|BAD OLD DAYS: Phil Leonetti, back in his prime.|
"He's really not a gangster," Leonetti, 61, said in a telephone interview with Bigtrial this week. "His father had him under his spell...I used to tell him, 'Nicky, get away from these guys.' And when he was talking to me, he would agree' But then he would talk to his father and..."
The words trail off, but the point is clear. Leonetti, the one-time underboss of the Scarfo crime family, followed his cousin's trial from afar.
He has been living in another part of the country with a new identity since his release from prison in the early 1990s. Considered one of the best mob witnesses to ever take the stand, Leonetti testified at nearly a dozen trials following his own conviction, along with his uncle and a dozen others, in a 1988 racketeering-murder case.
"I was very good at doing some bad things," Leonetti said of his life in the mob and under his uncle's influence, "but it's not who I was."
Leonetti's decision to cooperate sent shockwaves through the underworld. Among other things, his defection was a major factor in the decision of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, the Gambino crime family underboss, to flip and help the government convict mob boss John Gotti a few years laterr.
Gravano, however, couldn't stop being Sammy the Bull and after his release from prison returned to drug dealing. He ended up back in jail. Leonetti on the other hand has carved out a new and better life for himself and his family, far removed from the underworld where he was once a major player.
Life, he says, has been good.
He wishes his younger cousin had the chance to experience it."