DATE July 25, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: George Anastasia talks about the recent trial of reputed
mob boss Joseph "Skiney Joey" Merlino and his associates
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Must of us know more about "The Sopranos" than we know about what's happening
in real mob families in America. Leaders of the Philadelphia mob just did
trial and their story is representative of the state of the Mafia. Reputed
mob boss Joseph "Skiney" Merlino--Joseph "Skiney Joey" Merlino and six
co-defendants, five of whom were made men, were charged with running a
criminal enterprise that used murder and threats of violence to generate
income and control the Philadelphia-South Jersey underworld. The 15-week
trial ended last week, with convictions on charges of racketeering, but
acquittals on the charges of murder and attempted murder.
Joining us is reporter George Anastasia of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who
covered the trial. He's been reporting on organized crime for 15 years. He
says that Joey Merlino had not only risen to the top of his organization, he
had become a high-profile, celebrity gangster. I asked Anastasia how the FBI
regarded Merlino and why they were so determined to convict him.
Mr. GEORGE ANASTASIA (Philadelphia Inquirer): He was, at one point, the
underboss. Then he was the boss of the mob. But I think, more important, he
came to epitomize the mob in Philadelphia and the mob in America at the turn
of the century. And the FBI saw him as this arrogant, young guy who thought
he could get away with murder, literally. And he was a celebrity gangster in
that he was showing up at the chic night clubs and at Phillies' games and at
Flyers' games. People would come up and ask for his autograph. Everyone knew
Joey and Joey seemed to know everybody. And that--I think that got under the
skin of the FBI.
GROSS: I think he was on--even on Philadelphia magazine's best-dressed list
Mr. ANASTASIA: One year, yes. He was included among the best-dressed. And
he gave a dinner for the homeless. Every Thanksgiving there was a Christmas
dinner and he would have homeless people bused in and there would be a lavish
dinner. There would be a Christmas tree. There would be toys and presents,
Santa Claus, a mummers band would play. And that got lots of media coverage.
And that also got under the skin of the FBI. Law enforcement, in general,
would say, you know, it's easy to be generous when it's not your money that
you're giving away. That was the take. And Merlino, on the other hand,
said, `I'm doing something for people in need and what's the FBI doing?' It
was real street-corner, kind of `in your face' kind of thing, back and forth
between Merlino and those investigating him.
GROSS: Now was he born into organized crime? Was his father in the mob?
Mr. ANASTASIA: His father was Salvatore "Chucky" Merlino. His uncle was
Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino. Both of them were involved with the Scarfo crime
family in the late '70s, early '80s. Both were convicted. Salvatore
Merlino's doing a 45-year sentence for racketeering. Ironically, Lawrence
Merlino, his uncle, became a cooperating government witness in the '80s, one
of several who flipped at that point. But, yeah, he's second-generation
GROSS: Now before we go any deeper into this trial, what's this trial's
importance in the national scene?
Mr. ANASTASIA: I think, you know, the trial, itself, is a typical RICO
trial, not any different than what we've seen over the past 10 or 15 years.
But I think Philadelphia has always been the prototype of what's going on in
the American Mafia, whether it was the '80s or the '90s or now. And what we
saw in this trial is that this mob, this particular family in this particular
city is not much more than a street-corner gang. This is not Cosa Nostra.
This is a bunch of guys who grew up together, who hung on the corner together,
who were involved in crimes. And I think Merlino typifies the American
gangster, the American Mafia figure at the turn of the century.
It's no longer highly organized. It's not very sophisticated. And the whole
idea of Omerta, the code of silence, is kind of by the boards. These guys
were loyal to one another because they grew up together. Literally, these
guys--some of these guys were in first grade together and all going through
school together. So it wasn't a question of `We're not going to rat each
other out because of Omerta or because of the Mafia.' It was, `We're not
going to rat each other out because we're from 12th and Wolf. We're from the
same corner.' And you don't do that to guys you grew up with.
GROSS: So you think that organized crime--that the Mafia, anyway, doesn't
have the power that it once did and this family is representative of that.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right. It's no longer monolithic. It's no longer what it
was. And whether it can ever be again, I think, is doubtful. I think we're
seeing a third-generation of American Mafia figure. And they just--they're
just not made the same way as the guys were, say, in Carlo Gambino or Angelo
Bruno's time. You know, for those guys--whether you accept it or not, those
guys really believed in that whole idea of family and honor and loyalty. They
took what I perceive as the positive values of the Italian American community
and kind of bastardized them to their own ends. But they truly believed in
And a law enforcement figure once said to me, for a guy like Bruno in
Philadelphia, a guy like Carlo Gambino in New York, the Mafia was truly a way
of life. For the next generation; for the John Gotti's in New York, Nicky
Scarfo here in Philadelphia and certainly for Merlino, the Mafia was a way to
make money, but it wasn't a way of life. And I think that explains why so
many mob figures have become cooperating witnesses. They get jammed up.
They're looking at a RICO prosecution. They're looking at 40, 50, 60 years in
prison. And if the Mafia's not a way of life, but it's a way to make money,
they make a business decision. `How do I cut my losses?' And the way they
cut their losses is by becoming a cooperative for the government.
