Thugs discard old rules in Philadelphia mob war

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- The young mob wiseguys congregate at a clubhouse with a Greenpeace sign out front.

The Sicilian-born man reputed to be the leader of the old guard works out of a warehouse that is patrolled by a black and white pit bull that plays fetch with slabs of old tires.


And the shootings and killings oc- cur not in back alleys and dimly lit bars but on neighborhood streets, around the corner from a landmark diner, and on an access ramp off the city's major expressway.

Mob wars just aren't what they used to be.


Philadelphia is embroiled in its third mob skirmish in 13 years. But in this battle between upstart Joseph "Skinny Joe" Merlino and the reputed crime chief, John Stanfa, the established rules of keeping the war off the streets -- and away from innocents -- have ended.

The body count thus far: two mobsters dead and four wounded.

Even the generals said to be running this war have been nicked.

Mr. Merlino took a gun blast -- in the seat. He was lucky. His friend and cohort, Michael Ciancaglini, was killed just outside the young mobsters' clubhouse Aug. 5.

Mr. Stanfa emerged unscathed after a gun battle down an exit ramp off the Schuylkill Expressway on Aug. 31. But his son, Joseph, remains hospitalized with a gunshot wound in the jaw.

"You're not talking traditional, l old-line Cosa Nostra people," said Capt. Mike Lorenzo of the Philadelphia police organized crime intelligence unit. "Those old guys had a code and standards. These kids have no standards. It's king of the hill. Whoever survives, survives."

Meanwhile, those who live in South Philadelphia, a tightly knit working-class community filled with tidy rowhouses, small businesses, restaurants and churches, watch in horror as their neighborhood is turned into a backlot for a mob vendetta.

But in this movie, the bullets are real.


The latest South Philly hit took place Friday night when an alleged Merlino associate, Frank Baldino, Sr., 50, was murdered while sitting in his car outside the famed Melrose Diner.

"In 57 years, we've never had something like this happen," said the owner, Richard Kubach, whose family founded the diner. "I hope we don't have to have something like this happen again. Who wouldn't want this kind of thing out of their city? It's something we hope they get under control -- like yesterday."

Just a day earlier on another South Philadelphia street, they were reliving the details of another scene from the mob war.

On the corner of 8th and St. Albans, they talked about the shooting of Leon "Yonnie" Lanziolotti, 45, a professional gambler with ties to Mr. Stanfa. Mr. Lanziolotti survived the shooting outside a bar, but his blood poured on the pavement near a lion's head statue like wine spilling on a tablecloth.

Fear for the children

"I thought all of this mob stuff was over and done," said Lamont Graves, owner of Bella Vista Pizzeria, which lies less than a half-block from the mob hit site. "Obviously, it still goes on. I'm worried. Anything can happen in front of you or inside the store. And I fear for the little children who ride up and down the street, who stay out and play football and street hockey. What if they should get hit?"


Kevin Sterling, a transplant from Towson, still plans to open an art gallery and frame shop down the street from the shooting site.

"My girlfriend just called and said, 'Great location,' " he said. "Hey, this is a nice neighborhood. It's not like 'The Godfather' or anything around here. But having seen all these Mafia movies, it's interesting to walk around it. What amazes me is people around here actually know the guy shot -- by his first name."

The fear among law enforcement officials is that as the war grows longer and more public, the risk that a civilian will get caught in a cross-fire will increase.

In recent days the Philadelphia police have vowed to sweep the mob off the street, cracking down on numbers and gambling, even using traffic arrests to jail suspected mob members.

"The bottom line is we're not going to tolerate this kind of conflict in the city," Police Commissioner Richard Neal said Saturday after a second mob hit in three days.

Col. Justin Dinito, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, was even more explicit.


"As long as they kill one another, that's one thing," said Colonel Dinito. "I'm concerned about innocent bystanders being hurt or killed. If it does happen, the level of our involvement will increase. We'll go from a yellow alert to a red alert."

For the police, the stakes are simple: public safety.

For the mob, the stakes are simpler still: control of organized crime in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, with its interests gambling, prostitution, narcotics and labor racketeering.

"They are looking for money and power, which goes hand in hand with the position of boss," Colonel Dinito said.

Power vacuum

The battle for mob leadership in Philadelphia is a long-running story, where the winners rule briefly and the losers are taken away in body bags or are hauled off to prison.


Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo was the last man to oversee the Philly mob with an iron fist, rising to power in the mid-1980s before being jailed for racketeering in 1988.

Now, others are seeking to fill the power vacuum.

The new battle pits Mr. Merlino and those whom law enforcement officials call "wannabe gangsters" against Mr. Stanfa and the old guard.

Mr. Merlino, 31, the son of an imprisoned former Scarfo soldier, heads a group of dozen or so second-generation mobsters. Like Mr. Merlino, most are in their early 30s, nearly all related to former crime family soldiers.

To take on Mr. Stanfa is not merely brazen -- it's deadly.

Mr. Stanfa, 52, gray-haired and burly, should not be underestimated. Born in Sicily, living in the United States since 1964, a father of three, Mr. Stanfa once described himself as "a working man." At the time, he was testifying under oath to a Philadelphia grand jury.


Law enforcement officials call him "a made member of the mob."

Mr. Stanfa had a front-row seat for the first big Philadelphia mob war of the 1980s. He drove for mob boss Angelo Bruno. He also walked away from the car after Bruno's assassination.

He sat out the mob wars of the 1980s in jail, serving eight years for perjury.

But he's back, apparently at the center of another war.

And the man who hates publicity so much he once personally chased off his warehouse property Geraldo Rivera and an ambush film crew even has a nickname -- courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News "Name the Don" contest.

Call him John "Tightlips" Stanfa.