The Mafia's Marked Man : Books: Joe Salerno fingered a mob boss and broke a crime family. He has been running ever since.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Salerno's first enemy was his imagination. The second was Nicky Scarfo.

"He told me one time he'd like to take a guy and cut his guts out and fry them in a pan," Salerno says.

The words are quite flat. But then Salerno has imagined his disembowelment almost daily and even full horror wears thin after 10 years. "I felt the knife in my dreams many times. That's stuff you don't forget.

"Yeah, I think if Nicky ever had a chance to get a hold of me himself, he would make me die a slow death. He'd probably cut my fingers off. Or cut my privates off or something.

"Nicky Scarfo is a devil, a living devil."

The devil is in purgatory, in solitary confinement and maximum security five floors below ground at the United States Penitentiary, Marion, Ill.

Scarfo, 60, former boss of the Philadelphia Mafia, has barely begun his 1988 life sentence for murder, extortion, racketeering and drug trafficking. His capos and soldiers, 16 Mafiosi in all, are in prison. The Scarfo crime family is broken.

And it was federal witness Joe Salerno--a 45-year-old union-scale plumber from South Philly and one simple Italian-American against the mob--who did the wrecking.

Salerno knows precisely why he turned against his buddies from Atlantic City and Philadelphia construction jobs, that old gang of his who drank together at the My Way bar and ate spaghetti at the Brajole, an Italian cafe: It was the 1979 murder of a member of the clique, Vincent Falcone.

Salerno, unknowing, unsuspecting, Scotch poised, said he was standing in the front room at a beachfront apartment in Atlantic City when Philip Leonetti, on orders from Scarfo, put a bullet in Falcone's brain.

Falcone's only crime, according to Salerno's subsequent court testimony, was his personal opinion of Scarfo. Weeks earlier, as whiskey talk, Falcone told an acquaintance he thought Scarfo was crazy and should be barred from the cement contracting business.

It was a fatal libel.

"When Vinnie first got shot in the back of his head, he turned," Salerno remembers. "His body twisted around to see, probably, who hurt him. But when he turned around, he was staring and the expression on his face was helpless.

"I've been in a lot of fist fights because of where I was born and raised. My nose was broken three times. But I'd never seen violence like that in my life. I never stalked a guy or lured a guy in a room and taken a guy's life away."

Salerno saw a crossroads.

Scarfo, he knew, had manipulated him. This murder was the mob's classic method of recruitment and initiation by incrimination.

"But when I saw that happen to Falcone, I looked at it this way: If my kids ever found out that I did something like that, what would they think of me? Could I have lived with it and sung in the shower every morning? No."

So Salerno became a state, then a federal witness against Scarfo and Leonetti and the family: "I took the hard way, the long road. It was the right thing to do. It was what people should do."

It also launched Salerno on a grim odyssey.

He has spent the past 10 years ducking between Kansas and California, changing addresses 40 times, never owning a credit card or a passport and using whatever alias fitted the moment.

The wandering cost Salerno everything but his life.

For that, Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo was prepared to pay $200,000.

The contract remains open.

And with this month's publication of "The Plumber" (Knightsbridge Publishing), by Salerno and first-time author Stephen J. Rivele of Pasadena, there just might be a renewed syndicate hunt for the man who helped destroy the entire Philadelphia Mafia.

"It's never over," Salerno says.

This is the first newspaper interview of his life and he's tight, a little shy about strangers digging into his emotions. "These people have a contract and it is still on the streets. But the guy (killer) is not going to do it for Scarfo. He's going to do it for the money . . . and Scarfo would pay; he can do it from inside jail."

Then why risk the blatant exposure of a book?

To set the record straight, he explains. To clear hearsay and scuttlebutt. To reach anyone, family members or friends, who might have doubted Salerno's innocence in the death of Vincent Falcone. Also to let Falcone's widow and son know he was not the trigger man.

Should the book be a best seller and a successful paperback and a winning movie . . . well, Salerno could certainly use the money to repay dues racked up on the run.

* He says that for the best years of his life, he was removed from his parents, his sons, his ex-wife, his brothers and sisters. Their scattered, unreliable, spasmodic contact was maintained only through the telephone number of an FBI contact.

