George Anastasia, The Mob Writer
Photography by Jeremy Messler
When John Stanfa was head of the Philly/South Jersey mob, he’d occasionally be at his food distribution business in South Philly and pick up a ringing phone to hear:
“Mr. Stanfa, George Anastasia, Philadelphia Inquirer…”
That’s as far as the reporter got. In more ways than one, Stanfa had a fast trigger finger when it came to Anastasia, the long-time mob writer who back in the early ‘90s was covering the war between Stanfa’s troops and Joey Merlino’s rebels.
“Stanfa was born and raised in Sicily, he had that true Sicilian mob mentality,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Anastasia. “They kill judges and prosecutors over there. If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”
And so it came to pass, after one particularly annoying Anastasia phone call, that Stanfa put the word out: “Find out where that $##*& lives and throw grenades in his window.”
The boys found out that the South Philly-born Anastasia lived in South Jersey, where his family moved when he was four years old. And they pinpointed his home.
The hit contract, unfulfilled, was unknown to Anastasia until a few years later, when the thug who secured the grenades, Sergio Battaglia, called him from prison. Battaglia was cooperating with the feds and knew the contract on the reporter would become public.
“He said he had to tell the FBI everything and tells me the story,” said Anastasia, whose soft voice revs up to a rapid pace as he relates mob tales. “He said by the time they got the grenades, the war with Merlino was so hot they stopped looking for me. Sergio says to me ‘It’s nothing personal.’ I said ‘Sergio, I’ve got a wife and two kids. Grenades through my window are very personal’.”
Aside from that near-miss, Anastasia has toiled without incident on the sidelines while the goodfellas on both sides of the Delaware River go about their illegal ways. He says wiseguys who didn’t like him (Stanfa and Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo) wouldn’t ever engage him. But he has had a fair share of meets and lunches with Philly mob figures over the years and his opinions vary.
“What the mob has done is taken traditional Italian-American values — honor, loyalty and family — and bastardized them to their own ends,” he said. That said, he doesn’t condemn all wiseguys as violent, brutish and devoid of redeeming values. Especially the ones who have fessed up and shaped new lives.
He speaks with obvious affection about some others, several of whom are featured among his eight published works dealing with organized crime. Of Italian American extraction, Anastasia said he was fascinated with mob tales as a youth, and after graduating from Dartmouth College he wound up covering the dawn of the gambling era in Atlantic City for the Inquirer in the 1970s. The hook was set. He was destined to be the Mob Writer.
“Like it or not, it’s part of the American Experience,” he said. “My name helped me when I started out. For example, when I first met Caramandi [hitman Nicholas Caramandi] we connected, we were from the same place, talking about the neighborhood and how my Uncle Joe and his Uncle Tony were almost the same people. The ethnicity helped and I see that now as I try to write about the drug gangs and the Russian [gangs] and I don’t have the same familiarity on a cultural level as I have with these [mob] guys.”
After 30 years on the scene, Anastasia knows some stuff, including the whereabouts of some “four, maybe five” convicted mobsters who were given new identities and locales via witness protection programs. He speaks with some amazement at the leniency of some of the deals given goodfellas.
He rattles them off. “Caramandi committed four murders, he got five years. [Andrew Thomas] DelGiorno admitted to eight murders and got five years. They’re both out now, they’re in the wind and they’re not doing well because they just can’t adapt. A guy like [Phillip “Crazy Phil”] Leonetti, 10 murders, he’s recreated himself, I know what he’s doing right now, he’s got a business, a whole different persona.”
The deals are made because the mobsters broke omerta, the Mafia’s traditional code of silence, he said. “Omerta in Philadelphia is like the Liberty Bell — it’s cracked.”
Anastasia knows best the mobsters he has written books about, including one wiseguy who received a new name and identity but refuses to leave the area like most witness protection program veterans. The writer found the bald, massive (300 pounds) ex-cop named Ralph Previte to be literate, funny and enjoyable to be around, in a word, “fascinating.”
“He has the wherewithal to go anywhere, but one of the reasons I think he stayed in the area was that he grew up in Hammonton and likes it. The other thing is, he still wants the adrenalin rush. Every morning he gets up and the only way he can get that now is he always has to be looking over his shoulder because he is still in jeopardy. Psychologically I think that’s what going on.” Another mob soldier-turned-informant, George Freselone, a soldier in the Jersey branch of the Philly mob under Scarfo, used to call Anastasia from his sheltered new life in California.
“I can say this now because he passed away,” said the writer. “He went to California, near Hollywood, and went to work for a maintenance company, ended up buying the company and he was cleaning the homes of the stars. He would call me from time to time and one day he called and said ‘You’ll never guess where I am. I am buffing Cher’s floor.’
“He called me from time to time, he had turned it around, but, sadly, he had a heart attack and died.”
Anastasia, who has seen many of his contemporaries take retirement from the newspaper, has no intention of slowing down his mob writing wheels. In addition to his many meetings and phone calls with mob-related sources, he has studied countless reams of transcripts of surveillance tapes unearthed during wiseguy trials. Tapes of disjointed conversations are difficult to listen to, but the transcripts reveal nuggets of colorful language. “They’re wonderful pieces of unguarded moments talking the way they talk,” he said.
When a jury hears a tape of a mobster saying he’s going to whack a guy, cut out his tongue and send it to his wife, “it is what it is,” said Anastasia. “The defense attorneys will tell you this — you can’t cross examine a tape.”
