Some See Subplot In Galati Case He Is Charged With Fraud. Sources Say Officials Hope He'll Talk About A Van Used In The Attack On Stanfa.

Posted: November 21, 1994

The testimony has revolved around stolen cars, phony insurance claims, fake bankruptcy files and mail fraud.

But nobody believes that's what this case is really all about.

For two weeks Ron Galati, a popular South Philadelphia auto body shop owner, and three of his employees have sat at the defense table in U.S. District Court watching and listening as their lawyers battle federal prosecutors in a jury trial that could land them all in jail.

The case at hand involves $96,000 in fraud over an eight-year period, as well as charges that Galati, 43, filed false bankruptcy papers, and that he threatened to kill a postal inspector assigned to investigate his shop.

But several sources close to the defendant, as well as some in law enforcement, say the government's interest in Galati has less to do with Galati's business practices than with what he may know about the Aug. 31, 1993, ambush of mob boss John Stanfa on the Schuylkill Expressway, and the stolen van that was used to carry it out.

"They said if he told them about the van and Joey, they'd work out some kind of deal on these charges," a friend of Galati's said shortly after the trial opened.

"But he ain't a rat. And besides, he don't know nothing."

"Joey" is Joseph Merlino, the young reputed mob leader who federal and local investigators believe was behind the shooting.

"The van" is the white 1993 Chevrolet Astro used in the rush-hour ambush on Stanfa and his son, Joseph.

After the shooting, the van, which had been stolen from a parking lot at the stadium complex, was found abandoned near 29th and Mifflin Streets. Police discovered that two makeshift portholes had been cut into the side of the vehicle. It was through those holes that gunmen, armed with 9mm machine pistols, strafed the car in which the Stanfas were riding.

The tools used to cut the holes in the van were the kind used by those in the auto body shop business. For a time, after being released from prison in 1992, Joey Merlino had worked at Ron Galati Autobody Inc. Several of Merlino's associates also worked from time to time at the shop, located near 12th and Washington Streets.

No one has ever been charged in the Stanfa shooting.

*

It's a South Philadelphia story about a guy who knew a guy and who almost got killed because of it.

Now - depending on who's telling it - Galati is either getting what he deserves or getting the shaft.

Within days of the Stanfa ambush, word had begun circulating about the suspicions of local police and FBI agents investigating the case. Galati had another garage on Grays Ferry Avenue, not far from the Schuylkill site of the shooting. It was there, law enforcement sources say, that the van had been altered.

Police and federal authorities will not comment about the case, which is still being investigated. Galati, on the advice of his attorneys, declined to be interviewed.

But friends say that the mail fraud and racketeering charges were part of the leverage authorities used to try to get Galati to "flip," to become a government informant and to implicate Merlino in the expressway shooting.

After Galati gave a job to Merlino in 1992, they say, the investigation into his business practices intensified. After the ambush, even more pressure was brought to bear.

Friends and family members were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Customers were stopped driving away from Galati's and asked why they were taking their business to a mob shop. Galati's spending habits, vacation trips, even the bills for a First Communion party for his daughter, were scrutinized.

"It was harassment," said a friend of Galati's, who, like several others close to the case, asked not to be identified. "It's not the way the government's suppose to be. Where's the justice?"

Associates said Galati was told that if he didn't cooperate, word would be leaked to the media about his suspected involvement and Stanfa would kill him and his family.

"He was scared to death," said the friend. "He was talking about taking his kids (a son and a daughter) out of school."

However, a police source said by the time investigators approached Galati, word was already "on the street" about where the van had been altered.

"We were the last to know," said one investigator. "Ronnie thinks we were spreading this information. In fact, we were picking it up because everyone was talking about it on the street."

While the FBI has now taken over the investigation of the Schuylkill ambush, Philadelphia police detectives worked extensively on the job in the weeks following the shooting. It was police leads that led to Galati's Grays Ferry shop. Armed with a search warrant, detectives raided the property and confiscated tools that, a law enforcement source now says, they believe were used to cut the portholes in the van.

Galati told investigators then - and continues to insist today - that he knows nothing about it.

Some detectives roll their eyes at that.

"I think his liabilities are greater if he rolls on (implicates) Joey Merlino than if he takes his chances in this insurance fraud case," said one.

Other police sources, however, say it's possible Galati was in the dark; that even if his Grays Ferry Avenue shop was used to alter the van, he might not have been aware of it.

"The problem," said one law enforcement source who has known Galati for years, "is that Ronnie wants to be friends with everybody. . . . He's a generous guy. He's a pushover. He's a hard guy not to like."

Police, politicians and wannabe wiseguys all took their cars to Galati's auto body shop for repair work. He was well-known around the neighborhood.

He gave Merlino a job in 1992 while the young mob figure was in a prison halfway house after serving two years for an armored-truck heist. Galati, say several friends, knew Merlino's father, imprisoned mobster Salvatore ''Chuckie" Merlino, and also knew Joey, who lived in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood.

"He was just doing a favor for the guy so that he could get out of jail and look what it got him," said one friend.

But even his friends concede that Galati liked the aura of the underworld.

"He saw Goodfellas too many times," said one. "He used to sit around watching the movie on the VCR. Then him and some of the guys who hung at the shop used to quote lines to each other from the movie. He liked the DeNiro character, Jimmy Conway. 'The drinks are on the house.' Ronnie used to say that all the time, like DeNiro."

In some ways then, Galati became a victim of his own fascination. He acted a part that attracted both law enforcement and Merlino's underworld rivals.

When Stanfa and 23 others were indicted in March on racketeering charges, the allegations included conspiracy to kill Galati. A superseding indictment announced on Thursday repeated that allegation.

Whether it was true or not, Stanfa believed Galati was somehow involved with the van used to ambush him. That, investigators say, is why he wanted him killed.

No one expects any of Galati's real or perceived connections to the mob to be presented to the jury as the trial goes into what is likely to be its final week.

Few people close to Galati, however, believe he would be facing a 55-count indictment and a potentially lengthy prison sentence were it not for the van, the ambush and his association with Joey Merlino.

"I doubt very much if Galati knows anything about Merlino's business," said one high-ranking police official. "Everybody knows he's got a big mouth. I don't think anybody would tell him anything important. . . . But he got sucked into that association. He wanted to rub elbows with those guys and he got burned. You live like that, you can die like that."

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