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Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Devil's Protege: Crazy Phil Leonetti

Cement contractor Vincent Falcone thought he was in a good position to cash in on the casino gambling boom that was sweeping across Atlantic City three decades ago.
Falcone saw construction all over the city and figured he’d be able to get a piece of the action. His plans ended abruptly, however, while he was sharing drinks with some “friends” at an apartment on Decatur Street in Margate.
His body was found a few days later, hog-tied, wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in the trunk of his Mercury Cougar. He had been shot twice; once in the back of the head at point blank range and a second time through the heart.
There is no dispute today about the how, why and who of the Falcone murder which occurred on December 16, 1979. But thirty-three years ago there was less certainty. More important, at that time no one knew that the murder was a harbinger of what was to come in the Philadelphia/South Jersey underworld.
The Falcone hit and the bold assassination of municipal judge Edwin Helfant in the Flamingo Lounge on Pacific Avenue a year earlier were the first shots fired in a bloody power struggle that would forever change the face of the Philadelphia mob.
Atlantic City was the epicenter of that struggle. This was the war that Little Nicky and Crazy Phil launched.
Little Nicky, of course, is Nicodemo Scarfo, perhaps the most violent boss in the history of the American Mafia. Crazy Phil was his nephew, Philip Leonetti, the movie-star handsome hitman who said very little while serving as an enforcer for his uncle, but who later couldn’t stop talking from the witness stand.
They were an underworld Odd Couple who gave a unique meaning to the term “crime family.”
Mob killer Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti, Scarfo’s Nephew and Underboss

Leonetti, now 59 and living with a new identify in another part of the country, has penned a book, Mafia Prince, due out later this month. It’s his version of life with Scarfo, a personal perspective that will be fascinating to read. But like all memoirs, it will be a subjective rather than objective take on events.
Keep the Falcone murder in mind when you pick up the book.
Whether Leonetti has found redemption and turned his life around is an unanswerable question. But perhaps one place to look for the answer is in the story of a singular event that defined a time. The murder of Vincent Falcone, cement contractor, said a lot about who Scarfo and Leonetti were and where the Ducktown gangsters and Atlantic City were heading.
The Falcone hit occurred a little more than a year after Resorts International opened. Resorts’ success – people were literally lined up down the Boardwalk to get in – created a gold rush with a half dozen other casinos fast-tracking construction projects in order to open their doors. Caesars was next in June 1979. Ballys came on line in December, the month Falcone was killed.
Back then, casino gambling looked like the economic panacea that proponents said it would be. Why things went wrong, why the dream soured, is a story for another day. But in December 1979 when authorities found Falcone’s body, Atlantic City was a place of hope, promise and opportunity. And among those cashing in were Scarfo and Leonetti.
Atlantic City, as we all know, had been a down-at-the-heels resort, a dowager Queen that had long ago lost her luster. Scarfo, a scuffling, violent mob soldier, was her underworld caretaker. He had been sent there – banished might be a better word — in the mid 1960s to look after the Philadelphia mob’s interests.
He didn’t have a lot to do.
Casino gambling changed all that.
A construction boom brought millions of dollars into the city. The gamblers and tourists who would flock to the casino hotels that were then being brought millions more. Scarfo rode that wave to the top of the mob. And he brought his nephew and protégé with him.
One of their first moves was a decision to get into the construction business. They opened Scarf Inc. – subtlety was never Scarfo’s strong point – a cement contracting company located in an office on Georgia Avenue next to the apartment house that Scarfo’s mother Catherine owned.
Little Nicky lived in one apartment with his wife and three sons. Phil was raised in another apartment where he lived with his mother Nancy, Scarfo’s sister. Catherine, the matriarch, lived in a third unit.
One big, happy, violent family.
Scarf Inc. was a sub-contractor on most of the major casino projects in the city at that time. The word had gone out.
Longtime Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno on the streets of South Philadelphia.

