He was, to borrow an over-used sports term, a game changer. And he, and all those around him, paid a significant price because of it.
Little Nicky Scarfo, the violent Philadelphia-South Jersey mob boss who died in prison earlier this year, played by his own set of rules. The result was chaos. His passing (he died in a federal prison on Jan. 13) attracted front page headlines, but there was little of the pomp and ceremony that used to be de rigueur when a mob boss died. No viewing at a South Broad Street funeral home with lines of mourners stretching out the door and down the block. No FBI agents in unmarked vans taking pictures of crime family members and their associates coming to pay their final respects. No church ceremony with pallbearers carrying an ornate coffin to a waiting black limousine.
There has been little mention of Scarfo’s “final arrangements.” One source said his passing was marked at a private family memorial service and his body was cremated. For all the noise he made while on the streets, Little Nicky went quietly.
As a former North Jersey mob enforcer now living in Florida put it, “he was a bad guy in a bad life…As a human being he was flawed, inept and delusional…. (But) in the end, he was just an old man who died alone.”
Scarfo was 87. He had spent the last 30 years of his life in prison, serving sentences for racketeering and murder charges contained in an indictment that literally took down his crime family.
He and 16 others were convicted in the 1989 case that included charges of murder, attempted murder, gambling, loansharking and extortion. The murders listed in the indictment included members and associates of his own crime family, and of a rival faction aligned with the late Harry “The Hunchback” Riccobene. Among the other victims were a municipal court judge, Edwin Helfant, who took a bribe, but failed to deliver and Vincent Falcone, an Atlantic City contractor who made the mistake of calling Scarfo “crazy.”
Truth was apparently no defense for Falcone who was himself a wannabe wiseguy.
Falcone was in the cement business, as was Scarfo and his nephew Phil Leonetti. This was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the boom years for casino gambling in Atlantic City.
Never subtle, Scarfo and Leonetti called their company Scarf Inc. They operated out of a small store front on North George Avenue adjacent to the apartment building owned by Scarfo’s mother. Scarfo and his family lived in one of the units. His mother was in another.
At the time, people would joke that it was the safest block in the city.
Falcone might have thought otherwise.
Scarf Inc. did lots of business in the early days of casino gambling. An investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor said that the cement company did work on the first six casino-hotels that were built after Resorts International opened in May of 1978. The word within the construction and casino industries was that any general contractor who didn’t want problems on his job site and delays in completing his project would be wise to hire Scarf Inc. as the subcontractor for all the cement work. In addition, a company owned by mob capo Lawrence “Yogi” Merlino got most of the rebar work.
Scarfo had been the mob’s caretaker in Atlantic City during the bleak 1960s and early 1970s, a time when there really wasn’t much to take care of. But this was 1979. Things were changing. Now he was a mobster in the right place at the right time.
Most men in that position would have ignored Falcone’s comment.
Scarfo couldn’t or wouldn’t.
And that was the beginning of a bloody era that changed the way the Philadelphia mob conducted business.
Falcone was invited to watch a football game at an apartment in Margate. Scarfo, Leonetti, Merlino and a local plumber named Joe Salerno were there that day. According to court testimony, while Falcone was watching the game on television, Leonetti walked up behind him and shot him in the head. At Scarfo’s urging, Leonetti pumped two more into Falcone’s chest. Then the body was wrapped in a rug and dumped in the trunk of Falcone’s Mercury Cougar.
It was discovered a few days later.
Salerno panicked and went to the authorities. He became a government witness and testified against Scarfo, Leonetti and Merlino at a trial in New Jersey Superior Court in Mays Landing. This was in October 1980.
Angelo Bruno, the longtime Philadelphia mob boss, had been killed in March of that year and Scarfo’s mentor, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa was now in charge. Testa had tapped Scarfo as his consigliere. Five months later, Testa would be killed and Scarfo would become boss.
The prosecution’s case in the Falcone murder trial was built almost entirely around Salerno’s account of what happened in that apartment. Scarfo, Leonetti and Merlino had alibi witnesses who placed them somewhere else on the afternoon in question.
The jury found all three defendants not guilty. Scarfo emerged from the court house telling reports, “Thank God for the American jury system.”
But the volatile, soon-to-be mob boss wanted revenge.
He couldn’t get at Salerno, who had disappeared into the witness protection program.
Up to that point, the rules in the underworld were pretty straightforward. Mobsters and associates who got into conflicts understood that murder could be part of the game. But “civilians”—friends, family members, loved-ones—who weren’t in the life were off limits.
Scarfo didn’t care about that.
Once he became boss, none of the rules applied.
He was a game changer.
Early in August of 1982, a little more than a year after he had taken over the top spot in the organization, Scarfo sent a hitman to Wildwood Crest where Salerno’s father, Joe Sr., owned a motel. The hitman, wearing a designer sweat suit and a ski mask (in August!) walked in and shot the sixty-something motel operator in the neck.
Joe Salerno Sr. survived the attempted hit which law enforcement correctly assumed was retaliation because his son had testified against Scarfo. At least one law enforcement source later claimed that the day after the Wildwood Crest shooting, Scarfo, Leonetti and Merlino were seen on Georgia Avenue wearing the same designer sweat suits that the hitman wore the day before.
Scarfo’s bloody reign had begun and he didn’t care who knew it. Over the next six years, about 20 mob members and associates would be shot, many killed, on the diminutive mob boss’s orders.
“He liked noise,” Nicholas “Nicky Crow” Caramandi, a mob soldier who later became a government witness, once said in explaining Scarfo’s approach. “He wanted people to know when someone got shot.”
Scarfo was “unhinged… I can tell you that with the utmost certainty,” said a former North Jersey mob enforcer in a eulogy he posted online after news of Scarfo’s death became public back in January. Scarfo, he said, “enjoyed killing people and would be demonstrative in telling you that.”
The former mob associate, who had worked for two New York crime families and dealt with members of the Philadelphia mob during a violent 30-year career, said murder was part of the life. Everyone accepted that. Not everyone, however, would celebrate it.
“A lot of guys have done work, doesn’t mean they enjoyed it,” he wrote.
And that changed the way the game was played.