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Giving readers an unvarnished, uncensored, insider's view of the biggest courtroom dramas.

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    By George Anastasia

    Defense attorneys for Nicodemo S. Scarfo said repeatedly during his federal fraud trial that Scarfo,
    49, was targeted for prosecution because of the reputation and notoriety of his father, jailed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo D. "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

    The jury, of course, saw it differently, convicting the younger Scarfo of all 25 counts he faced in the looting of FirstPlus Financial, a Texas mortgage company.

    But now another voice has weighed in in Scarfo's defense. It's not a defense of what he did, but rather an explanation for how he ended up where he did. And it's also a plea for some consideration from Judge Robert Kugler when he sentences Scarfo in October.

    The younger Scarfo never had a chance, said his cousin, mobster-turned-government witness Philip Leonetti.

    "He's really not a gangster," Leonetti, 61, said in a telephone interview with Bigtrial this week. "His father had him under his spell...I used to tell him, 'Nicky, get away from these guys.' And when he was talking to me, he would agree' But then he would talk to his father and..."

    The words trail off, but the point is clear. Leonetti, the one-time underboss of the Scarfo crime family, followed his cousin's trial from afar.

    He has been living in another part of the country with a new identity since his release from prison in the early 1990s. Considered one of the best mob witnesses to ever take the stand, Leonetti testified at nearly a dozen trials following his own conviction, along with his uncle and a dozen others, in a 1988 racketeering-murder case.

    "I was very good at doing some bad things," Leonetti said of his life in the mob and under his uncle's influence, "but it's not who I was."

    Leonetti's decision to cooperate sent shockwaves through the underworld. Among other things, his defection was a major factor in the decision of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, the Gambino crime family underboss, to flip and help the government convict mob boss John Gotti a few years laterr.

    Gravano, however, couldn't stop being Sammy the Bull and after his release from prison returned to drug dealing. He ended up back in jail. Leonetti on the other hand has carved out a new and better life for himself and his family, far removed from the underworld where he was once a major player.

    Life, he says, has been good.

    He wishes his younger cousin had the chance to experience it.

    "There is so much more to see and enjoy," he said. "Those guys in South Philly don't appreciate or understand that. They would say that I'm the sucker now because I'm living a normal life. But I was the sucker back then when I was in the mob."

    Cynics of course, and there are many, say Leonetti's motives were financial and based on self-preservation. For years sources have said that the government allowed him and his mother Nancy, Scarfo's sister, to take more than $1 million with them into the Witness Security Program. The money had been stashed in a hidden safe in Scarfo's apartment on Georgia Avenue in Atlantic City.

    "Sure, his life is good," said one mob source. "My life would be good too if I had a million dollars to rebuild it. Give me a break!"

    Leonetti rolls with the criticism, saying there are more important things to focus on. He said he was fortunate to have the opportunity to change his life. He doesn't regret his decision to cooperate and testify for the government and he said he would urge his cousin to do the same. The problem, however, is that Nicodemo S. Scarfo, even if he had the inclination, may not have enough information to make a deal.

    "Anything he could do to help himself, he should do," Leonetti said. "That's what I would tell him. I would tell him to cooperate and save as much of his life as he can. Don't be a sucker."

    And don't, he added, worry about what your father is thinking.

    "My uncle is an evil guy," said Leonetti, who confessed to his own involvement in 10 murders while
    a member of the Scarfo crime family. "He's no fuckin' good. You don't know how evil he is."

    That's the message, Leonetti said, that he would like to convey to the judge before he passes judgment on his cousin.

    "I wish they had called me as a witness," he said. "I would have told the jury."

    But unless you've lived it, he added, it's difficult to understand. Both he and the younger Scarfo grew up under the dark shadow cast by Little Nicky, a psychopathic mob boss who was considered one of the most violent mob leaders in America during the period from 1980 through 1989 when he controlled the Philadelphia mob. The elder Scarfo, 84, is serving a 55-year sentence for racketeering and murder. His earliest parole date is 2033. He will likely die in prison.

    "Nicky was a kid then," Leonetti said of his cousin during the violent 1980s. "He didn't want to get involved. But his father would badger him. A couple of times I remember him crying because his father wanted him to do something. My uncle destroyed his whole family."

    Leonetti, who wrote a book Mafia Prince that detailed much of his life in the mob and that blistered his uncle, said he tried to do right by his cousin, but couldn't overcome the influence of the jailed mob boss. (The book was recently released in paperback.)

    After he was released from prison -- Leonetti's 45-year sentence was reduced to five years, five months and five days because of his cooperation -- he would occasionally visit Atlantic City, checking in with his grandmother and his cousin.

