Underboss sentenced as war on mob continues Merlino associate Steven Mazzone was given a nine-year term. The probes go on, authorities say.

Posted: December 06, 2001

Mob underboss Steven Mazzone was sentenced yesterday to nine years in prison as the dismantling of the Merlino organized-crime family continued before U.S. District Judge Herbert Hutton.

The sentence, the third imposed this week - Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino got 14 years on Monday, and Frank Gambino got 71 months on Tuesday - is part of the final round in a five-year investigation in which Merlino and his top associates were targeted.

But according to law-enforcement officials at the federal and state level, it is hardly the end of the government's systematic attack on the mob.

Merlino, Mazzone and crime-family consigliere George Borgesi, who is scheduled to be sentenced today, all have additional "problems," state and federal law-enforcement sources say.

And reputed acting mob boss Joseph Ligambi, who took the reins of the beleaguered Philadelphia mob after Merlino was imprisoned in 1999, is also the focus of intense scrutiny.

"Right now, they're between a rock and a hard place," said Capt. James Murphy, commander of the Philadelphia Police Department's Organized Crime Division. "Joey's out. His sentence this week wasn't the end of his problems.

"We think [Ligambi] is letting the dust settle. . . . But when you think about it, why would anyone want the number-one slot? You become the main target. Why would anyone want that job?"

Ligambi, 62, is a former soldier in the crime family of jailed mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo. He spent more than 10 years in prison on a murder charge that was eventually overturned. He was acquitted in a retrial.

Released from prison in 1997, he returned to a decidedly different South Philadelphia underworld, one in which his young nephew - Borgesi - and a dozen other Merlino associates had risen to the top.

"I can't picture him as the boss," said a former Scarfo crime-family member who became a government informant. "He's not a thinker. . . . He was a guy who always did what he was told."

A bartender with a penchant for handicapping football games, Ligambi has kept his primary focus on gambling, authorities say. Among other things, a state-federal investigation is probing his alleged connections to illegal video-poker machines, sports bookmaking, and a numbers operation.

Details of that investigation, which is led by the Pennsylvania State Police, were disclosed during the racketeering trial last summer that ended with the convictions of Merlino, Mazzone, Borgesi, Gambino and three others.

Another government witness at that trial, mobster-turned-informant Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio, also implicated Ligambi in the unsolved 1999 murder of mobster Ronald Turchi.

Caprio testified that Ligambi told him Turchi was killed because he was closely aligned with former mob boss Ralph Natale. At that point, Natale had become a government witness.

Ligambi, Caprio said, told him "we dimed Ronnie out to teach Ralph a lesson."

No one has been charged with the Turchi hit.

Caprio also testified that Ligambi's status as acting boss was "not recognized" by the New York crime families and that, in fact, members of the powerful Gambino and Genovese organizations had plotted with Caprio to kill Ligambi in 1999. Caprio's arrest and subsequent decision to cooperate ended that plot.

Whether Ligambi's status with those crime families has improved remains an unanswered question. Law-enforcement sources in New Jersey say that Ligambi was videotaped at an Atlantic City casino last summer meeting with North Jersey mob figures.

Wiretaps and other electronic surveillance conducted by the FBI and state police are also part of the investigation into Ligambi.

Ligambi's lawyer, M.W. "Mike" Pinsky, says it is all for naught.

"I can't tell you whether he's a target or not [of an FBI investigation]," Pinsky said this week. "But I can tell you that we deny that he is the boss of the Philadelphia mob. . . . That's frivolous and unsubstantiated."

Other law-enforcement sources have described Ligambi as cautious, reluctant to meet with groups of people, and always on the lookout for surveillance.

Though authorities say it is too soon to outline a structured organization - underboss, consigliere, capos, etc. - they have identified several top Ligambi associates. They include his driver, Anthony Staino, a former official with the Atlantic City bartenders union and one of the targets of the gambling inquiry, according to a Philadelphia police report.

Two others who were identified as suspects in mob hits, Gaeton Lucibello and Michael Lancelotti, are also part of Ligambi's circle, authorities say. Another key figure, they say, is Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, who is under indictment in New Jersey in a bookmaking-racketeering case.

The state-federal inquiry also includes information provided by mob informant Roger Vella. Vella, onetime driver for Merlino, has pleaded guilty to the 1995 murder of Ralph Mazzuca and has reportedly implicated Borgesi in that shooting.

Borgesi has denied any involvement.

Vella has also provided information about the Turchi murder, according to investigative sources.

Mazzone, who was sentenced yesterday, is also a suspect in the 1996 disappearance and suspected murder of former mobster Michael "Dutchie" Avicoli, according to an FBI investigative memo.

Merlino is awaiting trial in Newark in connection with the 1996 murder of Joseph Sodano, even though a jury in his racketeering case in Philadelphia this summer found that charge unproved.

In fact, the racketeering case that has led to the series of sentencings now before Hutton included a series of murder and attempted-murder charges. None was proved.

But the sentences now being imposed, based on racketeering convictions for such offenses as gambling, loan sharking, and receiving stolen property, demonstrate that the government can dismantle an organization even without a murder conviction.

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

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