Target: Philly Mob Outsiders Eyed Mob Bloodbath

Posted: July 11, 2000

NEWARK, N.J. — Members of three crime families planned to celebrate the millennium earlier this year by wiping out what's left of the top leadership of the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra.

Ever since the 1980 gangland slaying of mob boss Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia family has been repeatedly decimated by internal mob wars and prosecutions that have jailed more than six dozens mobsters.

What's significant this time is the outside influence: two soldiers in the Gambino and Genovese crime families - the big powers in North Jersey - allegedly conspired with the "North Jersey crew" of the Philadelphia mob to engage in a civil war.

Whether the Gambino and Genovese crime bosses sanctioned the mob hits could not be learned yesterday.

Their targets were acting mob boss Joseph Ligambi, underboss Steven Mazzone and consigliere George Borgesi, who took over after acting mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino was jailed on drug charges a year ago.

The conspirators wanted to consolidate power and take over Philadelphia's lucrative loansharking and gambling operation, according to law enforcement.

The plot was thwarted, in part, when its mastermind, Peter Rocco "The Crumb" Caprio, a capo who headed the North Jersey crew of the Philadelphia LCN for four years, was arrested on March 10 in two mob deaths.

Facing life in one murder and the death penalty in the other, Caprio decided to cooperate with authorities.

"Why the others didn't carry it out, I don't know," said assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Kaplan, of the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force in Newark.

The Mafia intrigue was revealed yesterday when Caprio, a tanned, balding, gray-haired 70-year-old with a hearing problem who wore a beige jacket, tie and tan pants, pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy before U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise in Newark.

He faces up to life in prison and up to a $250,000 fine, but hopes to get a reduced sentence.

In January and February, Caprio, who once ran a liquor still, admitted plotting to kill Ligambi, Mazzone and Borgesi with at least five men. His confession about it was such a closely guarded secret that it stunned organized crime investigators in Philadelphia, as well as the mobsters' counsel.

"That is really, really surprising," said attorney Joseph Santaguida, who represents Mazzone in an upcoming trial and has been longtime counsel to Merlino.

Attorney Michael Pinsky, who represents Ligambi and Borgesi, said "My clients have no knowledge of this."

Caprio's five co-conspirators in the plot included Vincent "Beeps" Centorino, 69, a reputed multimillionaire soldier from South Orange, N.J. Centorino, a North Jersey crew member since 1990, is a longtime loanshark engaged in sports gambling and drug deal financing.

Also, associate Raymond "Frenchie" LePore, 56, of Nutley, N.J., and Daniel D'Ambrosia, 36, of Chadwick near Ritner, a major South Philadelphia bookmaker and mob associate.

D'Ambrosia is a major sports bookmaker engaged in extortion and gambling in Philadelphia and South Jersey. His family owns two steak shops and a neighborhood newspaper, Town Talk. D'Ambrosia could not be reached for comment.

The North Jersey crew and D'Ambrosia allegedly conspired with Gambino soldier Anthony Proto, 65 or 66, of Bloomfield, N.J., who has engaged in the infiltration of North Jersey unions; and Genovese soldier Vincent Alberti, 64, a member since 1995.

None has been arrested in the plot.

"If Caprio was working with the Gambino and Genovese, then he's got a bigger story to tell," said a law-enforcement source. "Caprio would have been their puppet if that was the case.

"On a sliding scale of strength, those three guys," Ligambi, Mazzone and Borgesi, the source added, "were the strongest.

"Maybe they figured Joey Merlino didn't have a hell of a chance getting out."

Another law-enforcement source called the plot "bad news" for Ligambi, who's "facing an insurgency within his own organization."

"That New York families are involved, that it would become public, that his legitimacy is questioned, that makes him vulnerable to anyone," the source said.

"I'd be looking over my shoulder to see if [jailed mob boss Nicodemo 'Little Nicky'] Scarfo had anything to do with it," the source added.

A mobster, who asked to remain anonymous, said earlier this year that Scarfo was trying to kill the Merlino faction, but law-enforcement sources were unable to confirm it.

Ralph Natale, the mob boss who's cooperating, was briefly considered by some mob watchers as having orchestrated the plot, but Santaguida discounted that theory.

"I don't think Natale is behind it," the attorney said. Besides, Natale has really angered the Genovese family, who initiated him and helped make him mob boss in Philadelphia, a law-enforcement source said.

"North Jersey is trying to take over South Jersey. I would think these [Genovese and Gambino] guys, without the sanction of above, were trying to take over down here," said Santaguida.

Both Santaguida and Pinsky cautioned Caprio's confession is without corroboration, just as Natale's was. And the government had problems trying to corroborate Natale.

"Now that it's become public, let's see what comes of it," Santaguida added.

The 5-foot-8 Caprio also admitted:

Ordering the murders of Joseph Sodano in 1996 and William "Crazy Willie" Gantz in 1994 and killing LCN associate Edward "Butch" Snee in 1975.

Authorities believe the body exhumed from the basement of Caprio's Social Club on Hudson Street in Newark on May 20 is that of Snee.

Attempting to kill soldier Philip "Philly Faye" Casale and Wayne Cross, a major gambling figure in the Lucchese crime family, earlier this year, but the hits were never carried out.

In the Dec. 7, 1996, killing of Sodano in an SUV in a Newark parking lot, the FBI used its domino strategy to get one mobster after another to cooperate.

Authorities have the mob boss (Ralph Natale) who ordered the Sodano hit, the middle manager (Caprio) who carried it out and the triggerman (Casale) who killed him, all willing to testify about it against Merlino (then underboss) at Merlino's upcoming racketeering trial.

In May, Natale admitted in a plea agreement he and Merlino ordered the murder contract because Sodano refused to share profits of his loanshark and gambling operation with them.

After the hit, Caprio was promoted to capo, taking Sodano's job.

A plea agreement was recently unsealed for Casale, 56, of Nutley, N.J., revealing his cooperation last fall. He pleaded guilty to murder, extortion, interstate transportation of stolen property.

A longtime loanshark and extortionist who used brass knuckles to collect debts, Casale had been a Caprio loyalist since the 1980s, a law-enforcement source said. Caprio apparently decided to kill Casale in early 2000 after he had begun cooperating.

Caprio also admitted trying to kill Cross, who figured in a struggle over North Jersey's gambling and video poker operations.

Four crime families - Lucchese, Genovese, Gambino and the North Jersey crew - were all vying for bigger shares of the gambling and video-poker action, the source said. "It's such a tangled web up there."

They all crossed paths and sometimes cooperated, and when they didn't, they ended up with their brains smashed like Joseph "Jimmy Sinatra" Caparotta, a significant Lucchese associate who was beaten to death with a golf club, a 5-iron, in Dover Township, Ocean County, in 1984.

Caparotta was responsible for all of the gambling in Ocean County for the Taccetta faction of the Lucchese crime family. Cross was a player and associate of Joseph Taccetta.

The Cross-Taccetta link was another underlying motive in the Sodano murder, said a law-enforcement source. That faction became closer to the Gambino and Genovese families, the real power base in North Jersey.

Send e-mail to caparek@phillynews.com

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