Defense lawyer calls mob tapes "just a bunch of geriatric gangsters" talking

Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six co-defendants are on trial.
Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six co-defendants are on trial. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: October 23, 2012

It was a trip down underworld memory lane, a nostalgic look back by a couple of 70-something wiseguys talking about custom-made shirts and cops on the take and laughing about the time Tony Bananas wanted to whack Ol' Blue Eyes.

Yeah, that Ol' Blue Eyes. Frank Sinatra, the chairman of the board, the quintessential American saloon singer, a guy who had his own mob ties and whose career, many believe, was launched when a North Jersey wiseguy named Willie Moretti made bandleader Tommy Dorsey an offer he couldn't refuse.

But that's a story for another day.

Last week, jurors in the racketeering trial of Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six codefendants got the inside scoop on a 1968 dust-up that is part of underworld folklore.

The story was outlined for the jury by defense attorney Christopher Warren in his opening statement at the start of the trial on Thursday.

Warren represents Joseph "Scoops" Licata, a 71-year-old North Jersey mob capo whose voice will be heard on several tapes made by the late Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, a mobster-turned-informant who recorded dozens of conversations for the FBI.

Prosecutors in the Ligambi trial have already filed documents indicating those tapes will be part of the evidence played for the jury.

Warren has challenged the relevance of the tapes, arguing that nothing his client or the other mobsters said had anything to do with the charges in the pending case.

"It was just a bunch of geriatric gangsters" talking about old times, he said. And to underscore the point, he told the jury about a third Stefanelli tape, not yet made public, that may also be introduced as evidence.

Licata and Stefanelli, 69, were breaking bread at the American Bistro in Belleville, N.J., in April 2011 with Louis Fazzini, 45, and Nicholas Mitarotunda, 74, according to a transcript of the meeting.

The talk eventually got around to the hard feelings Antonio "Tony Bananas" Caponigro had for Sinatra. Caponigro was the Newark-based consigliere of the Philadelphia crime family.

He has long been suspected of orchestrating the 1980 murder of mob boss Angelo Bruno, a killing that sent the Philadelphia crime family spinning out of control. Caponigro was found murdered a few months after the Bruno hit.

But in 1968, the time of the story Licata told, things were still fine between Bruno and Caponigro.

Licata said he and some other mobsters had planned a trip to Miami, intending to stay at the Fountainbleau Hotel. Caponigro decided to go along.

"He said, 'I'm going with youse,' " Licata said. "Cause he had to meet Angelo Bruno . . . at that time they were trying to do something in the Bahamas."

Sinatra was performing at the Fountainbleau, Licata said, but Caponigro nixed plans to take in the show. Instead, he, Licata and several other wiseguys went to see Don Rickles, who was performing at the Eden Roc.

Why?

"Tony hated Sinatra," Licata said.

"He left the next day and we were right in that Fountainbleau. How could you bypass Sinatra? . . . That was Tony . . . He just hated him, 'cause, you know why, a couple of years before at one of the shows . . . they were talking."

Warren, in his opening statement, clarified the issue for the jury.

"Sinatra was in the middle of a performance and Caponigro was talking. Sinatra stopped singing and said, 'People didn't come here to hear you talk, they came here to hear me sing.' "

"Tony wanted to . . . kill him," Licata said on the tape. "You know what I mean? He made a remark like, 'I'm singing.' "

Sinatra could be nasty, Licata added. He was a perfectionist, and when he was performing, "Nobody could move around."

Mitarotunda agreed.

"I was there one time; he stopped. He said, 'These people paid a lot of money to hear me sing. Please sit down.' "

Mitarotunda, a North Jersey-based capo in the Gambino family, said Ol' Blue Eyes was "not the best entertainer I ever saw . . . To me, the best I ever saw? Elvis Presley."

From there the wiseguys discussed their favorite singers. Bobby Darin and Tom Jones were both praised.

Fazzini, the youngest mobster at the table, then weighed in with a comment that some in underworld and entertainment circles might consider sacrilegious.

"Elvis sings "My Way" better than Sinatra," he said.

Indicted along with Ligambi, Licata, and several others, Fazzini recently pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge and awaits sentencing.

The trial, before U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno, resumes Thursday after a three-day hiatus for a judicial conference.

It is expected to last eight to 12 weeks. Still unclear is when the government will play the Stefanelli tapes. Though prosecutors hope to use them to offer a snapshot of the violent history of the Philadelphia mob, Warren and other defense attorneys plan to put a different spin on the conversations.

"None of this has anything to do with the case," Warren said. "It's old guys talking about the good old days."

The Stefanelli tape he referred to in his opening statement to the jury included a discussion about custom-made shirts.

"Nobody dresses no more," Mitarotunda complained.

There was also consensus that you sleep better in prison because you don't have to take phone calls from people pestering you with their problems.

"I slept like a baby," said Licata, who has done two four-year terms for racketeering and could get substantially more if convicted in the pending case. "There ain't no phones ringing or nothing."

Licata, Stefanelli and Mitarotunda also complained about the way the criminal justice system now worked. In the old days, they said, a "pinch" for racketeering might bring a six-year sentence.

"Nobody got you a dime," said Stefanelli, using slang for a 10-year term. "Every cop was on the take. Nobody to pinch you. Do anything you want."

"Not only that, you know how much money was around then?" Mitarotunda asked."

"Forget about it," Licata said.


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

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