* Salerno missed funerals for three grandparents because he couldn't be found to be told of their deaths. He could not even risk a return to Philadelphia when his father was shot through the neck but survived the attack by a Scarfo hit man in retribution for Salerno's testimony.

* A slip on the part of his wife--then estranged but traveling with her husband and the boys for their own safety--violated a major security provision of the Witness Protection Program, which prohibits unapproved meetings with relatives. Federal protection was maintained. But Salerno was cut off from his $1,200-a-month subsistence and for 9 1/2 years has gone it alone.

"I didn't see my youngest boy grow up," Salerno says. "So with whatever profits I make from this book, I want to put him in private school. I'd like to get my (other) two boys established in something that they could live on and have a decent life.

"Once that is out of my body, once that is done . . . I will enjoy the peace from knowing that I did something good in my life, finally, and that people know about it."

It must continue to remain, however, a peace in exile.

When he appears on "Prime Time Live" as part of this month's short, cautious, but necessary book promotion tour, viewers will see Salerno wearing whitened hair, glasses and a false mustache.

His own media ground rules are non-negotiable: no photographs, no specific questions about his current location or occupation, no release of names now used by his ex-wife and their sons, no reporting of upcoming press dates.

Salerno plans to do one interview in his old stomping ground of Philadelphia but will be escorted by familiar sitters: Armed FBI agents.

"A few times in the Middle West, I thought it (his execution) was done and that's a bad, bad, bad feeling," Salerno says. "Once, I was doing a (plumbing) job . . . out at this place, nothing around, firing up a pump, when this car pulls up. A black, four-door sedan and three guys get out. Dressed in suits and ties and carrying briefcases."

Salerno was ready to leap into his truck, drive it across a lawn and into the customer's house if need be. Or grab for the Colt automatic he always carried in his tool box. One man spoke and it sounded like the gallows humor of a hit man.

"Do you believe in God?" he asked Salerno.

Then, the man identified his trio as Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the distant beginning of his mob involvement in the mid-'70s, most things were pretty ordinary in Joe Salerno's blue-collar life. Even its upsets--a marriage that wasn't going well, a plumbing business weakened by debts--should have been manageable.

But to fend off bankruptcy, Salerno borrowed $10,000 from a friend. He knew the repayment rate--$250 a week covering interest alone--was high. What he did not know was that the money came from a Mafia loan shark.

To ease the hurt of being refused by a wife who was not Italian-American, Salerno turned to "my own people because I wouldn't be rejected by them."

There was Vincent Falcone. Then Alfredo Ferraro and Philip Leonetti who had an uncle: Nicky Scarfo.

"I knew these people," Salerno explains. "I'd worked with them from the early '70s. We did a lot of (plumbing) jobs together in Atlantic City and I felt good working with these guys.

"They never said anything to me about shooting or killing anybody or anything like that. Ever. They were working people and I liked them. We ate the same. We talked exactly the same. If I see them in a restaurant anywhere, if I was out and they were out with a girlfriend, they would always buy my dinner for me.

"That's the kind of culture it (Mafia) is. On the surface, easy people to like. Underneath, wrong, really wrong."

He was to find out just how wrong.

The seduction of Joe Salerno began with the $10,000 loan. Later, Scarfo rented him an apartment in a building he owned and began conversations concerning subtle differences between gangsters and racketeers. Then Scarfo borrowed two weapons from Salerno--a hunting rifle and an old .32 caliber Colt revolver.

Salerno could have stopped it there.

"But he (Scarfo) was very unpredictable," he remembers. Scarfo also had already served time for the stabbing death of a sailor in a bar brawl and loved to talk about it. "I was scared to death of him."

Salerno also had seen Scarfo's role models of power and ruthlessness. "He had these little statues of Mexican banditos at his place and he used to say to me: 'This is what we've got to do. We've got to be like these people.' "

On Sunday, Dec. 16, 1979, Scarfo asked Salerno to join him for Christmas drinks at the beachfront apartment with Falcone, Leonetti and others. Fear of Scarfo, Salerno insists, made it an invitation he couldn't refuse.

And he watched as Leonetti shot Falcone once in the head, then in the heart. The weapon in Leonetti's hand was the secondary horror. It was Salerno's old Colt revolver.

