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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Who is in charge of the Philadelphia crime family?

"Skinny Joey" Merlino (right) is serving a four-month prison sentence in Miami on a parole violation. He says Philly isnĀ“t in his postprison plans. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
WHO'S really in charge of the Philly mob?

For the past few years, the answer might've depended on where you looked or whom you asked.

Prosecutors. FBI agents. Street word. Underworld informants. Beat cops. Wiretapped conversations. Gamblers. Defense attorneys who will look you in the eye and swear that the Mafia ain't real.

Some say Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, 75, still runs the show. The low-key acting boss returned to Packer Park a year ago after spending 32 months in federal custody through two racketeering trials on a 2011 indictment. He survived both trials. Survival is Ligambi's strong suit.

Others say that 1990s-era boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino is the ultimate shot-caller and continues to exert influence from Florida - when he's not posing for Instagram photos on the beach or schmoozing with diners at his swanky Italian restaurant in Boca Raton.

Or maybe Merlino, 52, currently on a four-month "vacation" at a Miami prison, delegated power to his South Philadelphia allies because the terms of his probation had barred him from associating with known felons.

Now, a new picture of the Philly mob hierarchy is emerging. Law-enforcement officials believe that the crime family's current boss is actually more of a committee - a three-headed mobster, if you will - consisting of Steve Mazzone, John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini and Philip Narducci.

Ligambi, wary of getting indicted again and dying in jail, is said to be semiretired, serving in a capacity similar to consigliere, or high-ranking adviser.

It's a somewhat unusual, and possibly volatile, power-sharing arrangement. These triumvirates don't usually end well. Check your Roman history.

Who are these guys?

Mazzone and Ciancaglini are both Merlino allies who were convicted of racketeering alongside Merlino in 2001.

Mazzone, 50, was released from prison in 2009. He said at a probation-violation hearing the following year that he had been working as a trainer in a South Philly gym. He reputedly served as underboss to Merlino in the 1990s.

Ciancaglini, 59, a former soldier in Merlino's crew, more recently ran a newsstand on Packer Avenue outside Chickie's & Pete's. Ciancaglini and Merlino were spotted together in June at Havana Nights Cigar Bar & Lounge, in Boca Raton.

Narducci, 52, is more complicated. He's a former member of Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo's crew who has spent half his life in prison and has been described by both law-enforcement and underworld sources as a cold-blooded gangster unlikely to take orders from Merlino or his associates.

"He's a stone killer. He's a real tough guy and won't put up with any s---," said Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti, Scarfo's nephew who served as his underboss in the 1980s.

Scarfo ordered the 1982 murder of Narducci's father, mob captain Frank "Chickie" Narducci Sr., in response to the father's role in the nail-bomb hit of mob boss Philip "Chicken Man" Testa.

Philip Narducci somehow took it all in stride, Leonetti said.

"We did kill his father and we told him that. We told him that's what happens and he understood it," Leonetti said of Narducci.

Narducci even went to work for Scarfo. Or, as one law-enforcement official recently put it, "He killed guys for the guy that killed his father."

Narducci, whose family runs Philip's Steaks (damn good cheesesteak, by the way) on West Passyunk Avenue, was convicted in the 1985 mob hit of bookmaker Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso. That conviction later was overturned, but he stayed in prison until 2012 following his 1989 conviction on separate federal charges.

At his sentencing that year, federal prosecutors said that Narducci shot Joseph Salerno Sr., the father of a murder witness, in 1982; helped kill mob associate Salvatore Tamburrino in front of his mother in 1983, and took part in the beating of an extortion victim who refused to pay up, among other crimes.

U.S. District Judge Franklin Van Antwerpen handed Narducci the maximum 40-year sentence. "The picture that I get is that of a violent person," Antwerpen said.

Narducci did not respond to requests for comment, but mob lawyer Joseph Santaguida, who has represented the family in the past, insisted last week that Narducci has not returned to his old ways.

"It's a disgrace what they're saying. Something about three people running the mob," Santaguida said. "He just got married. He's got a good business. He doesn't need any of that. He's not involved in anything."

