Elderly witness tells of life in the mafia

Pete "the Crumb" Caprio , who began cooperating a dozen years ago, has testified in other trials.
Pete "the Crumb" Caprio , who began cooperating a dozen years ago, has testified in other trials.
Posted: November 21, 2012

A rear courtroom door opened, and a slight man shuffled to the witness stand, wearing a black V-neck sweater over a white collared shirt and patterned tie.

At 83, he looked too frail to lift a baseball bat, much less crush it against another man's skull, as he said he once would.

"Wow," a defense lawyer blurted out. "He got old," someone else whispered.

A dozen years have passed since Pete "the Crumb" Caprio became a turncoat against his associates in the Philadelphia mob. At least three times since, federal prosecutors have trotted out Caprio, a once-feared captain, to tell juries about his life, exploits, and crimes, and similar details about others.

The Crumb was back again Monday, called to deliver a history lesson for jurors at the racketeering trial of reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six underlings.

Caprio mentioned the defendants only a few times, saying he met routinely with Ligambi and another defendant, George Borgesi, to discuss mob business in 1999 and 2000.

The only other defendant he knew, Caprio said, was Joseph "Scoops" Licata, like him a member of the local mob's North Jersey crew.

Licata got his nickname, Caprio explained, because he used to deliver the mob news, poking his nose in everyone's business and sometimes sharing it a little too cavalierly.

"He got more guys indicted than the guys who flipped," Caprio said.

Prosecutors say the defendants used threats of violence to run illegal gambling and loan-sharking rackets. As they have done with other informant witnesses, defense lawyers tried to undermine Caprio's credibility, portraying him as an out-of-touch old timer who saved himself from the death penalty by telling prosecutors what they wanted to hear.

In fact, the only admitted killer in the courtroom Monday was the octogenarian on the witness stand, the one who can't hear so well anymore and whose testimony last month was postponed by an unexpected trip to the hospital.

Most of the questions Caprio took from Assistant U.S. Attorney David Fritchey were designed to give jurors perspective that Caprio gained during a lifetime of crime that began when his father, a bookmaker in Newark, N.J., used his infant son's baby carriage to deliver and pick up betting slips.

His mother wanted him to become a priest, Caprio said. But, he added, "my father wanted me to be a gangster, so I became a gangster."

He got his nickname, Caprio said, because of his affinity for crumby treats - and because "I did a lot a lot of crummy things."

What kind of crummy things? Fritchey asked.

"Oh, I hit people with bats, pipes, shot people, stabbed people," the witness said.

In 1982, Caprio was inducted into the mob with a ceremony in Atlantic City presided over by then-boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo. He was driven to the ceremony by Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, against whom Caprio would testify decades later.

After Merlino's arrest in 1999, Caprio said, Ligambi became the crime family's acting boss, and his nephew, Borgesi, its consigliere.

Caprio acknowledged that he liked Ligambi and Borgesi, and said he was never pressured to pay them money.

Still, he had his own plans. In a plan sanctioned by members of the New York families, who had refused to recognize fellow mafia members from Philadelphia, Caprio plotted in 2000 to murder Ligambi, reputed underboss Steven Mazzone, and Borgesi.

Caprio said he intended to take over as the Philadelphia boss. He selected a crew for the hit and "started looking around for a spot to bury the bodies" when he was arrested by the FBI in early 2000, Caprio said.

Agents then confronted him with secret recordings made by another turncoat, Phil "Philly Faye" Casale.

Facing the death penalty or life in prison, Caprio agreed to cooperate.

He admitted his role in three murder plots and told FBI agents about a man nicknamed "Butchie" whom he shot and buried in concrete beneath the basement of his social club in Newark in 1975.

Caprio said he and a friend later tried to move the body to a new construction site in Hackettstown, N.J. But they struggled to break through the concrete and could unearth only half of the remains.

"So half of Butchie is in Hackettstown, and the other half is in Newark - and you did all that, right?" Ligambi's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs pressed.

"Right," Caprio said.

"You didn't have a conscience, did you?" Jacobs asked.

"When you're in this business, you don't have a conscience," he said.

Caprio served about five years in a prison and remains in the witness protection program. Licata's lawyer, Christopher Warren, pointed out that Caprio has had no contact with the defendants for the last decade.

"So after you were arrested in March 2000, you really didn't know what, if anything, anyone was doing, right?" Warren asked.

"Right," Caprio said.


Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649, at jmartin@phillynews.com, or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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