If you didn’t want labor problems on your job sites, then have your general contractor give Scarf Inc. the cement work. And while you were at it, it might be wise to hire a company owned by the Merlino brothers, Salvatore and Lawrence, to do the rebar work. The Merlinos were Scarfo’s top associates in the mob and would soon climb the ladder with him and Leonetti.
That’s the way things played out and that’s why Falcone had a problem.
Falcone had been a friend of Leonetti’s. In fact, there are those who say he taught the young wiseguy the cement business. Falcone was, as you might imagine, less than pleased over the monopoly that Scarf Inc. had established in casino construction and had begun to grouse publicly about it. He also described Scarfo as “crazy.”
Scarfo, in fact, may have been nuts. And also paranoid.
Several investigators would eventually describe him as a homicidal psychopath. But even if accurate, those labels did little to help Falcone.
Angelo Bruno after being shot-gunned to death in front of his home in March of 1980

It was a Saturday in mid-December. Falcone, unaware of the animus he had created with Scarfo, was invited to a little get-together at an apartment in Margate, some pre-holiday drinks, a chance to watch a football game on television.
It was a small party. Scarfo was there when the others arrived, including Leonetti, Falcone, Lawrence Merlino and a local plumber, Joseph Salerno, who like Falcone was a mob wannabe.
Leonetti has told the story of what happened next several times.
“I said, `Vince, get some ice. Come on. Let’s make some drinks,’” he said. “And he walks over and he goes in the refrigerator, gets the ice and when he reached for a glass in the cabinet, I shot him in the back of the head.”
Falcone fell to the kitchen floor.
The hog-tied body of Vincent Falcone dumped in the trunk of his car

“Now my uncle leans over to check his heart, to see if it was still beating,” Leonetti said.
It was. Scarfo told Leonetti to shoot Falcone again.
“So I shot him in the heart,” Leonetti said.
They hogtied the body and wrapped it in a blanket before taking it to the car. All the while, Scarfo was beside himself, cackling like a banty rooster.
“I love this,” Scarfo said. “I just love this.”
It was a senseless murder, but it set a tone that continued for the next 10 years. Scarfo benefitted from two murders that he had nothing to do with; the March 1980 assassination of mob boss Angelo Bruno in South Philadelphia and the nailbomb murder of Bruno’s successor, Philip “Chicken Man”
Testa on March 15 of the following year.
Testa had been Scarfo’s mentor and had made him crime family consigliere. With the backing of the Genovese crime family in New York, Scarfo moved against those within his own organization who were suspected of the Testa hit.
Philip Leonetti and his uncle Nicodemo Scarfo inside a New Jersey courtroom in 1986.

Salvatore Testa, the Chicken’s Man’s charismatic young son, was the point man for the Scarfo faction in the battle, nearly losing an arm when he was hit with a shotgun blast while lunching on clams on the half shell at a Ninth Street seafood shop in South Philadelphia.
Scarfo solidified his hold and ruled as boss from 1981 until 1989. Leonetti was his underboss. Salvatore Testa was a capo and top lieutenant. During those years, nearly two dozen mob members and associates were killed as Scarfo rose to power and then moved to eliminate anyone he perceived as a potential rival.
Leonetti, after become a cooperating witness, frankly admitted that he been involved in 10 murders. Asked if he thought he was ruthless, he quietly said, “No.”
When a defense attorney chided him and mockingly asked if he even knew what it meant to be ruthless, Leonetti offered a classic line that sums up his underworld philosophy.
“I know what it means to be ruthless,” he said. “But I don’t remember ever doing anything, as a matter of fact I know for sure, I never did nothing ruthless besides, well, I would kill people. But that’s our life. That’s what we do.”
Salvatore “Chuckie” Merlino

There was no moral dilemma.
No debate over what it meant to murder another human being.
No question of right or wrong.
It was, simply, La Cosa Nostra in the era of Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo.
Lawrence “Yogi” Merlino

Leonetti, whose father had left him and his mother when he was just a boy, grew up in his uncle’s shadow. Scarfo was his only real father figure. So if there is an explanation for the violent nature of the handsome hitman, that would be it.
Freud would have had a field day picking Leonetti’s brain.
Frank DeSimone, the Philadelphia lawyer who helped negotiate the cooperation agreement that got Leonetti out from under a 45-year sentence for racketeering and murder, said recently that it’s not really that complicated.
“He was not the stereotypical (mobster) that the media portrayed,” DeSimone said. “I believe if he had been in a different situation, he could have been a professional…He wanted to go to college. He didn’t relish being in an organized crime situation.”
Leonetti played basketball at Holy Spirit High School and when he graduated he talked about going to pharmaceutical school. But his uncle said pharmacists “were faggots.” Instead, he set his nephew on a different career path.
Whether Leonetti was forced into the life or willingly chose it depends on your perspective.
Nicholas “Nick The Blade” Virgilio

