Mob Scene: Joe Ligambi and Alfonso Cataldo

By George Anastasia

Posted: 03/14/2012

George Anastasia
George Anastasia

The idea always had been to make money, not headlines.

But somewhere along the way, the guys in charge lost sight of that. It started to come undone when John Gotti rose to prominence with the Gambino crime family up in New York. Gotti was a thug who became America’s celebrity gangster, the face of organized crime. A face, by the way, that once was prominently featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

In Philadelphia, there was Joey Merlino, the Robin Hood of the underworld, a guy who gave away turkeys in the housing projects at Thanksgiving and hosted a Christmas party for homeless kids. Joey was a media star. Talked in sound bites and never ran when he saw the cameras coming.

A classic Merlino story:

Back in the mid 1990s, there was a rumor circulating around South Philadelphia that jailed mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo had put a $500,000 contract out on Merlino. Scarfo, along with most people in law enforcement and underworld circles, believed that Merlino was the masked hit man who shot and nearly killed Scarfo’s son at Dante & Luigi’s Restaurant on Halloween night in 1989.

The elder Scarfo wanted Merlino dead and was willing to pay.

Dave Schratwieser and Brad Nau, the television reporter and cameraman who turned covering the mob into an art form at Fox 29, went in search of Joey to get his reaction. Merlino was never difficult to find and Nau was always able to get him in front of his camera.

So here they were on a South Philadelphia street corner. Schratwieser asks Merlino his reaction to this report that there was a six-figure price tag on his head. Merlino offers one of those crooked smiles, looks directly into the camera with those cold, dark eyes and says, “Give me the half million dollars and I’ll shoot myself.”

Merlino, like Gotti, was a mobster for the 1990s — an era when the secret society wasn’t so secret anymore. Guys got into the life and then wanted the whole world to know. The media helped get the message out.

Joe Ligambi
Joe Ligambi
Photos: Philly.com

Recently, however, two stories surfaced in the New Jersey underworld that were reminiscent of the way things used to be. One involved jailed Philadelphia-South Jersey mob boss Joe Ligambi, and the other focused on a Lucchese crime family associate out of North Jersey named Alfonso Cataldo.

Ligambi is 72. Cataldo is 69. Age might have something to do with the way they operate. Stay in the shadows. Don’t call attention to yourself. Keep quiet and count your money.

Ligambi, as reported here previously, has legal problems. He’s being held without bail on racketeering charges, sitting in a cell in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia. Cataldo also has a case pending. He’s out on bail after being indicted for racketeering in Morris County.

Cataldo was one of 34 alleged mob members and associates charged in a New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice investigation dubbed Operation Heat. The heart of the case is an allegation that the Lucchese crime family ran a major league bookmaking operation with a wire room in Costa Rica. Bets — many of them placed online — were processed through that Central American hub. During a 16-month period, the state alleges, the crime family took more than $2.2 billion in action.

Make money, the man said, not headlines.

Cataldo is charged with being part of the gambling ring. But his forte, said investigators, was the numbers business. The policy game, they used to call it. Now there’s a state lottery, so it’s hard to get excited about the mob running a numbers racket, but apparently there’s still plenty of cash out there.

Court documents describe Cataldo as the “central figure” in the crime family’s illegal lottery operation. But by and large, he’s stayed under the media radar. Since the 1960s, one investigative report noted, Cataldo has been averaging one arrest per decade for gambling offenses. Authorities described him as a high ranking mob associate who reports directly to Ralph Perna, the reputed capo and number one Lucchese operative in New Jersey.

Perna has also been indicted in the pending case.

But that’s not why Cataldo was in the news recently. What got him headlines was that after he was indicted in May 2010, he filed papers asking for a court-appointed attorney. This is a constitutional right. Anyone who cannot afford an attorney is provided one. The key words here are “cannot afford.” After Cataldo filled out his application, he was assigned a Public Defender.

Alfonso Cataldo
Alfonso Cataldo

A few months later, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office went to court seeking a subpoena that would allow authorities to examine Cataldo’s claim of indigence. The trial court judge and an appellate court panel have turned down the subpoena request, agreeing that to share information Cataldo disclosed on his application might violate lawyer-client privilege.

