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This Mob Shot Its Brains Out

Crime boss Ralph Natale, in rare testimony against his own, tells a tale of murder--and ineptitude.

May 04, 2001|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — 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."

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