Organized-crime trial set to start this week

File photo: Reputed Philly mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi (center) as seen in 2001. He faces a federal racketeering trial.
File photo: Reputed Philly mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi (center) as seen in 2001. He faces a federal racketeering trial. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 15, 2012

They call him "Uncle Joe," which is both a reference to his age - 73 - and his laid-back style.

Mob boss Joe Ligambi is old school, a make-money-not-headlines crime boss who has had a surprisingly long and relatively peaceful run as Philadelphia's Mafia don.

But that run may be over.

In jail for the last 17 months, Ligambi and six codefendants begin a legal fight for their lives this week when opening arguments are expected in the city's latest organized-crime trial.

Ligambi and the others are facing racketeering conspiracy charges built around allegations of illegal gambling, loan-sharking, and extortion that extend back to 1999. As defense attorneys have pointed out repeatedly since the indictment was handed up more than a year ago, the case is devoid of the acts of violence that marked the city's last three federal mob trials.

Murder and mayhem were the calling cards of mob bosses Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, John "Homicide John" Stanfa, and Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, prosecutors argued.

Scarfo, 83, was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison. He will likely die behind bars. His earliest parole date is 2033.

Stanfa, 72, is serving five life terms, one for each murder conviction in his 1995 racketeering case.

Merlino, 50, beat several murder raps in a 2001 racketeering trial, leading his defense lawyer to claim victory. But the charismatic South Philadelphia wiseguy was convicted of assorted gambling, loan-sharking, and extortion charges, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Released last year, he's living in Florida.

Ligambi took over when Merlino was jailed in 1999 and was given the title "acting boss." Some believe he still holds that provisional position and that Merlino, from the Sunshine State, is still calling the shots.

But the title is almost irrelevant. When the trial begins this week, Ligambi and his codefendants will be the face of the Philadelphia mob.

And in many cases, there will be a voice to go along with the face.

The Philadelphia crime family is one of the most recorded in American underworld history. Since 1989 when mobster-turned-informant George Fresolone began secretly taping conversations for the New Jersey State Police, the local mob has literally been wired for sound.

Classic comments like "Goodfellas don't sue goodfellas. Goodfellas kill goodfellas" and "We'll cut out his tongue. Put it in an envelope and send it to his wife" have enthralled juries and buried defendants.

"The problem," says one defense attorney, "is you can't cross-examine a tape."

In the pending trial, lawyers have already argued at length about the "Stefanelli tapes," recordings in 2010 of two mob meetings at North Jersey restaurants.

In fact, the defense intends to challenge some of the transcripts, arguing that the prosecution, in a rush to judgment, turned one casual comment - "At least we finally got to get together" - into "At least we finally got to get him" and claimed it was a reference to a murder.

But what has been lost in the legal sound and fury over the tapes made by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, a Gambino crime-family soldier who committed suicide in March, is the fact that the pending case includes dozens of other conversations that could prove more damaging.

Frank "Frankie the Fixer" DiGiacomo, a low-life South Philadelphia hustler and mob associate, recorded conversations with Ligambi for the FBI, conversations in which, authorities allege, loan-sharking debts were discussed.

And an FBI agent, working undercover, picked up Anthony Staino, 55, discussing the ins and outs of the criminal organization, including one in which he allegedly boasted about being the "CFO" of the criminal family and a member of its "board of directors."

There are also wiretap conversations and testimony from dozens of witnesses - some former associates and others alleged victims of shakedowns and extortions.

Ligambi and his crew didn't have to resort to violence, the prosecution has argued, because they lived off the reputations of Scarfo, Stanfa, and other murderous mobsters who came before them.

Two former mob members, Eugene "Gino" Milano, a Scarfo hit man, and Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio, a Newark-based mob capo during the Merlino years, are expected to provide details about the violent ways of the Philadelphia crime family.

Their testimony will help set the stage for some of the Stefanelli conversations in which Ligambi, North Jersey mob capo Joseph "Scoops" Licata, 71, and others talk about murders that occurred in the past and joke about a mob-making - initiation - ceremony.

Ligambi, Staino, Licata, along with reputed mob underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, 62, mob soldiers George Borgesi, 49, and Damion Canalicchio, 42, and mob associate Gary Battaglini, 51, will be at the defense table when opening arguments begin.

The trial is expected to last eight to 12 weeks with the potential of running right up to, or through, the Christmas holidays.

Among other things, the prosecution hopes to offer the jurors, who are being selected anonymously, a history lesson on the Philadelphia branch of La Cosa Nostra.

Some of it will come from the testimony of witnesses and some from the words of the defendants themselves. In the past, that's been a prosecution formula for success.

Reality TV has nothing on the Philadelphia mob.

Its unrehearsed and unscripted audio history, picked up on phone taps, room bugs, and body wires, has fascinated juries for the last two decades. And at trials in which those tapes have been played, juries have returned guilty verdicts that have sent three mob bosses and more than 30 codefendants to prison.


Contact George Anastasia

at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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