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Can informer link Merlino to '96 N.J. mob killing?

March 15, 2000

by Kitty Caparella
Philadelphia Daily News Staff Writer

Acting jailed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino could be nailed in the murder of a North Jersey mob moneymaker and his top lieutenant if Merlino's rival, now a government informant, has his way.

Ex-mob boss Ralph Natale has reportedly told authorities that Merlino was linked to the Dec. 7, 1996, gangland slaying of Joseph Sodano, an ally of jailed ex-mob boss John Stanfa, Merlino's onetime rival.

Today's arraignment of North Jersey mob capo Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Hedges in Newark, could tighten that knot.

Caprio, 70, of Union Township, Union County, was indicted last week in Sodano's murder and in the July 16, 1994, murder of Sodano's right-hand man, Willie "Crazy Willie" Gantz.

"We're not saying he [Caprio] pulled the trigger," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Kaplan.

Caprio was the only person charged with two counts of conspiring to murder in the aid of racketeering and two counts of murder in the aid of racketeering.

Caprio allegedly conspired with unidentified "others" to maintain and improve their positions in the North Jersey crew of the Philadelphia crime family. Yet, no co-conspirators were named in the indictment.

"Why would they arrest this Pete, and not Joey? Unless Joey didn't have anything to do with it," said Merlino's attorney, Joseph Santaguida.

Known as an "old school" mobster, Caprio is believed to have been promoted from soldier to captain after Sodano's death, law enforcement sources said.

Sodano, also capo with his own North Jersey crew, had earned a reputation for refusing to pay his mob tribute or share his gambling proceeds when he was fatally shot twice in the head in his van in a Newark parking lot on Dec. 7, 1996.

Caprio immediately became a suspect in the murder of Sodano, a law enforcement source said.

Within weeks of the Sodano hit, members of the Bonnanno, Lucchese and Bruno crime families had a Mafia sit-down to discuss mutual interests in North Jersey, such as their sports gambling operations, sources said.

Then-underboss Joey Merlino represented the Philly mob, a source reported.

Sodano became a mob management problem after he reduced his $4,000-a-month tribute to $1,200 when ex-mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo was jailed, and then stopped making payments.

He promised to resume his tribute to Stanfa but was arrested on 1992 New Jersey racketeering charges. He pleaded guilty and served two years of a 10-year term. It could not be learned if he resumed payments to Natale or Merlino.

Sodano also tried to engineer the ouster of his then-supervisor, Ralph "Blackie" Napoli, for being senile, according to a 1991 FBI tape recording.

Sodano's onetime pal, Caprio, has been linked to video poker, stolen goods, financing of drug deals and sports gambling. He also operated the Uptown Downtown Social Club, on Hudson Street in Newark.

In 1981, Scarfo inducted Caprio into the mob at Marighi's Savoy Inn, in Buena Vista Township, Atlantic County.

At the same time Phil Leonetti and Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino were elevated to capos, according to law enforcement sources.

Leonetti, nephew of Scarfo, and Merlino's uncle, Yogi Merlino, later cooperated with authorities.

Sodano, 58, lived in Montville, N.J. Ganz, 44, lived in Belleville, N.J.

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