The real-life Philadelphia gangsters who inspired ‘The Irishman’

Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, right, leaves federal court in Lower Manhattan with his wife Deborah after a mistrial was declared in his racketeering case on Feb. 20, 2018 in New York. The author appears in the center background of the photo (AP Photo/Kathy Willens).Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, right, leaves federal court in Lower Manhattan with his wife Deborah after a mistrial was declared in his racketeering case on Feb. 20, 2018 in New York. The author appears in the center background of the photo (AP Photo/Kathy Willens).

The recent release of Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Irishman” has brought new attention to the cabal that has been organized crime’s most famous manifestation in the United States: The Italian-American mafia, La Cosa Nostra, a.k.a. “This Thing of Ours.” It is a phrase I am convinced is only used by mobsters and Jesuits.

A fair amount of the action of “The Irishman” centers on and around Philadelphia, where the hit-man lead character Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro) purportedly did most of his work. The movie has drawn some new attention to “Downtown” (what South Philadelphia was and still often is called by anyone who lives there), and to some of Philadelphia's most famous (or infamous) organized crime figures of the past, including Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio (played by Bobby Cannavale), Angelo "The Gentle Don" Bruno (played by Harvey Keitel) and Phillip "Chicken Man" Testa (played by Larry Romano).

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I used to work in South Philly. I was just a kid, fresh out of grad school, and the neighborhood was...well, it was something. It was the late 1990s, and Downtown, with Passyunk Avenue as the aortic valve that fed the whole area its vitality, had gone through a brutal mob war between a young born-and-bred wiseguy, Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, and the local mob boss, the Sicilian John Stanfa. There were plenty of young men posturing as wiseguys, and more than a few gangsters posing as legitimate businessmen, so often on the street and in the restaurants it was hard to tell the civilians from the connected guys. Swing dance had made a comeback, and the hottest place for it in Philly, The Five Spot, had previously been Virgilio’s, the somewhat-distant lair of two different Philadelphia mob bosses. 

Swing dance had made a comeback in the late 1990s, and the hottest place for it in Philly had previously been the reputed lair of two different Philadelphia mob bosses.

My office was just a couple of blocks from the Italian Market; I ate at Dante and Luigi’s and loved Villa di Roma (which also is the locale of several scenes in "The Irishman"). The Mario Lanza Museum was nearby. A friend’s girlfriend invited a group of us out for drinks one night at a South Philly fixture called Bomb Bomb (you don’t want to know why), and when one of her friends stood up too suddenly, a pistol fell out of his waistband onto the floor.

The whiff of violence

Like most Americans, I love mobster movies. (As a character in “The Sopranos” says, “At this point in our cultural history, mob movies are classic American cinema, like Westerns.”) And so it was sort of fun to rub shoulders with guys who fulfilled all the stereotypes: the “wet look” hair, the distinctive South Philly accent (which not a single character in "The Irishman" even attempted to imitate; the only one who sounded slightly like he was from Philly was America's own James Martin, S.J., who played a parish priest and actually grew up in the area), the three-quarter-length car coats, the braggadocio, the whiff of violence. The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News both had reporters dedicated almost exclusively to the “mob beat” in those days. A group of alleged mobsters in South Philadelphia actually played in a local softball league—the reporters, of course, dubbed them “The Hit Men.” (One opening line in the Philadelphia Daily News? “They murdered ’em, 17-5.”) It could be easy to forget that people were being extorted, cheated, shot and more.

I met Skinny Joey back then, by accident. He was the purported head of the Philadelphia mafia already (Mr. Stanfa having been sent to prison for life), but he was also fairly young and quite the partier. In 1998, at a tiny bar on “Two Street” (as we all called it), my roommate collided with Skinny Joey in its narrow confines, and Skinny Joey spilled his drink. There was drama (Skinny Joey wasn’t pleased), and we fled. I didn’t see the Thin One again until two decades later, when we shared an elevator at the courthouse for the Southern District of New York in 2018.

As a character in “The Sopranos” says, “At this point in our cultural history, mob movies are classic American cinema, like Westerns.” And so it was sort of fun to rub shoulders with guys who fulfilled all the stereotypes.

On trial, again

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That was almost two years ago, when I spent a week researching and writing a story on Mr. Merlino’s trial on racketeering and gambling charges. On Feb. 20, 2018, Judge Richard Sullivan (whom President Trump has since promoted to the federal circuit) declared a mistrial in Mr. Merlino’s case. After deliberations had begun several days before, the jury had told the judge four times that they were impossibly deadlocked and unable to reach a verdict on any of four counts against Mr. Merlino; each time Judge Sullivan had asked them to continue deliberating. Mr. Sullivan finally gave the jury an “Allen charge,” exhorting them to try to reach a consensus, and then relented and declared a mistrial. In the aftermath, Mr. Merlino accepted a plea deal whereby he would serve time on gambling charges. He did a fairly easy year and a half in prison and is now back on the street.

Once upon a time, Mr. Merlino was known as the “John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue,” for his debonair appearance and public braggadocio. His criminal record before his most recent trial included convictions for aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes (1984), robbing an armored car (1990) and various racketeering charges (2001). The 2001 conviction resulted in a 14-year prison sentence.

