Inside The Mafia Of The '90s They Spoke Of Hits - And Misses. They Were Profane, Humorous. For Nearly Two Years, The Fbi Was The Fly On The Wall.

Posted: October 09, 1994

They talked of cutting out the tongue of a young South Philadelphia mobster, and of burying him and two others in quick-dry cement.

They mocked an old bookie who begged for his life after a package containing a dead fish and a bullet arrived at his door.

They spoke of crushing a trash tycoon in his own compactor.

They ridiculed an informant who had been divorced by his wife and disowned by his family.

They considered recruiting hit men from Sicily or New York to rub out dissidents in the Philadelphia underworld.

La Cosa Nostra, the New York gangster told his counterparts from Philadelphia and Scranton, "is a beautiful way of life if we respect it."

Mob talk.

It went on day after day, from October 1991 to September 1993, in the second-floor Camden law offices of Salvatore J. Avena where the FBI had secretly planted microphones.

The federal probe resulted in the indictment of Philadelphia mob boss John Stanfa, Avena, and 22 others on racketeering charges in March. Four defendants pleaded guilty. Twenty, including Stanfa and Avena, pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

Avena, one of the few defendants permitted bail, denies he was part of any

criminal enterprise and, through his lawyer, says he will challenge the bugging of his office as a violation of lawyer-client privilege.

A review of more than 100 official documents and partial transcripts shows that the bugs planted in Avena's second-floor suite gave authorities an uncommon look inside organized crime in the 1990s, as described by key figures in three La Cosa Nostra families.

From a listening post a block away, FBI agents got it all - in candid,

profane, and sometimes humorous detail - from individuals the FBI describes as major Mafia figures, including Salvatore J. Profaci, a capo of New York's Colombo family; William D'Elia, a major figure in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Bufalino family; and Stanfa and several of his Philadelphia lieutenants.

They heard one mobster targeted for death because he'd "gotten cute" with Stanfa's 26-year-old daughter, Sara.

They listened as Profaci bragged of muscling in on supermarket pasta sales and D'Elia boasted that he'd paid $50,000 to a Pennsylvania environmental official.

They got a detailed account of a botched City Line kidnapping.

They heard about a multimillion-dollar civil suit that threatened to expose mob involvement in trash hauling, and the scramble by representatives of three crime families to settle the issue in what they called "the court of honor" rather than "the court of law."

They heard talk of rattling mob informant Philip Leonetti the next time he testified by having his elderly grandmother show up in court.

They listened to a cynical eulogy for another informant killed after he ''foolishly" returned to the Philadelphia area.

And through it all, they heard John Stanfa, by turns paranoid and powerful, arrogant and afraid, sounding like some tragic Shakespearean figure, a leader unsure of his followers, fearing for his life, and unable to sort out the truth in the machinations of those around him.

The balding and barrel-chested 53-year-old crime boss was caught on tape in the midst of a bloody underworld power struggle with young mob renegades Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and Michael Ciancaglini.

Stanfa, the tapes make clear, wanted Merlino and Ciancaglini out of the way. He also wanted peace. He couldn't sleep, he feared his own assassination, and he questioned the loyalty and competence of those around him.

The only thing Stanfa seemed to fear more than the Merlino faction was the FBI. The mob boss and his top associates knew they were targets of an ongoing investigation. They just didn't know how imperiled they were.

By October 1992, the FBI bugs had been in place for a year and would stay for nearly another. Every 10 days, as required by law, the FBI gave the U.S. Attorney's Office reports summarizing the tapes and offering excerpts. Armed with those reports, the prosecutors sought court permission each month to keep bugging and taping.

Stanfa tried to take precautions, talking in code, seldom using the phone. Avena had his office "swept" for bugs on a regular basis.

On Oct. 22, 1992, an electrician assured him, "It's clean."

It wasn't.

Here is some of what the FBI heard:

ONE WAY OUT

John Stanfa was out of options.

For months, the mob boss had tried to resolve a festering dispute with an underworld faction led by Joey Merlino, 31, and Mike Ciancaglini, 30.

He had been rebuffed, insulted and ridiculed. Now, Stanfa decided to act.

"You can deal with nobody no more," he told an associate in a June 22, 1993, conversation in Avena's law office. "You can trust nobody."

There was, Stanfa said in his fractured English, only one way out:

"What it comes down to here is they f- me or I f- them. That's where we are. . . . What I want to do, I have to take these two guys' head . . . Then, whatever happens, happens."

Six weeks later, on Aug. 5, 1993, Merlino and Ciancaglini were gunned down outside their South Philadelphia clubhouse. Ciancaglini died on the sidewalk. Merlino, wounded, remained atop the rival faction.

