This Mob Shot Its Brains Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tough, head shaven and defiantly mute about his career as an arsonist and drug dealer, Ralph Natale emerged from 16 years in prison with the perfect, old-school pedigree to return the Philadelphia mob to its days of criminal glory.

Released on parole in 1994, the new boss lectured his young capos and street soldiers as he ordered them to kill. He wanted to instill an army's iron discipline. But he and his men were an army of mooks, a motley crew of wanton killers, traitors, braggarts and bumblers whose Mafia family has been decimated by two decades of blood feuds and federal prosecutions.

Natale's reign lasted until a 1998 indictment threatened to send the 69-year-old to prison for the rest of his golden years. Abandoning "the dark side," he struck a deal with federal agents, agreeing to testify against his crew.

To law enforcement, he was a trophy catch--the first American Mafia boss to turn on his own family. Now Natale is the star witness in a murder trial involving his successor, 37-year-old Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino. And his disclosures are being touted by authorities as a symbol of organized crime's disarray--his testimony as potent as hit man Sammy "the Bull" Gravano's 1992 courtroom betrayal of New York boss John Gotti. Natale's cooperation, U.S. Atty. Michael Stiles said, "represents the complete collapse" of the Philadelphia mob.

But this city's dysfunctional wise-guys are the prime movers in their own, slow fade. Addicted to scheming and splintering into rival factions, they have been prolific only in violence. As many as 40 Mafiosi and associates have been executed over the last two decades--a perpetual state of war that has brought the government a roster of informers and saddled the local mob with its hapless reputation.

Philadelphia's hoods have been a case study in how not to run a crime family. Their botched hits have been as spectacular as the killings they manage to pull off. One 1994 attempt went awry when the victim--shot in the head--rose to scare away his stunned would-be assassins. Two years later, Natale went ballistic when one of his killers returned with news that a victim marked for death had survived. "I tried the best I could," the errant gunman shrugged, according to trial testimony.

"These guys are just not cut out to be gangsters," said Frank Wallace, a former Philadelphia police detective who headed the department's organized crime unit in the mid-1980s.

The mobsters' wry, tough-guy nicknames--Snitch, Horsehead, the Buddha, Pete the Crumb--mask a collective inability to figure out what to do beyond killing each other. In the narrow alleys of South Philly, the family's center never seems to hold. Alliances collapse, insults fester into murderous grudges.

At the start of Merlino's trial, expected to last through the summer, Natale groused openly that he earned only $3,000 a week and was forced to borrow more than $400,000 from loan sharks and friends. Merlino and his crew, prosecutors charge, were reduced to stealing trainloads of bicycles, electric fans, frozen shrimp and baby formula in their lowly careers as cargo thieves.

"Most of these guys are cowboys," said Carmen C. Nasuti, a Philadelphia defense lawyer who has represented several wise guys, including Natale, in criminal cases. "They're brash and they get beyond themselves. You know, kids today. . . ."

The generation gap has been evident inside the ninth-floor courtroom where Natale exchanged glares with Merlino and his six co-defendants during nearly three weeks of testimony.

While Natale appeared in creaseless suits and designer glasses, Merlino and his younger cohorts often file from their detention center cells into the courtroom in slacks and stretch shirts. Like a shamed parent, Natale lamented in testimony about Merlino's "disgrace" as a hotheaded gangster. And later, as he recounted details of his own mob "work," Natale slyly gave Merlino a one-fingered salute, which the younger man answered with narrowed eyes.

Natale and Merlino once were close, sharing a prison cell in the early 1990s. When Natale emerged to run the Philadelphia mob, he was open in his affection for Skinny Joey: "I think about you 24 hours a day," the mob boss told him in a phone call recorded by the FBI.

But by 1998--jailed and embittered by Merlino's refusal to help his financially strapped wife while the younger mobster ran the family in his absence--Natale rejected the underboss and his friends as "trash," "retards" and "punks." They were a "macaroni mob," he told his wife.

The vituperation is mutual.

