There was supposed to be a code of silence, but that’s been replaced by sound bites and pontificating.
Turncoat mobsters used to tell their stories from the witness stand and then disappear into witness protection. Now they do podcasts.
This is Cosa Nostra in the social media age.
The latest wrinkle may be the most dramatic.
Erstwhile Philadelphia mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino has joined the fray. With a slick sports handicapping show called “The Skinny” Merlino has become something of a social media darling to thousands of internet mob watchers. The weekly show, which debuted with the start of the football season, blends sports talk with Merlino’s unique take on life in the underworld.
There has never been anything like it.
“I think he’s refreshingly entertaining,” says a former North Jersey mobster.
“He’s calling out every level of mob hypocrisy – rat podcasts, the federal government…He understands the politics of Cosa Nostra…He has no equal.”
That comes from a mobster who became a cooperating witness for the FBI. In Merlino’s world, he’s a “lying rat.” But when it comes to The Skinny he’s a big fan.
Less complimentary is this take from a certified wiseguy.
“It’s like Seinfeld’s bizarro world,” he said, adding that for many mobsters what Merlino is doing flouts conventional underworld wisdom. It’s the opposite of what has been the norm.
“Old-time guys are rolling in their graves,” he said.
We’ve seen some of this with reality TV shows that purported to offer a glimpse of “the life.” But these were always once removed from the real players.
“Growing Up Gotti” was the underworld version of “My Three Sons” with Victoria Gotti and her slick-haired boys offering a view of everyday life from the fringes of the underworld. Then came “Mob Wives” a show in which the wives, girlfriends and daughters (Sammy Gravano’s daughter Karen was one of the “stars”) offered angst, pathos and lots of F-bombs.
Merlino has taken it to another and more genuine level.
There is an edge to what he has to say about cooperating witnesses, federal prosecutors and judges. And there is also lots of bitterness.
Cooperators are “lying rats” who have cut a deal to get out from under their own problems. Some are documented abusers of women, he says. Others have committed crimes while cooperating. But the feds have looked the other way because the witnesses help make cases against “the good guys.”
Good and bad are relative terms, of course. And this is clearly a perspective from the underworld. Merlino’s presentation is the opposite of a grand jury investigation where only the prosecutor gets to present his case. On The Skinny it’s only Merlino’s view that’s presented.
Always quick on his feet and never afraid of the media, Skinny Joey was Philadelphia’s first – and perhaps only – celebrity gangster. But until now, most of his media exposure had come through conventional channels. He would occasionally agree to an interview and he almost always responded to a question posed by a reporter as he entered or left a courthouse or was approached while hanging on a corner or sitting in the coffee shop he once frequented in the heart of South Philadelphia.
One of the classic encounters involved my friend and colleague, TV reporter Dave Schratwieser and then FOX News’ intrepid cameraman Brad Nau. A rumor was circulating that jailed Philadelphia mob boss Little Nicky Scarfo had put out a $500,000 contract on Merlino because he believed Merlino was the gunman who shot his son in Dante and Luigi’s restaurant on Halloween Night in 1989.
It was an audacious hit. A gunman wearing a mask and carrying a trick-or-treat bag walked into the restaurant and up to the table where Scarfo Jr. was having dinner with two friends. The gunman pulled a machine pistol from the bag and opened fire. Scarfo Jr. was hit six times but miraculously survived. Later he and his father were picked up on a phone tap discussing plans to kill Merlino.
That’s where the contract rumor began.
Schratwieser and Nau, driving around South Philadelphia, spotted Merlino and, with the camera rolling, asked him about the $500,000 contract.
Merlino looked into the camera and casually replied, “Give me the half million dollars and I’ll shoot myself.”
It was quintessential Merlino.
And if his foray into social media proves successful it will be because he’s able to bring that same street corner attitude to the show. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always come across that way. There is a fine line between roguish bravado and self-serving bitterness. Merlino often crosses that line. His f-bomb-driven anger toward prosecutors, judges, witnesses and the media can at times come across as an underworld pity party.
It doesn’t have to be that way, but too often it is. That being said, it’s his show and he can do and say whatever he wants.
Until now it has been the mobsters from the other side of the street who have had the franchise.
Michael Franzese established the template and is still at the top of the leaderboard. There is also Sammy the Bull Gravano and John Alite and John Pennisi and on and on and on. Most of them were cooperating witnesses and first told their stories from the witness stand. (Franzese may be the only exception in that regard.) All are considered “rats” in Merlino’s world. And perhaps as important, all are perceived as cashing in on their notoriety.
At least one source said all the debate about how and why and what is motivating Merlino boils down to economics. It’s all about a payday. If “lying rats” can turn their stories into a weekly or monthly cash stream, then why can’t real, died-in-the-wool wiseguys?
Al Capone was the first mobster who recognized the power of celebrity and what the media could do for a guy’s image. John Gotti followed in Capone’s footsteps. Merlino never had as big a stage to play on, but his act was just as flamboyant.
So here was Merlino, in the 1990s, holding forth at Christmas parties for poor children, offering a lavish meal, a visit with Santa and a pile of toys – bikes, dolls, footballs – under the tree for each one to take home. Or here he was Skinny Joey in a housing project giving out turkeys to poor residents a few days before Thanksgiving.
After raising money through his podcast back in October and November, Merlino revisited the gift giving. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he had a massive giveaway of turkeys to the needy and hosted a Christmas party for children that included brand-new bicycles and other gifts. His fans on social media loved it.
No word from law enforcement on this one, but I suspect little has changed in the two decades since Merlino first hosted one of those parties. For cops and prosecutors, it was Merlino, a street corner gangster, playing the role of an urban Robin Hood. And it drove them crazy.
“You don’t see the FBI doing this,” Merlino quipped to reporters during one of his first Christmas dinners.
“It’s easy to be giving things away when it’s not your money,” responded an FBI agent angrily when asked about Merlino’s comment.
All of that, of course, came through the filter of newspaper, radio and TV reports.
Now the filter is gone.