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

February 22, 1990|PAUL DEAN | 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.

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