GROSS: Now if the Mafia in Philly isn't what it once was; if it's basically
a street-corner gang that's into a lot of crime and maybe murder, too, but
it's still not this big, organized crime syndicate anymore, why was this trial
so important to the FBI?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, I think part of it was the personality; Joey Merlino,
the celebrity gangster; they wanted to bring him down. Part of it was--and I
think this is where their case went off track. This investigation began in
1994 and 1995. And the targets were Merlino and Merlino's boss, a guy named
Ralph Natale, and Merlino's in his 30s, Natale's 60, 64 at the time--63; just
came out of prison after serving 15 years. He and Merlino take control of
this decimated Philadelphia mob. And Natale is the primary target. And they
bug Natale's phone. They bug his apartment. They bug a restaurant at the
Garden State Racetrack, where he would hold afternoon meetings. And he is the
guy they're going after. And they build a hell of a case against Natale. And
they nail him on drug conspiracy. He's running a methamphetamine ring and
they've got tapes and they've got evidence. And so they indicted him and they
And Ralph Natale, at that point, 65, has done 15 years in prison; has two
prior drug convictions. He's looking a life. And this is--you know, this was
the way it's supposed to work. This is the FBI at its best. They get a mob
boss and they nail him and he's never coming out of jail. But Ralph Natale
wants to get out of jail and he says, `I'll cooperate.' And the FBI, for
whatever reason, decides to make a deal with the boss. And it's as if, in New
York, they had made a deal with John Gotti to get Sammy Gravano. It doesn't
make sense. I mean, you know, the boss, the head of the family is the target,
but there were...
GROSS: So they made a deal with the number one to get at the number two.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Get at the number two. The irony was they kind of bought
Ralph before they realized what Ralph was selling. And Ralph's testimony
about the murders and the attempted murders that were at the heart of this
RICO case, the violence, was all second-hand. It was all hearsay. And the
government had very little to cooperate or back him up. And I spoke to one
of the jurors and the jurors said, `We believe they did all of this, but we
weren't going to convict based on a belief. We wanted some evidence and
Ralph Natale was just giving us hearsay and we couldn't convict, based on his
GROSS: So what was at stake for the FBI in this trial?
Mr. ANASTASIA: You know, I don't know that there's really that much at stake
for the FBI. I think the FBI has done this so often; they've nailed so many
of these guys that they just think they can do it by rote now. I think this
may be a comeuppance in the sense that maybe somebody's going to take a step
back now and say, `Wait a minute. We'd better think more about what we're
doing.' And if you look at what's happening across the country, I mean, there
is a situation in Boston where there's an FBI agent who's been indicted for
racketeering, who, literally--figuratively, got in bed with two of his mob
informants and allowed them to commit murders, possibly commit crimes, while
they were informing. You've got a situation in New York with a mobster named
Gregory Scarpa--same kind of situation; he was a high-level informant for the
FBI. He also was committing, possibly, murders. You've got Sammy Gravano,
who cut his deal; went out to Arizona and is selling drugs. So there's been
case after case.
And then that's not even talking about the FBI's other problems outside of
organized crime. And I think all of this is indicative of kind of an
arrogance that's kind of pervaded the FBI. And people are saying, `Maybe it's
time to take a step back. Maybe we've got to look at who we're making deals
GROSS: Now Ralph Natale was the lead, government witness...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right.
GROSS: ...against the crime family, although he used to be the head of the
crime family in Philadelphia.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yes.
GROSS: He presented tape at the trial that he had recorded of conversations
with fellow mobsters. What were some of the tapes like? What were--what was
some of the most interesting stuff that he got on tape?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, the tapes that--Natale didn't record anything. Natale
was being recorded. He was the target at the time these tapes were being
made, but there were discussions with Merlino and others about--Natale said
about murders. But what they were talking about--they were talking--he said
he was talking in code. He was in prison at the time. He was talking to
Merlino and others about this mob war that was raging in Philadelphia in 1993
and John Stanfa, head of the rival mob faction. And Natale and Merlino were
gonna wipe out the Stanfa organization and take over. And so he would call
from prison and he would talk to these fellahs. And he would talk about, `Is
anybody doing any work? You've got to keep working hard and you've got to get
out there and put your boots on and go to work.' And he said those were
references to getting out there and killing members of this organization. The
jury wanted to see more than that. They didn't. And I think that's one of
the reasons they rejected his testimony.
There were also tapes of Natale. I mean, some of the most interesting did
not even relate to the charges in this case. It was Natale on tape when he
was being bugged at his home on his phone talking about the way he was going
to corrupt and take control of the city of Camden. And it was, basically,
about taking over construction companies, getting awarded bids and contracts,
government money, and then ripping the government off. And on one tape he
talks about how you do this. And he says, `You know, we're not building the
Taj Mahal. It doesn't have to last forever. If it lasts five years,
that's fine. If I have to use 20 nails, I'll use 10. If I have to use three
wires, I'll use one. Who's gonna know the difference?' And it was those
kind of insights into--you know, this is the way this stuff happens. And
this is where we all pay a price on all that. Those, to me, were the far
more interesting tapes than these vague references to `is this a murder or is
this not a murder?' And those tapes related to Natale and who he was and the
way he was trying to run the organization. And I think those gave you more
insight into the way the mob operates, what they try to do and why we should
all be concerned.
You know, people say, `What do you care about wise guys? They kill one
another. They don't bother me. I don't bother them.' When they impact on
society, whether it's construction or the control of the price of cheese or
trash collection, those are the things we have to care about. And they're
always reaching out and trying to get their hands into that kind of stuff.
GROSS: What happens to Ralph Natale now? He was the head of the
Philadelphia crime family. He was in prison for many years, but now he was
the lead witness against the crime family, so what happens to him?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, that's the question that hung in the air over the
trial. Natale has pled guilty to murder and drug trafficking. He's looking
at a potential life sentence. Because of his cooperation, government
prosecutors say at the time of sentencing, they'll tell the judge the extent
of what he did for the government and ask for a downward departure in federal
guidelines. Now no one knows what he's going to receive, in terms of a
sentence, but he's 66 years old and he clearly does not want to die in
prison. And the defense implied that he's already been promised that he'll
get out of jail. Now if he gets a five-year sentence, he's already done
three. He'll be out very shortly. If he gets a seven- to 10-year sentence,
he'll do a little bit more time. But, ultimately, Ralph Natale is going to
get out of jail and go back to doing whatever it is that he does.
