Married To The Mob The Skinny On Mom Fierce Devotion To Family Drives Rita Merlino's Life

Posted: September 21, 1999

It was, by most accounts, a rude awakening.

Federal agents showed up at Joey "Skinny Joey" Merlino's rented beach condo in Margate with a warrant for his arrest at the still-sleepy hour of 7:10 a.m.

They poured into the two-story apartment on Adams Street while the reputed acting boss of Philadelphia's mob was in bed with his two young children, Sofia and Nicolette. And - judging by the reception they got - before Merlino's mother, Rita, had poured her first cup of coffee for the day.

"While we were in the bedroom with Mr. Merlino, I heard a woman screaming obscenities," FBI agent Jack Meighan testified in court, describing the June 28 arrest.

"I looked out into the hallway and saw a woman I believed to be Rita Merlino walk toward the bedroom.

". . .Because of Mrs. Merlino's uproar, the way she was reacting, we figured we had to get out of there as quickly as possible."

But things were no more peaceful outside.

As Meighan exited with Merlino in cuffs, Rita tried to intervene in a scuffle between her son's associate Martin Angelina and several officers, according to Merlino's wife, Debra Wells.

According to Merlino lawyer Joseph Santaguida, Merlino saw an agent "throw his mother into the bushes."

The agents sped off with their man, Rita Merlino's vitriol still ringing in their ears. She saved some for the Channel 6 camera crew that caught her at the condo later. Much of what she said is unprintable.

"I don't think that anybody would have said things like that in the past," said Celeste Morello, a South Philly native and local mob historian.

"People were not as disrespectful to police as they are now. Prior to Angelo Bruno's death, there was always a nicer relationship. The women knew not to get involved."

That Rita Merlino was upset was not surprising. She lost her husband, former underboss Salvatore "Chuckie" Merlino, to a federal prison in Georgia 10 years ago, where he is serving a 45-year sentence on murder and racketeering charges.

And that June morning, in the presence of her grandchildren, she saw her only son hauled away on a drug rap. Coupled with more charges likely to be filed as a result of the mob secrets spilled by mob boss-turned-informant Ralph Natale, Joey Merlino could also remain behind bars for the rest of his life.

"It knocks the hell out of any family to have a husband and father incarcerated and now a son," Merlino lawyer Edwin Jacobs Jr. said after a hearing in federal court earlier this summer seeking Merlino's release on bail.

Rita Merlino has "been through the mill a couple of times and is taking it on the chin," Jacobs said. "The whole family was home and invaded by a flock of armed police officers. People get upset. Your home is your castle."

It is a home Rita Merlino is desperately trying to protect.

Until her son's recent arrest, she was barely a blip on the radar screen of media, mob watchers and organized crime investigators. A mother, not a mobster.

Traditionally, wives and mothers of mobsters stayed in the shadows - some even in the dark - about the La Costra Nostra activities of their men. For example, jailed Gambino family crime boss John Gotti was a "plumbing-supply salesman" to his wife and the IRS.

They were reserved. They sat in the back of the courtroom, if they showed up at all. They spoke only when spoken to, and typically didn't say much to those outside of the family.

"The mothers were always left pretty much in the background," said Frank Friel, a former police lieutenant who supervised the federal-local organized crime task force in the Philadelphia region that took down Chuckie Merlino and the organization of former mob chieftain Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

"They were left to their own devices to enjoy whatever favors were bestowed upon them in the neighborhood at the beauty parlor or the water-ice stand.

"They were, in a way, kept women. There was a top drawer in the dresser with $6,000 or $7,000 underneath the socks. That was the quid pro quo. They got whatever they needed in the raising of their children and keeping up the home, and the modicum of respect in the neighborhood for associating with a wiseguy. In exchange, they kept their mouths shut."

Despite her public outbursts, those who know Rita Merlino believe she would have liked it to stay that way.

They see the 50-something South Philadelphia native more as a protective mother who is rough around the edges than as a pampered and polished mob diva concerned about her showing her "good side" on "Action News."

"If she was sandpaper, she'd be 'coarse' instead of 'fine,' " said one acquaintance, who, like many interviewed, spoke only under condition of anonymity. "What you see is what you get. She's very protective. She won't take no s---."

"She was the old-school type, always stayed at home and took care of the kids," said another acquaintance. "Kept a very clean house. Very down to earth. She was an excellent mother.

"She lives normally," said the acquaintance. "She drives a Honda, no big fancy car. She's a little on the thrifty side. When she vacations, she always tries to find cheap motel rates. She's just not all diamonded-up."

Before Rita Merlino got married to the mob, those who know her said she grew up around 12th and Shunk in South Philly and met Chuckie Merlino in the mid-'60s when he had a well-paid job as an oiler of heavy equipment.

"He started bringing her around," said another person familiar with the family. "She wore short shorts. She was just a knockout."

From early on, Rita was considered "somewhat of a 'nerveen' - a woman of nervous energy who had a good sense of humor and a raspy voice chaffed from years of smoking Marlboros.

"She's very funny in a b--- - breaking kind of way," said the acquaintance. "She's always got something to say to you. Joey's like that too. He favors his mother in that respect."

