They talk too much.
Except for the guy in Florida.
That’s the takeaway from the latest federal prosecution of the Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra, arguably the most recorded Mafia family in America.
The case, which has resulted in a slew of guilty pleas, was built in large part around secretly recorded conversations by mob informant Anthony Persiano back in 2015. So incriminating are the conversations that all the major defendants, including mob leaders Steven Mazzone and Domenic Grande and drug dealer Joseph “Joey Electric” Servidio, have opted to plead out rather than go to trial.
Mazzone and Grande are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
While many of the tapes are incriminating, the most embarrassing is the one Persiano recorded while wearing a body wire to his own mob initiation ceremony in October 2015. Among other things, that tape picked up Mazzone describing some of the dos and don’ts of the organization and pushing for a greater mob presence in Atlantic City, once a stronghold of the Philadelphia crime family.
Federal prosecutors say Mazzone, as underboss of the crime family, “oversaw the activities of criminal associates…and profited from their crimes.” Gambling, loansharking, extortion and narcotics trafficking were detailed in the indictment, although Mazzone and his brother Sonny, another defendant in the case, were not charged with drug offenses.
In many ways, the investigation is a continuation of the dismantling of the Philadelphia crime family that began with a series of high-profile racketeering cases in the late 1980s. Testimony from mobsters who became cooperating witnesses and tapes from high-tech electronic surveillance helped the feds establish nearly air-tight cases.
Audio recordings are devastating pieces of evidence. Juries are mesmerized by the conversations, listening to what sounds like real-life episodes of The Godfather or The Sopranos. More important from a prosecutor’s perspective, it’s impossible for a defense attorney to cross-examine a tape. A defendant’s own words go unchallenged and help build the case against him.
It is a pattern that has been repeated in cities throughout the United States. In Philadelphia, it has been writ large. On two different occasions, the feds have been able to record secret, and once sacrosanct, Mafia initiation ceremonies. The late George Fresolone, a Newark-based gangster who was part of the Philadelphia organization, wore a body wire to his own making ceremony back in 1990. Persiano repeated the feat while working for the feds in the current case.
Other cases, which played out after Fresolone but before Persiano, included the two-year bugging on the law office of Salvatore Avena that resulted in hundreds of tapes used in the prosecution of mob boss John Stanfa and most of his associates and the year-long undercover investigation built around body-wire tapes made by the late Ron Previte that targeted mob boss Joey Merlino along with Mazzone and nearly a dozen others.
Merlino, now living in the Boca Raton area but still identified as the head of the Philadelphia mob, has been picked up on tape several times. His words, however, have seldom been used against him. He is taciturn and when he does speak, he is circumspect in what he says. In the Previte investigation, for example, prosecutors alleged that Merlino had given Big Ron the okay to pursue a cocaine deal in Boston. But Merlino’s words on tapes played in court were so vague that his lawyer was able to argue that the discussion was not about cocaine, but rather a stolen tractor-trailer load of frozen shrimp.
Merlino beat the drug rap in that case.
In fact, most of the tapes on which he has been recorded are less than definitive when it comes to criminality. That can’t be said for other members of the organization.
The current case includes tapes of Servidio explaining why he deals drugs (the money) and Grande detailing how ill-gotten gains are distributed (everyone has to kick up). And then there is Mazzone offering a primer on mob life and advocating the push into Atlantic City.
“Nobody break this chain,” Mazzone was recorded telling the new members following the initiation ceremony in which they were told they all served under the same flag. “You know what I’m talking about?”
With that, everyone shouted “La Famiglia!” according to an FBI document.
From there Mazzone went on to talk about Atlantic City, the casino resort town that the Philadelphia mob once controlled but that was now a city where independent bookmakers and loan sharks were operating.
“Got to get a hold back on Atlantic City, buddy!” Mazzone said as the Persiano tapes were rolling. “That’s what I want. That’s what I want. We have to get that back… I don’t want nobody just glomming our f***ing shit. You know what I mean? You understand what I’m saying? “
That’s not the way things should be, Mazzone explained, before adding, “we’re still street guys. Let’s face it… We’re f***ed, we’re gangsters. I mean, you know, I’m not going to let no sucker take that.”
With Mazzone’s guilty plea and those of every other major defendant in the case, the making ceremony tape now gets put on a shelf. It’s in federal storage, so to speak, but is available if the feds bring another racketeering case that targets the organization. Several other wiseguys whose voices are heard on that tape have not been charged but remain on the FBI’s radar.
Whether there is another racketeering case in the cards for the Philadelphia mob is an open question. The consensus in law enforcement and underworld circles is it’s unlikely unless authorities can develop enough evidence to add three or four of the still unsolved mob murders to a new indictment. The murders of Raymond “Long John” Martorano, Ronnie Turchi and John Casasanto remain open investigations but with the passage of time, gathering enough evidence to bring charges becomes problematic.
Mazzone served more than eight years following his conviction in the Previte case back in 2001. It appears he’ll be behind bars again by the new year. Grande, considered the next generation of South Philadelphia wiseguy, will be heading off to jail for the first time. Servidio is now a three-time convicted drug dealer and is already serving a federal sentence for a New Jersey conviction also built around Persiano’s tapes.
Merlino, who was nowhere near the making ceremony or any of the other recordings, will continue to bask in the Florida sunshine while the others serve their time.
Twice while living in Florida following his release from prison in 2012, federal investigators made a run at the charismatic, 60-year-old mob leader. Nicholas “Nicky Skins” Stefanelli paid a visit shortly after Merlino was released from prison but those conversations, which have never been made public, apparently offered little in the way of criminality.
FBI informant JR Rubeo got close to Merlino a few years ago while wearing a body wire. But the New York mob associate played fast and loose with those tapes, at one point erasing recordings on his own. He was a witness against Merlino in an aborted racketeering case that ended with Merlino’s guilty plea to minor gambling charges.
Rubeo, who moved in mob circles in New York and Florida, described Merlino as a typical mob boss always interested in money.
“They’re all the same,” Rubeo once said while describing how most of the high ranking wiseguys with whom he dealt always grabbed for a piece of his action.
The difference, he said, was that “Joey makes you feel good while he’s doing it.”
That’s part of Merlino’s underworld charm.
It’s one of the reasons he has beaten several murder and racketeering cases that could have sent him away for life.
The other is that while many of his South Philadelphia associates talk too much, Merlino knows when to keep his mouth shut.