The civil war that Stanfa had spoken of avoiding, a generational and cultural conflict rooted in greed and treachery, had flashed into the open.

"I'm the target, I know that," Stanfa said at one point in 1993. "I gotta leave or die."

He said later: "I got a lot of pressure . . . and nobody try to cut the weight. At nighttime I can't even sleep good. I sleep little bit. I wake up thinking this way, that way. . . . I don't trust nobody either."

He feared visiting a wounded colleague because he might be trapped and assassinated in a hospital elevator. He mused about whether to strike first,

because: "I can't live like that."

Of the young mobsters causing this agita, Stanfa offered only disdain.

Greed and avarice drove the younger generation of gangster, Stanfa said in a conversation with his consigliere, Anthony "Tony Buck" Piccolo.

"They have no shame," Stanfa said. "They know nothing." For them, he added, "money is like a curse."

"They got no brains, either," said the 71-year-old Piccolo. "No shame and no brains."

Some of his own associates, Stanfa conceded, weren't much better. "They don't even know where to start, believe me," he said.

The Sicilian-born Stanfa then bemoaned the decline of the Mafia, the loss of its old codes of loyalty and respect.

"I (was) born and raised that way. I'm gonna die that way, but with the right people," he said. "Over here, (it's) like kindergarten."

TRASH AND CASH

"See, Sal, the difference is, he is a street guy. You're not a street guy. . . . They're two different breeds. In other words, when this guy is making moves and you're doing it straight, you don't have a shot."

It was Dec. 15, 1992, and reputed Scranton mob leader Billy D'Elia, 48, was holding court for Avena, Profaci, Stanfa and Piccolo in Avena's wood-paneled conference room.

The mob sit-down had been called to discuss a multimillion-dollar civil suit Avena had filed against a business partner, reputed mob associate Carmine Franco. Avena, an avuncular 68-year-old noted for his measured and mannerly courtroom style, was about to get a lesson in conflict resolution, Mafia- style.

The Camden lawyer had sued Franco, his business partner in Philadelphia- based AAA Waste Disposal Corp., claiming Franco was robbing him blind. Franco had countersued, claiming it was Avena who'd brought threats and mob influence into the business. The case was headed for trial, which the mob leaders feared would risk exposing the mob's silent partnership in the lucrative trash business.

(Franco, who pleaded not guilty to unrelated racketeering charges in New Jersey in August, has been identified by Pennsylvania and New Jersey law enforcement agencies as a front for the Genovese crime family in the waste disposal business. Through his lawyer, Franco consistently has denied the allegations.)

In a conversation taped six months earlier, Profaci had said that Franco was a big moneymaker for New York's powerful Genovese crime family, and that its leaders had begun to complain about Avena's suit.

"They're saying that we are the cause of destroying everything that they've created in Philadelphia," the solidly built, dark-haired Profaci, 58, said. "And plus, by blowing Carmine out of the water, we are destroying their number-one earner in the whole organization."

The lawsuit, Profaci told Avena, was not the way to do business.

"Goodfellows don't sue goodfellows," he said. "Goodfellows kill goodfellows."

D'Elia, who had been brought in from Scranton to mediate, echoed the point.

"The answer," said the burly, 6-4, 240-pound gangster, "was that when he (Franco) was standing by the (trash) trucks, somebody should have bumped him in and let them compact him." This, Profaci noted, could have drawn the ire of the Genovese family. D'Elia said there were ways around that.

"You know what they say in New York, don't you?" D'Elia asked.

"Accidents happen," Profaci said.

" 'Oops, we didn't know,' " replied D'Elia.

"Oops is right," said Profaci. "Shame on us."

Now, they told Avena, the only solution was for him to accept a $2 million settlement from Franco, a deal Profaci had worked out with the Genovese organization.

"Better to win small than to lose big," counseled Stanfa, concerned about a conflict with the Genovese family. "They got all the power. They can run an army, OK?"

The more softspoken Piccolo also urged Avena to settle.

"It's no longer about Carmine Franco," the tall, silver-haired consigliere said. "It's about making sure no one gets hurt. . . . This could be a f-in' tragedy."

Avena didn't seem to realize it, but his business might not have been the only thing at risk.

Three days after the D'Elia conference, Piccolo and Stanfa were picked up on tape in Avena's office privately discussing the lawsuit.

Stanfa said Avena had better accept the deal.

"I know, John," replied Piccolo. "He (Avena) don't understand."

"They gonna say to Sal, 'Do this,' " Stanfa said, apparently referring to the New York mobsters, "or they do this."

"Or we have to do it," Piccolo added ominously.

