Philly, Bloody Philly: from Docile Don Bruno to Little Nicky Scarfo

Follow-up to recent story. Detailed account of the Machiavellian maneuvering that occurred prior to Little Nicky Scarfo's reign, plus book excerpt.

The volatility for which the Philadelphia Mafia is historically so well-known didn't begin with Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

Scarfo is considered to be a much more violent, somewhat lower-profile version of a John Gotti-style mob boss
Little Nicky Scarfo, violent former mob boss of Philly Cosa Nostra

But it certainly reached a crescendo during Scarfo's blood-soaked reign as Commission-backed boss of the Philadelphia Mafia, once known as the Bruno crime family. And there was still a street war between factions that erupted after Scarfo went away for the long haul.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is that the crime family known as the most violent of all was once run by a notoriously peaceful boss, who preferred making deals to ordering murders. Called "The Gentle Don," Angelo Bruno (born Angelo Annaloro) ran the Philly mob during what's considered its golden age, from 1959 until his 1980 murder, which happened owing to the duplicity of New York's Genovese street boss "Funzi" Tieri.

Scarfo is considered to be a more violent, somewhat lower-profile version of a John Gotti-style mob boss before there was a John Gotti. Little Nicky was always well-groomed and nattily dressed in custom-fitted suits. His first solution to any problem was "kill em, kill em and leave the bodies on the street."

It took the later rise of Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi to acting boss to finally cool down the flaring tempers of the various factions created before, during and after the Scarfo era.

The Philadelphia Mafia is quite active today. In recent years numerous members returned following long prison sentences. There even were hints of potential violence breaking out in the past year; the organization, however, as with the New York crime families, has maintained a peaceful front.

The situation was quite different in 1980, once Bruno was blasted with a shotgun to the back of his head. The gory death photographs published around the world (though Google won't allow me to post one here) showed the mobster's face seemingly frozen in the pain and terror of brutal murder, mouth agape.

Bruno hated flashy thugs like the diminutive Scarfo who Bruno once said was as worthless as a paperclip. Eventually Bruno got rid of Scarfo, not by whacking him, but by "banishing" the violent-prone gangster to the then-backwater of Atlantic City.

During his time in power, Bruno shunned the spotlights of both the media and law enforcement. In this sense, he is often compared to New York's Don Carlo Gambino, with whom Bruno was personal friends. Bruno focused on traditional organized crime businesses, such as gambling and loansharking.

He was involved in the lucrative vending machine business. And despite his gentle moniker, Bruno was quite willing to threaten violence on those who crossed him, especially store owners who, say, didn't want to install his slot machines.

Angelo Bruno, a Carlo Gambino-style Sicilian boss.

Bruno's critical flaw is the degree of animosity he created in his own crime family over narcotics. He forbid his men to get involved in drugs though Bruno himself, it was widely believed, had decided to earn a lucrative income indirectly off narcotics by taxing non-Mafia drug traffickers who operated on his turf.

In 1970 Bruno was off to prison for refusing to appear before a Grand Jury. He was sentenced to three years but was let out early based on a medical condition (a bleeding ulcer).

He flew to Italy to revive himself, only when he returned the criminal landscape had evolved. Gambino had died, and Bruno appeared to be a weak boss, especially in the eyes of his own consiglieri, Antonio "Tony Bananas" Caponigro.

This led to conspiring -- and then Bruno was blown apart sitting in a parked car in front of his Snyder Avenue house as part of a power grab by Caponigro and mobsters allied with him.

One month following Bruno's high-profile 1980 killing and Caponigro was stabbed, shot and beaten to death. His body was found stuffed in a car trunk, dollar bills inserted into certain body orifices.

The story of what happened was offered years later in testimony in the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J. Genovese defector Vincent "Fish" Cafaro made his debute on the stand.

The Genovese organization, headed by Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, described as the most ruthless mob family in the country, was behind the Bruno murder.

Bruno was losing prestige due to his stance on narcotics. He also didn't seem overly interested in the lucrative potential in Atlantic City when gambling was made legal there and the casinos were in business. Meanwhile some ambitious, younger members of his organization would've killed for the opportunities Atlantic City afforded, quite literally as it turned out.

Bruno, 69, was thinking more about retiring to Florida than exposing himself to the potential risk of increasing the size of his territory. He was satisfied with the money he was making. 