    "He didn't care that I had cooperated," Leonetti said of the younger Scarfo. "I told him then he should come away with me. He could have been with me right now. Instead, he listened to his father."

    Back then, in an interview, Leonetti had predicted that "my uncle is going to get my cousin killed or indicted."

    The younger Scarfo had already survived a mob hit in 1989 in Dante & Luigi's restaurant in South
    Philadelphia. The Halloween night shooting left him with seven bullet holes in his body, but he miraculously survived.

    "He told me he knew it was Joey Merlino who shot him," Leonetti said. "Maybe he could use that to help himself now."

    Merlino has always denied that allegation, which surfaced again during the FirstPlus trial when a government expert witness said that federal authorities believe Merlino, now 51, was the shooter that night. No one has ever been charged but the statute of limitation has long since expired in that assault and it's unlikely Scarfo could use that information to help himself, even if he chose to do so.

    Scarfo has two prior convictions for mob-related gambling and racketeering. He is also under indictment in Morris County in a massive mob sports betting case tied to the leaders of the Luchese crime family. The younger Scarfo became a member of the Luchese organization after he was shot and had to flee the Philadelphia - South Jersey area in 1989.

    His father, in prison with Luchese mob boss Vittoro "Vic" Amuso, arranged to have his son formally initiated into the crime family as an insurance policy against possible future attacks.

    But that didn't stop Scarfo from being targeted in a different way, Leonetti said, by members of the Philadelphia mob after he opened a restaurant, Amici, in Ventnor, around 1996.

    "Joey Merlino sent guys down there to demand money," Leonetti said. "That's when I tol

    d him to get away from those guys, to get out of there. He didn't listen."

    Some things never change. Gambling, loansharking and extortion have long been the financial lifeblood of the Philadelphia crime family and with several mobsters who were convicted with him and his uncle in 1988 now back on the streets, Leonetti says those activities will continue.

    "Look, if Joey Punge (Joseph Pungitore) wants to run a bookmaking operation, let him," Leonetti said of one of his former co-defendants now back on the street. "It's not hurting anybody."

    The problem, Leonetti said, is when other organized crime figures try to muscle in on someone else's action. Mobsters like Merlino and George Borgesi, who was recently released from prison, have a reputation for demanding and grabbing. Some of the veteran wiseguys from Leonetti's era, guys like Phil Narducci for example, won't stand for those kind of guzzling or strong-arming tactics, he said.

    "Somebody'll get killed," Leonetti said. "They should just let everybody go about their business, everyone make their own money and be honest with one another."

    It's a life Leonetti remembers, but has no desire to relive. When he does pop into Atlantic
    City, he said, he enjoys walking on the Boardwalk.  "I think back to the days when I'd be walking with Saul Kane and talking with him," he said.

    Kane, a mob associate who was known as the "Meyer Lansky" of Atlantic City, died in prison where he was serving a sentence for drug dealing. In his obituary Kane had family members list Leonetti as one of his survivors, a clear sign that he had a different view than the elder Scarfo of Leonetti's defection.

    "But when I leave Atlantic City, I'm happy to go back to the life I now live," Leonetti added.

    South Philadelphia wiseguys are myopic mobsters, he said, who don't see the world beyond Ninth Street. For many, Atlantic City and the Poconos define the edges of their universe. There is, says Leonetti, so much more to the world and so much more to life.

    He is just sorry that his cousin will probably never get to experience it.

    Leonetti said the only things he knows about the FirstPlus fraud case and Scarfo's co-defendant Salvatore Pelullo are what he's read. He said he knew Pelullo's older brother Artie, but not Salvatore.

    "What were they thinking, buying a yacht and a Bentley?" Leonetti asked. "That's not smart."

    The government charged that Scarfo and Pelullo had secretly taken control of FirstPlus in 2007 and then used bogus consulting contracts and phony business deals to siphon $12 million out of the company.

    The money was used to support a lavish lifestyle that included their purchase of a $850,000 yacht. Pelullo also bought a $217,000 Bentley Continental and Scarfo and his wife Lisa bought a $715,000 home near Atlantic City. All of that and more, including jewelry Scarfo bought for his wife, has been forfeited to the government as part of the verdict in the case.

    Now Scarfo is looking at a sentencing guideline range of 30 years to life when he appears before Judge Kugler in October.

    Leonetti said he intends to write a letter in support of his cousin, asking the judge to show some leniency. Leonetti said he is one of the few people who truly understands what happened to Nicky Scarfo Jr.

    "He wasted his whole life with his father," said Leonetti. "My uncle destroyed people."

    Especially those close to him, he added. Mark Scarfo, the youngest of the mob boss's three sons, tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in 1988. He was just 17 years old. He remained comatose and was cared for by his mother and his brother Nicky for the rest of his life. Mark Scarfo died earlier this year during the FirstPlus trial.