The FBI's report noted dryly: "Stanfa and Piccolo's comments are believed to refer to killing Avena."

Told last month of the FBI's account of the conversations, Franco's lawyer, Michael Critchley, labeled it "baseless gossip."

"My client . . . never was nor is he presently a member of any organized crime group," Critchley said. "He is a hard-working individual who through sheer individual effort has achieved a degree of success in the solid waste business. . . . It's an American success story, not an organized crime story."

The Avena-Franco civil dispute was settled out of court in April 1993.

STALKING BIAGIO

It was an affair of the heart with a decided underworld twist. The lesson for a pizza man named Biagio Adornetto: Don't date the boss' daughter.

The lesson for the Stanfa mob: Make sure the ammunition fits.

The stalking of Adornetto was tracked by federal authorities from their Camden listening post.

On Dec. 21, 1992, Stanfa and Piccolo sat in Avena's law library and talked about a hit. FBI agents heard that someone named "Biagio" was the target.

They surmised it was Adornetto - whom they called a "shooter and confidant" of Stanfa's, according to an FBI summary. What agents didn't know was where, when or why the hit would take place.

"Something cooking?" Piccolo said.

Stanfa replied, "This is him. This time, forget her. I don't take no f-in' chances for nobody."

" . . . Get Biagio?" asked Piccolo.

"He gotta go," replied Stanfa.

"Got a date?" asked Piccolo.

"Do it tonight, or not, tomorrow night," said Stanfa.

"Oh, Jesus Christ," said Piccolo.

Nine days later, on Dec. 30, 1992, a masked gunman walked into the posh La Veranda restaurant on Columbus Boulevard. The masked man approached Adornetto, who was baking pizzas, pointed a shotgun at him and pulled the trigger.

The gun misfired.

Law enforcement officials say the hit man had put the wrong size shells into the chambers, and they fell out.

The gunman ran from the restaurant, reloaded and came back.

By then, Adornetto had scrammed out the back door, the first steps in a flight for his life that would lead him to the FBI.

Nine more days elapsed before the FBI heard additional details of the bungled shooting. In a conversation picked up on Jan. 8, 1993, Stanfa gave Piccolo a concise critique of the La Veranda hit:

"They f-ed it up."

Piccolo reacted in English and then in Italian: "Oh, Christ Almighty, John. Chissu disonorato (This dishonored person)."

"They put a shell and took it out," Stanfa said, explaining how the shotgun had misfired. Then he bemoaned the lack of a backup shooter: "They weren't backing the hit."

Over the next three months, the Adornetto affair bedeviled Stanfa. Whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. And all the while, the FBI tapes rolled.

Stanfa had his organization frantically searching for the pizza maker, calling in help from mob sources in New York and Sicily.

"You go look for him," Stanfa beseeched Tommaso Gambino, a Sicilian acquaintance who had come to Camden from New York. "Los Angeles. Put in your mind that he's far away . . . like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York."

Meanwhile, Stanfa's associates began to gossip about why the mob boss wanted his former confidant dead: Adornetto apparently had made unwanted advances toward Stanfa's older daughter, Sara.

"I didn't know that Biagio was threatened, the thing with the shotgun," Sal Avena told Piccolo on March 4, 1993, in the law office conference room.

"He got cute with John's daughter," Piccolo whispered.

"Biagio?" Avena said in surprise. "Made a pass at his daughter?"

Two weeks later, on March 19, two of Stanfa's henchmen, Rosario Bellocchi, 25, and Gary Tavella, 36, were arrested for trying to kidnap a waiter at the San Marco Restaurant on City Avenue.

The waiter, a Sicilian named Fernando Vincenti, was a friend of Adornetto's, and Stanfa apparently hoped he could be persuaded to tell where Adornetto was hiding.

Like the hit at La Veranda, the San Marco kidnapping lacked a certain professionalism.

Witnesses spotted Vincenti being forced into a van on the restaurant parking lot. A high-speed police chase ended on the Schuylkill Expressway with Bellocchi and Tavella arrested. A gun was found in the van, along with masking tape, a blanket and rope. Vincenti, police said at the time, was probably going to be killed and dumped somewhere.

By the end of the month, the waiter had returned to Italy, and the charges against Bellocchi and Tavella had been reduced to gun possession. Both received minor jail terms, but the escapade had undermined Stanfa's reputation in the underworld.

"It's all we needed," bookie Salvatore "Shotsie" Sparacio was heard complaining to Piccolo in April 1993, back at Avena's office. "That's another nail in the coffin. . . . Just when we thought we had everything smooth. F-in' morons like this do this s-. It's bad for everybody."

