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Loss of `goodfella' alters mob mentality. Mafia on last legs in Philly, elsewhere.

Published September 12, 1999, in The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- During the glory days of the Philadelphia mob in the 1960s and '70s, the wise guys were kept in line by the ``Docile Don,'' Angelo Bruno, who led with quiet authority and preferred to keep most violence out of public view.

But the loyalty and discipline of the Bruno regime are long gone. And the Philly mob is on its last, broken legs.

Bruno was gunned down in a car in front of his home in 1980, and the void was filled by young hotheads. Their power soon faded, thanks to their own inexperience, turncoats and tough new racketeering laws.

Now the Mafia's place in Philly's underworld has been taken over by Russian mobsters and other crime groups.

``There's no true Mafia tradition practiced in Philadelphia anymore,'' said mob criminologist and historian Celeste Morello. ``There's just been an influx of younger men with no idea about how the traditional Mafia is supposed to be run.''

This summer, the reputed former boss of the Philly mob, Ralph Natale, was charged with running a methamphetamine distribution ring and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. That would make him the highest-ranking American Mafia figure to flip sides.

He is believed to be providing information on drug dealing, murders and political corruption in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J. Among the men he could implicate is his reputed successor as mob boss, Joseph ``Skinny Joey'' Merlino, who is charged with conspiring to sell cocaine in Boston.

`The glue that held it together'

All this is a marked change from the way the mob worked under the courtly Bruno, the owner of a few South Philadelphia grocery stores.

Bruno stressed ``omerta,'' the Sicilian code of silence, and inspired loyalty that helped forge close ties with New York's Gambino family. He also built up operations in Atlantic City, N.J., raising the prominence of the Philadelphia mob to the level of powerful families elsewhere.

For much of his reign, which included involvement in gambling and extortion, Bruno relied on a ``working relationship'' with the police to keep peace in the city, while doing what he could to profit from businesses, legitimate and otherwise, Morello said.

``Bruno was kind of the glue that held the thing together,'' said police Capt. Jim Murphy, who heads Philadelphia's Organized Crime Unit. ``It sort of fell apart after that.''

Bruno died without an heir apparent, and his style was missing from the leaders who followed, such as Phil ``Chicken Man'' Testa and Nicodemo ``Little Nicky'' Scarfo, a swaggering former boxer who proudly proclaimed himself a gangster and had a penchant for violence.

In the years that followed, dozens of mobsters and associates were killed in an internal mob war, including Testa, who was bumped off with a bomb placed under his porch in 1981.

Crackdown by the law

Tough racketeering laws also went into effect during the 1980s, leading to the imprisonment of the mob's next four bosses, including Scarfo, who was convicted in 1988 with 16 associates. In the last 13 years, nearly a dozen members of the crime family have turned into government witnesses.

``I'd say for the last 20 years, post-Bruno, they've been paranoid,'' said Fred Martens, a former executive director of the now-defunct Pennsylvania Crime Commission. ``They certainly don't have the capacity to corrupt the political structure like they once did.''

The story is the same for other cities' mob families, who have been devastated by informants such as Salvatore ``Sammy the Bull'' Gravano of New York and Angelo Lonardo of Cleveland.

In New York, Gambino crime boss John Gotti was sentenced to life in prison in 1992, and his son and reputed successor got nearly 6 1/2 years behind bars last week.

In Boston and Providence, R.I., the New England mob has been reeling since a 1989 blunder by young boss Raymond J. ``Junior'' Patriarca. His induction ceremony for new members was secretly recorded by the FBI and used to send several to prison.

``The mob is probably in the worst shape it's ever been since the 1930s,'' said Stephen Fox, author of Blood and Power: Organized Crime in 20th Century America. ``Since the early 1970s, they've been cut into by new competition and the feds.''

New rivals

Among the new rivals are Russian crime groups. Unlike the Italian mob, which is often run like a corporation, Russians might hook up for a scam or two, then separate.

``There hasn't been anything they haven't been willing to get involved in,'' said Sgt. Michael Smith of Philadelphia's Organized Crime Unit.

Asian and Hispanic groups and motorcycle gangs such as the Pagans and Hell's Angels have also gained power in gambling and drug dealing.

Still, the Mafia might not quietly fade away. Last month, Steven ``Gorilla'' Mondevergine, the Philadelphia leader of the Pagans, was critically wounded when he was ambushed and shot in front of his home.

Mob experts said Mafia members may have been sending a message to Mondevergine not to encroach on their turf or tell what he knows to prosecutors.

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