Former Philly mob boss Joey Merlino , left) talks with present leader Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi.
Here’s the big question circulating in certain circles in South Philadelphia:
With reputed mob boss Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi in jail with several of his top associates, who’s minding the store?
Who’s collecting the cash?
Who’s keeping the loan-shark debtors current?
Who’s emptying out the video-poker machines and putting together the tally sheets?
A 50-count indictment unsealed Monday that charged Ligambi, 71, with racketeering conspiracy, extortion, and gambling was built around the economics of the mob.
And while he sits in the Federal Detention Center at Seventh and Arch Streets, that economy continues to drive business in the underworld.
That, say law enforcement and underworld sources alike, is the primary reason someone will move to fill the vacuum created by what appears to be the end of the Ligambi era.
The most logical successor, those sources say, is in a prison halfway house in Florida, playing out the last six months of a 14-year sentence for racketeering.
The more things change . . .
Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, 49, has told friends and associates that he intends to stay in the Sunshine State after his release in September.
He is working in a tile and floor-covering store near Boca Raton and returning to the halfway house each evening. Several people who have spoken to him say he hopes to get into the restaurant business.
To date, he has shunned the spotlight, letting everyone know he is not interested in speaking to reporters.
But South Philadelphia and the limelight were once part of his lifeblood, and there are those who believe he won’t be able to stay away from either.
The piles of cash that come with heading a crime family may be a bigger lure than balmy weather and palm trees.
“There are a lot of guys out on the streets right now who weren’t making any money under Ligambi,” said one source familiar with the situation. “They figure now it’s their turn to eat. They’re loyal to Joey and can’t wait for him to come back.”
In the short term, several underworld and law enforcement sources believe, Merlino will stay behind the scenes, influencing the future of the Philadelphia crime family from afar. Two of his top associates, Steven Mazzone and John “Johnny Chang” Ciancaglini, are in position downtown.
Both were convicted with Merlino in 2001 and did jail time.
Both recently came off supervised court release and are free to move about and associate with whomever they choose. Both are experienced in the economy of the underworld.
Ciancaglini, 55, works at a news kiosk in the parking lot outside Chickie’s & Pete’s restaurant on Packer Avenue. He appears to be doing well. He drives an Infiniti SUV and can be found most mornings talking with customers who stop by the stand, including several mob members and associates. His wife, Kathy, who owns the kiosk, is often seen tooling around town in a Mercedes.
They live in a $350,000 townhouse not far from the newsstand.
Mazzone, 48, reportedly Merlino’s choice to run the organization, worked for a time at a fitness center in South Philadelphia, but it is unclear how he currently earns a living.
Like Ciancaglini, he appears to be doing well. He drives a Nissan Pathfinder, is always impeccably dressed, and gives the impression that he doesn’t have a care in the world.
Mazzone was Merlino’s underboss, according to federal authorities, and helped run the family through a turbulent period that included conflicts with mob boss John Stanfa and later with ally-turned-nemesis Ralph Natale.
Ciancaglini is a veteran wiseguy, one of whose brothers was killed and another seriously wounded during the violent 1990s. His father, Joseph “Chickie” Ciancaglini, was a capo under mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo in the 1980s and is still serving time on racketeering charges.
A move by Merlino and his associates to fill the vacuum created by the arrests of Ligambi and his top guys would bring the saga of Philadelphia mob full circle. Ligambi took the top spot, authorities say, after Merlino, Mazzone, Ciancaglini, and several others were arrested in 1999 and 2000.
It also would be a bit of déjà vu, underworld style.
Merlino rose to power in 1995 after a bloody war with the Stanfa faction. The Merlino crew didn’t win the war, but it took over by default after Stanfa and more than 20 of his associates were jailed in a federal racketeering indictment.
The feds have created a similar power vacuum with the arrest of Ligambi.
The question is whether Merlino, who enjoyed a high-profile run but ended up in prison the last time he was in this situation, wants to move back into the power seat.
Those who know him say he clearly would be interested in the financial benefits. But is he willing to take the risks?
Mobster-turned-informant Ron Previte offered a succinct – and, law enforcement sources say, dead-on accurate – description of Merlino during his high-flying days as South Philadelphia’s celebrity gangster.
“Joey’s agenda on Monday was to get to Tuesday,” Previte said of Merlino’s 1990s, live-for-the-moment underworld lifestyle.
Law enforcement and underworld sources wonder whether Merlino is smart enough to realize that Tuesday has come and gone.