Stanfa realized he had lost face. Adornetto couldn't be found. The bungled shooting and kidnapping had become symbols of Stanfa's ineffectiveness and had emboldened the young Merlino group.

"He took us for a bunch of cuckolds," said Tommaso Gambino in his native Sicilian.

"Even the little Americans (the Merlino faction) have started to bust my balls here because they see that nothing has been done," Stanfa replied. ''And I'm banging my head against the walls. . . ."

It was worse than he thought: By this time, Adornetto had begun cooperating with the FBI and was in protective custody.

The San Marco incident was resurrected in the racketeering indictment returned in March. Bellocchi and Tavella, along with Stanfa and several others, were named in a conspiracy to kidnap Vincenti.

Like Stanfa, Bellocchi and Tavella are being held without bail.

For Bellocchi, stalking Adornetto may have been more than just business. At a preliminary hearing in March, defense attorneys described the short, wiry and dark-haired young Sicilian as a young, hard-working immigrant who came to this country in 1990 to find work and a better life. Among other things, they said, he had found romance.

Bellocchi, according to court testimony, is engaged to marry Sara Stanfa.

PIZZA AND PASTA

In late 1992, the talk at the Camden law offices turned to the price of pasta.

Sara Stanfa and her brother Joseph, then 23, are owners of record of Continental Imported Food Distributors Inc., a South Philadelphia company that sells upscale Italian food products to area stores and restaurants. John Stanfa is employed as a salesman.

Salvatore Profaci had been involved behind the scenes in the food distribution business since the 1970s, according to state and federal authorities. His son was involved in a New Jersey-based food distributor that Profaci referred to as "my company."

From the tapes, the FBI heard how mobsters "sell" their products.

Profaci was more than a little upset when Continental, Stanfa's company, began to sell products to local pizza parlors.

That's not how business was done, Profaci explained during a September 1992 meeting.

"I'm in all the pizza shops," the Colombo crime family capo said. "And if I'm not there today, I will be there tomorrow."

Later that day, Profaci detailed his sales technique to John and Joe Stanfa.

The pre-arranged meeting stemmed from a dispute over the sale of DeCecco Pasta to ShopRite supermarket stores. Stanfa, according to Profaci, had begun selling DeCecco products to four ShopRite stores in the Philadelphia area at prices lower than those Profaci was able to offer.

Profaci didn't like that. He claimed he couldn't match Stanfa's price

because he'd had to pay someone - he didn't say whom - to get shelf space in the stores. He said he'd also paid to have a certain brand of cheese well- displayed.

The mob pasta sit-down was later summarized in a report filed by FBI Agent Charlotte Lang, supervisor of the Philadelphia office's organized crime squad, which was coordinating the Avena office surveillance.

"Stanfa's sale to the four stores at a lower price could jeopardize the entire 274-store chain to whom Profaci sells," Lang wrote of the meeting that day. "Sal Profaci pointed out to Stanfa that the kickbacks involved in selling the chain kept Profaci from meeting Stanfa's price . . . (and) that when he went to ShopRite with Grande Ricotta, he had to pay $65,000 to get shelf space, but could not remember how much he had to pay for the shelf space for DeCecco macaroni."

Profaci went on to say that before selling to any other supermarket chains, Stanfa should first consult with him about the price.

"Profaci reminded Stanfa that this sort of price-fixing is illegal," Lang noted in her report, "but that among themselves they could fix the price in advance. Avena interjected that any agreement to set a price is illegal and instructed the others that they should never admit that they had discussed prices."

A month later, FBI agents picked up another conversation about pasta prices. This time, Stanfa appeared to capitulate to Profaci.

"John Stanfa said they, in the food business, should be working together, not cutting each other's throats," Lang wrote. " . . . Stanfa went on to say there were many calls from ShopRite, but Stanfa would not sell to them. . . . Stanfa let the opportunity go because he did not want a misunderstanding with the Profacis."

Authorities say there is no indication that either food company, Italy- based DeCecco Pasta, or Grande Corp. of Wisconsin, was aware of Profaci's hidden interest in firms that distributed their products. Mary Ellen Gowin, a spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp. of Elizabeth, N.J., the parent company of ShopRite, said the company was unaware of the kickback allegations. She said Wakefern does not distribute either DeCecco or Grande food products, though individual ShopRite stores may purchase them from other suppliers.

BRIBES AND KICKBACKS

La Cosa Nostra, said Salvatore Profaci, "is a beautiful way of life if we respect it."

Billy D'Elia agreed.

"The way it's supposed to be. It's not an instrument to make money."

Yet making money, anywhere, anyhow, was a topic that dominated most of the conversations picked up in Avena's office.

