Phil Leonetti's tell-all book shows he's crazy like a fox

Posted: December 12, 2012

PHILIP "CRAZY PHIL" Leonetti learned to shoot a gun at age 10 and says that he participated in the same number of gangland murders under the twisted tutelage of his crazier uncle, mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

That much Leonetti has admitted in court. But in his new tell-all book - and what mafioso worth his salt doesn't cap an illustrious career with a book deal these days? - the former underboss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob in the 1980s breaks 16 years of silence to reveal how he came "very close" to whacking the last guy anyone would have expected.

Scarfo himself.

"I thought of different ways I could do it and get away with it. The FBI would have never suspected me to do something like that," Leonetti told the Daily News in a phone interview from an undisclosed location on the West Coast.

Leonetti - who at 8 years old was riding shotgun as his uncle disposed of a truck used to move a murder victim's body - had planned several times to shoot Scarfo in the woods near Hammonton when they got off the Atlantic City Expressway to talk business.

He'd considered sneaking into Scarfo's room and pulling the trigger while he slept, using a pillow to muffle the sound. While on their boat, "The Usual Suspects," Leonetti would catch himself daydreaming about throwing the bloodthirsty psycho overboard and letting him drown in the ocean off the Florida coast.

Not business. This one would have been personal. He hated Scarfo.

"If we hadn't gotten locked up when we did, I would have eventually killed him, and I promise you there wouldn't have been too many people sad to see him go," Leonetti writes in Mafia Prince: Inside America's Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra.

The book comes out Tuesday.

Leonetti is the soft-spoken prince, with his bedroom eyes and movie-star looks. But this isn't the memoir of a reformed gangster as much as it is an ugly, close-up portrait of the mob lifestyle and Scarfo, the father figure with an "evil mind" shown standing behind Leonetti's right shoulder on the book's cover.

It includes excerpts of letters that Scarfo wrote to his mother from jail in the mid-1990s, showing the ex-mob boss consumed by rage while living "like a dog in a kennel" and vowing revenge on Leonetti and other mob turncoats.

"It's better to live one day as a lion, than a thousand days like a lamb. And in the end, the lambs get slaughtered," wrote Scarfo, now 83 years old with a prison release date in 2033. He was recently transferred to a federal prison hospital in North Carolina.

'A horrible, horrible life'

Mafia Prince, cowritten by true-crime author Scott Burnstein and mob historian Christopher Graziano, tackles bigger questions about organized-crime families and the way they are depicted in popular culture. It effectively dispels the Hollywood mob myth by exposing modern-day La Cosa Nostra, or "this thing of ours," as an illusion - a way for common crooks who became organized crooks to find honor in a fundamentally dishonorable lifestyle.

They're bullies. Nothing more. The admiration, the respect, is a facade, Leonetti says.

"It's glamorized," Leonetti said. "We made a lot of money, and everybody knew us. But everybody was scared of us. It's not because they liked us."

And if a homicidal egomaniac like Scarfo became a duly appointed mob boss by adhering to the principles of La Cosa Nostra, why do we view murderous mobsters - not just the hit men, but the leaders who give the orders - any different from, say, serial killers?

"They knew of his reputation for killing people and that's what they liked about him," Leonetti said of the "Commission," the American Mafia's governing body. "We had a reputation for violence. That made us a ton of money. We shook down drug dealers, bookmakers, loan sharks, thieves."

Scarfo went from a boy picking blueberries in Hammonton to a paranoid despot who Leonetti says wanted to slit his own wife's throat. Scarfo "loved the killings" and was often "just looking for excuses to kill guys," Leonetti writes.

And he was the boss? A man who is supposed to command respect?

"It was treachery every day waking up," Leonetti said. "You couldn't trust anyone. You always had to worry that if you did something wrong you were going to get killed. It was a horrible, horrible life.

"It's a good book for a young guy just coming up in Philly to read. This is what the mob is about. Do you really want to get involved with guys like this?"

A happy ending?

Leonetti, 59, defected from the mob in 1989 and became a star witness for the government. He now lives with his wife - the one-time girlfriend of a man he killed - near the Pacific Ocean under a fake identity. He avoids Facebook and Twitter, but is involved in a successful business and is well-known in his community.

Of course, they don't know about the guy who wrote: "I was 23 when I killed Louie DeMarco, and 26 when I killed Vincent Falcone. I got made when I was 27, and I became a caporegime at 28."

But the bodies don't haunt Leonetti today.

"I'm not a cold-blooded killer. I always had it in my mind that I was killing bad people, other mob guys, not legitimate people," he said by phone. "I'm not looking at the past. It was a big mistake I made. I just got to move forward now. I'm living my life, and I sleep well at night."

Mafia Prince includes detailed accounts of mob hits - and a dash of dark humor. Like in 1979, when Leonetti shot Falcone, a cement contractor, behind the right ear in a Margate kitchen and Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino was standing too close: "Somehow his eyebrow caught on fire - it got singed from the flame of the gun," Leonetti wrote of Merlino, the late uncle of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

Leonetti recalls his son's 10th birthday, when he was so paranoid that he pummeled a kid in a dinosaur costume when he arrived at the party: "Me and Lawrence beat up the dinosaur who someone got to come to the party and entertain the kids, because we thought the dinosaur was there to kill us. This is how f-----d up our life was."

He rips into Joey Merlino, the ex-boss now living in Boca Raton after serving a 12-year prison term, calling him a "punk" and a "lowlife" who used to rob friends and stiff mob bookies.

"It's comical," Leonetti said. "I would never think he would be a boss. Who would listen to him?"

(Reached by phone, Merlino would only say, "The guy's a liar and a nut. I don't read none of that stuff.")

Leonetti says he always hated the nickname "Crazy Phil," coined by a local radio talk-show host around 1980. In hindsight, though, he might've been the smartest of that generation of mobsters.

Scarfo is not getting out of prison alive, and neither is his successor, John Stanfa, who is serving five life sentences.

Previous Philly mob bosses Angelo Bruno and Philip "Chicken Man" Testa were killed by a shotgun blast and a nail bomb, respectively. And the current boss, Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, 73, and most of his crew are in the middle of a lengthy racketeering trial and have been locked up since at least May 2011.

Leonetti, on the other hand, served only five years of a 45-year prison sentence. Today, he's enjoying life in a seaside town. He likes to go for a run in the morning and wind down on the patio at night with his wife, Maria, and black Lab, Bubba.

"I have a Cutty and water, or a nice glass of bourbon, and I light a fire and I sit there under a blanket with Maria by my side and Bubba at my feet, just taking it all in," Leonetti writes. "The way the lights in the distance illuminate the skyline is breathtaking. It reminds me that the action is always close by, but I am content living in the shadows, watching things from afar."

Maybe Phil isn't so crazy, after all.


On Twitter: @wbender99

Blog: philly.com/DailyDelco

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