Many of the traditional criminal enterprises with which Mr. Merlino and his South Philly associates have been charged over the years now have their counterparts in the legitimate world.

Because Mr. Merlino is from Philadelphia and was residing in Florida at the time of his most recent arrest, the connection with the Southern District of New York was tenuous, and press coverage and public interest were fairly muted. With the exception of closing arguments and the expected verdict, the viewing gallery usually only held half a dozen viewers each day, largely local reporters and occasionally family members and friends of Mr. Merlino. I got some Manson Lamps from some of Mr. Merlino’s crew on one occasion, and a few of the guys bummed gum off of me on another, but Skinny Joey’s associates more or less just coexisted with the reporters. Court can be boring. There are long hours where you wait for the jury, wait for the judge or watch lawyers whispering in a sidebar, and you end up chatting with each other—even if one of you is an editor at a Catholic periodical and the other has been charged with murder.

Pressed for comment after the declaration of a mistrial, Joseph "Skinny Joey” Merlino had only one thing to say: “God bless the jury.”

Mr. Merlino’s trial followed his arrest along with 45 other alleged members of an “East Coast La Cosa Nostra Enterprise,” on various criminal charges in August 2016. After it became clear that the government evidence was tainted by F.B.I. misconduct and dubious behavior by cooperating witnesses (including erasing evidence from wiretaps, domestic violence charges and alleged robberies committed while working for the F.B.I.), the government offered vastly reduced sentences on plea bargains to the defendants. Of the 46, only Mr. Merlino and one other defendant refused deals. Press reports suggested Mr. Merlino, who had famously never accepted a plea bargain during a lifetime of criminal prosecutions, had turned down a deal where he would plead guilty to reduced charges and serve one to three years in jail.

In court, Mr. Merlino’s lead lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, hammered government witnesses for inconsistencies in testimony and for their own criminal backgrounds, including the star witness, J. R. Rubeo. Mr. Rubeo, who spent numerous months with Mr. Merlino in Florida while wearing an F.B.I. wire to detail his criminal activities, stated under oath his reason for testifying against Mr. Merlino was a desire to avoid prison time. (He was jailed anyway, for various alleged crimes committed while he was an F.B.I. informant.) Even the prosecution conceded in its closing argument that jurors might consider Mr. Rubeo someone whose “personal failings are immense.” Mr. Rubeo also testified that the F.B.I. had given him $25,000 to lure Mr. Merlino to a meeting at an Arthur Avenue restaurant in the Bronx where Mr. Merlino could be secretly taped, providing the basis for a criminal conspiracy charge that could be prosecuted in New York.

Mr. Jacobs chose not to present a defense case, relying on the testimony of the government’s witnesses and his own cross-examinations. The trial lasted less than three weeks, after an initial delay because Mr. Merlino was hospitalized in Florida for heart trouble. Pressed for comment after the declaration of a mistrial, “Skinny Joey” had only one thing to say: “God bless the jury.”

The nicknames of Mr. Merlino’s alleged associates are straight out of central casting: Beeps, Horsehead, Snitch, Scoops, Chickie, Mousie, Penknife, Windows, Handsome Stevie, Baby Dom, Uncle Joe and many more.

The corner boys

Mr. Merlino’s prominent public profile in Philadelphia before his long prison sentence and his alleged return to crime since his release have reportedly once again made him the prime target of F.B.I. investigations in his hometown, and a future indictment in Philadelphia is rumored to be in the works.

But is Mr. Merlino a gangster in the mold of notorious mob bosses like John Gotti or Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci in "The Irishman") or Vincent “The Chin” Gigante? Not according to friends and relatives in South Philadelphia, who see him and his associates as something else: the adult versions of the “corner boys” who grew up with them in the tight-knit Italian-American Catholic neighborhoods of South Philly, locals who made their first holy Communion at St. Paul’s or St. Monica’s or Epiphany of Our Lord, where the boys went to St. John Neumann and the girls to St. Maria Goretti, two Catholic high schools that combined into a single school in 2004. Many of them are also related, through blood or marriage, another consequence of South Philadelphia’s insular identity.

The nicknames of Mr. Merlino’s alleged associates, mentioned over the years in government documents, are straight out of central casting: Beeps, Horsehead, Snitch, Scoops, Chickie, Mousie, Penknife, Windows, Handsome Stevie, Baby Dom, Uncle Joe and many more. But those are often neighborhood nicknames, say locals, not necessarily the monikers of “Sopranos”-style criminals. (Mr. Merlino’s nickname was supposedly coined in childhood to distinguish him from a similarly named but huskier relative, “Fat Joey.”) These days, in the booming home-construction market of Philadelphia, the alleged mobsters are more likely to be renovating row homes in South Philadelphia and flipping them for profit, all by the books.