That gave federal investigators a rich supply of new leads.

Profaci's secret interest in legitimate food distributorships - one FBI report alluded to his attempting to extort his way into a company - is now part of an investigative file. So are other stories about bribes and kickbacks that surfaced again and again on the Avena tapes. All are being evaluated by federal authorities with an eye toward further prosecutions.

On one tape, D'Elia, the Scranton mobster, boasted that he once paid $50,000 to a state Department of Environmental Resources official to protect an illegal trash-dumping operation. D'Elia also said he and a former union leader were receiving a commission on all the trash Carmine Franco was dumping at an upstate Pennsylvania landfill.

Stanfa discussed an illegal trash-dumping scheme in which he said he, Profaci and D'Elia would share in a skim of "$6 per ton" in a venture that could generate "150 tons a day."

There was also talk of $200,000 or $250,000 paid by Franco to obtain the rights to a private trash-hauling contract for the Ninth Street Italian Market in South Philadelphia. Franco, according to Avena, said he had to make the payment to Genovese and Gambino family interests in New York. In another conversation, Avena questioned whether Franco was simply pocketing the money.

"He took with both hands," Avena said bitterly. "Hundreds and hundreds of thousands."

Based on the conversations, one FBI report read, "It is believed that Franco overcharged customers and generated cash to pay bribes to unlawfully dump trash and debris and to pay off the LCN in order for him to continue to do business."

(A spokeswoman for Franco's trash company said the Ninth Street private hauling contract was obtained through a standard business transaction with the previous contractor. There were no bribes and no mob involvement, she said.)

A DEAD FISH, A BULLET

"Today, we got to create a whole new image. You got to get public apathy on your side . . . You got to softsoap everything and get out of the limelight. Not create problems that get in the limelight."

Salvatore "Shotsie" Sparacio had it right.

This was in November 1992, before the war broke out and the Stanfa organization started to unravel. In conversations dating to the previous summer, the stocky, gray-haired Sparacio, 71, was the voice of reason - counseling against violence, against making headlines, arguing in favor of a quiet, smoothly run crime family whose only concern ought to be making money.

"We ain't looking for trouble," the bookie said.

He urged the organization to take better care of its bookmaking and loan sharking, proven moneymakers when run properly.

"The gambling business, I been in it all my life," he said. "I wish I could get out. . . . We got the f-in' reputation, we got the heat, and we can't make a dime."

Sparacio, who controlled a bookmaking and loan-sharking operation in South Jersey, clearly was not a Stanfa favorite. For a time, Sparacio thought he was going to be killed. In September 1992, the FBI heard Avena and Piccolo

discussing Sparacio's fears.

Avena said Sparacio had been warned to "watch his back." Piccolo said that Sparacio and an associate each had received a package containing a dead fish and a bullet.

At Sparacio's urging, Avena set up a meeting with Stanfa on Sept. 8, 1992.

Before Sparacio arrived, FBI tapes picked up Stanfa complaining about Sparacio's lack of backbone. During some earlier problem with the young mob dissidents, Stanfa said, Sparacio was nowhere in sight. Now, Stanfa said, when things had settled down, he was pledging his loyalty.

Shortly after 3 p.m., Sparacio arrived at the office and entered the law office library. He told Piccolo and Stanfa about the warnings he'd received.

"I'm here to plead my case," he said.

Stanfa dismissed Sparacio's concerns. If he was going to have him killed, Stanfa told Sparacio, he would not warn him.

The FBI reports reach no conclusion about who had sent the dead fish and the bullet.

BETTER THEM THAN US

At the same time he was assuaging Shotsie Sparacio, Stanfa was formally initiating Joey Merlino and Mike Ciancaglini into the crime family, according to the FBI. The "making" ceremony came in September 1992 after a peace- keeping meeting in which the differences between the young dissidents and the Stanfa organization had been worked out, at least for the moment.

Past problems - the January 1992 murder of Stanfa soldier Felix Bocchino and a failed retaliatory ambush of Michael Ciancaglini in March - were supposedly forgotten and forgiven. Ciancaglini's brother Joe, 35, was named underboss by Stanfa, another move aimed at bridging the gap between the two groups.

Not everyone was happy with those developments.

"Tony Buck" Piccolo, the low-keyed elder statesman of the Philadelphia mob, saw too much arrogance and bravado in Merlino and compared him to former mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, whose penchant for violence had decimated the organization in the 1980s.

"You can't afford to have these fellas around you, John," Piccolo told Stanfa on Dec. 1. "They'll destroy everybody."

Stanfa and Piccolo talked of murdering one of the young mobsters, although it wasn't clear which one.

