Feature Articles

April 2000

Interview with George Anastasia

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

     Recently sat down with veteran crime reporter, mob historian and author George Anastasia to get the inside story on the recent turbulent developments within the Philadelphia mob.
     Highly regarded by mob experts, George Anastasia has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who's written three books about organized crime, including an account of the violent Scarfo years, Blood and Honor and Mobfather. Both are available through our      online bookstore.
     In 1998 he published "The Goodfella Tapes" the story of how the Fed's brought down Mob Boss John Stanfa by bugging a mob lawyers office. After Stanfa's trial, the reporter learned that the mob boss had placed a contract on his head.
     George has recently published "The Summer Wind" the riveting story of a young women murdered by a powerful Delaware lawyer after she tried to end their affair. The book grew out of a magazine piece that garnered him the Excellence in Magazine Reporting award.
     Over the four days it took t do this interview, I found George Anatasia to be endless patient, with a quick wit and a relaxed manner. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed writing it.

A brief background on the Philadelphia Mob: In the underworld, nothing takes the place of good management and if there is one Mob family where bad management has reigned supreme, its Philadelphia, the problem child of modern organized crime, or as veteran crime writer and newspaperman George Anastasia dubbed them "The Simpson family of organized crime."

The Philly mob is one of the oldest in America, having been started by a thug named Salvatore Sabella in about 1911, in answer to the cities growing Italian immigrant population. But Sabella was little more than a murdering extortionist and was eventually booted out of the country for his part in a 1927 murder John Avenna followed Sabella as boss and lasted less then nine years before he was murdered in 1936.

Avena's underboss, Joey Bruno took over and before he died of natural causes in 1946, developed Philadelphia enormous gambling and very lucrative rackets

Joey Ida, underboss, came next. Like Joey Bruna, Ida was a firm believer in the Low Profile approach to criminal management. However that theory crashed to halt when Ida was picked up at the Appalachin, New York meeting in 1957. The glare of publicity that it brought down on his bald head was so intense that Ida fled the country and retired to Sicily.

Angelo Bruno, no relation to the long deceased Joey Bruno, took over the city in 1959, with the backing of the National Commission over a rival capo. It was Bruno who moved his family into control over Atlantic City and established close contacts with the New York outfits, especially the Genovese and Gambino families. Under Bruno's reign, the Philadelphia mob made a fortune in the standard rackets and grew in its importance in the national Mafia. But, in many ways, Bruno was an old world boss. He kept his family on a short rope and micromanaged almost every detail of the business. As a result, the Philly mob missed out on the opportunities in Vegas and international narcotics

In 1980, a faction, led by Bruno's own consigliere, Anthony "Tony Bananas" Caponigro, who thought he had the backing of the national commission, murdered Bruno in 1980, gunning him down as he was riding in a car driven by soldier John Stanfa. When Stanfa pulled up to Bruno's house, he rolled down the passenger side window where Bruno was sitting, and watched as Bruno was shot dead.

It was at this point that the Philadelphia mob's practice of murder and mayhem management took over. Caponigro figured he was next in line to run things and was about to appoint himself boss when he was called to New York for a meeting with the National Commission. Once he was there, a crew run by Vincent "The Chin" Gigante strangled Caponigro and his partner Alfred Salerno.

Phil Testa came next and had the shortest reign in mob history. Nine months. He was murdered by his underboss Pete Casella, who planted a bomb planted in Testa's home. The bomb was packed with roofing nails and explosives and was detonated by a remote control. Before he was killed, Testa had also chosen Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo as his consigliere. Scarfo had been banished to Atlantic City by Bruno for stabbing a customer dead in a restaurant over a seating dispute.

With Testa dead, Casella and a capo named Frank Narducci called a meeting of the family and said that they had been cleared by New York to be the next boss of the family. Nicky Scarfo didn't buy it. On the day of Testa's funeral, he went to New York and met with the heads of the Genovese and Gambino families and learned that no one had approved Casella's ascension.

Scarfo convinced them to name him boss which they did.