GROSS: How long is he likely to live when he gets out of jail?
Mr. ANASTASIA: You know, if this was 20 years ago, I would say not very
long. But Sammy Gravano did much the same thing in New York at even a higher
profile than Natale, and Gravano surfaced in Arizona. It was no secret where
he was and he was able to survive, thrive and get involved in drugs without
anybody coming out and trying to kill him. I think the day of the mob
tracking down the rats is long gone. They don't have the capability to do
GROSS: My guest is Philadelphia Inquirer reporter George Anastasia. He's
covered organized crime for 15 years. He just covered the 15-week trial of
Philadelphia's reputed mob boss, Joey Merlino, and six of his associates.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is George Anastasia and he's been covering organized crime
in Philadelphia for 15 years and he just covered the Joey Merlino crime trial
for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Who are the other witnesses that turned against their own crime family in the
Joey Merlino trial?
Mr. ANASTASIA: There were three other admitted mobsters--Ron Previte.
Ironically, Previte's a former Philadelphia cop who became a wise guy and then
became an FBI informant. There was Gaetano "Tommy Horsehead" Scafidi, a
long-time friend and associate of Merlino and the others. And there was Peter
"Pete the Crumb" Caprio, a 70-year-old gangster from Newark who was part of
the Newark branch of the Philadelphia mob.
I think the most compelling of all the witnesses was Tommy Scafidi--Horsehead
Scafidi. And he did--clearly did not want to be on the witness stand. And he
talked about how...
GROSS: He actually cried one day...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: ...and said that everything he believed in he was violating...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Exactly.
GROSS: ...by ratting on his friends.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right. Tommy Scafidi, I think, opened the window to here's
what the mob was and here's what it has become and this is why we are where we
are today. He's a fellah who said his grandfather, his uncles and his brother
were all made members of the mob, so he was a third-generation gangster. And
he talked about the way things were supposed to be. And then he talked about
the way they had changed when Joey Merlino took over and it wasn't the way it
was supposed to be. And he was trying to live by the rules of the mob. And
Merlino and those guys were still going to kill him and he didn't understand
why. And the frustration and the anger and the disappointment clearly came
out when he was on the witness stand.
GROSS: Why were they going to kill him?
Mr. ANASTASIA: In the middle of the mob war in 1993 he had switched sides.
He had gone with the Stanfa organization because he said Joey and those guys
were not really doing it the way you were supposed to do it. And he was a
true, in-the-blood gangster. And he was sentenced to a seven-year prison
sentence for racketeering. Doing his time, didn't rat anybody out. And
that's what he said. He said, `I didn't rat anybody out. I did what I was
supposed to do. I was a stand-up guy and still they were telling me I was
going to get killed when I came out, even though their boss, Ralph Natale--he
had flipped and he was cooperating against them. They still were talking
about killing me.' And, finally, the feds went to him and said, `Tommy, you
got nowhere to go. You're either gonna get indicted again and spend the rest
of your life in jail or these guys are going to kill you. What do you want
to do?' And that's when he started to cry. And he said he had no option.
He didn't want to be there. He didn't want to be testifying, but that's the
only alternative that was left.
And that, to me, really told the story about where--the whole idea of honor
and loyalty is gone. It probably left five or 10 years ago, but it really hit
home at this trial. There's no more honor and loyalty. It's treachery. It's
about making money. It's about grabbing it with both fists and getting all
you can and forgetting about everybody else.
GROSS: Now with Natale, the lead witness against the Philadelphia crime
family, and he used to be the head of the crime family.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right.
GROSS: Do you think he had any personal motivations, outside of wanting to
get out of prison?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Oh, I think there was a lot of animosity. There was a lot of
personal animosity between him and Merlino and George Borgesi, another
co-defendant, Stevie Mazzone, another co-defendant, but primarily Merlino
and Borgesi. There was a lot of--their whole relationship had started to
fall apart even before Natale was indicted on drug charges and was in a
jackpot. And a lot of it went back to lifestyle. A lot of it went back to
they were in their 30s. He was in his 60s. He had a 30-year-old girlfriend,
which was a cause of friction and...
GROSS: Why was that a cause of friction?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, you know, I--over the course of several years, I've
gotten to know these guys. And these guys were talking to me while they were
out on the streets and--for whatever reason. And one of the problems was the
girlfriend was a woman from South Philadelphia, who they all knew. And he was
kind of holding her up as someone they had to show deference to. And one of
these guys said to me, `You know, she's a girl from Broad and Snyder. He
wants us to treat her like she's Princess Di.' He said, `We knew her before
he knew her. We know who she is.' And, you know--and it was that kind--it
was really a street-corner kind of thing and `Who does he think he is? Who
does she think she is?' And that created a lot of--it sounds petty, but in
that world that they move in, that was--you know, it was all about face,
respect, all that kind of stuff. And so the relationship between Natale and
the young guys started to deteriorate.
Then they went away to jail, first, on a parole violation. And he says they
had promised to send money for his prison commissary, send money to his wife,
because Natale was still married, and also send money to his girlfriend. And
they said after about a month or two, the money stopped coming. And they--he
said, `It was like I was dead.' He was hurt by that. So all of these--you
know, there's a lot of different dynamics going on in this, separate and
apart from the actual criminality.
GROSS: Now the prosecutors presented some videotape at the trial.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right.
GROSS: What were the videos?
Mr. ANASTASIA: The most interesting video--and we had seen this at the
Stanfa trial, as well. It was a video of a mob hit in progress. Joseph
Ciancaglini Jr., the underboss of the Stanfa organization, is opening his
luncheonette about--it's 5:58 in the morning because you see the video. The
clock is ticking and it's pre-dawn. And then you see a car drive by. The
lights go on in the deli. Then you see some shadowy figures run in. You hear
a waitress scream and you hear gunfire because, in addition to videotaping,
they had bugged the deli. And then you see the shadowy figures run out.