"See, we do that guy, we gonna start a war," Stanfa said. "The problem is, we gonna start, you know. . . . We gonna give the satisfaction. We start to kill each other."

Piccolo replied in Sicilian: "Better them than us."

Through the first three months of 1993, Stanfa tried to maintain control over his fragmenting organization. The Adornetto affair was a fiasco, but two other hits were carried out with precision. Rod Colombo, 29, a former California bodybuilder who had become a mob enforcer, was shot and killed in Audubon, N.J., on Jan. 7 - apparently for stealing from Stanfa. And on Jan. 28, Mario "Sonny" Riccobene, 60, a mob informant from the Scarfo era who had left the federal Witness Protection Program and returned to the area, was gunned down in the parking lot of a Brooklawn, N.J., diner.

Riccobene's passing was duly noted three days later at the Camden law offices.

"How about Sonny?" Avena said on Feb. 1.

"Yeah, a damn fool all his life," said Sparacio.

"It's tragic," said Avena, "the way he (messed) up everything, including his family. . . . Really sad."

"It is sad," said Sparacio. "They create sadness in their life."

"Not to say that (the murder) was deserving, don't misunderstand me, but this violence," Avena added.

"Well, it figures to end," Sparacio predicted.

The Riccobene murder was a piece of mob business that everyone in the organization - young or old, Stanfa or Merlino loyalist - could understand. Riccobene had signed his own death warrant in 1984 when he agreed to cooperate and testified for the government in a series of mob trials. Among other things, he helped convict his own half-brother, Harry "The Hump" Riccobene.

Six weeks after the Mario Riccobene hit, the Avena tapes were again buzzing about a rumored clash of brother against brother. And the war that Stanfa had hoped to avoid appeared inevitable.

Shortly before 6 a.m. on March 2, two masked gunmen walked into a South Philadelphia luncheonette on Warfield Street, just up the street from Stanfa's Continental warehouse, and opened fire on Joey Ciancaglini, Stanfa's reputed underboss and Mike Ciancaglini's brother.

Shot five times in the head and neck, Ciancaglini somehow survived. But Stanfa's tenuous hold on the organization was broken. No one has been charged with that shooting.

At first, Avena, Sparacio and Piccolo speculated that it came either from the Merlino faction or from the still-missing pizza man, Biagio Adornetto. Within a month, the consensus at Avena's office was that Joey Merlino and Mike Ciancaglini were behind the hit.

Now the talk turned to war.

On April 16, Luigi "Gino" Tripodi, whom the FBI called a Stanfa capo, told Piccolo of a new plot.

"Mike (Ciancaglini) and Joe Merlino are gonna kill me and John (Stanfa)," said an agitated Tripodi. "They plan to kill me first."

"Watch yourself," said Piccolo. "Be careful. . . . Sons of bitches. I knew it was going to come to that."

In another conversation, Piccolo told Avena, "You're dealing with cowboys. These are not rational people."

Both men saw the toll events were taking on Stanfa.

"He looks all disheveled, he looks tired," Avena said on April 28.

"Got a lot of trouble," Piccolo replied. "Trouble. Guys going haywire down there."

"That thin fella, right?" asked Avena, referring to Joey Merlino.

"Him and the other guy," Piccolo said.

"The brother?" Avena asked, referring to Mike Ciancaglini.

"They better do something fast," Piccolo said of Stanfa. "I mean, it's out in the open."

Conciliation had failed. The other side was gaining strength. Stanfa seemed to reach a decision: It was time to strike back.

What followed were tapes in which Stanfa detailed plans to kill Merlino, Ciancaglini and Gaeton Lucibello.

All three, Stanfa said on April 29, 1993, should be shot - and then their bodies should be dropped in bags of quick-drying cement.

"This way the concrete hardens and we'll go dump them," he said. Stanfa, a former bricklayer, knew about cement.

Lucibello, whom the feds described as a one-time Stanfa loyalist, was marked for a particularly brutal end in Stanfa's ramblings.

Stanfa told his associate Sergio Battaglia, "I got to put one right here, with my own hands, in the mouth," he said. "The motherf-er. You know what I'm going to do? Get a knife. I'll cut his tongue and we'll send it to his wife."

Battaglia suggested disposing of the corpses in different locations: ''Maybe we'll take one to New York, one down to Delaware. We spread them out."

The next day, Stanfa told Piccolo and Sparacio: "From Mr. Nice Guy, I'm gonna be Mr. Bad Guy. . . . Today, maybe it's the times, you can do no more with these guys . . . I put it this way: Me, you, him, oldtimers. That's a different way. They got a different school.