Scarfo's rule brought more violence to the Philadelphia mob than it had ever seen. In the first four years of his reign, 30 mobsters were killed.

The blood lust of Nicky Scarfo had started and soon no one around him was safe. Anyone even suspected of being disloyal was whacked. Take the case of "Salvie" Testa. After his father was murdered, Scarfo promoted Testa to the rank of capo, largely becuase Testa was such a violent man. Police credited him with at least 15 murders carried out on Scarfo's request. Then Scarfo ordered Testa killed, maybe because he didn't trust him or maybe becuase he simply had the power to do it. A street war broke out between Scarfo and an aging capo named Harry Riccobene, whose crews caught the worst of it and the bodies piled up on the streets of Brotherly Love.

As a result of the blood lust, five members of the Philadelphia mob became government informants, including underboss Philip Leonetti, capo Tommy DelGiorno, capo Lawrence Merlino, soldier Gino Milano, and soldier Nicholas "N icky Crow" Caramandi.

A RICO case took out another arm of the mob and in 1989, Scrafo was sent to prison for the murder of Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso.

Little Nicky held control of the Philadelphia mob until 1991 and is currently serving two federal sentences and in all likelihood will die in prison.

Following Scarfo was John Stanfa, a Sicilian born Mafioso. Unlike Nicky Scarfo, Stanfa was willing to play politics and appointed Joey Ciancaglini, the son of a popular imprisoned capo, as his underboss. But that move did nothing but produce jealousy between him and Joey Merlino, whose uncle had informed to the government against Nicky Scarfo. There was a set up, and in 1994, after less then three years as boss, Stanfa went away on a narcotics conviction.

Stanfa's successor was Ralph Natale, a former president of the Camden County, New Jersey bartenders union, which was the controlling union in Atlantic City. But Natale was sentenced to prison on a parole violation and allegedly turned the reigns of power over to the young and inexperienced "Skin ny Joe" Merlino. In 1999, Natale was also charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine. At age 68, Natale did not want to die in jail and decided to cooperate with the feds. He is now a government witness.

"Skinny Joe" Merlino, at age 38, is today, allegedly the acting boss of the highly undisciplined and kill happy Philadelphia mob.

In late 1998, Merlino and several others were arrested by the FBI on charges that they conspired, with members of the Boston mob, to purchase and distribute cocaine. The case against him was built on conversations recorded by Ronald Previte, an alleged capo in the family, who had been secretly working for the FBI for more than two years.

Since the average term of a Philadelphia mob boss is less then five years, no one is banking on Merlino as a long run candidate for the job, a prediction made even more likely when it was learned that Natale had cut a deal with federal authorities to talk about drug dealing, murders and political corruption in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ

AMERICAN MAFIA: George, what shape is the Philadelphia mob in today?

GEORGE ANATASIA: If this were a business, it would be in Chapter 11. It's bankrupt. And I think it will be very difficult for anyone to put the organization back together.

AMERICAN MAFIA: The US Attorney in Philadelphia has said that the recent round of arrests in Philly "represents a complete collapse of this criminal organization." Is this an over statement?

GEORGE ANATASIA: "Complete collapse" is a little hyperbolic. There will always be a mob. But the mob in Philadelphia will, I think, never again be the major factor in the underworld that it was even 20 years ago.

AMERICAN MAFIA: With so many hoods cooperating with the Feds, what's the atmosphere on the streets right now? Does paranoia reign...more then it usually does?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Philadelphia has a long tradition of mob informants, so when a guy flips today it's not met with the kind of shock and surprise that came back in the mid 1980s when Tommy Del and Nicky Crow turned on Scarfo. Omerta is a thing of the past here and in most other cities where the Mafia once ruled. In Philadelphia, the code of silence is like the Liberty Bell. Cracked and inoperative. IT DON'T WORK.

AMERICAN MAFIA: In your book "The Goodfella Tapes" you write that the FBI was able to bring down Mob Boss John Stanfa by bugging a mobsters lawyers office. How is that possible? Aren't conversation held between a client and Attorney privilege?