Ciancaglini was wounded. He survived. It was a brutal hit. He's crippled.
He's disabled, even to this day. The attempted murder of Joe Ciancaglini was
one of the racketeering acts for which Merlino and the others were put on
trial. And this was portrayed as the start of the mob war in 1993 between the
Stanfa faction and the Merlino faction. Joe Ciancaglini, Jr. was Stanfa's
underboss. Tommy Scafidi testified that he was one of those shadowy figures;
that he and Borgesi and Mazzone and a fellah named Michael Anselatti(ph) ran
in that day. And another co-defendant, Martin Angelina, was driving the
getaway car. And Joey Merlino was serving as the lookout. He testified that
that's the way it went down. The jury saw that videotape. But in the
videotape you can't make out the figures. It's dark and shadowy. You can't
make any identification.
The defense presented some countertestimony; some people who said, `No, there
weren't four. There were three people there.' They didn't match the
descriptions of the individuals Scafidi identified. They had a testimony from
an EMT who arrived on the scene who said that Joe Ciancaglini, in his delirium
said, `Tim did me.' Well, none of these defendants were named Tim. So those
kind of things undermined the testimony of the government. All of that played
out and, subsequently, they reached a not-proven in that particular charge.
So they were not found guilty of the Ciancaglini shooting, even though Tommy
Scafidi said, `I was there. I was one of the gunman and this is the way it
GROSS: That must have really hurt the prosecution...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, that was one of the...
GROSS: ...to have a video like that and it's still--you know, it's not
Mr. ANASTASIA: That was one of the stronger of the murders and attempted
murders. And there were five or six in total. That was one of the stronger
pieces of evidence and one of their stronger charges. And they were very
disappointed that that one didn't result in a guilty verdict.
GROSS: What was it like for you to watch this tape?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, I had seen it before. When it was first played--it's
very dramatic because, you know, you can have a witness talk to you about the
way something happens, but when you hear it. I mean, it happens very quickly
and it's very much staccato, you know. And you see the shadowy figures
running. You hear the scream of the waitress and then you hear this gunfire,
about five or six shots--boom, boom. And then you--the feet are pounding and
they come out. And they come out and they go off camera, 'cause the camera's
focused on the entrance to the delicatessen. And these shadowy figures
disappear. And it only takes a matter of--like I said, I think it starts at
5:58. By 5:59 and some seconds, it's done.
And when you think about, I mean, the aftermath; the testimony from the EMT
about Joe Ciancaglini's state of mind. He's--she said an ear had been blown
off, an eye had been shot out. There was blood coming out of every orifice
in his face. When she got to him, he was so disconcerted, he tried to grab a
towel she was using to stop the bleeding and he wanted to blow his nose. She
was afraid to let him blow his nose, afraid he might blow his brains out.
That's how severely he had been damaged.
That kind of testimony--that brought it all to ground level. I mean, this is
what this is about. There's nothing glamorous about this. This is brutality
at its essence. That's what this was. And even with that they couldn't
convict because they didn't have enough evidence, but it was a very dramatic
testimony and the video was part and parcel of that.
GROSS: George Anastasia is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. We'll
talk more about organized crime in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, taking Joey Merlino out to lunch. We continue our
conversation with George Anastasia of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He's been
covering organized crime for 15 years.
Also, our language commentator, Geoff Nunberg, talks about the use of gestures
as an extension of speech.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with reporter George
Anastasia of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He's been reporting on organized
crime for 15 years. Anastasia says the story of the Philadelphia mob is
representative of the larger story of organized crime today. Anastasia just
covered the 15-week long trial of Philadelphia's reputed mob boss Joey Merlino
and six of his associates. They were accused of racketeering and using murder
and threats of violence to control the Philadelphia and South Jersey
Now although the prosecution lost on the murder and attempted murder charges,
they did win convictions on the grounds of extortion and racketeering.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right, there were--each defendant was convicted of
racketeering and the basis for the racketeering conviction was either
extortion, book making, receipt of stolen property, collection of an unlawful
bet. So each one is facing anywhere from seven to 10 years. So while the
defense may say, `This is a victory for us,' I don't know that sitting in
prison for seven to 10 years--after a month or two you're going to wonder
how--it was kind of a hollow victory, you know what I mean, if you're a
GROSS: Now the prosecution was saying, `Well, this really is a victory in
spite of the fact we didn't win convictions on the murder charges, because the
jury acknowledged that these aren't just like freelance criminals. This is
the Cosa Nostra.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Right.
GROSS: Now you were saying that this trail really shows that the Cosa Nostra
doesn't really much exist anymore. They're kind of like street corner
criminals. So what's the difference between your point of view and the
prosecution's point of view on that?
Mr. ANASTASIA: I think what this case showed, is not that these guys aren't
Cosa Nostra, it's that Cosa Nostra is not what it used to be, and should we be
spending all this time and energy to nail these street punks, is what it comes
down to. And I think that's where we are. At this point, post-verdict,
everybody's got to spin their thing in their best possible light that they
can. And the government is correct, they want a conviction and the jury did
say, `This was a criminal enterprise--Cosa Nostra. These guys were a part of
it and they're guilty of racketeering.' In that light, yeah, it's a victory
for the government.
On the other hand, the most serious charges, and the ones that meant the
most--especially too, you think about it, the families of the guys that were
killed. I mean, it's a very hollow victory for them. I mean, at the end of
the day, Joe Sodano, Anthony Turra, and Billy Veasey are still dead. And the
guys the government said killed them are getting a walk on those charges.
