Divining Skinny Joey Merlino's Future from His Philadelphia Mafia Roots

Alleged Philadelphia Cosa Nostra boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino won what mob experts describe as the biggest victory yet in his dark, checkered career in crime when the judge declared a mistrial in his federal racketeering case in Manhattan.

Joseph and wife Deborah Merlino
Merlino and wife Deborah —a Korean-American.

Jurors sent U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan no less than five notes detailing how hopelessly deadlocked they were after deliberating for around four days. In the end, they couldn't decide whether the Feds had proved whether Merlino was guilty of running both an illegal gambling ring and an $11.3 million health care racket (from which “boss” Merlino allegedly got a $100,000 cut).

On Tuesday the judge made the call: mistrial.

Almost as interesting to us was that big-time Philadelphia wiseguys attended the three-week trial. Supposedly, George (Georgie Boy) Borgesi and former acting boss Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi were there to support Skinny Joey.

Will the Feds retry him? Surprisingly, the latest Mob Talk Sitdown didn't address that question.

We think it depends on how the jury split. Based on that, a retrial is very possible, we believe....

Judge Sullivan ordered both sides to report to him on March 6 after they worked out dates for a retrial. By then, defense attorneys for Genovese capo Eugene (Rooster) Onofrio also will have reported when they expect their client to be healthy enough to stand trial.

Out of the 46 alleged mobsters named in the indictment, only Merlino, 55, and Rooster, 75, failed to cop out last year when the Feds were doling out rather generous plea deals based on disturbing revelations about some FBI agents who played key roles in the investigation. They themselves were investigated over their dealings with turncoat witness John (JR) Rubeo.

Yesterday on Gang Land News, Jerry Capeci reported that, as per sources: "a handful of jurors... were evenly split on the main racketeering charge, but deadlocked 10-2 for conviction on the health care scam and 9-3 for conviction on the illegal gambling charges."

Capeci further noted that "several jurors were in Merlino's camp, but not as many as (Merlino lead attorney Edwin) Jacobs... had believed, and hoped."

How Skinny Joey Came Up
He got the nickname for a couple reasons.

It happens on occasion in the mob...

Consider former Gambino crime family boss Costantino Paul Castellano, aka Big Paul, who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall in his stockinged feet, but also had two other Paul Castellanos in his hometown of Brooklyn. Both Paul's Castellano relatives were short, hence they were called Little Paul and Small Paul.

With Merlino, it was the same thing. A small, scrawny kid, Skinny Joey had a cousin also named Joseph who also lived in South Philadelphia. (Specifically, near Merlino on Tenth and Jackson Streets.) The cousin was "well-nourished," the medical term for a fatso. Hence there was a "Skinny Joey” and a “Fat Joey.”

As with Castellano, and most wiseguys, the nickname stuck, though the cousin didn't; he moved away. Merlino grew up there in South Philadelphia, attending the local Catholic schools, Epiphany of Our Lord grammar school and Saint John Neumann High School.

His parochial education ended senior year, prior to graduation, for “disciplinary reasons.” Merlino did graduate though, from South Philadelphia High School.

Well prior to graduation, "Joey Merlino was already looking beyond academics. As a teenager he worked as an apprentice jockey, mucking stalls and giving horses their morning workouts at Philadelphia Park, the local racetrack located in the Northeast section of the city. Eventually he even got to ride in races at Philadelphia Park, the Atlantic City Racetrack, and Pimlico. ... But he was also growing. At five foot five, tipping the scales between one hundred thirty and one hundred forty pounds, Skinny Joey had gotten too big to jockey. Soon, however, other opportunities would present themselves.

"Merlino turned eighteen a few days before mob boss Angelo Bruno was gunned down in March 1980. Within a year, his father’s best friend in the underworld, Little Nicky Scarfo, took over the Philadelphia crime family. Salvatore “Chucky” Merlino eventually became Scarfo’s underboss. ...."

So if Merlino had not grown so... vertically... today he might be remembered for other things (or maybe completely forgotten?). At the very least, we'd not be reading about him here.

For the above biographical information, I'm indebted to George Anastasia, who detailed Merlino's Philadelphia years in The Last Gangster, the extremely absorbing story of the late Ron Previte, the former cop-turned-made guy-turned-capo-turned-informant who had a bird's eye view of the Philadelphia Mafia's most notorious members.

Story of Ron Previte

Previte had had personal relationships that involved near daily discussions (often while he was wired up) with John Stanfa, Ralph Natale (about whom Previte once told Anastasia, "Ralph might have bullshitted about a lot of things, but he was a stone cold killer. That was no bullshit.") and even Merlino. And that's only the bosses.

A huge earner who always came bearing fat envelopes, Previte knew the daily grind of mob life, knew how to make huge sums of illicit cash. He knew the ins and outs of bookmarking and hustling. He most certainly was a "general practitioner of crime."

And what happened on the street between him and Merlino in the final days of Previte's undercover operation may explain some pretty baffling things about Merlino.


Nicky the Crow Caramandi, Phil Leonetti, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, others, were among the first wave of witnesses to not only break a once sacred blood oath, but to make doing it a seemingly a pedestrian affair.

But as Anastasia noted, when Joey Merlino was coming up during the Little Nicky Scarfo era, he witnessed how omerta worked, nipping potentially devastating FBI investigations in the bud, among other things. Merlino is old enough to remember when Cosa Nostra essentially still functioned in the manner it was supposed to.

"He also saw something else in the everyday workings of an organized crime family. He saw that the business of the mob is often very personal," not to mention filled with treachery and deceit.

Merlino evolved into an utterly ruthless Mafioso.

It's not controversial to state that we Americans generally take murder too lightly. The worst crime, the ultimate "sin" -- the thing capable, as organized religion endlessly alleges, of causing a potentially immortal, divine, all-seing entity to turn its back on man, is, meaning murder, endlessly depicted as a mere functional narrative mechanism, a plot device to fuel interest in stories consumed voraciously by reading, viewing, listening to them. We experience it vicariously and falsely believe we understand it. The big difference is we don't feel the horrifying pangs of existential dread that would result among the majority of those who actually take lives. And this holds for many organized crime members.

Yes, that means that not  all mobsters are capable of committing murder.

Granted, many of them are, and the ability to kill is probably usually a useful tool in some instances; it even may ultimately result in more lives being spared, or the rationalization that that's a likely consequence.

Still, take even Ron Previte, a treacherous criminal who candidly admitted that while he certainly tried to commit practically every crime ever thought of, he simply wasn't a murderer. He'd do an awful lot for cash, including acts of violence, but he was nevertheless incapable of taking a life.

On the street perception can go a very long way. Previte, knowing and appreciating that, doubtlessly did all he could to forge a firm awareness in others that he was a killer, a man capable of  ending someone as casually as he'd clip a fingernail.

While some mobsters work hard to acquire such a lethal perception of themselves, there are others who cared not a jot about perception.

These wiseguys simply killed people as casually as they got out their nails manicured. That's the kind of wiseguy Merlino is.

Will pick this thread up in a pending new story.