Still home for holidays

Joseph Ligambi (right) with Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino in 1998. Ligambi took over the mob after Merlino's '99 arrest, sources say.
Joseph Ligambi (right) with Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino in 1998. Ligambi took over the mob after Merlino's '99 arrest, sources say.

Rumored indictment of alleged mob boss on hold.

Posted: December 26, 2010

Reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi celebrated the holidays in comfort this year, despite persistent rumors that he and members of his organization were about to be indicted on federal racketeering charges.

Authorities say Ligambi, 71, remains the target of a probe, but they would not comment on what has held up the potential indictment.

"It's not if, but when," said a frustrated law enforcement source familiar with the case, which has been in the works for at least three years.

The delays, according to individuals familiar with the investigation, were due in part to philosophical differences between former leadership in the U.S. Attorney's Office - Patrick Meehan and his interim successor, Laurie Magid - and prosecutors and FBI agents assigned to the case.

The low priority assigned by Meehan to organized-crime cases apparently ended with the swearing in of Zane Memeger as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in September.

Soft-spoken and intensely focused, Memeger was a prosecutor in the last high-profile Philadelphia mob case: the 2001 trial of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and six codefendants. Those who know Memeger say he is a stickler for detail who wants any indictment brought during his watch to be as strong as previous mob cases.

Documents and testimony from other investigations have said the probe is focused on the mob's gambling and loan-sharking operations. A federal grand jury sitting in Philadelphia continues to hear testimony from witnesses.

Informants, wiretaps, and evidence from cases developed by state law enforcement agencies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania - including an investigation into the illegal video-poker machine business in South Philadelphia - also could be used in the racketeering investigation.

In the meantime, authorities say, Ligambi continues to run the family in a way that reflects his stay-in-the-shadows philosophy.

"He's an old-school wiseguy," said Stephen LaPenta, who worked organized-crime cases for the Philadelphia Police Department and later the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice before retiring three years ago.

"He's from the Angelo Bruno mold. . . . Make money, not headlines."

Just a few months ago, law enforcement sources claimed that Ligambi and his top associates would be "eating their [Thanksgiving] turkey at Seventh and Arch," the site of the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia.

Instead, Ligambi had both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner as usual. He and his wife, who have three sons, live in a well-maintained corner house in the Packer Park section of South Philadelphia.

Ligambi has been the focus of law enforcement interest since his release from prison in 1997 after a murder conviction was overturned.

Most sources say he became acting boss in 1999 when Merlino was arrested. Ligambi, those sources say, had the acting dropped from his title between Merlino's conviction in July 2001 and his sentencing that December.

Merlino, 48, was given 14 years in prison and has a release date of September, according to federal prison records. Should he choose to apply for it, however, he could be placed in a halfway house in March. Merlino has told associates that he intends to move to Florida.

He also has been mentioned as a target in the current investigation. If true, that could scuttle both his release and his travel plans.

Authorities had assumed a new indictment would come before Merlino was freed and are concerned he could be on the streets before the hammer comes down in the current case, a source said this month.

Whether Merlino's return will cause friction within the crime family is a question authorities are unable to answer.

Unlike Ligambi, Merlino was a "media-friendly" mobster who never shied from the spotlight. Usually accompanied by an entourage of young associates, he frequented pro sporting events and night clubs, hosted an annual Christmas party for homeless children, and captained a softball team in a summer league in South Philadelphia.

LaPenta described Merlino as part of a new generation of mob "pretty boys . . . more interested in hanging out and getting manicures than making money."

Merlino's live-for-the-moment approach was best described by Ron Previte, a major mob figure in the 1990s who became an FBI informant. Previte wore a body wire for nearly two years while helping build a case against Merlino and Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale.

"Joey's agenda on Monday was to get to Tuesday," Previte said disdainfully of Merlino's lack of planning, foresight, and ability to generate sustained underworld income.

If Merlino and some of his associates are included in a new indictment, Previte could end up back on the witness stand, albeit in a secondary role rather than in the principal position he held in the 2001 case.

Five defendants in that case already have completed their prison sentences and are back in Philadelphia. With Merlino's release, the only defendant still behind bars would be George Borgesi, who is due out in 2012.

Borgesi, Ligambi's nephew, has been tied to a gambling operation in Delaware County that could be folded into the racketeering probe.

He remains a suspect in the 1995 slaying of Ralph Mazzuca in South Philadelphia, a killing that could figure in the racketeering case. Borgesi has always denied he was involved.

Roger Vella, a mob associate who confessed to that shooting, told the FBI that Borgesi, Merlino, and a half-dozen other mob figures had helped him carry out the hit, according to FBI debriefing documents.

Vella's testimony is suspect, however, because of conflicting stories he has told the FBI. Most law enforcement sources believe that the only way the Mazzuca slaying would be added to a racketeering case is if authorities have someone else to back up Vella's account.

Three other unsolved mob hits, the slayings of Ronnie Turchi in 1999, Raymond "Long John" Martorano in 2002, and John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto in 2003, also are under investigation.

But, as with the Mazzuca killing, it is unclear if there is enough evidence to include them in a racketeering case.

That the authorities still are focusing on the Ligambi organization was evident when federal prosecutors subpoenaed pictures taken by a private photographer at the posh wedding reception of reputed mobster Anthony Staino and his wife. The affair, in the atrium of Philadelphia's Curtis Center in September, was attended by about 300 guests, including Ligambi and other alleged ranking members of the local crime family.

Staino, 55, of Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, is the reputed number-two man in the South Philadelphia mob. He has never been charged with a crime, but investigators have described him as Ligambi's closest underworld associate.

His loyalty to Ligambi, those sources say, is unquestioned, unlike some younger mob members whose allegiance is to Merlino.

But LaPenta said concerns about an internal dispute were a secondary issue for Ligambi.

"Ligambi's biggest fear is ending his life in a cell," LaPenta said informants had told him repeatedly.

Ligambi, who served 10 years for the murder of Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso before that conviction was overturned, does not want to go back to prison.

"He's a cautious man - some would say paranoid," LaPenta said. "He trusts almost no one, conducts business as low-key as possible using intermediaries, and insulates himself. . . . He's trying hard not to make the mistakes of the predecessors.

"He doesn't want to go back to jail . . . or wind up dead."


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

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