And the other problem with that is once you've been acquitted, you can't be
tried again. If they come up with more evidence down the road, they can't
retry them on those charges. And that's where I think they went off track
with Natale. Had they waited, and not included some of these murders in this
racketeering case, a year or two from now, maybe one of these guys as he's
doing 10 years, is going to say, `Hey, maybe I should cooperate.' And they
come back with a much more solid case to put those murders in another RICO. I
mean, I think it was a rush and I think that's why they got off track here.
GROSS: Do you know what the Philadelphia organized crime family has its
fingers in now? What enterprises it has a take on? What enterprises it
Mr. ANASTASIA: I mean, primarily, it's what it's always been. It's gambling
and loan sharking. There was testimony, in fact, in this trial about an
ongoing investigation into video poker machines. These guys got a lot of
video poker machines in bars and restaurants and that's part of illegal
gambling operations. Book making, loan sharking--those kinds of things. I
mean, that's the traditional--that's the wheel around which the mob operates.
What we're not seeing too much of it and what we had seen in the '70s and the
'80s is control of labor unions, corruption of judges, influence in the
political arena. I mean, there's less and less of that. And I think it's
because these guys are less and less sophisticated. They don't know how to do
GROSS: Are these guys connected to Atlantic City gambling? Atlantic City is
very close to Philadelphia.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Atlantic City has always been the plum of the Philadelphia
crime family. I mean, that's the diamond. That's where all the action is and
the Philadelphia family has had less and less influence from Bruno in the
1980s to Merlino in the 2000. One of the things that Natale talked about on
some of these tapes, was re-establishing control of the Bartenders Union in
Natale, before he went away to jail in the late '70s, was a Bartender Union
official in South Jersey. And he and Bruno talked about, `We control the
Bartenders Union, we'll control the Casinos.' And they foreshadowed what was
to happen, because while Bruno was killed in '80 and Natale, went to jail in
'79, Scarfo, who succeeded Bruno, took control of that Bartenders Union. And
that's the way he made millions of dollars off the casino industry in the
early days of casino gambling.
Ultimately, the feds came in, took control of that union, placed a monitor in
control of that union and drove to mob out. But Natale wanted to go back to
that. And that's something that these younger guys--they don't have the
foresight. They don't see that. I mean, Joey--one of the things that came
out about Joey Merlino was he was, `Live for today. You know, I want to go
party today. If I got five grand in my pocket, by the end of the night I'll
have nothing in my pocket, but tomorrow I'll get another five grand and go
party again.' It was that kind of attitude. And that's not long-term
thinking, you know, that's not the way you run a corporation.
And, again, to go back to the older guys. I mean, you can make an argument
that Carlo Gambino in New York, Angelo Bruno in Philadelphia, in another time,
in another era, they probably could have been the CEO of a company. You know,
they came to this country as immigrants and, for whatever reason, they chose
to get involved in organized crime. Maybe because there weren't as many
opportunities presented to them as Italian immigrants in the 1920s. Now,
today, I mean, I think the best and the brightest in the Italian American
community are doctors and lawyers and journalists. And what you're left with
are the guys who can't do anything else--they're the gangsters. They become
heads of the crime family. They don't bring that level of sophistication to
what they do.
GROSS: George Anastasia is my guest and he's been covering organized crime in
Philadelphia for 15 years. He just covered the Joey Merlino trial. And
George Anastasia writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
There was one afternoon at the Merlino trial where the subject was you...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yes.
GROSS: ...George Anastasia.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yes, Unfortunately.
GROSS: What were they saying about you?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Ralph Natale was on the stand and Ralph Natale was very upset
at some articles I had written shortly after he began to cooperate. And the
gist of the article was, Natale's cooperated because he's jammed up in a drug
deal and because he's got prior drug convictions, he's looking at life. And
one of the reasons he got involved in the drug dealing was he needed a lot of
money. And the reason that he needed a lot of money was, in addition to his
wife, he had a 30-year-old girlfriend who he was putting an apartment in
Voorhees, New Jersey, and buying a summer--renting a summer home for her in
Margate, New Jersey, and buying her dresses and this, that, and the other
thing. You know, he was living a double-life and he had this young girl. And
he was very upset with that article.
And the irony is I knew all of that for about two years and never had a reason
to write it, because that was his personal life and it didn't impact on
anything. But when it became a reason for him to cooperate, then I thought it
was a legitimate news story. And he was convinced that some of the wise guys
around Merlino were feeding me that information, and they were trying to get
back at him through me and I became a pawn for Merlino and those guys. And he
kind of lashed out at me on the witness stand--said I was a fraud, said, you
know, I was in Joey Merlino's pocket. And then when he was challenged on it,
he backed off a little bit and said he had no proof of that. But, you know,
it was very disconcerting to be the focus of testimony in a federal RICO trial
and that's where it all stemmed from.
GROSS: Did you have idea that was going to happen?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yes, I did. I knew it was coming because there had been some
taped phone conversations between Natale and his wife in prison, that the
defense had gotten a hold of. They're entitled to all those kinds of things.
And on those tapes he had gone on the same rant about me. So I knew it was
coming. The one thing that bothered me was that the defense brought this up
to try to show the jury this Natale lashes out at anybody. The one thing they
didn't ask Natale was, `Those articles that bothered you--what was wrong?
What was inaccurate in those articles?' And, had they asked that, he would
be--the articles were very accurate and they kind of foreshadowed what was
coming. But it was very disconcerting and it wasn't a pleasant afternoon for
GROSS: Are you worried at all that if Ralph Natale is that angry with you,
and if he feels that his friends ratted him out to you and you went with it
and that you're biased, does that mean you're not safe?
