Philly Mob Figure Acquitted of Murder

Reputed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino was cleared by a jury today on the most serious charges in his federal racketeering trial.

Merlino was found guilty of numerous racketeering-related charges, such as extortion, bookmaking and receiving stolen property, but acquitted of three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

Merlino and three of his six co-defendants had faced the possibility of life imprisonment if they had been convicted on murder charges. Other charges in a 36-count indictment included attempted murder, extortion, drug trafficking and illegal gambling.

The verdict followed an extended trial on a 36-count racketeering indictment. The prosecution took nearly three months to unspool its case, putting 50 witnesses on the stand and presenting 943 pieces of evidence. Defense lawyers, focusing only on the most serious charges, called 40 witnesses and sped through their case in only six days.

Opening statements began March 29. The jury started deliberating Saturday after a week's worth of closing arguments.

High-Ranking Mafia Turncoat

The government's star witness was former crime boss Ralph Natale, the highest ranking American Mafia figure to become a government informant.

Natale spent 14 riveting days on the stand, testifying that he plotted with Merlino to take control of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob in the early 1990s by hunting down and killing members of a rival mob faction. Defense attorneys called Natale a liar whose sole motivation in testifying was to avoid dying in prison.

Another mob turncoat, Ronald Previte, was a corrupt former Philadelphia police officer who joined the Mafia and rose to the position of captain — all the while working as an informant for the FBI. The defense made much of the fact that the FBI paid Previte $500,000 to wear a wire and record hundreds of conversations with Merlino and other defendants. Those tapes formed the basis of drug, theft and illegal gambling charges against Merlino.

The trial was the government's third major assault on the Philadelphia mob in 13 years. A 1988 case led to the downfall of mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo and 15 associates, while a 1994 indictment put mob boss John Stanfa away for five consecutive life sentences.

While Scarfo and Stanfa tried to avoid the media spotlight, that was not the case for Merlino. His dark good looks, lavish spending, flashy clothes and beautiful wife made him a celebrity in the city.

Merlino's annual Christmas party for the homeless, complete with turkeys, Santa and presents for children, drew heavy media coverage, while his face graced numerous tabloid newspaper covers.

A 10-Year Probe

The FBI's 10-year investigation of Merlino led to his arrest on drug charges in 1999. Merlino and 10 others were indicted by a federal grand jury in March 2000 on murder, extortion and illegal gambling and related offenses. Prosecutors decided before the trial not to seek the death penalty against Merlino and three co-defendants also charged with murder.

The defense team all but conceded an array of stolen property and illegal gambling charges. Instead, defense lawyers tried to poke holes in the government's case for murder, attempted murder and extortion.

For example, Natale testified that Joseph Sodano, a longtime northern New Jersey mobster, was killed because he refused to come to Philadelphia for a meeting with mob leadership. The defense countered that by presenting witnesses who suggested that Sodano was actually shot during a robbery.

Also, Natale testified that defendant John Ciancaglini asked him for permission to kill William Veasey. But three defense witnesses testified that Ciancaglini was at his mother-in-law's house at the time of the Veasey hit.

The defense also took a calculated risk by having two of the defendants testify. Ciancaglini and Angelo Lutz — a corpulent man nicknamed "Buddha" for his girth and the only defendant free on bail during the trial — both denied ties to organized crime. But their credibility was attacked during aggressive questioning by the prosecution.