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Reputed mobsters' trial is hottest show in Philly.

Crime: The federal trial of seven defendants could be an episode of 'The Sopranos' if it weren't for the real deaths.

By John Woestendiek
The Baltimore Sun National Staff
Originally published June 30, 2001

PHILADELPHIA - You don't need a ticket for the hottest show in Philadelphia this summer - just the patience to stand in line through two metal detectors, figure out who's who among the characters sucking Life Savers at the defense table, and listen to more racy language than in an episode of "The Sopranos."

The mob is on trial here - again - and has been for more than three months: specifically, reputed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and six codefendants, among them Angelo Lutz, a 5-foot-4, 400-pound reputed bookmaker known as the "Golden Buddha" after he appeared in a New Year's Day parade shirtless and painted gold.

They are named in a 36-count federal racketeering indictment on various charges that include murder, attempted murder, extortion, theft, loan sharking, drug trafficking and sports bookmaking.

"We kill each other; that's just part of our life," testified government snitch Gaetano "Horsehead" Scafidi.

While the subplots are hard to follow - fraught as they are with unnecessary violence, petty squabbling, characters switching roles, and too many nicknames to count - the finale is drawing near.

The defense began presenting witnesses Monday, and testimony could conclude next week, to the chagrin of some of those who have been sharing the small federal courtroom since March 20 with friends, wives and mothers of the reputed mobsters.

"You got some people, they like mob movies. And this is Philly," one spectator explained. "It's, like, you know, a home thing."

Women discuss who's cuter - "Skinny Joey" or fellow defendant John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini. And both local newspapers have examined and assessed courtroom fashions - of the defendants, their spouses and their lawyers.

The reputed mobsters, most of whom wear form-fitting, usually black, shirts, sit at an L-shaped defense table, their facial expressions ranging from blank to confused to contemplative, winking at their wives one minute, glaring menacingly at a witness the next.

Most of those glares have been for Ralph Natale, who is the core of the federal government's case. The first sitting mob boss to turn government witness and testify against his own, Natale spent 14 days on the stand, describing life in La Cosa Nostra and fingering all but one of the defendants for criminal acts ranging from extortion to murder.

Wives root for them

The wives sit through all the testimony. They are young, tanned, attractive, well-dressed, like baseball players' wives in the stands, rooting their husbands on and looking at them adoringly.

"Johnny? So you're good with clothes? You don't need any clothes?" Kathy Ciancaglini shouted to her husband, accused of murder and extortion, when the trial recessed Tuesday.

"No, Kathy, I'm fine," he answered, blowing a kiss.

The recess was called after the Golden Buddha's lawyer was bitten on the forearm by a dog and the wound became infected.

Despite the surrealism of it all, beneath the smiles and the jokes, the wives are taking it seriously.

"The spectators may say, 'Oh, it's like a soap opera,' but this is not a soap opera," said Lauren Angelina, mother of a 1- and 2-year-old and wife of defendant Martin Angelina, as she sat outside the courthouse smoking a cigarette and drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee. "This is real life."

The case is based on 10 years of federal surveillance and secret audio and video recordings. To hear Natale's - and the government's - version, today's Philadelphia mob isn't what it used to be.

Botched killings. Failed robberies. Profits so low that members turned to stealing trainloads of baby formula. Shaking down bookmakers to raise money, ostensibly - as Merlino put it in a recorded conversation - "for the f-ing homeless."

The Merlino case is the fourth government prosecution of an entire Philadelphia mob family since the 1980s - a time when La Cosa Nostra ran far more efficiently, with far less government intrusion and far fewer internal rifts.

But the shotgun execution of mob boss Angelo Bruno in 1980 was followed by two decades of infighting, killing and intensified government scrutiny. One former mob leader, Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, is serving a long prison term; a Scarfo rival, Harry "Hunchback" Riccobene, died in prison last year.

It was in 1995, federal authorities say, that the mob came under the control of Natale. Merlino, whom he had met in prison in 1990, was his underboss.

Natale, freed from prison in 1994 after serving 16 years on drug and arson convictions, was returned to prison on a parole violation in 1998. In 1999, he was indicted for financing a methamphetamine ring. With two earlier convictions, he was, at age 66, facing a life sentence when he decided to cut a deal and cooperate with authorities.

And that he did at the latest mob trial, offering an insider's view of everything from the code of silence, "omerta," that he was so blatantly breaking to an initiation ceremony that involves a gun, knife and flames. He linked six of the seven defendants to murders or attempted murders.

At least once, while enumerating details for the jury, Natale directed his middle finger at Merlino. Natale testified that, while he was in prison, Merlino stopped sending agreed-upon payments to Natale's wife ($3,500 a month) and his 30-year-old girlfriend ($1,000 a month) - an act that offended him greatly.