Mr. ANASTASIA: No, I don't think so. I mean, Ralph Natale is--I think this
trial showed that--a lot of talk but not a lot of substance. And it would be
foolish for him to try to do anything to anybody, let alone come after a
reporter. That's going to just call too much attention to himself. The only
time I had a real problem was back when John Stanfa was the mob boss. And
Stanfa was born and raised in Sicily. And in 1993, when I was writing about
the mob war, he was very upset, and he told one of his henchmen to find out
where I lived, get some hand grenades and throw them in a window.
Now I find out about this maybe three years later when the henchman became a
cooperating witness. And he told the FBI about this. And he called me up on
the phone from prison and he said, `Look some stuff's going to come out about
you. I want to let you know it was nothing personal.' And I said, `Well, you
know, I got a wife and two kids--grenades come through my window it's very
personal.' And then he said, `By the time we got the hand grenades, we were
so caught up in this war with Joey Merlino that you were not a priority
anymore, so we never pursued you.'
So I found out about a serious threat much after the fact--it was three years
after the fact. And I think that was an aberration because, Stanfa coming
from Sicily--in Sicily they kill judges, they kill lawyers, they kill
reporters, anybody who's not with them is against them.
The American mob guys, by in large, they don't like the fact that you write
about them but they tolerate you. And this next group, the Merlino group,
they weren't afraid of the media. And they seemed to enjoy, you know, getting
back at the government by making comments to the media. That's another thing
that was unique about this group. They used us. I mean, much the same way a
political party uses you, you know? `Here's what's really going on,' or `You
want to look at this?' Or `Want to look at that?'
And throughout this investigation, and even prior to it, I would get calls
from these guys and I'd be able to write a story that, `Law enforcement says
ABC, however, according to an underworld source, it's XYZ.' And for some
reason they enjoyed that. They liked to go at it with the cops.
GROSS: But you felt that they were spinning the story the way politicians
Mr. ANASTASIA: Exactly. And, you know, I would always try to check things
out before I print them, but there were a lot of times where they were telling
me things that were valid. And the government was trying to spin it their
way, and they were spinning it another direction. I don't know why they
wanted to do that. I mean, a guy like Angelo Bruno would never bother to do
it. He wouldn't care what the paper was saying. And Scarfo may of hated me
but he wouldn't give me the time of day--didn't matter to him what was in the
media. These guys seemed care about that.
GROSS: Maybe that's, in part, because they like being celebrities. And the
more they're quoted or photographed...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Sure.
GROSS: ...the more of a celebrity they become.
Mr. ANASTASIA: I think that's part of it. And I think the other part of it
is, they're from the corner. And you don't let any insult go by, you've got
to respond. If you don't respond, it's like you're beaten or you're afraid.
So they've got to respond. So if the government's saying this about them,
they want to have an answer.
GROSS: My guest is George Anastasia, a reporter for the Philadelphia
Inquirer. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Philadelphia Inquirer reporter George Anastasia. He's
covered organized crime for 15 years. He just covered the 15-week trial of
Philadelphia's reputed mob boss Joey Merlino and six of his associates.
Now all of the guys who are on trial in the Joey Merlino trial--which just
ended--they're all behind bars, with the exception of one guy who's out on
bail. Who's he?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Angelo Lutz was the only one who qualified for bail,
because he wasn't charged with any crimes of violence--any of the murders or
attempted murders. Angelo was a 5'5", 400 pound South Philadelphia
The government said he was a government associate. He said he was a
degenerate gambler who grew up with these guys, his boyhood friend was
involved in gambling, was involved in some of the activities, but not on
behalf of the mob, simply on behalf of himself. And he got up and testified
to that effect. The jury didn't buy it. They convicted him and he's looking
at--ironically, when all is said and done, he'll look at a sentence almost as
severe as Merlino's, even though he was convicted of gambling, unlawful
collection of debts, and extortion--and that they were collecting money from
guys--bookmakers who weren't affiliated.
But Angelo--I mean, the other thing, I mean, people say, you know, Angelo
threw himself in the spotlight and he got what was coming because he was so
outspoken. The problem--and this is a problem, I guess, with us with the
media, since Angelo was the only defendant who could come to and from the
courthouse every day, he was the one that cameras flocked to every day, which
is only natural. And he reacted, I guess the way anybody would--human
nature. You're sitting in court all day, people are saying things about you,
you want to respond. And he used the media to respond, and he became
something of a celebrity. And then other people were saying, you know, `Who
the hell does he think he is?' You know, `He's just asking for trouble by
doing this.' And that's the situation he's in right now.
GROSS: And he's colorful too and that kind of helped him get a lot of press.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yeah. I mean, he's the typical South Philadelphia corner
guy. He's quick on his feet, he's funny, he's great to go to lunch with, he's
entertaining, he's a great cook, he's involved in the mummers, he's a
musician. You know, that's one of the things that I think, from covering
these guys as long as I have, that that's one of the things I've come to see.
People think these guys are one dimensional, and they're not. I mean, I think
this is one of the reasons why that show, "The Sopranos," is so popular. You
know, Tony Soprano's got a wife, he's got a girlfriend, he's got kids who
won't listen to him, he's got guys who work for him who won't do what he tells
them. I mean, the dynamics of everyday life.
GROSS: Is there anybody in the Philadelphia mob who reminds at all of Tony
Soprano or of any of the other characters on the show?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, I think Angelo Lutz is probably the closest to one of
the characters in "The Sopranos," because he comes across as larger than life.
And, you know, very outspoken and funny and entertaining. Joey--I had lunch
with Joey a couple of times. I had lunch with Joey, and you sit down and talk
to him, and you go back and you look at your notebook and there's nothing
there. You know, he talks without saying anything. And if there's anybody
who--of all of these guys who, I think, really understands the way it's
suppose to be, even if he didn't always live the way it's suppose to be, it
was Joey. The rest of these guys, no, I think they're not quite--they don't
quite reach the level of what we would consider the real live gangsters. They
were, like I said, street corner guys.
