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


Follow-up to recent story on history of Philadelphia Mafia...

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

It certainly reached a crescendo of sorts during Scarfo's blood-soaked reign--and the violence continued when a street war erupted between factions after Scarfo went away.

The greatest irony here is that the crime family known for its violence was once run by a notoriously peaceful boss, who preferred making deals to ordering murders. "The Gentle Don," Angelo Bruno (born Angelo Annaloro) ran the Philly mob during what's called its "golden age," from 1959 until his 1980 murder, which may have resulted from the ruthless duplicity of the Genovese crime family's then-street boss "Funzi" Tieri, who allegedly was quite sore over losing a North-Jersey-based $2 million-a-week numbers racket to the Philadelphia consiglieri.

It took the eventual rise of Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi to acting boss to cool down the flaring tempers of some very lethal wiseguys.

The sharp ascent in gangland murders wasn't unique to Philadelphia, of course. Former Gambino capo Michael DiLeonardo addressed this: "Something was in the air. Not only in New York, but in Philadelphia, Chicago -- every family in the country was killing everyone. Everyone was killing everyone.

"But you take the murders out, the massive drug dealing -- what are the Feds gonna pinch you for? Mopery? Today smart men are filling bank accounts. Years ago smart men did stupid things and filled up cemeteries."

While 1980-83 were deadly years for Cosa Nostra in Philly and New York, the 1985 Paul  Castellano execution in midtown Manhattan, at least chronologically, seems like a more likely  precedent for the wholesale murders by the New York Mafia families, which continued into the 1990s --  notably with the Colombo war.

To listen to the Mikie Scars Interview, click:
Michael DiLeonardo on Intelligent Talk

The Philadelphia Mafia is quite active today as numerous members returned to the street in recent years 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, after Bruno was blasted with a shotgun. The gory death photographs published 'round the world showed the mobster's face seemingly frozen at the moment of a violent, gruesome death.

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" him to the then-backwater of Atlantic City.

Bruno is often compared to 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 vending machine business. Despite his gentle moniker, Bruno was quite willing to threaten violence on those who crossed him, especially store owners who maybe didn't want to install his slot machines.

Bruno began losing prestige due to his stance on narcotics. (Bruno's critical flaw probably was narcotics. While he had forbid his men to get involved in drugs, Bruno himself, it was widely believed, earned a lucrative income by taxing non-Mafia traffickers who operated on his turf.) Also, he was not overly interested in the lucrative potential in Atlantic City when gambling was legalized and the casinos opened.

Bruno, 69, was thinking more about retiring to Florida than heightening his exposure to law enforcement by increasing the size of his territory. He was earning enough. 

Angelo Bruno, a Carlo Gambino-style Sicilian boss.

In 1970 Bruno was sent to prison on a contempt beef, having refused to appear before a Grand Jury. He was sentenced to three years but was released early because of a bleeding ulcer. He flew to Italy to revive himself. When he returned, it was to a changed criminal landscape. Gambino had died and Bruno appeared to be isolated and weak-- at least in the eyes of his consiglieri, Antonio "Tony Bananas" Caponigro.

It was over for the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra.

The rest was just detail.

Caponigro's fury with Bruno  led to his conspiring against Bruno. Then Bruno was hit while sitting in a parked car next to driver  John Stanfa, who  most certainly was among the plotters. It was there in front of his Snyder Avenue house while puffing on a cigarette that Bruno's life reached its swift conclusion. Caponigro and his allies made their power play. And that was all it took. The Philadelphia Mafia's golden years ended with Bruno's last breath, its obituary scrawled in his blood.

One month following the dramatic Bruno murder -- and the killers were killed. It was ugly. "Caponigro 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. "Approximately $300 in $20 bills was found stuffed in various parts of his body."

The body of his brother-in-law, Alfred 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 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. 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 story of what really may have drove these  events was offered years later in the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J., The Genovese crime family, headed by Gigante, the most powerful mob family in the country, was behind the Bruno murder, as per turncoat testimony.

Here's the "secret" history of the Philadelphia mob's demise: Newark-based Caponigro commanded the family's North Jersey branch. As a consiglieri, he wasn't  supposed to have a crew. And yet... With his own army backing him, Caponigro grew increasingly angry with Bruno.

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 for an inspired consolidation plan that involved a change in personnel at the top.

George Anastasia noted the following, which was pieced together from the testimonies of former Scarfo mobsters Thomas DelGiorno and Nicholas Caramandi, plus former Genovese soldier Vincent "Fish" Cafaro, in 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 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.

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. 

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.