Three mob informants, including Fish, blamed Tony Bananas; Caponigro's brother-in-law, Alfred Salerno, also was considered an ally of the consiglieri. 

Newark-based Caponigro commanded the family's North Jersey branch, which is a little odd. Consiglieri's aren't supposed to have crews, as a Mafia capo said in conversation with me. So in addition to having his own potential army, Caponigro grew increasingly angry with Bruno and eventually began complaining about the boss.

Funzi Tieri hated Caponigro; the Genovese acting boss ordered the sadistic hits.

In 1980, Caponigro took a visit to New York. He supposedly went there to seek approval.

George Anastasia noted the following in an article on (former Philly mobsters Thomas DelGiorno and Nicholas Caramandi testified; Vincent "Fish" Cafaro, made his debut as a prosecution witness):
Caponigro petitioned Frank "Funzi" Tieri, then head of the Genovese family, to be his intermediary. It was a fatal mistake. Tieri, a ruthless and wily mob chief, led Caponigro to believe such permission was granted.

Tieri, who died a year later of natural causes, was apparently still smoldering at Caponigro over a dispute for control of a Jersey City bookmaking operation.

"A year before all this happened, Tony and him (Tieri) had a beef about a numbers business . . . that was $2 million a week," DelGiorno has said. "OK, I know this for a fact. . . . This may be the reason that this guy (Tieri) set Tony up to kill Angie (Bruno)."

Tieri saw the proposed Bruno murder as a vehicle to remove Caponigro and gain control of the bookmaking operation and other North Jersey ventures in which Caponigro had an interest. He also saw it as a chance to further weaken the Bruno family's hold on Atlantic City.

Tieri never got approval from the commission, but he led Caponigro to believe the commission had ruled in his favor. Caponigro planned to assume control of the Philadelphia organization once Bruno was out of the way. About a month after Bruno's killing, DelGiorno has said, Caponigro visited a tavern DelGiorno owned in South Philadelphia. " . . . "He was in my bar and he said, 'Everything is going to be all right. I'm going to be the boss.' "

The next day, Caponigro and his brother-in-law, Alfred Salerno, went to New York the next day to meet with high-ranking mob leaders there. Neither returned.

Cafaro has told investigators that Caponigro was killed because "the New York families had not sanctioned Bruno's murder."

"From what Fat Tony (Anthony Salerno) had told me," Cafaro has said, ''there was a power struggle going on in the Philadelphia family and . . . the New York bosses were concerned" that a mob boss had been publicly assassinated.

Commission members questioned both Caponigro and Bruno's underboss, Philip "Chicken Man" Testa (yes, whom Springsteen mourned), about the murder, Fish said.

Each met separately with Anthony "Fat Salerno at the Palma Boys Social Club in East Harlem, a Genovese family headquarters. Testa said that Caponigro was responsible.

Salerno told Caponigro to visit Vincent "The Chin" Gigante.

Salerno later told Fish that Caponigro "had an appointment with The Chin . . . and they banged him out."

Prison pic of Scarfo

Tieri authorized the killing.

Caponigro was found murdered in the South Bronx on April 18, 1980.

"He had been tortured, beaten, strangled and repeatedly stabbed and shot, and his naked body was in a mortuary bag stuffed in the trunk of a car," a law enforcement official said, according to Anastasia. "Approximately $300 in $20 bills was found stuffed in various parts of his body."

The body of brother-in-law Salerno (no relation to "Fat Tony) was located some four miles away on the same day, also inside a mortuary bag.

"He had been shot three times behind the right ear and once behind the left ear. Rope was tied around his neck. The autopsy report indicated rope burns on the neck, wrist and ankles. Also, most of the bones in his face were broken."

John DiGilio, a North Jersey-based Genovese crime family member, was believed to be a likely suspect behind both murders.

In May 1988 DiGilio himself was murdered. His body was found inside a mortician's bag in the Hackensack River. DiGilio had disappeared three weeks prior. Genovese capo Angelo Prisco, the Bronx-based wiseguy who took over the slain gangster’s crew in the early 1990s, was found guilty of committing the murder, ordered by Vincent "the Chin" Gigante. 

DiGilio was killed two weeks after he was acquitted of racketeering on the Bayonne, N.J. waterfront. He had dramatically represented himself during trial but obviously was no fool -- making this one hell of an achievement. Nevertheless, according to court papers, Gigante ordered his murder after the former boxer/labor racketeer fell out of favor with Louis "Bobby" Manna, who was also based in New Jersey.

