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COLUMN ONE

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

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

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