GROSS: How much of that conversation with Joey Merlino over lunch is on the
record, you know, journalists tell me what's happening talk--and how much of
it is kind of small talk or talk that's off the record.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, I mean, he was--we always made that clear. I said,
`Joey I'm working on a story about X, Y and Z. What, if anything, do you want
to say about that?' And then if he wanted to say something, he would say it.
And then we would talk--a lot of small talk about his kids, about family, all
that kind of things. And he's got two young daughters. He knows I have two
older daughters. We would talk about those kind of things. He would always
ask, too. He would remember. You know, I met him one time and then he would
always ask, `How are your daughters doing?' that kind of thing.
You know, he's very charming and personable in that way. And then, you know,
he would talk in general. He wasn't educated, but he read. He read the
newspapers all the time. He could tell you about cases in New York, legal
decisions that might impact his life. You know, he would keep on top of those
kind of things. And anything that was negative about the FBI--Ruby Ridge,
down in Texas with the--was it--David Koresh--that kind of stuff. He knew all
about those kinds of things. And he read all of that because, you know, he
had this antipathy toward the FBI.
GROSS: Since we've brought up "The Sopranos," do you watch the show?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Religiously. I think it's a great show, for the reasons I
said. I mean, I think it's--what it's about is the human condition. And, you
know, the mob is the backdrop, but Tony Soprano is every man and he's trying
to deal with all of these things. And it's--you know, I've been in debates
with a lot of Italian American groups that go nuts about this and I don't see
it that way. I mean, we're talking about an ethnic group, Italian Americans,
who, in my lifetime, currently, have given America Antonin Scalia and Camille
Paglia. If we can do that, you know, we don't have to worry about Tony
Soprano being our poster boy. You know what I mean? I mean, and anybody with
any kind of intelligence and sophistication realizes that, you know, what
Italian Americans have contributed to America. And "Sopranos" is
entertainment. It's well-written. It's one of the best things on television.
If you don't like it, change the channel.
GROSS: What about, you know, concerns that--like "The Sopranos," romanticize
organized crime. Not because it's a romantic series but, you know, it's just
become so cool to watch it and cool to know gangsters and to know people who
are like Tony Soprano.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Well, I mean that's--America's always been fascinated,
whether it's Billy the Kid and Jesse James, or Al Capone, or John Gotti, or,
in this case, Tony Soprano. I think one of the things David Chase did this
year was to de-glamorize that show. If you look--and people complain now
about the violence they're showing, the brutality. I think David Chase was
saying to his critics, `These are who these guys are. They shouldn't be
glam'--you know, nobody should idolize what these guys do. They're beating up
a go-go dancer, they're turning on one another. And that was very--I think
very true to life--the treachery and all that. And I think David Chase was
responding to his critics this year with that stuff.
GROSS: Are you from South Philadelphia, the Italian neighborhood in
Philadelphia, where a lot of the mob came from?
Mr. ANASTASIA: I was born in South Philadelphia. My parents grew up in
South Philadelphia. When I was four years old, we became part of the
diaspora. We moved over to south Jersey, you know, part of the migration over
to the suburbs. So I grew up in Southern New Jersey. But I've always had
relatives in South Philadelphia. We've always come back and I've got a sense
of what Philadelphia is, yeah.
GROSS: Did you know mob-connected people when you were growing up?
Mr. ANASTASIA: You know, bookmakers, not really serious guys--gamblers,
bookmakers, those kinds of things. I spent a lot of time as a kid in Atlantic
City every summer. And Atlantic City was where everybody from South
Philadelphia went at that time--the '50s and the '60s. So, yeah, I know a lot
of people who were around this kind of stuff, but it was more Damon Runyon
"Guys and Dolls" than "GoodFellas"--you know what I mean?
GROSS: What was the scene like in the courthouse during the Joey Merlino
Mr. ANASTASIA: It was an event. I mean, in fact, both papers--my paper, the
Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News did pieces early on about the fashion
of the defendants and of the wives and the mothers and fathers that were
coming there. It was a real fashion show and it was an event. It was, in a
lot of ways, a soap opera. We got to know a lot of them and everyone would go
to lunch at the same Italian restaurant, about a block from the courthouse,
and it was as if--and it was buffet style. And it's called Pegano's(ph). And
it's like Pegano's was catering to the event, because everybody would go
there every afternoon. You know, and you get know people...
GROSS: Did you get to go there?
Mr. ANASTASIA: Most afternoons, because you have to talk to people. It was
good to--you know, you get access to folks. So, yeah, any trial that you
cover for a length of time like this, whether--I covered another big murder
trial down in Delaware involving Tom Capano a couple of years ago. The
dynamic of the people--you generate relationships, because you're all kind of
in the bunker together for a long period of time. And you get to know each
other and you talk about your kids and your life outside of this cocoon that
you're wrapped in for eight hours every day, five days a week, 12, 15 weeks of
GROSS: You know, I was concerned about your safety because of a couple of the
stories that you mentioned. But on the other hand, it seems like you've been
at this for so long--15 years covering organized crime in Philadelphia--that
everyone in organized crime, they know who you are. They know what you write.
They should know that you're fair and a good writer, so you're a regular part
of their environment. You're not some kind of newcomer who might be a threat
in surprising ways...
Mr. ANASTASIA: Yeah, I think I c...
GROSS: So in that sense you're probably pretty accepted and maybe even
Mr. ANASTASIA: I come with the territory. Some of them trust me more than
others. There are others who are just leery of the media. But, yeah, they
know who I am. And I think over the course of the years I've been doing it,
they understand what I'm trying to do. And I think, by and large, they think
I've reported fairly on what's going on. So, yeah, I mean, it's the kind of
relationship you develop--whenever you're covering a beat for any length of
time, whether it's education, whether it's organized labor, whether it's
politics--if you work at it for a long time, people start to know you and they
understand where you're coming from. And if you do a decent job, and I think
I have, you're accepted.