The only defendant free on bail, Angelo "Buddha" Lutz--a bell-shaped South Philadelphian accused of bookmaking and extortion--provided running commentary outside the courtroom each day on Natale's treason.

"This guy's like somethin' outta Shakespeare," said Lutz, whose 403-pound girth gave him his less-than-deified street nickname. "He was a comedy when he came in, and now he's a tragicomedy. This whole trial is a farce."

Along with Natale, the government has five other mob turncoats on tap for the trial. Prosecutors also have hundreds of hours of secretly taped conversations between Natale and Merlino. Their talk ranges from freighted dialogues about murder to idle chatter about the dismal play of local sports teams and the power of Viagra.

In one call to Natale, Merlino grumbled about his bad luck playing the legal state lottery. In another, Natale is heard lecturing on the proper use of a ball-peen hammer to solve a dispute over money.

"Give them a circle," he said, "right in the forehead."

A Fruitful Time Under 'Docile Don'

Philadelphia's mob trouble reaches back to the 1980 execution of Angelo Bruno, a boss known as the "Docile Don." Under Bruno, whose placid tenure was underpinned by New York's Mafia families, organized crime flourished for 25 years in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.

Profits streamed into the Italian enclave in South Philadelphia from gambling, narcotics, loan sharking, video poker, vending machines, cigarette smuggling and truck hijacking. When Bruno strolled with his henchmen through his neighborhood of row houses, taverns and cheese-steak stands, he was treated with deference.

"He never flaunted," said Jerry Blavat, an intimate of Bruno and a celebrated local disc jockey. Neighbors memorized Bruno's routine, he said. "Soup on a Monday night; spaghetti on Tuesday; pastafazool on Wednesday; Thursday spaghetti; calamari or scungele on Friday; the meat platter on Saturday. Sunday night, the whole neighborhood came over. It was family day."

Bruno's crime family was cozy to those on the inside. But it also was exclusive, a frozen membership that began to grate on tough guys embittered about not profiting fully from Mafia ventures.

His refusal to "open the books," Wallace said, led to Bruno's point-blank shotgun slaying--and played a crucial role in the bloodshed that followed. The killings, which stretched into the mid-1990s, eliminated many of Bruno's logical successors--leaving few capable of stabilizing the torn family.

"They pretty much disposed of the generation that knew how to be gangsters in the strict business sense," Wallace said. "The guys next in line just weren't ready for prime time."

Even as government prosecutions widened the destabilization and federal agents persuaded mid-level Mafiosi to cut deals, the hits kept coming: Bruno's acne-scarred underboss, Philip "Chicken Man" Testa, was dispatched by a nail bomb in his doorway--a killing immortalized in the Bruce Springsteen song "Atlantic City." Capo Frank "Chickie" Narducci Sr. was gunned down in retaliation, his funeral graced by a gangster's off-key rendition of "My Way." Hit men were avenged all over the Delaware Valley, their bodies turning up in car trunks and dumpsters.

The brief reign of volatile boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo was marked by more savage killings and a blundering war against Harry "the Hunchback" Riccobene, an elderly gangster who stood 4 feet 11. Wounded repeatedly, the Hunchback survived four attempts on his life like a street-corner Rasputin. Both men ended up imprisoned--Scarfo is in an Atlanta prison; the Hunchback died of natural causes last year in an Arizona penitentiary.

A Situation 'Bad for Everybody'

The ceaseless bloodletting and ever-tightening pressure from law enforcement left even hardened street toughs with fragile nerves. Angelo Lutz, who played baseball with Merlino on a parochial school team and was indicted with him last fall, grumbles that South Philadelphia's instability is "bad for everybody."

"The government's always creating a vacuum by making deals with the devil," Lutz said. "And then somebody rushes in to take over and that gets everybody else jealous. You don't need no Mafia decoder ring to know what's going on."

Lutz is one of a tight clan of South Philly men, prosecutors allege, who coalesced around Natale and Merlino in the mid-1990s as they waged war against John Stanfa, a rival who was once Bruno's driver.

