmas parties for the homeless and gave away turkeys at Thanksgiving in the housing projects.
He still has those same dark eyes that can shoot daggers and the quick, staccato delivery when he’s telling a story or asking a question. But if you take him at his word (and at this point there is no reason not to), he has a different perspective on life.
He’s seen too much.
He’s spent too much time in lockdown.
He’s tired of living a regimented life where others control when you get up, when you eat and when the lights get turned off.
He’s also ultra cautious.
“Too many rats,” he said. “I want no part of that.”
Nicky Skins Stefaneilli is a case in point.
Skins had gotten jammed up in a drug case in Newark two years before he met with Merlino. And to get himself and his son out from under, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI. He had already recorded dozens of conversations in North Jersey, New York and Rhode Island when he headed to Florida.
(Two Stefanelli tapes, but not the Merlino meeting, were played at Ligambi's trial earlier this year.)
The idea was to get Joey to incriminate himself, to admit that he was still part of the crime family back in Philadelphia, to talk about the old days, maybe to brag or boast about how – and this is the fed's position not Merlino’s – he had gotten away with murder.
Talk to anyone who has tracked the Philadelphia mob in the past 30 years and they'll tell you that Skinny Joey was involved in more than a dozen gangland shootings. They have tried, but failed, to link him to ten different murders.
Even over a casual lunch, Merlino won’t go there.
The racketeering case in 2001 that earned him a 14-year sentence, included a half dozen shootings. The jury found the charges “not proven.” Two years later he was tried in federal court in Newark for one of the same murders that was part of the racketeering case. While it seems mind boggling and counter-intuitive to a layman, the racketeering statutes permit what on the face appears to be double jeopardy. In any event, Merlino beat the murder rap in North Jersey as well.
“Not guilty” said the jury.
He’s is content to rest on those jury verdicts, offering very little else about the murder and mayhem that authorities allege he unleashed on the South Philadelphia underworld during the bloody 1990s, a period when, prosecutors alleged, the Merlino faction of the Philadelphia mob went to war with a faction headed by John Stanfa.
“I was found not guilty,” Merlino said. “What else can I say?”
Probably a lot more, but there’s very little chance anyone will ever get Merlino to open up. Stefanelli, no doubt coached by his FBI handlers, was tap dancing around a volatile subject when he brought up the Scarfo name at the Dunkin’ Donuts meeting.
There is a history between the Scarfos and the Merlinos.
Joey’s father Salvatore “Chucky” Merlino was once the elder Scarfo’s top underworld associate and his underboss. But the volatile Scarfo had a fallen out with his one-time best friend and threatened to kill the entire Merlino clan.
There is more to the story which when told in full sounds like an underworld soap opera. But that’s for another day. Just know that in law enforcement circles, the conventional wisdom is that Skinny Joey tried to settle accounts on Halloween Night, 1989.
On that night, Nicky Jr. was having dinner in Dante&Luigi’s, a neighborhood restaurant located on the corner of 10th and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia. The joint had served up fine but inexpensive Italian dinners to three generations.
In the fall of 1989, the Philadelphia mob was in disarray. The elder Scarfo, along with Chucky Merlino and a dozen others had been convicted of racketeering-murder charges and were serving lengthy federal prison sentences. “Little Nicky” Scarfo, a psychopathic mob boss, had driven the organization into the ground. During his bloody reign about 20 mob figures had been killed. With a dozen more behind bars, the organization, which never had more than 60 or 70 members, was in shambles.
Scarfo was trying to maintain control from prison through his son, Nicky Jr. (While they called him Jr., in fact his name was Nicodemo Salvatore and his father was Nicodemo Domenic.)
The younger Scarfo was dining on clams and spaghetti that night, one of his favorites. Two associates, his cousin John Parisi and another man, were eating with him. None of them noticed the guy with the trick-or-treat bag who walked into the restaurant and headed straight for their table. He was wearing a mask, but it was Halloween. It was only after he pulled the Mac-9 machine pistol out of the bag and opened fire that he attracted any attention.
By then it was too late.
Scarfo was hit six times. The gunman turned and headed for the door. As he walked out amid screaming customers who were ducking for cover, he dropped the gun. A car pulled up. He got in and drove away.
About a week earlier, a Philadelphia police officer had been killed in the line of duty. Some drug dealer with a gun had started firing. The cop was wearing a bullet proof vest, but one of the bullets came in on an angle and ripped into his rib cage from the side. A fraction of an inch one way or the other and the bullet would have hit the vest. Instead, it tore into his heart. The cop died.
None of the bullets that hit Scarfo that night struck a vital organ. Less than a week after the shooting, he was released from the hospital.
“Can you fuckin’ believe it?” a Philadelphia police officer said at the time. “He’s not wearing a vest. He gets hit six times. And he walks away. How’s that fair?”
No one has ever been charged with the attempted murder of Nicky Scarfo Jr.
But Joey Merlino has long been the prime suspect. Underworld informants have fingered him as the triggerman. One, in fact, told the FBI how Merlino had deliberately dropped the gun that night because he wanted to send a message to “Little Nicky” Scarfo, who was serving a 55-year sentence for racketeering at the time.
The elder Scarfo loved gangster movies. One of his favorites, of course, was The Godfather. And one of his favorite scenes was the restaurant shooting where Michael Corleone settles the score after his father was shot and nearly killed. As Michael leaves the restaurant, he drops the gun.
There was a purpose to the gunman doing the same thing at Dante&Luigi’s, or so the informant said. Joey Merlino was settling a score that night. At least that’s the theory that law enforcement has been working on for the past twenty-five years.
Scarfo Jr. never identified his shooter. But the New Jersey State Police have phone tapes in which he and his father, talking from prison, discuss the hit. On the tape, Little Nicky refers to Merlino as “a snake” and tells his son to “take him to dinner,” code, said investigators, for killing him.
Over lunch down in Florida, Merlino said he was home the night of the Dante & Luigi shooting. He was under a court-ordered curfew imposed in an unrelated case and had to be in his house by 7 p.m. each night.
He couldn’t have been the shooter, he said. Hardly a solid alibi, but his position none-the-less.
Merlino has been charged with, but never convicted, of nearly a dozen other shootings. The brother of a witness who was about to take the stand in a mob racketeering trial, the ambush of a rival mob leader on a busy Philadelphia highway in the midst of the morning rush hour, the slaying of a mob capo who was balking about sending a monthly envelope filled with cash, the drive-by shooting of a video poker machine operator who had refused to pay a street tax.
The list goes on and on. Even after he was arrested in 1999, authorities believe, Merlino continued to sign off on street violence. Three unsolved murders that occurred while he was in federal prison are also part of the murderous menu that the FBI and police homicide detectives believe Merlino served up in the Philadelphia underworld.
Gambling, loansharking, extortion and robbery have landed him in jail for a big chunk of his life. But talk to any of the authorities who have been tracking him for the past twenty-five years and they’ll tell you Joey Merlino has literally gotten away with murder.
Lunch is over and Merlino is sipping a cup of coffee at 954 Steak. It's a sunny afternoon. The restaurant windows face Beach Boulevard and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean.
Merlino is tan and fit and looking forward to his next visit to the gym. From his perspective, it doesn't matter what they say or think back in Philadelphia. Juries have been shown the evidence and heard the witnesses.
Not proven. Not guilty.
"What else can I say?" he asks.