GEORGE ANATASIA: The feds argued, successfully, in their application for court authorized bugging, that Stanfa and other mobsters were using his lawyer's office to hold mob meetings. The meetings, as the tapes later showed, had nothing to do with jurisprudence or legal issues. In fact, lawyers were seldom present. In addition, the feds had to file 10-day reports outlining what they were picking up on the bugs and every 30 days had to get reauthorization. As a result, the two-year bugging operation had heavy and constant court monitoring.

AMERICAN MAFIA: I sense a danger in that, whether the lawyers were present or not, that sort of government clout makes me uncomfortable. Would you agree?

GEORGE ANATASIA: The issue was argued in pretrial motions and upheld. In fact, the lawyer whose office was bugged was indicted, but he was acquitted at trial.

AMERICAN MAFIA: George lets take a second and discuss Little Nicky Scarfo, probably the most fascinating and frightening character ever produced by the Philadelphia mob. Would you agree?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Think of the Joe Pesce character in Goodfellas as the head of his own mob family. That's the picture of Little Nicky Scarfo.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Its my understanding that before he was promoted to Phil Testa's consigliere, Scarfo had been banished to Atlantic City for stabbing a man to death in a Dinner? What was that about? And how does someone so volatile come to hold a discreet position like consigliere?

GEORGE ANATASIA: That happened back in 1963 when Scarfo was a young hot head. There were several members of the family at the time who thought he should have been whacked because of it. But his uncles, the Piccolo brothers, interceded and convinced Bruno to spare Scarfo. Instead, he was sent to Atlantic City at a time when the city was in the dumps. Thirteen years later he's a struggling wiseguy taking care of the mob's limited interests on the Boardwalk when casino gambling was legalized. Go figure.

AMERICAN MAFIA: So is the story is true? He stabbed a man to death, a civilian so to speak, in an argument over an empty dinning booth?


AMERICAN MAFIA: At about the time that Scarfo was banished from Philadelphia, you were the Inquirers regional report in Atlantic City, correct?

GEORGE ANATASIA: No. Scarfo went to AC in 1963. I was not there until 1976, the year New Jersey legalized casinos. I watched Scarfo operate from 1976 to 1986 when he was finally arrested and taken off the streets.

AMERICAN MAFIA: When Scarfo moved back to Philadelphia and started the shooting wars there, the Inquirer decided to move you to Philadelphia as well?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Scarfo ran the family from Atlantic City. I ended up covering the mob full-time starting around 1990, shortly before Blood and Honor was published.

AMERICAN MAFIA: George, the people of the South Jersey-Philadelphia area justifiably proud of the progress made in Atlantic, so with a nod to them, I'd be derelict if I didn't much of a grip does the Outfit have in Atlantic City?

GEORGE ANASTASIA: The mob has never had any influence in the counting rooms, unlike the early days of Vegas. But Scarfo did control the largest union the Bartenders -- for years until a federal RICO resulted in a court appointed monitor. The mob has always been around the fringes of the casino industry and there's a lot of money to be made there. Trash hauling, linens, junkets, etc....

AMERICAN MAFIA: But, in effect, by controlling those unions, they control several of the casino's life lines. To your knowledge, have they used that power to shake down or influence the state government or the casino owners?

GEORGE ANATASIA: The mob used its union connections to get a piece of the casino construction business in the early days of AC casino building. But there's never been any indication that the mob has influenced state government in New Jersey with regard to the operation of the casinos.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Have the people of Atlantic City, the long time residents, have they gained from the New Atlantic City?

GEORGE ANATASIA: More jobs. More money. More tourists. But AC still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. It's a complicated question. No easy answer. It's a trade-off and a quality of life question that can only be answered on an individual basis.