And throughout her marriage, even after Chuckie went to jail with boss Little Nicky Scarfo, friends say Rita has always been "very loyal and faithful to Chuckie," and devoted to raising her three children: Joey, Maria and Natalie.

"He went out, but she stayed home. She was that type," said one associate.

But a lot has changed in recent years. The ranks of organized crime have been decimated by violent squabbles, turncoat testimony and RICO indictments. Friends and family members have turned on each other, if not on the streets, then in the courtroom.

With so many in jail or in coffins or under surveillance, it's not surprising that sometimes the only unindicted people left to stick up for gangsters are their women.

It is a common joke among mob watchers that the only way organized crime will survive is if the women take over.

But, according to mob experts, mothers often harbor resentment and anger toward a husband or uncle for introducing their boys to "the life."

It is not known whether Rita Merlino feels this way about the life her son pursued in his father's footsteps, or for that matter, whether she even knew it.

She and Joey's wife, Debra Wells, nodded to each other when testimony in court described Joey Merlino's occupation as "professional gambler."

Recently several prominent mob women have stepped in to fill the void, apparently out of the true family ties that bind.

"Mothers of gangsters are no different than mothers of most accused criminals," said mob expert Jerry Capeci, the author of four books on organized crime and chief of the Web site ganglandnews.com.

"They are mothers. They're mothers. They'll go to any extent to protect their loved ones and often look the other way."

Before Rita Merlino went on the offensive on behalf of her son, there was Victoria Gotti, wife of jailed mob boss John Gotti.

When her son John "Junior" Gotti - who allegedly took his father's place as head of the Gambino family - was indicted last year on racketeering charges, the mob wife and mother gave interviews in his defense. Junior's father, on the other hand, called his son a "babbling idiot" and an "imbecile" for getting caught in the first place.

Junior, 35, later cut a deal that will likely result in a prison sentence of no more than seven years. Victoria Gotti will get her son back, even if she never gets her husband home.

Rita Merlino may not be as lucky. Not counting the dozens of attempts on his life, she has lost her son twice.

Joey, now 37, served several years for an armored car robbery in the early '90s and went to jail for a year in 1993 on a parole violation.

When he returned in 1994, she threw a huge party at her modest home on Hartranft Street that made headlines the next day.

The block is quieter these days. The neatly kept attached homes have all the trappings of a South Philly neighborhood used to protecting its own.

A sign in front of one house reads, "Never Mind the Dog, Beware of the Owner." A lawn jockey and Virgin Mary statues guard the Merlino home, the only one on the block without a number.

It is a place where Rita Merlino still commands enough respect, or fear, that few people are willing to talk about her.

"I just don't want to get involved," one woman politely said after reluctantly answering the door.

"She's a very good neighbor," said another woman who lives a few doors away.

"She always will go and stick her neck out to help someone. I feel bad for her. The way the media and people are distorting things. I don't think a lot of respect has been given to the family.

"I think everybody should sit back and keep their mouth shut until we hear the whole story."

The chance of hearing the whole story may increase dramatically with the turncoat testimony of Ralph Natale. The unprecedented ratting of a mob boss could bolster what insiders believed was a vulnerable case against Merlino.

Expect fireworks when that day in court comes. In July, at the last bail hearing for Merlino, Rita was clearly the boss. Dressed in black with her short dark hair combed back and a tight-lipped expression on her face, she wrested control of a courtroom pew for her family.

"You can't sit here. You have to move," she told spectators looking for a seat near where she and her family had settled.

She went so far as to instruct a judge visiting from China that she had to move. The judge sheepishly complied.

But don't necessarily expect Rita Merlino to make quite the same impression in court as she did when her son was first arrested.

In court, Joey looked her way as he was escorted from the proceeding and mouthed "I love you."

Her austere face showed little expression as she watched another man in her life led away in handcuffs.

After the July hearing, she exited a side entrance and shrugged off requests for interviews. Her only public comment for the Daily News was directed at prosecutors: "They're liars, of course."

With her son in jail, Rita Merlino's responsibilities as a grandmother and mother have increased.

Rita's married daughter, Maria, is pregnant and expecting her second child soon. She still has a daughter, Natalie, living at home. And with Joey in jail, she has a daughter-in-law and two young granddaughters in need of extra attention.

Merlino reportedly calls his wife and mother from jail at every opportunity, trying to be a father from behind bars.

Sources said conversation in the summer had centered around the often difficult task of potty training his daughter. There was the promise of a trip to Disney World with mom and grandmother if she cooperated.

But Rita Merlino's future may fall somewhat short of the Magic Kingdom.

Downtown, said Friel, "She will slowly fade from a position of significance" with the emergence of whoever comes to the fore.

"There will be a level of sympathy that will continue until finances dictate otherwise. There's not an immediate crashing," he said.

"There never is. But the realities of life in South Philly means that they won't be throwing rose petals at her feet. That's gone. Chuckie is gone. And Joey is going to be gone."

Those who know Rita Merlino said she'll survive another rude awakening.

"She's perfect for the role as the wife of a gang leader or the mother of a gang leader because she's very tough," said one insider. "Her facade is that 'Don't mess with me,' and that comes from the love of her family. It's not that she's a nut - because she is not a nut - but she has a deep love for her family.

"Fortunately for that family, she can handle it."

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