Mobsters on wiretap call Ligambi 'acting boss'

Posted: November 22, 2013

PHILADELPHIA It was the evidence that Joseph Ligambi's lawyers didn't want a jury to hear.

But in a one-two punch Wednesday, federal prosecutors laid out two of the most contentious elements of their racketeering case against the reputed head of the Philadelphia mob.

First, Joaquin Garcia, a former undercover FBI agent who once infiltrated New York's Gambino crime family, regaled jurors with tales of Mafia rituals, violence, and the gangsters with whom he once rubbed elbows.

Then came a recording of a four-hour 2010 lunch meeting between Ligambi and other mobsters from Philadelphia and New York in which they checked up on imprisoned friends, described a mob initiation ceremony in detail, and hashed out disputes over territory.

From the start, Ligambi was introduced to the group as "our acting boss."

Twice, Ligambi's lawyer Edwin Jacobs Jr. has tried unsuccessfully to have that recording and Garcia's testimony thrown out - once before his client's first trial on racketeering conspiracy charges last year, and again after a deadlocked jury prompted the retrial that began this month.

In the former agent's case, Jacobs has argued that Garcia's experience with the Gambino clan - one of New York's five Mafia families - offers little insight into the workings of the Philadelphia mob. What's worse, he said, the agent's tales of strip-club shakedowns and a seventy-something Gambino capo still capable of delivering a beat down would only serve to prejudice jurors.

But in terms of pure entertainment, Garcia didn't disappoint.

Jurors listened raptly Wednesday as the Cuban immigrant detailed his efforts to pass himself off as a low-level Italian crook named Jack Falcone. He eventually became the driver and confidant of Gambino captain Gregory DePalma, who gave the then-agent a jewel-laden pinkie ring to commemorate his welcome to the crew.

"Unfortunately, it was quite gaudy and ugly," the former agent said. "But it would have been disrespectful to him not to wear it."

Garcia said he observed talk of all manner of crimes, ranging from extortion to insurance fraud, during his nearly three years with DePalma. At one point, the captain directed Garcia and other members of his crew to join a union so they could sign up for health insurance.

"It was better than the FBI's, actually," he quipped.

Joking aside, Garcia said he never forgot the danger of his assignment.

"Without their ability to terrorize, you would not have La Cosa Nostra," he said. "This is not a Rotary club, a Knights of Columbus. This is La Cosa Nostra."

Prosecutors maintain that the recording of the May 2010 lunch meeting echoes the violent tendencies Garcia described.

Ligambi and other Philadelphia mob associates met that afternoon with several high-ranking members of the Gambino family over pasta and wine at La Griglia, a posh eatery in Kenilworth, N.J.

But as they conducted what authorities have described as a Mafia "board of directors" meeting, neither group realized it was being recorded by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, a North Jersey mobster and FBI cooperator.

Ligambi can be heard throughout the audio played Wednesday. He updated the others on the status of incarcerated associates, including former Philadelphia boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, and cracked jokes about others held in lower regard.

Describing the slim pickings offered by one of the poorer earners in his New Jersey faction, Ligambi cracked: "He's selling cakes out of the trunk of his car."

Later, recalling another associate's initiation ceremony - a ritual that entailed a knife prick to the finger to symbolize a new member's blood commitment - Ligambi earned some of his biggest laughs.

"The . . . blood splashed all over my shirt. . . . It splashed all over me," he said. "I still got the shirt at home. I saved it."

Tales like those led Jacobs, during the first trial, to describe the meeting as nothing more than a gathering of nostalgic geriatrics swapping tales of the mob's long-gone glory days.

Earlier, he argued the recording shouldn't be played at all. Stefanelli, the informant, committed suicide last year and cannot be called for cross-examination.

Still, Garcia led jurors through the tape Wednesday, identifying the speakers and explicating their often garbled mutterings, including a lament from North Jersey mobster Joseph "Scoops" Licata about the low-quality of the mob's recent recruits.

Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini agreed: "It's not about money. It's about . . . brotherhood."

But even as they spoke, that brotherhood was being betrayed.

Garcia is expected to resume his testimony Thursday.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

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