"Naturally I was disappointed and hurt," said Natale, who acknowledged being responsible for more murders himself (11) than the defendants are accused of together.

In addition to the testimony of mobsters-turned-informants, evidence presented by prosecutors includes phone taps, recordings, videotapes and surveillance reports - much of it startling, but little of it damning, at least in regard to the violent crimes of which the defendants are accused.

"The government has been watching these guys day and night for 10 years. They know everything you're doing," defendant Steven Mazzone's half-brother, a postal worker, said while waiting in line for court to start. "If you're watching me 24 hours a day, unless I'm David Copperfield, how am I getting away with anything?

"I'm not saying they're angels - everybody's got skeletons. I just don't think it's as deep as the prosecution is making it. If they were such a menace, why did the government just watch them for 10 years and not do anything?" asked the half-brother, who declined to give his name.

As he spoke, Lutz - the Golden Buddha and the only defendant who is not in jail - walked by, jovially greeting lawyers, news media representatives and spectators.

"They say he's extorting money from people," Mazzone's brother said of Lutz. "Look at him. If he showed up at your door, would you be scared?"

As the only defendant not charged with a violent crime, Lutz was allowed bail and, with an electronic monitor on his ankle, has been serving as unofficial spokesman and go-fer for his co-defendants - speaking to the news media, writing a newsletter on trial developments for defendants' family members, even making coffee at the courthouse.

"Sometimes it's very boring testimony and you need coffee to give you a little bit of a jump-start," said Lutz, 37, who is a member of the Greater Overbrook String Band. He marches in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, a New Year's celebration in which participants wear comical and elaborate feathered costumes. He and his band also appear in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Baltimore.

Lutz says he has no qualms about taking the stand - is looking forward to it, even.

"I'm not running from anything," he said. "First of all, I'm no mobster, and if I'm no mobster why should I run? This whole thing is a travesty of justice.

"They've used nothing but polluted sources. They've wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money. They've ignored a lot of facts. It has gotten to the point that government has stooped so low they will make a deal with anybody."

Defendant to testify

One other defendant, John Ciancaglini, is scheduled to take the stand, probably next week, during the trial before U.S. District Judge Herbert J. Hutton and a jury of six men and six women.

Ciancaglini has lost most of his family to organized crime, in one way or another. His father went to prison in the 1982 prosecution of the Bruno family. One brother was left disabled by a mob shooting. Another was killed.

"He's here for only one reason, because of his name," his attorney, F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, said in his opening statement this week.

Fitzpatrick - who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination while appearing before an organized crime grand jury in the mid-1970s when he was Philadelphia's district attorney - described his client as an ironworker and plumber who agreed to help shake down drug dealers, but later swore off crime.

Ciancaglini's brother, Joseph - reputed underboss to Natale's predecessor, John Stanfa - was shot in March 1993 while working in his South Philadelphia restaurant when it was under video surveillance by investigators.

Susan Lucibello, who worked in the restaurant, was the first witness called by defense attorneys. She described how she ducked behind the counter after seeing the gunmen and rushed to Joseph Ciancaglini's side after they left.

"Joey was face down in a pool of blood. I said, 'Oh, my God, he's dead.' And then he sat up, and when he sat up blood was pouring out of his head."

The federal agent conducting the video surveillance - it was shown in court but, fuzzy and taken from a distance, shows no identifying details - was at the restaurant within three minutes.

An emergency medical technician arrived shortly thereafter, warning Ciancaglini at one point not to blow his nose for fear his brains might come out through the bullet holes. The EMT told police at the time that Ciancaglini said, "Tim did me."

Ciancaglini survived the shooting; he still has bullets lodged in him, is deaf and uses a walker.

Defense attorneys contend the shooting was done by another restaurant employee, "Tiny Tim," who, after cooperating in the Stanfa prosecution, is now in the witness protection program. Prosecutors say Merlino, Angelina and two other mobsters were responsible.

About five months later, Joseph's brother and rival, Michael, was shot and killed in apparent retaliation.

The defense strategy is to focus on the violent crimes and present witnesses they say the government ignored, whose accounts and descriptions contradict those presented by the prosecution and point to other suspects.

"They have 3,600 tapes, and stacks of surveillance reports taller than you and I, none of which reveal a whole lot," said Jack McMahon, a former Philadelphia deputy district attorney who is representing Angelina.

"They've spent an exorbitant amount of money in investigating and prosecuting, and you're still just left with two cooperating rats," he said. "That's it - two people who have historically lied their whole lives."

Copyright 2001, The Baltimore Sun

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