The Mob’s Gene Meltdown
“The best and the brightest in the Italian-American community today are doctors, lawyers and educators, and so you are kind of scraping the bottom of the gene pool with this third generation of organized crime. They’re not as intelligent, sophisticated,” Anastasia said.
The past generation leaders, Philly’s Angelo Bruno and New York’s Carlo Gambino, made wrong career choices when they immigrated here, said Anastasia. “But in another time and another place they could have been CEOs of companies. They ran organizations in a way that was financially rewarding and efficient.”
While Bruno used finesse and viewed violence as a last resort, wiseguys who succeeded him prompted fireworks, he said. “Scarfo, I think, was a psychopath and Stanfa was another dangerous one. When Scarfo became the boss, murder became the calling card of the organization. It destabilized things, he would go to the guns whenever anything went wrong. It’s been steadily out of control since then.”
Anastasia said the current Philly mob boss, Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi, seems intent on keeping a low profile, with good reason: the feds are always watching, even more closely now with new high-tech surveillance tools. “The Philadelphia family is one of the most recorded families in the United States.” He smiled at the dialogue on the tapes, saying, “You can’t make it up any better than it is.”
One of his favorite lines came from a goodfella who tried to stop another wiseguy from suing his partner. The mobster explained, as the feds were listening in: “Goodfellas don’t sue goodfellas; goodfellas kill goodfellas.”
Princess Di at 10th and Shunk?
The mob has “devolved” in the last decade or so, barely more than a collection of hoods from different corners, said Anastasia. Philly boss Ligambi has “two or three capos and maybe a dozen soldiers. It’s not that big an organization.”
And the hoods have engaged in “petty high school kind of bickering, jealousies, upmanship,” he said. Example: When former Philly boss Ralph Natale came home after 17 years in jail, he took up with a young woman, a friend of his daughter’s. The young hoods complained about the relationship and the respect Natale expected for his girlfriend. Said one: “She’s a broad from 10th and Shunk and he wants us to treat her like Princess Di.”
The hoods around Merlino, said the writer, “weren’t the brightest lights and yet they had positions of authority. A guy like [Ron] Previte looks at that and says, you know, it’s over. You gotta be Ray Charles not to see it. This organization is going nowhere.”
With the watering down of leadership, some of the traditions are easing as well, including the criterion for becoming a “made” member of the mob organization, Anastasia said. “Now if a guy is a big moneymaker that might be enough for him to get his button, but in the past he would be made an associate. Unless you killed somebody or set somebody up or got rid of a body — participated in a murder — you were not eligible.”
Joseph S. “Fat Joey” Merlino
A cousin of former Philly mob boss, Joseph S. Merlino co-owns a company (Bayshore Rebar Inc.) that installs rebar in new commercial construction projects, but the firm was twice denied a license to work on casino-related work by the state Casino Control Commission.
Anastastia has written several articles about the “other” Merlino, “who doesn’t like being called Fat Joey because he lost a lot of weight.” The commission denied the license because of Merlino’s alleged associations with mob figures, including his cousin Joseph (“Skinny Joey”) Merlino.
In a hearing last May, a deputy state attorney general produced records of thousands of phone calls between the applicant and suspected mob figures, as well as documented evidence of physical contact. The commission ruled that the evidence provided only suspicion and speculation and voted to allow the license.
“I wrote a lot about that Joey Merlino, and while he might have gotten a start from the connections of his mobster father, I think he certainly has legitimatized his company,” said Anastasia. “That rebar work is hard work and he and his brothers are on the 12th floor in cold weather getting his hands dirty. It’s not something you can make light of.”
The transcript of the hearing can be found at http://www.state.nj.us/casinos. Once there, search for “transcripts” and click on May 5, 2010.
The Mob’s “Away” Field in South Jersey
It’s not as though there is a minor league mob team in South Jersey, said Anastasia. “South Jersey doesn’t have a team of its own, but everybody else plays here. You’ve got the five New York families, an indigenous New Jersey family [DeCavalcante] based in the Princeton-Hamilton area that traditionally moves around the state, and the Philly family, all with people in New Jersey. It’s always been like that.”
South Jersey was always incorporated into the Philly mob, and Nicky Scarfo was banished to Atlantic City back in the ’60s, caretaking a city that nobody cared much about. “But he was in the right spot when casinos came and all of a sudden he was the boss and grabbing money with both fists, another reason the organization came apart,” the reporter said.
He said Scarfo at one point controlled the bartender’s union, which became the biggest union in the city and provided him with $10,000 to $20,000 a month. Before poker was permitted in the casinos, a bellhop or bartender connected to the union in every casino could direct players to “a big poker game in Room 407,” Anastasia said.
Is there organized crime in Atlantic City now?
A big financial fraud case will break soon that will have Jersey implications, involving a well-known Philly mob name and shell companies and subprime lending, he said. “And organized crime is involved in running junkets to Atlantic City from Chinatowns in Philadelphia and New York. There is a great story out of New York about two different Asian crime groups, with one group having a junket bus that was at a rest stop on the Parkway and three guys pull up in a car and they rob everybody, just like in the Wild West. Those kinds of things are going on.”
Anastasia likes to quote these opening lines of Dice, Brass Knuckles and a Guitar by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“Parts of New Jersey, as you know, are under water, and other parts are under continual surveillance by the authorities.”
Nothing has changed much, he said.
“I like it. It’s not the Sopranos but nothing is. From what I know, it had a lot of historic basis, though I don’t think there was as much violence as they put into the show, but you need that for your narrative. There really were a set of Italian brothers from Philadelphia back in the ’30s, all named after popes like the ones in the show.”
As for the crime: “They’re still playing all those games.”