He was, by most accounts, a computer “geek” who could have built a legitimate and lucrative career as a software technocrat. His father, however, had other ideas. He wanted his namesake to follow in his footsteps.
That, in large part, explains why Nicodemo S. Scarfo—known as Nicky Jr.—is currently serving a 30-year federal prison sentence after being convicted in a multi-million dollar financial fraud case several years ago.
“Nick is the continuing tragedy that is his father’s legacy,” Don Manno, the younger Scarfo’s former attorney and friend said recently.
The father is the late Nicodemo D. “Little Nicky” Scarfo, the notorious Philadelphia mob boss who died in prison four years ago while serving what amounted to a life sentence following convictions on racketeering and murder charges.
His legacy is one of wanton violence and murder, of familial disorder, of greed and treachery.
Shakespeare would have loved the story.
Scarfo had three sons. The oldest, Chris, married and took his wife’s maiden name to get out from under the infamy that came with his birthright. The youngest, Mark, tried to kill himself because of the shame, guilt and pressure that his father’s lifestyle brought on him. He was just 17 when he hung himself. He survived, but barely and remained comatose for more than 20 years. He died in 2014.
The middle son, the namesake, fell in line behind his father and has paid a tremendous price. He is 56 and has spent about one-third of his adult life in prison. His first chance at parole for his current sentence will come in 2037. There is no guarantee that he will be released then and there is a chance that he, like his father, could die in prison.
Little Nicky Scarfo was boss of the Philadelphia mafia from 1981 to 1989. His time at the top was one of the bloodiest in underworld history. Some of that blood was spilled by his son.
Thirty-two years ago, this month—Halloween night 1989—Nicky Jr. had just settled in for dinner at Dante & Luigi’s, a popular restaurant on 10th Street in South Philadelphia when a man wearing a mask and carrying a trick-or-treat bag walked up to his table. Scarfo was dining with two friends, according to police reports, and was looking forward to a plate of clams and spaghetti, one of his favorite dishes.
Instead, he was served a huge helping of lead.
The trick-or-treater pulled a machine pistol out of his bag and opened fire. Nicky Jr. was hit multiple times in the arms and torso but miraculously escaped serious injury. He was out of the hospital in week, but the shooting effectively ended the Scarfo family’s control of the Philadelphia mob.
The elder Scarfo was trying to run his crime family from prison by using his son as a proxy. Putting him in harm’s way, apparently, was not as important to Little Nicky as holding onto the reins of power.
Shortly after the shooting Nicky Jr. headed to North Jersey where he was under the care and protection of the Newark branch of the Scarfo organization. The man tapped to keep watch over him was the late George Fresolone, a crime family soldier heavily involved in gambling and loansharking.
It was yet another botched move by Little Nicky.
At the time, Fresolone was secretly cooperating with the New Jersey State Police. He wore a body wire to record conversations and his phones were tapped.
No one has ever been charged with the Dante & Luigi shooting which ranks among the most audacious in Philadelphia mob underworld history. Only the shotgun slaying of mob boss Angelo Bruno outside his Snyder Avenue row home in 1980 and the ambush of mob boss John Stanfa in the middle of rush hour traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway in 1993 compare.
But Fresolone as well as several other cooperators and many law enforcement sources point to Joey Merlino as the gunman that night. Merlino has repeatedly denied the allegation. Over lunch several years ago in Florida, shortly after his release from prison on racketeering charges, he explained with a straight face that he couldn’t possibly have been the shooter.
He said he was on strict, supervised release at the time awaiting sentencing for an armed truck robbery and was not allowed out after 7 pm.
Nicky Jr. has never spoken publicly about the shooting but in phone conversations with his father at the time—conversations secretly recorded by authorities—the two Scarfos described Merlino as “a snake.” The elder Scarfo suggested that his son take Merlino “to dinner,” a reference to the shooting and a veiled order to do to Merlino what he was suspected of doing to Scarfo Jr.
This led to another bizarre, dark comedic twist to the Scarfo-Merlino saga. Reports began to circulate in the underworld that from prison Little Nicky had put a $500,000 contract out on Merlino.
When Philadelphia’s Fox 29 television reporter Dave Schratwieser and cameraman Brad Nau asked Merlino about the report, Merlino looked into the camera and replied, “Give me the half-million dollars and I’ll shoot myself.”
The Dante & Luigi shooting came amidst a bloody power struggle that had its roots in a friendship gone bad. Salvatore “Chucky” Merlino, Joey’s father, had once been a close friend of the elder Scarfo. In fact, when Scarfo took over the crime family after the nail –bomb murder of Philip “Chicken Man” Testa in 1981, Salvatore Merlino began to move up the underworld ladder, eventually becoming underboss. His brother, Lawrence “Yogi” Merlino, became a capo.
But by 1985, the friendship had soured. The Merlino brothers were demoted, taken down to the rank of soldier and Scarfo was threatening to kill them and their families.
Fortunately for the Merlinos, Scarfo was the focus of intense law enforcement attention at the time. His eventual arrest and conviction along with the Merlino brothers and more than a dozen other members of his organization short-circuited his blood lust.
But that left his son out of the streets to deal with a crime family decimated by the violence and mismanagement of Little Nicky. During Scarfo’s reign, about 25 made members and associates of the crime family were killed. Nearly 20 more were indicted and sentenced to prison.
That was the legacy of Little Nicky Scarfo.
The shooting at Dante & Luigi’s drove home the point in bloody detail.
Phil Leonetti, Little Nicky’s nephew and underboss, said it best in the book Mafia Prince which he co-authored with Scott Burnstein.
“My cousin’s not a gangster and never was,” Leonetti wrote. “The only thing he is guilty of is being a loyal son to my uncle. My uncle got him involved with trying to keep control of La Cosa Nostra…and almost got Nicky killed.
“…That’s the kind of father my uncle is. My cousin owes my uncle absolutely nothing.”
Thirty-two years ago, this month, Nicky Scarfo Jr. nearly paid the ultimate price for his loyalty to his father.
For many, a shooting like that would have been viewed as a warning and seen as the opportune time to walk away.
Scarfo Jr. opted to stay.
Little Nicky died in jail serving what amounted to a life sentence. But it appears he has gotten his wish. His son and namesake is following in his footsteps.