Merlino's Mob: Running Philadelphia's Cosa Nostra

The Philadelphia Cosa Nostra, at its zenith under Angelo Bruno, was a massive criminal empire in every sense of the word.

Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino was targeted as the top mobster in Philadelphia,
Skinny Joey awaits word about possible retrial in Manhattan federal court.

The crime family stretched far beyond the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's largest city, the sixth-most populous in the United States. Philadelphia, the economic (and cultural) heart of the Delaware Valley, is located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within both the Mid-Atlantic region and the Northeast megalopolis.

The "Bruno family" dominated the underworld throughout and beyond, for a time spilling into New Jersey and Boston, and as far away as Las Vegas to the west, Florida to the south, and overseas, in England.

The crime family wielded immense influence over (at least) four labor unions in the Delaware Valley alone. It ran the city’s largest illegal gambling operations and was a de-facto "bank" that lent money to smaller gambling syndicates run by other ethnicities, including black, Greek, and Irish racketeers. (The Greeks also dominated some of the drug business from which Bruno indirectly profited by taxing them.) Plus, the family had a piece of gambling operators throughout the Delaware Valley.

The Philadelphia mob also had under its flag two outlaw motorcycle clubs. It owned pieces of restaurants, casinos, banks, and other businesses in New England, Las Vegas, Florida, the Poconos(!), the suburbs of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and northern Delaware, in Newark, New York City, and even overseas in London and the Caribbean. (Then there's Atlantic City. Bruno's supposedly slow-burn efforts to capitalize on the new "second city" to Las Vegas, and what was viewed as his hypocrisy over drugs, were two large contributing factors fueling the internal rife that culminated in the Docile Don's 1980 assassination.)

Angelo Bruno himself was of immense personal wealth. He didn’t allow his men to deal drugs, but rank has its privileges, and, as noted, mortal risks. Also, via his ties to the Gambino crime family and the Sicilian Mafia, Bruno earned millions by taxing the profits from narcotics sold in the U.S., including some drugs sold by Philadelphia's Greek mob.

Angelo Bruno, don of Philadelphia Mafia
Angelo Bruno presided over a vast, sprawling illicit empire.

Bruno and his men were so powerful, they were sought to be mediators, business partners, and protectors by other criminal entities operating under their flag. Bruno had a piece of everything — illegal or legitimate. He had union connections, access to politicians, even some judges.

Following the Nicky Scarfo and John Stanfa eras, streamlining the line of succession a bit, when the Feds started to target Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino as the top mobster in Philadelphia, the mob there had become something else.

 First, Merlino's mob was decidedly small time compared to the Bruno/Scarfo entity, as it's been referred to due to the overlap between regimes. By the time of Merlino's rise to the top, Philly wiseguys were extorting low-level crooks and smalltime crime rings, dealing in stolen goods, running moderately sized gambling rings, and likely profited from mid-level cocaine deals in Boston.

The Feds would utilize surveillance, wiretapping, and informants to infiltrate and probe the Philadelphia Mafia. They paid Ronald (Big Ron) Previte alone about $1 million. He famously said he was "underpaid."

“The problem for all these guys is that it’s not like the old days," a retired law enforcement investigator who tracked the mob first as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department and later as an investigator with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice said of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra’s decline..

"The money just isn’t there. Used to be there might be 20 guys sharing a pie big enough for 40. Now, you got 20 guys trying to get a piece from a pie that’s only big enough for four or five.”

The Infiltrator
Big Ron Previte's first step in Skinny Joey's direction was attending a sitdown with John (Johnny Chang) Ciancaglini in the fall of 1998 at the Oregon Diner, a South Philadelphia institution where, 30 years earlier, a lowly mob soldier named Nicky Scarfo grabbed a steak knife and stabbed a longshoreman to death in a fight over a booth. (Scarfo served time for that murder, running into Bruno, who was in the same prison.  Bruno allegedly decided to banish Scarfo to the then-New Jersey backwater of Atlantic City, describing Scarfo "as worthless as a paperclip." In keeping with the Docile Don nickname, banishment was Bruno's alternative to ordering a hit on "Little Nicky." Had Bruno ordered a hit on Scarfo, how many lives would have ultimately been saved in the end?)

The Oregon Diner meeting marked the beginning of Previte's relationship with Merlino, as George Anastasia details in The Last Gangster.

As for Johnny Chang, he had been able to avoid the Stanfa-Merlino war by being sent to prison to serve a nine-year extortion sentence. (Two of his brothers were not as lucky.) 

He returned to Philadelphia when he departed prison in 1995.

Previously, the Merlino faction had wanted Previte dead, Johnny Chang most prominently, because of what Previte had done while a Stanfa lieutenant. 

Previte had met with Johnny Chang at the Oregon Diner partly to bury the hatchet, and they did (Recorded by Previte, the meeting's details are known.)

When Previte finally started meeting with Merlino, he'd hand him $1,000-$1,500 tributes. Cash was the fastest way to a mobster's heart; Merlino was no exception.

Merlino always had cash-flow problems (he was a gambler, recall). During his 2001 RICO trial, many of the witnesses who testified against Skinny Joe said he had robbed them mercilessly.

Skinny Joey and Ralph Abbruzzi milked one stolen property ring so much, it was forced to downsize its business procedures, laying people off, etc. What tends to happen as a result? Guys could become susceptible to certain notions about hedging their bets.

During a card game, Frank Gambino, one of Merlino's soldiers who made his living via the swag business, learned a horrifying secret that foreshadowed what was to come. 

Two players got into a fight, and a tape recorder fell out of the pocket of one of them, Freddy Angelucci, who swiftly hoofed it out of there. 

Frank Gambino stomped on the recorder, breaking it into pieces as if hoping he was also destroying everything that had been recorded on it.

That was not the case.

From the witness stand, Angelucci said Merlino and his guys were classic "ripoff artists." They muscled their way into the stolen property ring, imposing a tax, and then demanding a piece of each stolen tractor-trailer load.

"They always came up funny with the money.”

Michael Casolaro was one of the biggest and most profitable bookmakers in Mafia history. For nearly 30 years, he took bets on whatever sport was in season--football, basketball, baseball, hockey--he allegedly worked every day of the year.

In 1997, Casolaro was ordered (by Johnny Chang) to make Johnny Chang his partner in the betting business.

"Since 1997, my life's been hell," Casolaro testified at the 2001 mob racketeering trial, during which reports pegged him as an extremely reluctant turncoat witness.

"I really didn't want to do it," he said of Johnny Chang's proposition.

But Ciancaglini insisted, "You gotta or you gotta move."

Then Merlino wanted a $15,000 loan to open a mob sports book. Casolaro realized the loan would never be repaid...