AMERICAN MAFIA: I've always been fascinated by the details behind the 1928 Atlantic City Conference, at which, for all given purposes, organized the national crime syndicate. That meeting was hosted by a New Jersey character named Nucky Johnston. Who was he and how did he get that sort power?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Nucky was the political operative in Atlantic City back in those days. The city was wide open and the line between politics and the underworld was fuzzy at best. Two other characters from that time were Stumpy Orman and Hap Farley. Those three ran the city.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Lets talk for a second about another Atlantic City character, Frank Sinatra's pal, Skinny D'Amato. He was essential a front man for several illegal mob run casino's on the boardwalk, wasn't he? Do you think there is any credence to the story that D'Amato distributed cash for the Kennedy campaign in West Virginia in 1960?

GEORGE ANATASIA: I met Skinny D'Amato right before the first legal casino opened in AC in 1978. He was a Damon Runyon character. Very charming. The rumors about the mob involvement in the Kennedy campaign are expanded on in Bill Bonnano's book Bound by Honor. I think D'Amato did a lot for the mob and Sinatra over a lifetime. West Virginia was probably a small part of it.

AMERICAN MAFIA: George, let me go back to Nicky Scarfo for a second, if I may. When Scarfo wanted to take over the Philadelphia out, he had to up to New York and get the approval of the Genovese and Gambino familles

GEORGE ANATASIA: This was after the Testa hit. Scarfo was suspicious, and rightly so, of Casella and Narducci who were claiming they had New York's backing and were taking over the family. Little Nicky was good at recognizing treachery because he was an expert practitioner of the art.

AMERICAN MAFIA: What's the legacy of Nicky Scarfo? What's his effect on the Philadelphia mob?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Scarfo, more than anyone else, set the tone that led to the family's demise. Angelo Bruno ruled for 21 years with an iron fist covered with a velvet glove. Scarfo saw no need for the glove. That was the difference.

AMERICAN MAFIA: And following Little Nicky Scarfo came John Stanfa, the center of your book "The Good Fella Tapes" correct?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Stanfa took over in 1991. There was a brief period between 1989 and 91 when Anthony Piccolo was acting boss.

AMERICAN MAFIA: That's unusual, why did that happen?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Scarfo was in jail. Piccolo was his cousin. Stanfa had not arrived back on the scene yet.

AMERICAN MAFIA: During the Stanfa trial, you learned that Stanfa had placed a contract on you, he wanted you dead. How did you learn that and why did he want you dead?

GEORGE ANATASIA: I learned about this after Stanfa was convicted. One of his co-defendants, Sergio Battaglia, began cooperating in 1996. He later called me from prison and told me about a plot in 1993 to find out where I lived and throw hand grenades through the window. But he said by the time they got the grenades, they were so wrapped up in a war with Skinny Joey Merlino I was no longer a priority. Stanfa was apparently upset about some news articles I had written in 1993 that depicted his organization was a bumbling, disorganized crime family. A South Philadelphia version of the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

AMERICAN MAFIA: But aren't crime writers and reporters, in so long as we stay honest and accurate, we're supposed to be left alone in the course of our work?

GEORGE ANATASIA: The thing to remember is that Stanfa was born and raised -- and in fact "made" -- in Sicily. And in Sicily, judges, prosecutors and reporters can be and have been Mafia targets.

AMERICAN MAFIA: How did he plan to have you killed?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Grenades through the window.

AMERICAN MAFIA: As a crime reporter, do you think the mob tries to put a spin on what written about it? Who do you think was, or is, the most press savvy gangster in the pack?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Gotti certainly knew how to play the media. Merlino and some of the young guys around him were also good at it and surprisingly accessible. I'm not sure what they get out of all this, however. Angelo Bruno was a boss for 21 years and he understood that the idea was to make money, not headlines.

AMERICAN MAFIA: George, as you know, its long been the practice of the Chicago mob to put a scapegoat at the head of the organization while the real boss operates in the background. Some mob experts think that Ralph Natale, the jailed boss, is actually running things in Philadelphia and that his underboss, Joey Merlino, is just a lightening rod. But if Natale really is cooperating with the feds, can it be true that he's running things?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Natale is cooperating. And I think what's going to come out eventually is that Merlino and the young guys around him were content to let Natale think he was the boss when, in fact, they largely ignored him and did whatever they wanted. He had the title and the aggravation and attention that went with it. Unfortunately, Joey Merlino didn't know how to maintain a low-profile and he became a celebrity gangster in the Gotti mold, which pissed the feds off and resulted in Merlino being as much of a target as Ralph.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Its not in your back yard, but what are your thoughts on this situation up in Boston with former FBI agent Connolly being accused of running to close with Whitey Bulger and his pack?

