Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Philadelphia mob boss Skinny Joey Merlino faces January trial in NYC

Reputed Mafia boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino has survived more than 25 attempts on his life and been cleared of the most serious charges — three murder raps — leveled against him over the years.
When the flamboyant Philadelphia native, who now lives in Boca Raton, goes on trial next month, he hopes to beat the feds as they try to put him back in prison for much of the rest of his life.
The current case began last year when the feds arrested 46 men up and down the East Coast on charges they said read like “an old-school Mafia novel.” The men were accused of being part of an organized crime network that involved the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, Bonanno and Philadelphia major crime families. Their business included gambling, selling tax-free cigarettes and collecting illegal debts, the feds say.
Merlino, 55, and Eugene “Rooster” Onofrio, 75, of East Haven, Conn., are the only two who are going to trial. Merlino is free on a $5 million bond and his trial starts Jan. 16 in federal court in Manhattan.
He is considered a “mob star” by some because he courted media attention, regularly marched in the Philadelphia Mummers parade and made a holiday tradition of distributing turkeys to needy families.
It’s no surprise that Merlino is going to trial, said David Fritchey, a retired federal prosecutor and former chief of organized crime for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, who helped send Merlino to prison in the past.
“That’s his personality. He’s gone to trial before and he’s dodged some legal bullets – he’s been hit but not as mortally as he could have been,” said Fritchey. “He’s the kind of guy who takes his chances.”
“But there’s a cost that comes with that kind of in-your-face criminality. It attracts the attention of law enforcement,” he said.
Fritchey said he anticipates one of the most interesting aspects of the upcoming trial will be seeing how a Manhattan jury reacts to Merlino. Though Merlino is something of a celebrity in Philadelphia and South Florida, he’s not so well known in New York City, the international capital of mob activity.
“I see this as an away game for Joey,” said Fritchey. “He was a celebrity in Philadelphia and 50 percent of jurors had heard of him, had positive associations or were afraid of him. In New York City, he’s just another criminal defendant. He’s a guppy swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, going to trial in New York City. He’s not John Gotti.”Reputed mob boss who moved to Boca liked high-profile lifestyle, veteran prosecutor says
Merlino moved to Boca Raton when he was released from federal prison in 2011 after serving most of a 14-year sentence for racketeering, extortion and illegal gambling. He had been acquitted of murder and drug charges.
A restaurant that traded on his mom’s recipes and bore his family name, Merlinos, did business on Southeast First Avenue for a few years but has since closed. Merlino told court officials it was owned by a group of investors. He served as the maître d’ because his criminal record bans him from obtaining a liquor license, authorities said.
When Merlino was arrested on the latest charges, in August 2016, federal prosecutors in Manhattan touted the indictment as a major strike against the so-called East Coast La Cosa Nostra Enterprise.
But the case has been dogged by problems. Two FBI agents who worked on the investigation did not keep a cooperating witness’s text messages, failed to keep adequate notes about some of their debriefings and did not file investigative reports, court records show. Both agents were disciplined and suspended for several days after an internal investigation.
Questions have also been raised about the conduct of one of the main informants, widely identified as John Rubeo, who worked undercover on the case for the feds.
Those problems led prosecutors to sweeten some of the plea agreements they offered most of the suspects pleaded guilty to related charges. The harshest punishment doled out, so far, was seven years in federal prison but several were sentenced to just the one day they served when they were arrested, followed by probation or house arrest. Several more will be sentenced early next year.
Merlino faces 20 years in federal prison if convicted of three federal charges that accuse him of racketeering conspiracy, running illegal gambling businesses, selling untaxed cigarettes, collecting unlawful debts, making extortionate credit extensions, and committing mail, wire and healthcare fraud.
Onofrio, described as an acting Genovese crime family capo who led crews on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy and Springfield, Mass., was to be tried at the same time as Merlino but a judge ruled Thursday that his trial will be postponed indefinitely because Onofrio needs medical treatment.
Merlino’s attorneys declined to comment for this report but their court filings make it clear they plan to attack the credibility of the agents and informants.
Merlino rose to power in the 90s and has been the boss of the Philadelphia crime family for many years, investigators say. He is the son of the late Scarfo crime family underboss Salvatore “Chuckie” Merlino and the nephew of Lawrence “Yoki” Merlino.
According to Mafia lore, and investigators, Merlino is the main suspect in the attempted murder of another mob figure, Nicky Scarfo, Jr., on Halloween 1989. A man, dressed in a bumble bee costume, shot Scarfo eight times with a MAC-10 submachine gun at an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia but Scarfo survived, according to prosecutors and media reports. Merlino has never been charged in connection with that incident.
Merlino was later convicted of robbing an armored truck of $350,000 in August 1989 and served several years in federal prison, where investigators say he and other associates plotted a takeover of the Philadelpia mob family.
During the ensuing mob war, Merlino survived more than two dozen attempts on his life, including a drive-by shooting in August of 1993. He took a bullet in his buttocks, according to newspaper accounts.



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