The Commission officially crowned Bruno's underboss, Philip Testa, who quickly moved to build up the family, inducting new members (something Bruno had put on hold) and to promote certain others.

In an amazing development, Testa's reign ended abruptly, in about a year, when a nail bomb blew him to pieces in front of his house. Peter Casella, who Testa had made his underboss, and Frank "Chickie" Narducci, a capo, were behind the plot.

The Commission, once again defied, determined what had happened. Scarfo, who'd earlier been promoted to consiglieri, was promoted to boss. Casella fled to Florida, where he later died of natural causes.

Narducci was gunned down in the streets.

Then it was Little Nicky's turn.

Scarfo ran a particularly ruthless regime and ordered over a dozen murders during his tenure. 

Click image to purchase.

The excerpt ran in the New York Daily News:

To Nicky Scarfo, killing the Big Shot, Vincent Falcone, had become personal and Scarfo set out to lull Falcone into a comfort zone and kill him when he least expected it.

Now around this time a position opens up in the concrete union and my uncle puts the word out that he wants Vince Falcone to get it. This was a big deal and something that Vince had always wanted. So my uncle sets the trap and Vince goes for it. My uncle is acting like everything is fine, and now Vince starts coming around Georgia Avenue again. We are playing along like nothing ever happened. Me, Chuckie, Lawrence, the Blade — and Vince is doing the same because he really wants to be the boss of the concrete union. Now at this time Alfredo isn’t around anymore, and Vince is hanging with a kid from South Philadelphia named Joe Salerno, who was a plumber.

Joe Salerno had borrowed $10,000 from me and my uncle and was paying us two and half points (or $250 per week) in interest on top of the $10,000 he owed us. It was a standard juice loan and at the time we were doing a lot of loan sharking. Every week I’d go out and pick up envelopes or guys would come to the office. Everybody paid because they knew our reputation. These types of loans were our bread and butter.

With the holidays approaching and the promise of a new job waiting for him in the New Year, Vincent Falcone thought he had a lot to look forward to.

He thought wrong.

My uncle organized a little party at a house in Margate nine days before Christmas. He was already there waiting for us to arrive. Lawrence had a Thunderbird at the time and he was driving. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat, and Vincent Falcone and Joe Salerno were in the back seat. It took us about ten minutes to drive from the office on Georgia Avenue to the house in Margate, which was right on the beach. Now my uncle is in the living room of the apartment on the second floor, and to get up there you had to climb a set of wooden steps that were adjacent to the outside of the house. The house was a two story duplex. It was cold and windy and starting to get dark and you could hear the wind coming off of the ocean. Looking back on it, it was kind of eerie. I was wearing a black leather jacket and it was zipped all the way up and I had a .32 revolver tucked into my waistband. Lawrence and Joe Salerno were ahead of us and talking as they went up the steps. Joe Salerno had no idea what was going to happen, but Lawrence did. Now Vince is a few feet in front of me and I am behind him as we are going up the steps but he’s kind of hesitating, like he’s uncertain of what's going on.

He said, “Where’s everybody at? I thought Chuckie was coming down.” I put my hand on his back and said, “He’ll be here; let’s go inside and have some drinks,” and kind of ushered him up the steps. His antenna was definitely up but I had positioned myself behind him so that if he decided not to go up the steps or if he tried to get away somehow, I would have blasted him right there.

When the four men reached the top of the steps, they walked into the apartment, where Little Nicky Scarfo was seated on a couch watching a football game waiting for them.

Little Nicky didn’t just want Vincent Falcone to be killed; he wanted to be present when it took place.

This wasn’t business; it was personal.

While most powerful mob leaders would seek to insulate themselves from the murders they order, Scarfo wanted to bask in them and personally savor the experience in any way he could.

The Falcone killing also provided Scarfo with the opportunity to commit a murder alongside his nephew, to literally bind the two men together in what was becoming Scarfo’s never ending bloodlust.

To Little Nicky, the entire universe seemed to revolve around three things: the mob, murder, and family, specifically in that order. The killing of Vincent Falcone, in the manner he foresaw, gave him the chance to combine all three of these at the same time in one giant orgy of death, lineage, and La Cosa Nostra.