His Public Defender, John McMahon, also pointed out that since the indictment is largely an economic case, prosecutors might use information disclosed on the application to expand or flesh out the charges pending against his client. But here’s the rub.

State investigators did a background check on Cataldo and discovered that he and his wife, Lorraine, are listed as the owners of three properties in Morris County in which they have equity of more than $1 million. Records show that they have been paying $3,300-a-month on a mortgage for the house they live in on Edgewood Drive in Florham Park. The home has an assessed value of $659,600. They also make monthly payments of between $3,200 and $4,700 on a property in Readington Township assessed at $1.22 million, according to a state affidavit. A third property, also in Florham Park, is mortgage free. It is assessed at $484,300.

Even with the mortgages, the state figures the properties have equity of about $1.4 million, leading Deputy Attorney General Mark G. Eliades to say that “the citizens of this state are paying for the legal defense of a criminal defendant who has $1.4 million in assets.” The state also pointed out that the mortgage payments were being made even though Cataldo reported taxable income of just $1,564 for a three-year period beginning in 2007. The numbers, state authorities say, don’t add up.

“Cataldo possesses assets and income/reserves conflicting with an assertion of indigence,” Eliades said in a motion seeking to subpoena Cataldo’s application for a Public Defender. The issue is now before the New Jersey Supreme Court which has yet to set a hearing date. The mortgage and deed records show “an irrefutable stream of available income or a stockpile of accumulated liquid assets,” authorities allege.

Make money. Stay in the shadows. Don’t call attention to yourself.

Ligambi, who ran the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob for more than a decade, was another old-timer who followed that credo. A one-time bartender who did 10 years on a murder rap that was later overturned, he came out of prison in 1997 and within two years was heading the crime family, according to the feds.

It’s always been difficult to figure where he got his cash. The pending indictment indicates that bookmaking, video poker machines, loansharking and extortion were his primary sources of income. That, of course, is what the racketeering case is all about.

That Ligambi had disposable income is fairly obvious. He and his wife lived in an upper middle class townhouse valued at about $300,000 in the Packer Park section of South Philadelphia. They spent summers at a rental in either Margate or Longport, where a week’s stay can run in the neighborhood of $1,000. Ligambi also drove a Cadillac and favored lobster dinners and Opus One, a wine that goes for about $200-a-bottle.

Like Cataldo, he appeared to have no legitimate source of income.

In December, however, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation shed some light on Ligambi’s finances. Ligambi, it turns out, was a “garbage mobster.” This was the term coined by the SCI to describe alleged wiseguys who were working in the trash hauling business, one that the commission said has long been dominated by the mob.

The report, titled “Industrious Subversion,” outlined how New Jersey has failed to enforce regulations to keep organized crime out of the solid waste business. Regulations riddled with loopholes and a lack of resources and funding have allowed a problem that was first cited in an SCI report back in 1969 to persist, according to the most recent findings. The report went on to detail several examples of suspected mob members or associates who worked in or on the fringe of the trash hauling business. Not for nothing, it should be noted, was Tony Soprano — perhaps the state’s best known gangster — a solid waste management consultant.

Ligambi apparently played a similar role for a company called Top Job that at one time had ties to a trash hauler in New Jersey (although all the parties currently involved deny any mob connections). Top Job was based in South Philadelphia and for a decade had a highly lucrative contract to remove trash from the Philadelphia Produce Center off Packer Avenue. Ligambi, the report noted in a section entitled “The Hidden Hand,” was on the company payroll from 2003 to 2011. For most of that time, he was paid $1,000-a-week and had his health benefits covered.

That alone couldn’t have financed the lifestyle Ligambi was leading, but it was a start. What’s more, it appears the “job” didn’t take up a lot of his time. The connection with Top Job was arranged through the late Mauro Goffredo, one of the owners of the company. Goffredo died of natural causes a few years. After the State Commission of Investigation report came out in November, Goffredo’s son, who briefly took over the business, was asked why his father had employed the alleged mob boss.

“They were friends,” he said. Asked if Ligambi ever did any work for the company, he paused for just a second. “Not that I know of,” he said.

George Anastasia is a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He does a video report, Mob Scene, each Tuesday on philly.com and is co-host of The Crime Guys, a radio call-in talk show with Walt Hunter, Sunday nights on WPHT-1210 AM.

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