GROSS: Since the trial has ended and since the FBI lost on the murder
charges, have you spoken to any members of the FBI about what you feel they
learned from the trial and what they might have done differently if they had
it to do all over again?
Mr. ANASTASIA: I haven't spoken to anyone in the FBI. I talked to some
people with the US attorney's office--the prosecutors, and they were
disappointed, but I think in their heart of hearts they knew that some of the
murder charges were not as good as others. And they thought they were going
to lose some of them. They didn't think they were going to lose all of them.
And I think one of the things we'll see as a result of this trial, and it's
probably a good thing, is that the US attorney's office will try to keep
tighter reins on the way an investigation is going down, and not let the FBI
just kind of go out there and make the case and bring it to them. I mean,
they've got to take this to court and put it in front of a jury. They're the
ones that have got to stand behind what comes in. And I think they may want
to have more input into how it's built, rather than just taking the finished
cake and bringing it in and putting it on the table.
GROSS: Well, George Anastasia, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ANASTASIA: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
GROSS: George Anastasia is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Coming
up, language commentator Geoff Nunberg on the Italian use of gesturing as an
extension to speech. This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Italian use of gesturing as an extension of speech
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our language commentator, Geoff Nunberg usually talks about how we use
language. But today he has some thoughts on how people use their hands when
they speak, particularly in Italy, where gesturing has developed into a
language of its own.
Last month I was in Naples, where I spent a semester teaching a couple of
years ago. I was having dinner with a friend who told me he had to leave the
next morning to take a train to Amsterdam. `Why the train?' I asked. `Is the
flight too expensive?' He waggled his index finger in the Italian gesture of
negation, then rubbed his index and thumb finger together to indicate money,
then flattened his fore-fingers against his thumb in the gesture for fear,
then flapped his hand like a bird--all of which translates as, `It's not the
cost, it's that I'm afraid of flying.' That's the way conversations often go
among the Neapolitans, who use gestures even more than the other Italians do.
I always look on it with a certain awe.
I'm comfortable speaking Italian but I have inhibitions about attempting those
elaborate, gestural maneuvers for myself. It brings home to me how much I'm
an American boy with an American's mistrust of people who talk with their
hands. Of course, we Americans have plenty of gestures of our own, we wink
and nod, shrug and shudder, we fold our arms to show obstinacy, rub our hands
to show anticipation, raise our thumbs in approval and our fists in triumph.
And we express contempt with the universal gesture that the Romans called the
diggitus imputicus, or impudent finger.
But we tend to think of these gestures as an extension of body language, those
unconscious physical signals that reveal our moods and attitudes. And we're
suspicious of people who use gestures in an artful or demonstrative way, what
we disparage as gesticulation. We take it as a sign that somebody's passions
have gotten the better of them. That's an attitude we inherited from
enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau and Condiac(ph), who saw gestures as
the natural expressions of raw emotions. They claimed that the first
languages were entirely gestural and indistinguishable from a dance. And they
regarded Italian's love of gesture as the survival of that primitive form in a
people who were ruled more by passion than reason.
But the gesturing of the Neapolitans is anything but the natural expression of
elemental emotions. Describing it as an elaborated form of body language, is
like describing the language of Keats as an elaborated form of coughing. That
point was brought home to me as I was reading a recently published book called
"Gesture in Naples." It was originally written in 1832 by Andrea de Jorio, a
Neapolitan priest and archaeologist and it's been something of a cult book
ever since. But it was never available in English until last year, when it
was translated by Adam Kendon, a noted ethnographer who specializes in the
use of gesture.
De Jorio wrote his book at a time when archaeologists were trying to catalog
and interpret the thousands of classical artifacts that had recently been
exacerbated at Pompei and other sites. He was struck by how often the
gestures of the figures seemed to mirror those of the Neapolitans of his own
time. Looking at a barrow leaf(ph) de Jorio would say, `This slave is
remonstrating with her friend for not loving her enough, and her friend is
replying that she loves her a great deal and is coming to embrace her.' The
German archaeologists were mystified as to how he came up with those readings,
but the Neapolitans got the point right away. So de Jorio set out to write a
lexicon of the Neapolitan language of gesture.
Language isn't too strong a word here. The system may not be quite the
equivalent of the sign languages used by the deaf, which are comparable to
spoken language in every respect, but it has nouns, verbs, adverbs and
prepositions, superlatives and comparatives, tenses and negations. And its
elements can have a wide range of meanings. Take the gesture called the
skillpatio(ph) or finger snap. Depending on the context it can signal joy,
acclamation, scorn, indifference, or an invitation to dance. Why did the
Neapolitans develop such an elaborate gestural code?
In it's introduction to de Jorio's book, Adam Kendon notes that the
Neapolitans were accustomed to live large parts of their lives in public in
noisy streets and piazzas. He points out that gestures were an ideal way of
communicating under those circumstances, particularly when you didn't want to
be overheard by everyone within ear-shot. That's all plausible, but
functional explanations like that always leave me feeling a little
dissatisfied. It's like saying that cowboys took to yodeling so they could
communicate over long distances. True, but it doesn't get you all the way to
the sons of the pioneers. And for the Neapolitans, gesture is something more
than just a substitute for speaking, or an accompaniment to it. It's an art
too. And it's no accident that Naples was one of the birth places of
pantomime and the comedia del arte. The Neapolitans know that gestures
can have a precision and expressive power that spoken language can only fumble
at. They must feel sorry for Northern peoples like us, who have only
primitive words as emissaries.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.
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