Potential witness in Ligambi trial an apparent suicide

Posted: March 08, 2012

A North Jersey organized crime figure who was a potential government witness in the pending racketeering trial of Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi won't be able to make it to the witness stand.

Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli committed suicide two weeks ago after allegedly killing an Essex County video poker machine operator in a brazen midafternoon gangland-style hit, according to law enforcement sources.

It is unclear what impact Stefanelli's death might have on the Ligambi case, scheduled for trial in September. The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia declined to comment.

Stefanelli's body was found in a hotel room in Rutherford, Bergen County, on Feb. 26. The 69-year-old member of the Gambino crime family died of what appeared to be a deliberate drug overdose, sources said.

The bizarre story of his role as an undercover operative for the FBI and his involvement in the murder-suicide were detailed Thursday in Gang Land News, a weekly online column by the New York organized-crime reporter Jerry Capeci.

Law enforcement sources in the Philadelphia area have confirmed that Stefanelli was providing information to the FBI about Ligambi's operations.

One of the key charges against the 72-year-old mob leader centers on his alleged control of video poker machine businesses in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area.

The illegal machines are said to provide a steady cash flow for mob figures, who put them in businesses such as bars and restaurants and split profits with the business owners.

Stefanelli is suspected of murdering Joseph Rossi, owner of Phoenix Amusements, a video poker machine business in Bloomfield.

Rossi was found shot in the head in his company office around 12:30 p.m. Feb. 24.

The 58-year-old businessman was awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to tax-evasion and illegal-gambling charges filed in December 2009 by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark.

The gambling charge alleged that Rossi had put illegal video poker and slot machines in a social club and a restaurant in Essex County and then shared the profits with the owners.

Rossi's lawyer, Michael Pedicini, said in a telephone interview days after his client's killing there was no indication of any organized crime connection to his business.

Sources in law enforcement and underworld circles, however, said anyone dealing in the illegal video poker business would attract the mob's attention.

An official with the Essex County Prosecutor's Office said Thursday the Rossi murder investigation was ongoing but declined to comment on reports linking Stefanelli to the shooting.

Stefanelli was found dead in a room at the Renaissance Meadowlands Hotel two days after Rossi was killed.

His connection to Rossi was unclear.

The Gang Land News report indicated that Stefanelli became a cooperating witness two years ago after being snared in a drug investigation. Stefanelli had two previous drug convictions and had served about eight years in prison.

The report indicated he wore a body wire and worked for the FBI in a series of cases that targeted mob figures in Providence, R.I., New York City, North Jersey, and Philadelphia.

Whether he recorded conversations or merely supplied information on the Ligambi operation could not be determined. Also uncertain was whether prosecutors could still use any tapes Stefanelli made.

One law enforcement source familiar with the investigations said tapes could still be used if Stefanelli's recordings were tightly controlled; if law enforcement agents, for example, wired him up, took surveillance of any meetings in which he made recordings, and then removed the tapes and documented the time, place, and location.

Stefanelli had been closely tied to a North Jersey faction of the Lucchese crime family in the 1980s and 1990s before being initiated into the Gambino organization, according to the Gang Land News report.

That faction of the Lucchese organization had close ties to the Philadelphia-South Jersey crime family now headed by Ligambi.


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

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