On tape, mob suspect gets personal John Ciancaglini, on trial, was recorded talking about his family's losses in a 1993 mob war.

Posted: May 11, 2001

It was a private and personal description of the aftermath of a very public mob war.

Reputed wiseguy John Ciancaglini was talking about what had happened to his brother Joseph, who was crippled after gunmen fired multiple shots into his face, and to his brother Michael, who was killed in a gangland hit.

"The only people that got screwed out of this whole thing is my family," John Ciancaglini said in a discussion with mobster Ron Previte. "My brother Joey can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Michael's in a box."

The conversation, recorded on Nov. 2, 1998, was played yesterday for a federal jury in the racketeering trial of Ciancaglini, reputed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, and five codefendants.

It is one of dozens that have been played since Previte took the stand as a government witness on May 3. The hulking 6-foot-2, 280-pound wiseguy recorded hundreds of conversations while wearing a body wire and working for the FBI.

The tape played yesterday was, according to Ciancaglini's lawyer, F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, the only significant recording of his client picked up during the lengthy investigation.

While prosecutors hope to use the tape to link Ciancaglini, 45, to the Merlino faction of the mob and to demonstrate his inside knowledge of mob business and his involvement in mob gambling and extortion operations, Fitzpatrick contends the tape shows his client for what he was - a man caught in the middle.

In fact, Ciancaglini says just that in another part of the conversation while he and Previte, 57, are discussing the 1993 mob war in which both his brothers were shot.

Joseph Ciancaglini was the underboss of the crime family headed by John Stanfa at the time. Michael Ciancaglini was part of a rival faction headed by Merlino and Ralph Natale that was attempting to wrest control of the organization from Stanfa.

Previte was aligned with Stanfa. He later switched sides to the Merlino faction. All the while, he was an informant for the FBI.

John Ciancaglini was in prison during the war, serving a sentence for an extortion conviction. He returned to South Philadelphia in 1995.

"I'm considered in the middle," he told Previte, "because I had one brother on your side and one brother on the other."

Prosecutors are using the Previte tapes, which have dominated the last week of the trial, to link the defendants through their own words to mob-controlled gambling and stolen property rings. For the first time, some of the discussions played yesterday also dealt with narcotics.

But the most personal discussions were those of John Ciancaglini.

Among other things, Ciancaglini offered Previte some advice about how to conduct himself in a world where few people can be trusted and where incompetence was the hallmark of most of the so-called leaders.

"Be the man that you are," he said. "Just make yourself a little scarce. That's what I do. I mean, I'm there if anybody needs me, but I try to be as scarce as I can. I mean, you knock 20, 30 percent of our problems out."

Ciancaglini discussed the legitimate businesses he was involved in - a construction firm, a T-shirt company, and an exterminating business - and then returned to talk of his late brother Michael.

"My brother Michael was an ace," he said. "The only thing about Michael, he had a head like a rock. . . . He didn't take no [expletive]. I told him all the time: 'Wait till I come home, Mike. I got 17 months. Wait till I come home.' "

Michael Ciancaglini, 30, was killed Aug. 5, 1993. John Ciancaglini was released from prison in January 1995, 17 months later.

The prosecution used several other tapes yesterday to introduce Robert Luisi, a Boston-based mobster, to the criminal enterprise. Previte testified that he met Luisi through Merlino and codefendant George Borgesi.

Previte eventually set up cocaine deals in Boston with Luisi.

But on tapes played yesterday, both Merlino and Borgesi emphatically told Previte not to get involved with narcotics.

"He didn't want anything to do with it," Previte said of Borgesi's stance on the narcotics trade. Borgesi's position never changed, Previte added.

Merlino, on another tape, is heard telling Previte: "Don't get involved in that. . . . Seriously, Ron, it's bad."

But the prosecution is expected to present other tapes in which, the government alleges, Merlino, desperate for money, approved the cocaine deals. Luisi eventually pleaded guilty to a drug-trafficking charge. Like Previte, he is cooperating with the government and is expected to testify.

George Anastasia's e-mail address is ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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