". . . They have no respect for you, your family, anybody. . . . No respect at all."

Stanfa then outlined a strategy: an ambush at Sixth and Catharine Streets, where Merlino and Ciancaglini were opening a clubhouse.

"It's the only way to go," Piccolo agreed. "All right, Sam?"

Sparacio, who was also called Sam, reluctantly replied, "Yeah, if it's gonna work."

Piccolo said there was no alternative:

"All of us, not just him (Stanfa). . . . They could take us all out."

ALONE AT THE TOP

John Stanfa was about to go to war. But he wasn't sure who would follow him into battle. Luigi Tripodi had taken a trip to Italy. Ray Esposito, another reputed mob soldier, was complaining of heart trouble. And Sparacio was beginning to openly question Stanfa's leadership.

"Things look worse and worse every day," Stanfa told Tony Piccolo. "I don't know what I gotta do. I'm by myself."

Sparacio could not be relied on, he said. Tripodi was a "stupid guy." And Esposito "keeps saying, 'Oh, my heart. Oh, I taking medicine.' "

Sparacio's doubts were no secret around the law office.

"It's a dog-eat-dog thing," the bookie had told Piccolo. "It's over. It seems like it's just over. You got wild sons-of-bitches like this that gonna destroy it all together, that wanna eat everybody. Even us."

"They want to eat everything - starting with us," Piccolo replied.

Sparacio had counseled Stanfa against the planned counterattack on the Merlino faction: "You don't have the right nucleus to put the thing to guns. What do you do? You go out and challenge somebody? We all lose if we don't do it right. . . . We all lose."

And he had privately told Avena that he thought Stanfa had lost control and ought to step down.

"He don't have the strength to control it," Sparacio said. "Made too many mistakes from the beginning."

"Well, who then is it?" Avena asked. "These young guys?"

"Yeah. . . . At least if they get in there, you know where you stand," Sparacio said. "You make a pact. You go along with the program. . . . Let's face it, comes a time, you gotta step aside. He didn't handle the situation

from the beginning. All wrong. All wrong. And he can't rectify it.

"Course, I ain't gonna tell him that."

By then, Stanfa had made up his mind.

Late in June 1993, he met with his friend Tommaso Gambino, the son of imprisoned Mafia heroin-trafficker Rosario Gambino, a longtime Stanfa associate. Stanfa had asked the younger Gambino to enlist help in New York. But Gambino told him no one was available and suggested Stanfa travel to Sicily and recruit new members there.

Stanfa said if he left, his position as boss in Philadelphia would be in jeopardy.

"I'm all alone," Stanfa said on June 22. "It's no one else. It's me. If it goes well, it's me. If it goes bad, it's me. . . . What I want to do, I have to take these two guys' head. . . . Then, whatever happens, happens."

He went on to tell Gambino: "You know what's needed here? A demolition."

On Aug. 5, 1993, as they walked along Catharine Street about 100 yards from the corner clubhouse they had recently renovated, Mike Ciancaglini and Joey Merlino were shot.

Like the Adornetto shooting attempt and the Vincenti kidnapping, the ambush was not a gangland classic.

Merlino survived with a wound in the buttocks. And within hours, Philip

Colletti, one of the two shooters, was a prime suspect. Although the getaway car was torched several blocks away, police quickly traced it: The car had been leased in Colletti's name.

Back in Camden, the men in the law office talked of the potential aftermath. Sparacio was beside himself. He and Avena agreed that Stanfa had not heard the last of Merlino.

"That's why (when you) start out doing something, you got to finish it," Sparacio complained two weeks after the shooting. "Anymore, everything's just shoddy."

The next day, the FBI heard Avena and Piccolo wax philosophic about the generational war that had pitted Stanfa against Merlino. The conversation started out as a discussion about Salvatore "Wayne" Grande, another Scarfo- era mob soldier who had begun cooperating with authorities.

As a result, Piccolo said, Grande's father had disowned him and his wife had divorced him and refused to speak with him.

"What a cross to carry for the rest of their lives," Avena said of Grande's family.

"Certainly, sure," Piccolo said. "The stigma, that stays. It's a shame."

Then Avena asked Piccolo why he thought so many young mob associates had sided with Merlino against Stanfa.

"Where's the inducement?" Avena wondered. "I mean, obviously people don't believe in tradition, then."

Piccolo said he believed many younger associates thought Stanfa would be too strict, too hard-line when he took over. Ironically, Piccolo said, that wasn't the case: "He's been very liberal with them."

"Everything was fair game, Sal. Whichever way they wanted to go, that's the way they went. Beating people up. Shaking people down. . . . They really got carried away, Sal."