The neighborhoods of South Philly, a stronghold of Italian-American culture for over a century, have always been a place where law enforcement and neighborhood customs have uneasily coexisted. Local lotteries (“the numbers”), sports betting, card games, loan-sharking, video poker machines and various other enterprises still exist today in South Philadelphia in a quasi-public way and have landed almost all of the above-named characters in trouble with the law. And there is no question that local residents long endured the presence of dyed-in-the-wool gangsters, like the notorious (and recently deceased) Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and his associates, including Mr. Merlino’s father and uncle. The former died in prison in 2012, and the latter became a government witness and lived out the rest of his life in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Many friends and relatives in South Philadelphia of Mr. Merlino see him and his associates as the “corner boys” who grew up with them in the tight-knit Italian-American Catholic neighborhoods of South Philly.

A bloody history

The longtime alleged boss of the Philadelphia/Atlantic City organized crime family, Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno, was murdered by unknown (well, more or less) assailants in 1980 after decades as the presumed chief of South Philadelphia’s criminal rackets. Mr. Bruno’s alleged successor and Mr. Scarfo’s predecessor in the Philadelphia mob, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa, was killed by rivals in a brazen South Philly porch-bomb attack later in 1981, designed to look like the work of Irish-American mobsters from Philadelphia’s Northeast neighborhoods. (According to the arcane rules of the American underworld, Italian-Americans gangsters do not use bombs to kill someone. Irish-American gangsters do.) The murder earned mention from Bruce Springsteen in the first stanza of his 1982 song (which does not appear on the soundtrack to "The Irishman"), “Atlantic City”:

Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night.
They blew up his house too.
Down on the boardwalk they're gettin’ ready for a fight,
gonna see what them racket boys can do.

The suspected killers of the “Chicken Man” were all murdered in the ensuing years, reputedly on the orders of Mr. Testa’s son, Salvatore Testa, a charismatic alleged gangster who had been profiled in The Wall Street Journal as a rising star in the underworld. (He also allegedly sold a run-down bar in Atlantic City to Donald J. Trump so that a casino could be built on the property.) The younger Testa was himself later killed in a gangland hit because of fears from Mr. Scarfo that he would take over Philadelphia’s criminal rackets, a crime for which Mr. Scarfo was convicted as part of a wide-ranging indictment in 1989. Within a few years of Mr. Scarfo’s imprisonment, Joey Merlino was identified by the F.B.I. as the unofficial head of the Philadelphia mob.

When a television reporter asked Mr. Merlino about rumors that the incarcerated Mr. Scarfo had put a $500,000 bounty on his head, he smiled and quipped, “Give me the half-million dollars, and I’ll shoot myself.” Mr. Merlino was later wounded in a drive-by shooting by apparent rivals on a South Philadelphia street corner in 1993, an incident in which his close friend Michael “Mikey Chang” Ciancaglini was killed.

Springsteen: "Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night/ They blew up his house too."

Joey being Joey

But is South Philadelphia in 2019 the South Philadelphia of 1993? Or of 1983? Is the violence and vengeance portrayed in “The Irishman” indicative of the lives of Downtown's legendary wiseguys? And is Mr. Merlino truly still a gangster or just a gambler who happens to enunciate the vowel at the end of his name? Mr. Jacobs has argued in previous court cases that 1980s-style racketeering in South Philly is largely defunct and that Mr. Merlino and his associates are hardly the violent criminals they are made out to be in government prosecutions. Philadelphia’s violence and corruption are more likely to come these days from Russian, Chinese and African-American organized crime groups—as well as from the drug world. Figures like Mr. Merlino or Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi (also prosecuted twice in recent years, both cases ending in mistrials) are seen in many South Philadelphia neighborhoods as more or less benevolent figures, and none of their most recent criminal cases included any charges of violence.

Mr. Merlino himself until recently had two daughters enrolled at a private Catholic university, and he counts among his close friends several Philadelphia-area priests. His second cousin is the pastor of one of South Philly’s most prominent parishes. (When that parish church burned down in 1971, Philip Testa, a decade before he was murdered, donated so much money for its restoration that the church’s facade is called by locals “the Testa Towers.”)

George Anastasia, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who has covered Philadelphia’s organized crime beat for decades, has frequently made another point in print: Many of the traditional criminal enterprises with which Mr. Merlino and his South Philly associates have been charged over the years now have their counterparts in the legitimate world. The local “numbers” rackets compete with the state lottery, which offers a daily payout little different from that of neighborhood enterprises; sports bettors can legally place wagers in Atlantic City or Las Vegas; fans of games of chance can legally gamble at the Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia or at various other locales; even loan-sharking, with its notoriously high interest payments, has its legal counterpart in the “payday loan” operations found everywhere in South Philly, all charging extortionate interest.

Why, then, does the government continue to pursue Mr. Merlino and his associates?

“I think it’s a little more complicated than just a question of what the government thinks Joey might have done,” Mr. Anastasia cautioned in a phone interview with America in 2018 during Mr. Merlino's most recent trial, in a quote that could have come straight out of “The Irishman”:

Yes, I think Joey was targeted in this indictment because he’s Joey, not because of anything he did. On the other hand, this is where the feds are coming from: They have five, six unsolved deaths in the past in Philadelphia that they think these guys [are responsible for]. A lot of these F.B.I. guys believe that Joey and his friends literally got away with murder.
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