Harry Riccobene, 89, Longtime Mob Figure

Posted: June 22, 2000

Harry Riccobene, 89, a well-known South Philadelphia mob figure who survived a series of attempted gangland hits during a bloody street war with rival Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, died Monday at the Dallas State Correctional Institution, where he was serving a life sentence for a 1982 murder.

Standing barely five feet tall and known as "The Hump" because of a childhood deformity in his spine, Mr. Riccobene was described as "charming and charismatic" by several law enforcement figures who investigated, arrested and prosecuted him over the years.

His career spanned nearly three generations of the underworld and included convictions for racketeering, gambling and drug dealing, as well as the murder of Scarfo associate Frank Monte.

Mr. Riccobene spent nearly half his life behind bars, "but it was hard not to like him," said Fred Martens, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. "There was a charisma about him. It was hard to put the word killer and Harry together, even when you knew who he was."

Martens said that Mr. Riccobene worked for five mob bosses over the years in South Philadelphia before clashing violently with Scarfo in the early 1980s.

"He had no respect for Scarfo," Martens said. "And he couldn't hide it. . . . With Harry, what you saw was what you got. That's just the way he was."

Mr. Riccobene lost two family members - a half-brother, Robert, and a nephew, Enrico - to mob violence during the war with Scarfo. Another half-brother, Mario, became a government witness and was killed in 1993 after leaving the federal Witness Security Program and returning to South Philadelphia.

Mr. Riccobene was targeted several times during the Scarfo war, but he survived. His response after one attempt was quintessential Riccobene, say investigators familiar with the story.

Mr. Riccobene, then in his 70s, was in a phone booth talking to his girlfriend, who was in her 20s, when a young Scarfo gunman ambushed him. He was shot three or four times before he managed to wrestle the gun away from the much younger and bigger hit man.

By the time police arrived, the gunmen had fled.

Mr. Riccobene, bleeding and holding the empty handgun, was asked how he got the weapon.

"The other guy was done with it," he said.

Celeste Morello, a South Philadelphia criminologist and historian and the author of a book, Before Bruno, about the early days of the Philadelphia mob, said she had dozens of conversations with Mr. Riccobene over the years while researching her book.

"There were some things he wouldn't talk about," she said yesterday. "But he was a fantastic source for me."

Mr. Riccobene started out in the underworld as a 17-year-old, she said, and worked with most of the major mob figures here and in New York, where he was recruited as a soldier in the infamous Castellammarese War, an internecine struggle that established the structure of the Mafia in the United States.

"He was personable, very affable," Morello said. "And he knew everybody in the underworld - Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, everybody."

Morello said that Mr. Riccobene was hoping to win a medical release from prison at the time of his death.

He is survived by sisters Frances Branco, Carol Donoflio, Emma DiBona, Bianco Rizzo, Gloria Pernie and Lidia Riccobene.

A viewing will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. today at the Pennsylvania Burial Co., 1327-29 S. Broad St. Services tomorrow will be private. Burial will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Marple Township.

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