Federal prosecutors said that while Merlino traded South Philly for South Florida, he never stopped being “Skinny Joey,” the boss and the face of Philadelphia organized crime.
Faced with those conflicting descriptions of the now 56-year-old wiseguy, a federal jury in Manhattan earlier this year threw up its hands and said it couldn’t decide. A hung jury and a mistrial ended the flawed racketeering case against Merlino back in February, but failed to resolve the question: Is he in or is he out?
And so the saga of Philadelphia’s only celebrity gangster continues. Prosecutors are expected to announce this month whether they intend to retry the flamboyant Philadelphia wiseguy. A conviction on the racketeering conspiracy, gambling and medical fraud charges could land Merlino in jail for the next 10 years.
Last year, Merlino turned down a plea deal that carried a two- to three-year prison sentence. But a new deal may be put on the table. In a letter to the trial judge last month, prosecutors said that discussions were underway “concerning whether a resolution of this case can be reached.”
Merlino has told associates that the only thing he is willing to accept from the Feds is an apology. He insists he is innocent and has been unjustly targeted because of who he is, not what he’s done. He admits to being, in his lawyer’s words, “a degenerate gambler,” but says he is not a bookmaker and loan shark, as the indictment against him alleges. Nor, he says, did he have anything to do with the multi-million dollar medical insurance fraud scam that is also part of the case.
“This has got to stop,” Merlino has told associates while describing himself as a “walking get-out-of-jail-free card.” Anyone in the underworld facing criminal charges, he says, can negotiate a better deal for himself by giving up information that will implicate him in a crime.
There is some truth and historical support for that premise. Just ask Ralph Natale, the one-time Philadelphia Mafia don who worked his way out of a possible life sentence for drug dealing by testifying against Merlino and several of his top associates in a 2001 federal racketeering case in Philadelphia. It was one of the few times federal authorities made a deal with a boss in order to prosecute an underboss.
Skinny Joey has that effect on authorities. His looks, his attitude and his media savvy get under the skin of investigators; that an abiding belief by many in law enforcement that Merlino and several of his closest mob allies have literally gotten away with murder. That’s not to justify, but merely to explain why some investigators find it easy to play fast and loose with the rules when it comes to making a case against him.
Natale’s testimony and credibility were suspect, but the mixed result verdict in that case—Merlino beat murder, attempted murder and drug dealing charges, but was convicted of a racketeering count built around gambling, loansharking, extortion and receipt of stolen property allegations—landed Skinny Joey in jail for 14 years.
When he got out of prison, he moved to Boca Raton and said he had left the mob life behind. “Too many rats,” he said.
The Feds didn’t buy his disclaimer and kept coming at him.
Shortly after Merlino settled in the Sunshine State, Nicholas “Nicky Skins” Stefanelli traveled from North Jersey to Florida to meet with Merlino and discuss “business” ventures. Skinny Joey blew him off. Stefanelli, a soldier in the Gambino crime family who later committed suicide, was wearing a wire for the Feds at the time.
Three years later, John “JR” Rubeo, a Genovese crime family associate from New York, showed up in Boca and quickly befriended Merlino. He, too, was wired for sound. The conversations he recorded were at the heart of the case against Merlino and 45 mob members and associates arrested in August 2016.
The Feds said they were all part of an East Coast La Cosa Nostra Enterprise. Merlino was listed as one of the leaders. To date, 44 defendants in the case have taken plea deals. One is on the lamb.
In many ways Merlino is the last man—maybe the only man—standing.
He gambled, and, in the parlance of the crap table, the hung jury was a push.
Now the Feds have to decide whether they want to do it again.
Rubeo’s tapes and testimony were crucial elements in the trial. He and two other cooperating witnesses put Merlino in the middle of all the action, including the insurance fraud scam. While most jurors were apparently skeptical of the informants’ testimony, a majority accepted the prosecutions version of the case. Conflicting reports put the vote to convict on the four charges at 10-2 or 9-3. That wasn’t enough to send Merlino to jail, but it might be enough to convince prosecutors that it’s worth going to court again.
“Being with Merlino did not come for free,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Schorr told the jury in her closing argument pointing to Rubeo tapes that supported her position. On one Merlino accepts a $5,000 payment from Rubeo. On another, referring to what the prosecution said was the insurance scam, Merlino is heard to say, “We do the right thing, make 20,000.”
The tapes were difficult to explain away even if the jury accepted the arguments of Merlino’s defense attorney, Edwin Jacobs Jr., who said the government had built its case around “compromised” witnesses whose oath to tell the truth was “a meaningless jingle.”
Another witness said Merlino got $100,000 from the insurance scam. Merlino has told associates he never saw that kind of money.
Federal authorities roll their eyes at that assertion while asking how Merlino has managed to live the way he has in Boca Raton without any significant source of income. They point to the luxury townhouse he moved into after his release from a halfway house, the high end automobiles he drives, the fact that his two daughters are students in an expensive private university and a daily lifestyle that includes days on the golf course and nights in casinos and swank cigar bars.
That, of course, has always been Merlino’s style. The late Ron Previte, a mob informant who testified against him back in 2001, said it best: “Joey’s agenda on Monday is to get to Tuesday.”
The Feds have always believed that Merlino’s lavish, devil-may-care lifestyle has been financed by his criminal enterprises. But they haven’t always been able to prove it.
In February they fell short.
Will they try again?
It’s a gamble for both sides, but, as always, the Feds have house odds in their favor.
As a former mob-busting federal prosecutor from Philadelphia said of the gangsters he successfully prosecuted, “We only have to win once. They have to win every time.”