GEORGE ANATASIA: I used to think that Philadelphia was the most dysfunctional mob family in America, the Simpsons of the Underworld. But from what I know and have heard of the situation in Boston, Philadelphia might have to take a back seat to Beantown when it comes to disorganized organized crime. It's a real saga up there and I'm looking forward to some books that reporters up there are working on.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Getting personnel for a moment, George, you graduated with a BA in French Literature and studied at the University of Toulouse in France. That's a long way from guys named "Horse's head" and "Nicky Guns", what perked your interest in the underworld?

GEORGE ANATASIA: My heritage. My grandparents were Sicilian immigrants. I always heard about this stuff growing up and then when I was posted to Atlantic City by the Inquirer in 1976, I got a chance to write about it and things took off from there.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Your grandparents, on both sides, were Sicilian I understand?

GEORGE ANATASIA: My father's family came from Messina in eastern Sicily. My mother's from around Palermo.

AMERICAN MAFIA: What did you Dad do for a living, George?

GEORGE ANATASIA: He was a service manager for an electrical contracting and plumbing company. He was the youngest of seven and the only one to graduate from high school. I was the first one in the family to graduate from college.

AMERICAN MAFIA: So your the first generation in your family to attend college?


AMERICAN MAFIA: So, as an Itialian-American, how does all of this, the reporting on the Mafia, how does it effect George Anastasia?

GEORGE ANATASIA: I think I have a little better understanding of the culture and customs that the mob has basically taken and bastardized. Honor, loyalty and a sense of family in their best senses are what Italians are about. The mob has distorted all of that.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Well as an Itialian-American, as a Sicilian, reporting on the Mafia in an area heavily populated by Italians, what's it like? Is there any fall out from the Itlo community about your stories?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Some people believe writing about the mob re-inforces the stereotype that all Italian-Americans are mobbed up. I understand that argument, but don't agree. People who buy into stereo-types are narrow-minded and bigoted and I try not to let them effect how I write or what I write about.

AMERICAN MAFIA: I don't mean to put you on the spot, but would you tell us what your two Pulitzer nominations were for?

GEORGE ANATASIA: Reporting on the mob and reporting on Atlantic City.

AMERICAN MAFIA: George, although your recent book "The Summer Wind" isn't mob related, but its a fascinating story nonetheless. I followed it in the newspaper. Its a gripping story, would you give our readers some back ground on it?

GEORGE ANATASIA:It has money,sex,power,deceit,treachery,brother-against-brother, lover-against-lover. It was American Beauty with a lot more sex and violence. How could anyone resist a story like that?

AMERICAN MAFIA: The victim, Anne Marie Fahey, was the secretary to the Governor of the state of Delaware. How did she come to meet her killer, Thomas Capano?

GEORGE ANATASIA: They had a secret two-year affair. They met in political circles in Delaware.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Capano hired a so called Dream Team to defend him, he was convicted anyway. What happened?

GEORGE ANATASIA: He ignored his lawyers and took the witness stand in his own defense, testifying for eight days and reinforcing the impression the prosecution had been trying to make that he was an arrogant, self-absorbed individual who thought he could get away with murder.

AMERICAN MAFIA: Capano was a guy with everything a man could want, George, power, wealth, position. So why kill a lost soul like Fahey?

GEORGE ANATASIA: That's the fundamental question to which we may never get an adequate answer. The simple explanation is he decided if he couldn't have her, no one would. But this was a man with more money than God, who had a wife, four daughters and at least two other mistresses. I don't know why he could not just walk away from Fahey when she wanted to end it except to say that he was the ultimate control freak and everything had to be done on his terms.

AMERICAN MAFIA: George, thank you for your time.

GEORGE ANATASIA: You're welcome.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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