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."