Sins of the Fathers

Life has been tough for a couple of sons of bosses.

This time last summer, he was the swaggering mob boss on the front page of the morning newspapers. His smiling, confidant visage was broadcast nightly on the local evening news programs.

This summer, Joseph “Skinny Joe” Merlino is a convicted racketeer, sitting in a prison cell in Beaumont, Texas, surrounded by good old boy criminals, Cajun felons and country-cuss crooks. Beaumont, Texas is 40 miles from the Gulf Coast, but it’s a small city so humid and so hot that Texans often refer to it as “three miles from Hell.”

When Skinny Joey was running around Philly and down the shore, he was living the high life. He broke society’s laws and, on a few occasions, violated the code of the mob.

He lived for the moment, a high stakes gambler who befriended sports celebrities, journalists and movie stars.

Merlino defied law enforcement with his in-your-face, man-about-town persona. At the same time, Joey wasn’t above subverting the traditions of his own Cosa Nostra – traditions encouraging mobsters to live low key, under the radar existence, and discouraged friendships with outsiders.

These days, Joey Merlino has fewer friends.

His wife, Deborah Merlino, is reportedly angry with her husband and is in the process of moving out of their three-story, red brick townhouse in South Philadelphia, which is worth more than $300,000. The government has several liens against the property and Deborah Merlino, according to law enforcement sources, will never see a dime from the sale of her posh home.

Underworld sources say the reputed new boss of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra, Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi, is less than pleased with the former boss, Joey Merlino, since he is reported to have discovered that a large number of bookmakers and gamblers no longer want to have anything to do with the local Cosa Nostra.

Ligambi’s attorney, Mike Pinsky did not return a phone call to his office.

Underworld sources claim the mob blames Merlino for pissing off mob-allied bookies because he always bet big, collected his winnings, but never, ever paid up when he lost.

“There was a lot of mob money that Merlino blew,” one mob insider told City Paper. “Now it’s gone and the bookies don’t want to deal with us. It’s Merlino’s fault.”

Former underworld allies are reportedly giving Merlino the cold shoulder, refusing his collect calls from prison and no longer seeking his advice or permission to conduct mob business in the Delaware Valley.

FBI agents have reportedly contacted several of Merlino’s co-defendants now serving racketeering sentences. The Feds are suggesting that Merlino’s crew was involved in trafficking in meth and the murder, in October, 1999, of high-ranking Mafioso Ron Turchi.

The Feds want to build a new case against Joey Merlino, but they need someone to corroborate mob associate-turned-government witness, Roger Vella. Vella’s stories concerning the Turchi murder and drugs need a second witness, but so far there are no takers. Of course, not everyone has abandoned Merlino. His mother and sisters still stand by him. But Joey Merlino can no longer talk to the one person who understood his world so well – his own father, Salvatore “Chucky” Merlino.

Chucky Merlino was Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo’s underboss from 1981 until 1986, when he was demoted by Scarfo because of his drinking problem.

Chucky Merlino is currently serving 45 years, following his conviction in 1988 on racketeering charges. Merlino is not able to call his father, who is in a different federal penitentiary.

“You’ve got to understand something about Joey,” a friend of Skinny Joey’s explained in an interview with City Paper earlier this week.

“Joey was born to follow in his father’s footsteps. How could he not? He was the son of an underboss. People on the street respected and feared him. Girls went crazy over him. There was always plenty of money and the best tables in expensive restaurants and no waiting in line at the nightclubs. Big time sports celebrities and movie stars wanted to hang with him.

“Joey Merlino was mob royalty and no way he wasn’t going into the life. But Joey always did this thing of ours his way. He didn’t respect tradition just because that’s the way it was supposed to be. He’d say, ‘Fuck it! I’m doing what I want, not what somebody else wants.’”

Coincidentally, as Joey Merlino fades from power, so, too, does his one-time rival, Nicky Scarfo Jr. Nicky Jr. recently pled guilty to running an illegal gambling operation in North Jersey, and will go to prison for three years this fall. At one time, Merlino and Scarfo Jr. were pals, but when Merlino’s father was demoted, underworld insiders claim Scarfo Jr. broke off his friendship with Skinny Joey and expected his friends to do the same.

But when Nicky Jr.’s father was convicted in 1987, and again in 1988, on federal racketeering and murder charges, Junior suddenly found himself without a power base and the target of anger because of his father’s “mismanagement and arrogance,” which some believed led to the downfall of the Scarfo crime family.

On Halloween night in 1989, Nicky Scarfo Jr. was shot and wounded by a masked gunman inside a South Philadelphia restaurant. For years, police sources claimed that Joey Merlino was the masked gunman, but Merlino and his attorneys have always denied his involvement and no one has ever been charged in the attempted hit. Scarfo Jr. went to live in North Jersey and law enforcement sources claim Scarfo’s father arranged for the Luchese crime family to safeguard the younger Scarfo from further attempts on his life.

Two weeks ago, Nicodemo S. Scarfo, 36, was sentenced to 33 months in prison for his role in a mob bookmaking operation that allegedly generated several million dollars a year.

A former friend of both Scarfo, Jr and Joey Merlino, told City Paper last week that “Nicky Jr. and Joey Merlino had a lot in common. For years, their families were great friends. Both fathers were high-level gangsters. Both felt they were supposed to grow up and be mob bosses. Both are going to be spending years in jail. But in the end, I think the Scarfo family actually suffered more for the sins of the fathers than the Merlinos.”

Nicky Jr. has two brothers – one in a wheelchair for life after an accidental hanging left him severely disabled for life.

The other Scarfo brother is a successful real estate and insurance broker in South Jersey, who legally changed his last name so he could lose the controversial Scarfo connection. Ironically, this third Scarfo brother married into the family of Hap Farley. In the 40s and 50s, Hap Farley ran the rackets in Atlantic City and was also a state senator and boss of the Atlantic County Republican Committee. In his heyday, Hap Farley was an Irish mob kingpin, who also happened to be a powerful politician who controlled everything from the Atlantic City police department, to county patronage jobs and local judges.

    • Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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