A 'family man' who's content in shadows The reputed mob boss keeps a low profile.

Posted: December 02, 2007

Joseph Ligambi, the reputed mob boss of Philadelphia, is an early riser, often out of the house by 6 a.m.

But unlike his predecessors - who, not coincidentally, are in jail - Ligambi spends most of his nights at home.

"He's a quiet family man," said an associate without a trace of irony in his voice.

"He's more interested in making money than in making headlines," adds Capt. Charles Bloom of the Philadelphia Police Department's Criminal Intelligence Unit.

Low-key, circumspect, and happy to stay in the shadows.

That's the picture of the onetime bartender and bookmaker as he marks an unofficial anniversary as the alleged head of what used to be the most dysfunctional crime family in America.

It's a picture painted both by law enforcement officials and by several associates who, because of Ligambi's desire for privacy, would speak only anonymously.

Ligambi, 68, has quietly brought stability back to the troubled Philadelphia-South Jersey branch of La Cosa Nostra with a business approach that is a reflection of his personality, they say.

Gone are the nights of wiseguys carousing at bars and clubs along Delaware Avenue, an entourage of hip gangsters out to see and be seen.

Gone, too, are the high profile parties, media-oriented charity affairs, and celebrity-like appearances at sporting events and social gatherings.

And gone, at least over the last four years, are the wanton acts of violence that attracted investigators, spawned informants, and tore the organization apart.

"He's interested in two things," said a former wiseguy. "Peace . . . and money."

He appears to have both.

Ligambi lives comfortably in a $275,000 brick corner rowhouse in an upscale South Philadelphia neighborhood. The neatly appointed home includes a carport and deck out back and a small patio in front.

The house is in the name of his wife, Olivia, according to tax records. He has three sons, two of whom are reportedly attending college. The third works in the building trades, according to sources.

Ligambi spends most summers at a rental home in a posh section of Margate at the Jersey Shore. He drives nice cars, most recently a black Cadillac STS.

And since November 2003, there hasn't been a serious act of violence attributed to the organization.

Even his nickname, "Uncle Joe," is benign.

Ligambi, through his attorney, M.W. "Mike" Pinsky, declined to comment last week. The usually loquacious Pinsky said he could not respond to questions about his client, including several inquiries about Ligambi's employment and sources of income.

Police say Ligambi claims to be "retired."

"He's very low-key," said Bloom. "That's the way he runs the organization. . . . They're not as big and strong as they once were, but . . . they're doing business."

Bloom's unit, along with the FBI, has been tracking Ligambi since his return to South Philadelphia in 1997, after serving 10 years for a gangland murder conviction that was later overturned.

Police say Ligambi eschews the celebrity-gangster style of his predecessor, Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, and the volatile, take-no-prisoners approach of his onetime underworld mentor, Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

Merlino, serving a 14-year sentence on federal racketeering charges, was the John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue, whose comings and goings were chronicled in front-page stories and gossip columns.

Young, brash and media-savvy, Merlino garnered headlines by hosting an annual Christmas party for homeless children; sponsoring Thanksgiving turkey giveaways in low-income housing projects; and pitching for a South Philadelphia softball team whose games attracted fans and police surveillance cameras.

Ligambi is Scrooge-like in comparison.

And very circumspect.

Conscious of informants and wiretaps, he seldom discusses business on the phone or with groups of individuals, investigators say.

His closest confidant is Anthony Staino, his former driver and the man authorities believe is now running the organization's South Jersey operation.

Staino lives in a stylish house in an upscale development outside Swedesboro, Gloucester County, but is sometimes a 6 a.m. visitor to Ligambi's home.

The two have been spotted walking around the block together deep in conversation.

"When you see Ligambi, you see Staino," said one investigator.

Ligambi, sources say, became acting boss when Merlino was jailed in 1999. After Merlino was sentenced on Dec. 3, 2001 - six years ago this week - Ligambi's position became permanent.

His management style is compared most often to that of Angelo Bruno, whose relatively peaceful 21-year reign ended abruptly when he was killed in March 1980.

Under Bruno, murder was a negotiating tool of last resort. When Scarfo took over, it became a calling card.

Ligambi was convicted along with Scarfo and several others of the 1985 murder of Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso - a conviction that was later overturned.

The murder was one of more than two dozen that occurred during the Scarfo era. Scarfo is serving a 55-year sentence on federal racketeering charges.

Ligambi, said one associate, learned from the past.

"People respect him, they don't fear him," the associate said.

Nonetheless, Philadelphia homicide detectives continue to work three unsolved mob killings that have occurred during Ligambi's watch. And the FBI is actively gathering evidence in an ongoing mob racketeering investigation.

Testimony at Merlino's trial in 2001 linked Ligambi to a lucrative illegal video-poker machine network that authorities say remains one source of income.

Bookmaking, loansharking and extortion also are money-makers for the crime family, according to Bloom.

Two associates were recently charged in a $22 million sports-betting operation being run out of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.

But to date no one has put all the pieces together in the type of multi-pronged prosecution that led to jail time for Philadelphia's last four mob leaders - Merlino, Ralph Natale (now an informant), John Stanfa and Scarfo.

Bits and pieces of different investigations have become public, however.

Informants Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio and Roger Vella have provided information about the October 1999 slaying of mobster Ron Turchi, according to court records. But their credibility - particularly that of Vella - is suspect.

Another informant has tied members of the Ligambi organization to the killing of Raymond "Long John" Martorano in 2002.

And three associates of the crime family are suspects in the slaying of John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto, shot to death in his South Philadelphia rowhouse in 2003.

But after seeing a federal jury reject a half-dozen murder counts that were part of the Merlino racketeering case, prosecutors apparently have decided that hard evidence, not just informant testimony, is needed to make those types of charges stick.

Thus far, investigators haven't found that evidence.

In the interim, law enforcement sources say, the FBI continues to build a gambling, loansharking and extortion case.

And Ligambi continues to live a quiet, unassuming life.

"He's a problem-solver," said a friend who called Ligambi the antithesis of the hot-tempered, paranoid and irrational Scarfo. "He's not going to have somebody whacked because they didn't come to a Christmas party and kiss his ring."

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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