When we walked in, Vince kind of froze and I continued to usher him inside and to break the little bit of tension that was in the room, I said, “Come on, Vince, let’s make some drinks.” My uncle, who was still in the living room watching TV, said, “Hey, Vince, bring me a Cutty and some water.”

Now, at the time, Lawrence was in the dining room area talking with Joe Salerno, kind of distracting him. That was all happening within seconds of us walking into the apartment. So we grabbed the bottle of scotch for my uncle and put it on the kitchen table, and then I said, “Vince, get some ice.” When Vince started to walk away towards the refrigerator to get the ice, I reached into my jacket and took the gun from my waistband and I walked right behind him and blasted him right behind his right ear. As soon as I shoot him, his body propelled forward and then he crashed into the refrigerator and crumbled to the floor.

All the sudden, Joe Salerno starts going nuts. He says to my uncle, “Nick, I didn’t do nothing,” and then to me, “Philip, I didn’t do nothing.” He’s like hyperventilating. My uncle watched the whole thing, he was watching as I shot him. Now he gets up from the couch and comes in and tries to calm Joe Salerno down. He says, “I know you didn’t do nothing, Joe. Relax, everything is gonna be okay.”

Now Lawrence was standing two feet away from me when I hit him and somehow his eyebrow caught on fire — it got singed from the flame of the gun. So my uncle is trying to calm down Joe Salerno, Vince is on the ground bleeding and Lawrence starts complaining about his eyebrow being on fire. So I say, “J---- C----- Lawrence, you knew I was gonna shoot him. Why the f--- were you standing so close to him?”

With all of this going on my uncle manages to calm down Joe Salerno.

My uncle comes over to where Vince is lying and kneels down next to him and says, “He’s still breathing, give him another one right here,” and he moves Vince’s jacket a bit and points to his heart. So Vince is lying there and there is a pool of blood forming underneath of him and he is like gurgling, trying to breath and I stood over him and raised the gun and shot him one more time in the chest. The impact of the second shot caused his body to jerk and then that was it, he was dead.

At this point my uncle was ecstatic. He jumped to his feet and said, “The big shot is dead, look at him,” and he kind of mocked him by gesturing to the body and called him a “piece of s--- c---sucker.” He was actually cursing at the corpse. Now I have the gun in my hand and I turn to Joe Salerno, who is standing right there and I look him dead in the eye and I said, “He was a no good mother------. I wish I could bring him to life so I could him kill again.” I was prepared to kill Joe Salerno, too. I didn’t give a f---; I woulda shot him right there on the spot without any hesitation, but he stopped carrying on.

Scarfo then resumed his role as coach and articulated precisely what would happen next; he didn’t miss a beat.

He said to Lawrence, “You drive Philip back to the office and bring back Vince’s car. Me and Joe will stay here and clean up.” Now Lawrence drives me back to Georgia Avenue and I take all of my clothes off, put them in a bag, and I get right into the shower. I’m scrubbing under my nails, the whole bit. Now I’m dressed and I go downstairs to the office and Chuckie and the Blade were there. We were all waiting for my uncle to get back.

Joe Salerno would later testify that while he and Scarfo cleaned the apartment, Scarfo told him, “You’re one of us now,” and patted him on the back before doling out more instructions.

“Tie him up like a cowboy with his hands and feet tied up behind him.”

WHEN Lawrence Merlino arrived back at the home about 30 minutes later, he discovered that Falcone’s body had been wrapped up in a blanket and tied up exactly as Scarfo had instructed.

He also discovered something else.

Lawrence told me when he got there that my uncle was fall-down drunk and he couldn’t even stand up.

According to Salerno, while he followed Scarfo’s instructions on tying up the body and cleaning the kitchen, Little Nicky sat at the kitchen table and drank the entire bottle of scotch that had been used as a ruse to trap Falcone, and was belittling the dead man and waxing philosophical about what the future held, not only for the Scarfo gang, but for the entire Philadelphia mob.


Popular Stories

Sammy Bull, Cited by Former FBI Director James Comey, Replied

Surveillance Images Reveal Suspect in Mob-Linked Restaurant Shooting

Hoodwinked: Restaurateur on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares Was a Mobster

Chin's Son Back Home in Upper East Side Townhouse on $10M Bond

Alleged Longtime Salamme Jr. Confidant Seeks Hail Mary Pass

New York Has Five Families, But New Jersey Had More

For Alleged Colombo Capo, Crime Really Does Pay