Oscar Goodman, the criminal defense attorney who represented Leonetti in a series of trials in federal
and Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia in the 1980s has a different view of his client than the one expressed by DeSimone.
“He was not what he appeared to be,” said Goodman, who served three terms as mayor of Las Vegas after a high profile career as a “mob lawyer” whose clients including Tony Spilotro and Lefty Rosenthal, the real life characters on whom the movie “Casino” was based.
Leonetti’s defection was a major blow to organized crime up and down the East Coast. He never had to testify against his uncle, who was already (and still is) serving terms for racketeering and extortion convictions. But he helped prosecutors in a half dozen jurisdictions win dozens of convictions.
Simply put, Leonetti knew where the bodies were buried.
In addition to being a hitman, he had been the mob’s point man in dozens of other underworld gambits. He was, for example, the gangster who coordinated one of the Scarfo’s organization’s boldest moves – the corruption of Atlantic City Mayor Mike Matthews.
Salvatore “Salvie” Testa
and his father Philip
“Chicken Man” Testa

Matthews, who ended up sentenced to prison for 15 years, was in the mob’s pocket.
“We made him mayor,” Leonetti once boasted. “He was under the protection of our family. Whatever our family told him to do, he had to do.”
And if he didn’t?
“He would get killed,” Leonetti said.
Matthews knew that and while he toyed for a time with cooperating with the FBI, he ultimately backed away and pled guilty to bribery charges. At sentencing he offered an explanation that many believe defines Atlantic City and explains its ongoing problems.
“Greed,” Matthews said, “got the better of me.”
Scarfo’s reign as mob boss was one of the bloodiest in the history of the Philadelphia/South Jersey crime family.
Ruling through fear and intimidation, he amassed a small fortune. He was engaged in labor racketeering, gambling, loansharking and outright extortion. Every bookmaker and shylock between Philadelphia and Atlantic City had to pay a mob “street tax.” Those who refused had their heads busted.
Those who continued to balk were killed.
Scarfo got his hooks into the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union which quickly became the largest in the city and one of the largest in the state. When Philadelphia Roofers Union boss John McCullough tried to split the union in two, taking one faction for himself, he was gunned down by a mob associate who posed as a flower deliveryman.
The shooter showed up at McCullough’s home at Christmastime with poinsettia plants. When he put the plants down, he pulled a gun and pumped two bullets into the union leader’s chest.
Former disgraced Atlantic City Mayor Mike Matthews

When Salvatore Testa became the fastest rising mobster in South Philadelphia, he too was marked for
death. Scarfo feared the younger Testa was building his own organization.
He wasn’t, but that didn’t matter to the paranoid mob boss.
“Salvie was with my uncle one-thousand percent,” Leonetti once said while recalling the tragic events that led to Testa’s murder. “He would never double-cross him, but my uncle said, `Look, why do I have to take a chance on this guy getting powerful and trying to kill me one day.’”
So he put a contract on the young Testa’s life.
Scarfo, said his nephew, used to quote Paul Muni, the actor in the 1930s gangland classic movie “Scarface.”
Scarfo’s ultimate successor, Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, the son of Chuckie Merlino, reportedly retired and living away from the mob in Southern Florida

“You’ve got to kill people and keep on killing them to be the boss,” Leonetti said his uncle would say. “You just can’t stop. You’ve got to keep on killing.”
It was all part of an underworld management style that Scarfo established and that Leonetti, even if reluctantly, helped enforce.
In the midst of all the violence back in the early 1980s, Michael Schurman, one of the best reporters to ever cover Atlantic City, started referring to Leonetti as “Crazy Phil” during his morning radio news broadcasts. The nickname stuck. Leonetti hated it. Scarfo thought it was great.
Guys in their business would pay for a nickname like that and the reputation that it implied, Scarfo said.
Crazy Phil was violent. Crazy Phil was ruthless. Crazy Phil would pump a bullet into the back of a friend’s head and then shoot him again in the chest. Crazy Phil was who his uncle wanted Leonetti to be.
But is that who Phil Leonetti really was?
Thirty-three years later, there’s still no clear cut answer.
Ask the question of ten different people who dealt with the soft-spoken and handsome young wiseguy and you’ll come away with ten different answers.
One person you can’t ask, however, is Vincent Falcone.
And that may speak volumes.


1 comment:

  1. This is so crazy to read. I grew up playing with Flacone's son. He was one of the neighborhood kids who would play street hockey with us. At one point our bus stop was right across the street from their house. Never knew any of this till MANY years later.