"I wasn't really thinking because I was in a state of shock," Salerno says. "I just felt I was in so much trouble now that I'd never get away from these people, that I'd have to be with them forever. Then, in the next minute, I'd tell myself: No, no way could I ever be one of them."

When he decided, Salerno went into protected hiding.

A year later, he was a prosecution witness at the murder trial of Scarfo, Leonetti and Lawrence Merlino.

But all three were acquitted.

Scarfo--according to the book--trumpeted a standard celebration after his acquittal: "Thank God for the American jury system," he told reporters.

Salerno--now separated from his wife and sons--slid back into hiding.

Scarfo--his career enhanced by the murders of all opponents--ascended to head the Philadelphia family.

Salerno--despite the subsequent attempt on his father's life--continued to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against the mob.

Dismantling the Philadelphia family, he knew, was his only slim chance at half a life.

He didn't know it would be 10 years before an organized-crime prosecution would finally put Scarfo, Leonetti, Merlino and more than a dozen members of their Mafia family in prison for federal sentences totaling a dozen centuries behind bars.

"You go to the movies and you watch 'The Godfather,' " Salerno says of Mafiosi. "The public leaves the movie and they leave the dead people behind. Who stand out in their minds? Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and a guy like James Caan."

But on the streets of Philadelphia, he says, organized criminals "will murder their best friends, they'll murder their brothers, their father, or they'll murder even their (own) mother."

Salerno believes Scarfo to be a classic sociopath, a second-generation mobster able to manipulate the impressionable into sycophants. His soldiers ate and drank what he ate and drank. No man was allowed cologne because Scarfo said its use was effeminate.

Two brothers, Salerno says, went to work for Scarfo--when both knew he had ordered the execution of their father.

Salerno held no illusions for his own safety.

"I would be afraid to open the front door and to start my truck up," he says now. "I'd watch everybody and everything in the parking lot when going to the grocery store."

In the loneliness of changing towns and sterile apartments, Salerno cried for his lost wife and children. With no past life nor experience to contribute, his social conversations were reduced to small talk, and no relationships rose above superficial. Salerno did not go to the movies because he knew how a professional killer uses crowds.

When he waited, there were sleeplessness, nightmares and paranoia. When he testified, he would throw up three times between street and courtroom.

Even with Scarfo buried in Marion ("where he's reading that book about the Green River Murders"), and all of Salerno's legal damage done, the running and the hiding and the fear are not over.

"OK, in my heart, if I don't walk across their path . . . and as time goes by, I think that maybe I'll be forgotten," goes his current reasoning. "Maybe. God willing. At least I have a 50% chance of dying of old age and that's a big, big plus."

Author Stephen Rivele hopes there will be some reforms in the federal Witness Protection Program resulting from the book and its somewhat cautionary tale.

"He (Salerno) has paid an enormous price for what he did and it is certainly not encouraging to other people who might want to follow his example," Rivele said. "The principal problem lies in the nature of the Witness Protection Program which does not make distinctions between convicted criminals who testify and cooperating citizens who testify."

"Joe was consistently treated like a criminal and in some cases even worse than a criminal. The fact that he was cooperating and the fact that much of his testimony was strictly voluntary, was simply never taken into account."

In the past decade, however, Salerno has lived with heftier worries than his problems with the Witness Protection Program. Now, he said, he feels nothing but enormous satisfaction and a sense of release.

The book has brought the truth to Salerno's parents and relatives, his sons understand their father, some young Philadelphians have learned from his mistakes--and if he had it to do all over again, he says he would.

Yet there are regrets. He knows he cannot ever return to South Philly.

"I would like to go to 9th and Wharton and have a Pat's steak. You know, stand outside, eat some hot peppers, talk about the fight tomorrow night. With my own people. The pigeons are flying around and it might be five below zero but you're out there on the sidewalk eating your steak. Maybe one day. . . . "

But there's also the promise of a safer, newer life.

Salerno is changing cities once more because he has lived in one spot for two years and that is stretching security beyond the limit. He also is learning a new trade because to locate a plumber, the wrong people could luck out through the Yellow Pages.

Ultimately, Salerno wants the luxury of ordinary rights--a freedom to live openly and go as he pleases from a place of his choice.

He certainly is on his way to normalcy.

Six months ago he gave away the Colt automatic he has carried for 10 years.

He also wears whatever cologne he likes.

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