NOBODY WINS

John Stanfa and his son, Joe, traveled to work at their Continental Imported Foods warehouse in the Grays Ferry section of South Philadelphia the same way each morning. A driver would pick them up at their home in Medford, then head south and over the Walt Whitman Bridge to the Schuylkill Expressway.

The Stanfas usually arrived for work around 8 a.m.

On the morning of Aug. 31, 1993, they were delayed.

In the midst of rush hour, a white van pulled alongside the gray, late- model Cadillac in which Stanfa and his son were riding as it approached the Vare Avenue exit.

Suddenly two 9mm machine pistols were pointed out of makeshift portholes

cut in the van's side. Stanfa's car was sprayed with gunfire. The mob boss, riding in the front seat, ducked as the window by his head shattered. His son Joe, in back, did not react as quickly and took a bullet in the chin.

Joe Stanfa, who was rushed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, eventually recovered. As in the Joe Ciancaglini shooting that started it all, no one has been charged in the Expressway ambush.

Law enforcement officials called the shooting a blatant breach of underworld protocol. Gunfire in rush-hour traffic was insanity, they said; what's more, Stanfa's son, not a member of the crime family, should never have been targeted.

On tape, the men in the Camden law office agreed.

"These things are unprecedented," Shotsie Sparacio told Avena just hours after the shooting. "You never touch the family. . . . Crazy. Total . . . insanity. . . .

"Nobody wins. Everybody's in a no-win situation. This guy (Stanfa) must be beside himself."

Sparacio and Avena then spoke of the old mob protocol that said a member's family was never put at risk.

"Family was always taboo," Sparacio said. "There's no brains behind nothing. Maniacs. . . . There's nowhere you can turn to make sense out of anything. Before, people mediated things, ironed something out. I don't know where it's gonna lead."

Two more mob shootings would rock South Philadelphia before the summer ended. On Sept. 15, Stanfa ally Leon Lanzilotti was wounded near Eighth and St. Albans Streets. And on Sept. 17, Frank Baldino, identified as a friend of Merlino's, was killed in the parking lot of the Melrose Diner.

By then, the FBI had shut down its electronic surveillance of Avena's law office and federal prosecutors had begun presenting evidence to a grand jury. That, plus an intense street-level crackdown by the Philadelphia police organized crime unit brought an end to the open warfare.

Merlino, picked up on a parole violation, was packed off to prison in November.

And on March 17, Stanfa, Avena, Sparacio, Piccolo, Esposito, Tripodi, Battaglia and a dozen others were arrested on racketeering charges outlined in a 12-count indictment based in large part on the Avena tapes. (Profaci and D'Elia were not named in the indictment. Both are targets of ongoing investigations, according to law enforcement officials.)

By that time, both Colletti and John Veasey, the other shooter in the Aug. 5 ambush of Merlino and Mike Ciancaglini, were cooperating with the FBI.

Colletti and Veasey are expected to testify for the government when Stanfa and the others are brought to trial sometime next year.

So is the pizza man, Biagio Adornetto.

A SILENCE BROKEN

John Stanfa grew up in the Sicily where omerta, the Mafia code of silence, was sacrosanct and where turncoat testimony was a vile aberration.

But this was Philadelphia, where so many mobsters are now singing for the government omerta could be the title of an aria.

So when Veasey and Colletti became government witnesses - flipped, in mob parlance - no one seemed surprised.

In June 1993, in the midst of all the war talk, Piccolo and Avena were picked up discussing Phil Leonetti, Scarfo's nephew and former underboss.

Leonetti, one of six former members of the Scarfo organization to turn informant, had become the government's favorite witness. Tan, well-dressed and poised, he had just testified in a Toms River, N.J., case in which four New Jersey Mafia figures were convicted.

Leonetti had been relocated in the federal Witness Protection Program along with his mother, his wife and his son. Rumors abounded of the good life he was living, and of the cash - millions, it was said - he and his mother had been permitted to take with them into hiding.

"Son of bitch, Leonetti, they can't shake him," Piccolo said of the ex- mobster's cool demeanor on the witness stand.

Piccolo and Avena then talked of ways to rattle Leonetti if he ever appeared in court against them.

One way, Avena said, was to bring Leonetti's elderly grandmother - Nicky Scarfo's mother, Catherine Scarfo - into court when Leonetti took the stand.

"I understand if he appears here, she wants to come down," Avena said.

"How about that clown?" Piccolo went on. "He's got that Rolex watch from that jeweler friend of his. . . . How nice. He had about $5 million in cash. . . . And he testifies like that.

"Son of a bitch, ain't he Sal?"

"Son of a bitch."

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