Ligambi: Ex-bartender kept low profile

Posted: May 23, 2011

Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi is a former bartender and suspected hit man who allegedly took control of the Philadelphia mob a decade ago.

No one in law enforcement - and few in the underworld - expected him to last this long.

He was, they pointed out, part of the Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo crime family, having been formally initiated - "made" - after the slaying of Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso back in July 1985.

But he was never considered part of Scarfo's inner circle and never part of the mob hierarchy. In fact, before he was arrested in the D'Alfonso case, few outside of the South Philadelphia underworld had ever heard of him.

His reign as reputed mob boss, however, is the longest since that of Angelo Bruno, the avuncular Mafia don who ran the family from 1959 until his murder in 1980.

Ligambi, who will be 72 in August, took a page out of Bruno's management book, say both law enforcement and mob sources.

He eschewed the violence that was the hallmark of the Scarfo era. And he shunned the limelight that mob boss Joey Merlino seemed to relish.

"He just wants peace . . . and money," said a former mobster shortly after Ligambi established himself as the head of the organization.

Ligambi took over after Merlino was arrested in June 1999, according to federal authorities. First as acting boss and then as recognized head of the organization in 2001, he took a low-key, stay-in-the-shadows approach. And he insisted that those around him do the same.

The idea was to make money, not headlines.

And it appears he did just that.

While the latest indictment is expected to shed some light on Ligambi's sources of income - loan-sharking, sports betting and related enterprises have always been the economic wheel around which the mob turns - to date there has been very little explanation for how the tight-lipped mob leader has managed live so well.

His home is a corner townhouse at 17th and Forrester Streets in the Packer Park section of South Philadelphia that he shares with his wife, Oliva. The property, valued at about $275,000, is in his wife's name. There is a black awning with a white letter "L" over the front door; a comfortable deck with barbecue grill takes up most of the small backyard.

Ligambi's black Cadillac STS is usually parked out front.

There are three grown sons. At least one has a college degree and is believed to be pursuing an acting career in New York. Another works in the building trades.

Since his release from jail in 1997, Ligambi has spent most summers at the Jersey Shore, either renting a property in the Longport-Margate area or staying at the home of a relative.

He is said to have real estate investments, but those are in the name of straw buyers or fronts, authorities believe.

Some investigators also suspect that he may have a hidden interest in a trash hauling business and a towing company.

Ligambi spent nearly 10 years in jail after his conviction in the Frankie Flowers hit, but when that conviction was overturned, he, Scarfo and several other codefendants won the right to a new trial.

That trial, in Common Pleas Court, ended with not guilty verdicts.

Ligambi, however, was the only defendant who came home. The others were already serving lengthy prison sentences on racketeering charges.

Now, more than a decade later, several of those mob members have been released. If the latest charges result in a conviction and jail sentence for Ligambi, they may be part of a group that moves to fill the power vacuum.

Also waiting in the wings are Merlino, currently in a halfway house in Florida, and several of this top associates, including John Ciancaglini and Steven Mazzone.

Both Ciancaglini and Mazzone served time on racketeering charges from the same 2001 case that jailed Merlino.

According to at least one underworld source, Ligambi told associates that if he were imprisoned, Ciancaglini should take over as head of the crime family.

From Florida, however, Merlino has tapped Mazzone for the top spot.

Ligambi rebuilt an organization around a low-key approach. Murder was a negotiating tool of last resort and seldom employed. Violence was to be avoided whenever possible. Making money and standing in the shadows were the goals.

If Ligambi is removed from the scene, the question will be whether those who come after him embrace that philosophy or whether a grab for power brings them all out of the shadows.

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