"If you believe that, you believe in Santa Claus. I got a bridge to sell you," said Stephen LaPenta, a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant and former organized-crime investigator in New Jersey. "Sons follow in their fathers' footsteps in 'this thing of theirs,' La Cosa Nostra."

Leonetti, author of Mafia Prince, a book about his life in the mob, said he also doubts that Narducci has gone legit after 25 years in prison. His book includes a passage about how Narducci, at age 19, shot Salerno Sr. in the neck when he opened the door of his Wildwood Crest hotel.

"I think after doing all that time he feels he's owed something, that money on the street," Leonetti said of Narducci. "He's part of the family. He kept his mouth shut."

David Fritchey, chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the apparent shift in mob leadership.

Tough road ahead

It's no secret that the Philadelphia mob isn't raking in stacks of cash as in the glory days, but law-enforcement officials say it remains a viable criminal organization that generates illegal revenue through bookmaking, loan-sharking and good-old shakedowns.

"They're still in business," a law-enforcement official said. "They haven't gone straight."

But with members of Scarfo's crew and Merlino's crew both rejoining the ranks, more gangsters could be fighting for less cash, setting up possible clashes between those factions - and even within them.

LaPenta said that returning members might make trouble if they overreach or feel slighted. Most of them, he said, "have the intellectual capacity of an agave plant."

Ligambi's nephew, onetime consigliere George Borgesi, 51, was released last year after doing 14 years in prison and beating the latest indictment. Marty Angelina, 52, a mob soldier who allegedly tried to muscle in on Borgesi's gambling and loan-sharking turf while Borgesi was jailed, is in a halfway house and will be out soon.

That could be a problem. Both were convicted alongside Merlino in 2001, but both are also notorious hotheads.

Some law-enforcement officials believe that Borgesi might have been behind Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello's unsuccessful attempt in 2008 to hire someone to have Angelina "beat up really bad" - a conversation that was picked up by an informant wearing a body wire. Monacello, who later become a government witness, was handling Borgesi's mob business while Borgesi was incarcerated.

"That's going to be interesting," a law-enforcement official said of the Borgesi-Angelina situation.

Then there are Narducci and the old-school Scarfo soldiers like Joe "Joey Punge" Pungitore. Some of them have a bad history with Merlino.

"Joey Pungitore hates Merlino. He hates his guts," Leonetti said. "Merlino robbed Pungitore's house while his mother was asleep on the couch. All her jewelry was gone. Pungitore told me that himself."

In less than three months, Merlino will exit the federal detention center in Miami and be beyond the government's reach for the first time since 1999. No probation officer, no restrictions on where he can travel or with whom he can associate.

"We won't know where Merlino is laying his head after he gets released. He can walk out of prison and walk into a car and where he goes no one knows," a law-enforcement official said. "He'll be back, without a doubt."

An ex-associate of the Philadelphia mob who spoke with the Daily News on the condition of anonymity (for obvious reasons) said he fully expects Merlino to get back into the game, even if the playing field in Philadelphia has shrunk.

"It's kind of like a sickness. You can have everything in the world going for you, but for some reason everyone wants to keep coming back here, where they know everyone and everyone knows them," the former associate said. "Who the hell wants to come back here? It don't make sense."

Merlino, who was slapped with the latest four-month prison term after he was caught associating with Ciancaglini in June, has insisted that he's focused solely on working as the maitre d' at the new Florida restaurant bearing his family name. They serve dishes inspired by his mother, Rita.

He says he has no plans to return to Philly.

"I need a vacation after working so hard at the best restaurant in Florida, Merlino's Restaurant," he texted last month before reporting to the Miami prison.

There are also rumors that the feds are trying to build a new case against Merlino, but it's unclear how far along the investigation is, or whether it will result in an indictment.

When a federal prosecutor recently claimed that Merlino is still an active mafioso, Merlino responded: "The guy's mental."

People have been saying for years that the Philly mob is dead or dying. The question now is whether the next boss proves to be a doctor or an undertaker.

"I think it's kind of seen its day and gone. Nobody is lighting the world on fire. I don't see anyone with a significant amount of money," the former mob associate said.

"Not bigger than U.S. Steel," he said, chuckling at the quote from "The Godfather: Part II."

"That's for sure."



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