To Avoid Retrial, Joey Merlino Needs to Fold His Cards

Despite indications that they have a fighting chance at winning, prosecutors with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office seem to want to throw in the towel and end a long-running case against alleged Philadelphia boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, who was rounded up with dozens of other wiseguys in August 2016 as per the East Coast LCN Enterprise case.

alleged Philadelphia boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino
Joseph Merlino

Merlino, though he had no idea til afterward, barely escaped the handcuffs last month, when the judge finally ordered a mistrial.

He narrowly avoided getting convicted on fraud and gambling charges, with the jury "deadlocked 10-2 for conviction on the health care scam and 9-3 for conviction on the illegal gambling charges."as Gang Land News (GLN) reported.

Merlino won support on the racketeering charge, with jurors evenly split. It could be jurors didn't believe the turncoat testimony, though the case had additional problems.

Then, the Fed's showed their hand. They gave Skinny Joey's codefendant, Genovese capo Eugene (Rooster) Onofrio, "a surprisingly sweet plea deal," as GLN recently reported. Rooster got a maximum sentence of less than three years. The agreement also was better than the one the Feds offered him last November, which included two additional years in the maximum.

Onofrio, 75, was initially set to face a jury sitting beside Merlino in January, but for health reasons, he was severed from the case. Merlino also had health problems that bumped the case.

Further, the Fed's had a stronger case against Rooster than Skinny Joey because an undercover FBI agent was the key witness against him, not the tainted mob turncoat John (JR) Rubeo. (The conventional wisdom has been that jurors are more likely to believe FBI agents than "rats" on the witness stand, though one wonders if that's still the case considering the flurry of allegations the current occupant of the White House continues hurling at the FBI.)

Still, the jury split on the major charges seems to indicate that, despite the flawed case--and it is a flawed case--New York's Southern District prosecutors would have a fighting chance at winning a rematch. And yet, it seems the Feds wish they'd never heard of the "East Coast LCN Enterprise," a case that seemed to initially offer evidence that a vast, far-reaching nefarious criminal operation spanning the East Coast, from Springfield to South Florida, was running a grab-bag of criminal activity. The indictment alleged the existence of a Mafia-within-the-Mafia.

But Skinny Joey will have to fold, and considering the corner he's put himself in -- "I don't make deals" etc. -- it is difficult to contemplate a scenario that will enable him to cop a plea and save face -- and for Skinny Joey, allegedly the sitting boss of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra, don't underestimate the "saving face" part. Unless the Feds make him an extraordinary offer, such as one that includes no jail time, Merlino just may be back in court wearing a suit until it's verdict time. Then like last month, he'll show up wearing jeans should the verdict go against him. Every indication is that he'll face trial, then go to prison or go home, Cosa Nostra style.

As to the evidence, the wiretap recordings, the Feds have nothing on Merlino.

The worst, Merlino was caught discussing a theoretical murder.

(And The Fed's made it appear worse than it was by withholding part of a seemingly highly incriminating transcript of a recording of Merlino in which he opined: “It’s easy to kill somebody. I can tell you, ‘Listen, drive me home right now,’ get in the car and … shoot you in the … head.”

But, as was later revealed, Merlino continued:

“It’s better when you save a friend. I would never put nobody in harm’s way. And we’re all friends here.”)

This was a blunder on Merlino's part. However, he wasn't talking about his or anyone's specific role in a specific crime. He was "making conversation," so to speak. Speaking generally, philosophizing. He was not implicating.

Merlino knows about bugs and guys wearing wires, and he's known for never incriminating himself via recordings of his own voice. Basically, Merlino conducts himself as if he is always speaking to someone who's wired. A simple, yet highly effective, way to conduct yourself on the street.

George Anastasia has written that Skinny Joey was always cautious.

"He said things indirectly. His conversations were governed by a simple dictum: one word is better than two, a nod is best of all."

“Help that guy” might have been the extent of what Merlino said at a party, for instance. Ron Previte later testified that it was obvious what he meant. But in the end, obvious to who?

Feds Send Nicky Skins to Skinny Joey
In February 2012 two days before he was to walk into court and testify after wearing a wire for two years Gambino wiseguy Nicholas (Nicky Skins) Stefanelli, 69, offed himself in a hotel room, several sources confirmed.

Stefanelli, who had operated in New Jersey but reported to jailed New York Gambino capo Nicholas (Little Nicky) Corozzo, had methodically taped countless cronies. (“All five families are scurrying for the hills," one report blared.)

He'd recorded a notorious May 2010 lunch meeting involving high-ranking figures in the Gambino and Philadelphia crime families. In a corner off the main dining room at LaGriglia, in Kenilworth, New Jersey, wiseguys from Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York wined and dined and chatted for hours on end.

George Anastasia pored over the transcripts and wrote a richly detailed story about the luncheon which proved wiseguys can be as eloquent as Mario Puzo made us suspect all along.

“If you don’t know the families, the grandmothers, the grandfathers, forget it,” said Joseph “Scoops” Licata, a North Jersey capo in the Philadelphia mob.

“Only way to survive,” added John Gambino, a leader of the New York family that bears his name. “You only need quality, not quantity.”i

Nicky Skins was a journeyman mobster, apparently. He moved around a lot, literally up and down the East Coast, a Gambino crime family wiseguy looking for business (who, if he hadn't flipped, and died, may have been indicted in the East Coast LCN Enterprise case).

Merlino later talked about his close encounter with Nicky Skins. 

They met at a Dunkin Donuts in Boca Raton in December 2011 and spoke for about an hour.

Stefanelli discussed opening a bar or restaurant, businesses he'd known Merlino was interested in. 

Nicky Skins had the money and the connections to make it happen, he'd said.

Gambino wiseguy Nicholas (Nicky Skins) Stefanelli, 69, offed himself
Nicholas (Nicky Skins) Stefanelli

The, he started rehashing ancient history, a turn in their conversation that  immediately alerted Skinny Joey, who had just finished serving 14 years in prison. It's clear that when Nicky Skins steered the conversation into potentially highly incriminating territory, Merlino noticed. He didn't lose his cool, though. Didn't overreact and, say, storm out. He didn't slap Nicky Skins, he kept his cool and "pulled back," as Anastasia wrote in a story about the meeting.

"There are certain things you don’t talk about, especially with someone you’ve just met."

Merlino, who it seems gave Anastasia a one-on-one interview, later said of the meeting:

“He asked me about Joe (Ligambi, one of several prominent Philadelphia mob figures then awaiting trial on racketeering conspiracy charges),” Merlino recalled. “I said he was a nice guy and I hoped he beat the case.”

Merlino summed up the meeting: "The Feds sent him ('Nicky Skins') down here to set me up. I told him, 'I'm legitimate. I don't want nothing to do with any of that other stuff.' What else could I say?"