The Buddha has been the Merlino crew's mouthpiece during the trial. He faxes testimony summaries each night to the defendants' relatives. Forced to wear an electronic ankle monitor when he returns at night to his row house, Lutz has grilled steaks on camera and called talk show hosts to laugh off the existence of a Mafia.

"It's garbage," he said. "In South Philly, us guys pretend we're mobbed up just to impress the girls. Nobody took us seriously."

The 36-count indictment against the Merlino crew alleges that Lutz was a bookmaker who joined in extorting money from mob clients. Lutz complains that prosecutors indicted him only to put pressure on him to join five other turncoats besides Natale--among them Gaetano "Horsehead" Scafidi, acknowledged hit man Philip "Philly Faye" Casale and capo Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio. Lutz says he is not cooperating, and even Natale conceded in testimony that he never saw the Buddha do mob "work."

Little 'Satisfaction' From Killings

The evidence against Lutz's friends in the South Philly crew dates to a six-year period in the 1990s when the imprisoned Natale drew close to Merlino, backed him in the chaotic war against Stanfa and then emerged to take over the family with Merlino's approval.

Natale described how he and Merlino plotted murders against Stanfa's men and other victims they wanted killed as examples. The murders gave Natale little "satisfaction," he admitted from the witness stand. "I did it because it had to be done."

"We kill each other," explained federal witness "Horsehead" Scafidi in his own testimony against his former mates. "That's just part of our life." But as the executions ordered by Natale and Merlino mounted in the 1990s, even Horsehead thought to himself that too many were "stupid."

Both sides missed as often as they connected. One contract killing fell apart when two hit men sent by Stanfa fled after pumping two bullets into the skull of "John John" Veasey. Slashed, pistol-whipped but still alive even after he wrestled one assailant down a flight of stairs--the wounded Veasey grabbed the knife and fled, surviving to recount the incident as a government witness.

"He had a very durable head," admired Merlino lawyer Edward Jacobs Jr.

Natale and Merlino had only marginally better luck. Merlino endured a spate of attacks, including a poisoning and a 1993 drive-by shooting that killed a fellow soldier and wounded him in the buttocks.

Despite the murder charges against him, Skinny Joey had his own troubles as an assassin. On a Halloween day hit in 1989, Natale testified, Merlino had to delay a killing because his MAC-10 semi-automatic had too few bullets. Merlino had spent his ammunition test-firing the gun. The attack, carried out later, wounded but failed to eliminate the intended target, the son of "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

By the time Stanfa went on trial and was convicted of racketeering in 1995, Natale was free and conspiring with Merlino, he testified, in eight slayings.

Their relationship was fragile. The vain Natale demanded respect for his senior status. The more flamboyant Merlino began chafing at the older man's condescension. The family frayed along age lines.

Behind his back, Merlino's men called Natale "Gandhi" and "the Prophet." "He talked like he was reading a page outta the Bible," Lutz said. "He'd give you these parables, you know? He turned cutting a piece of cake into a sermon."

Natale worried that the high-living Merlino would attract federal attention. "Joey," Natale sniffed to the jury, "lived the life of a movie star."

Merlino tooled around in a Mercedes, doling out Christmas alms to the homeless at lavish holiday parties. Lutz, who played Santa Claus, said his friend was "a giving guy." Merlino's largess, prosecutors said, came from extortion payments known as "the Christmas shakes."

It all fell apart, Natale recounted, when he was sent back to jail on a parole violation, then indicted in 1999 for his role in financing a methamphetamine ring. He found it hard to run his factionalized family from prison. The FBI bugged his prison phone calls. And Merlino balked at sending monthly payments to Natale's wife--or to his girlfriend.

Natale stewed in his prison cell. "Joey Merlino," he testified, "robbed from me and my family."

He had already lost 16 years of life because of his silence about family business. Facing another prison term, Natale decided it was no longer worth it.

His decision spelled more chaos on the streets of Philadelphia for the gang that couldn't think straight.

"I gave all my life to La Cosa Nostra," Natale told the jury when he took a moment to explain himself. "No more La Cosa Nostra."

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