    The attempted suicide and the elder Scarfo's reaction to it say all you need to know about the mob boss, Leonetti said. His uncle was embarrassed by the incident. "He said if he came out of it (the coma), he was gonna send him away," Leonetti said.

    Another source recalled that at the time Scarfo Sr. was on trial with Leonetti and a dozen other mobsters for racketeering. When the source offered Scarfo his condolences, the source said Scarfo brush him off and said of his comatose son, "He's soft."

    That, Leonetti said this week, was his uncle -- mean, evil and self-absorbed.

    His cousin, Leonetti said again, never had a chance.

    George Anastasia can be contacted at

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  • 07/18/14--16:38: A Reporter Crosses The Line
  • By Ralph Cipriano

    The president of the FOP says there are credible allegations that two Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News reporters behaved unethically by buying diapers and food and paying utility bills for a woman they wrote about who accused police of misconduct.

    If the allegations are true, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says, the reporters crossed an ethical line and may have tainted the criminal investigation of the cops accused of misconduct.

    In the wake of the charges, Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker aren't talking, and neither are their editors. Only new owner and interim Inquirer Publisher H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest has spoken. "We stand behind the work of our reporters," Lenfest said in a canned statement defending the Daily News and its prize-winning series, "Tainted Justice." But Lenfest also said that "if such 'sound evidence' exists, we will pursue it."

    One impeccable source, however, has already stated in writing that the reporters crossed the line by giving gifts and buying food for another character in their series. The source is Wendy Ruderman, who in her book BUSTED A tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, discloses that she bought groceries and gave gifts to former police informant Ventura "Benny" Martinez, who in Tainted Justice, also accused the police of misconduct.

    "As journalists, Barbara [Laker] and I couldn't give him money, but we tried to help him in other ways," Ruderman writes on pg. 169 of BUSTED. "I bought him groceries, rushing over to his home with bags of vegetables, turkey and Dora the Explorer fruit snacks. I bought his son a Razor scooter for his birthday and told Benny to say it was from him. I wondered if Benny sold the scooter for drugs, but at the time, I was so plagued with guilt that I couldn't see through his manipulation and lies."

    "Barbara and I knew the things we did for Benny crossed the line," Ruderman wrote. "But that line -- the one between reporter and human being -- got blurry."

    Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker
    In BUSTED, when Ruderman isn't talking about her husband's butt, or confessing what a lousy wife and mother she is, she's coming clean about her complicated relationships with her sources.

    On page 218 of BUSTED, Ruderman writes how the wily Benny would tell her about how he might be murdered, or he might commit suicide. And how the FBI and internal affairs investigators were telling Benny that "Barbara and I didn't give a shit about him, we just wanted a story."

    "I was tortured by this," Ruderman writes. "I spent hours talking to Benny on the phone, trying to console him while trying to console myself.

    Let me get this straight. In BUSTED, Ruderman tells us in great detail what a lying, drug-addicted sleaze ball Benny is, but we're supposed to take as gospel whatever he says about those crooked cops?

    "Benny did a number on my head," Ruderman writes, "and for the longest time, I couldn't disentangle myself from him. I bought Benny groceries for Thanksgiving and toys for his kids at Christmas and for Gio's birthday. At my weakest moments, Barbara [Laker] stopped me from giving him money."

    "Wendy, don't do it," Ruderman quotes Laker as telling her. "She [Laker] reminded me that it would be unethical and cross the line as a journalist; she saved me from myself."

    Reporters aren't supposed to pay for stories. They do, however, routinely pay for lunches and dinners in the process of coaxing a story out of a source.

    It's hard to believe, however, that anybody's going to sell out for a box of diapers or a bag of groceries. Did the cops overplay their hand? Are they claiming that Ruderman parlayed diapers and toys into a Pulitzer?

    At his press conference last week, John McNesby, president of FOP Lodge No. 5, went way beyond freebies. McNesby, without offering any proof, accused Laker and Ruderman of intentionally fabricating parts of their stories.

    He doesn't know the half of it. Wait till McNesby reads BUSTED and finds out that Laker and Ruderman are a couple of secular Jews who, whenever they get in trouble, pray to their dead parents for help from above. Holy ancestor worship!

    All of this zaniness leaves new owner Lenfest in a mess of his own making.

    Big Trial reported earlier this week that several newsroom sources said that Lenfest had killed an Inky story that explored the allegations against the Daily News reporters. Does Lenfest now tell Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow to resurrect that story from the newsroom graveyard?

    Or does he let the Daily News address the issue in a spirited defense in its own news columns?

    Either way, Lenfest looks bad. He's already known as the new owner-publisher who killed a story that might have embarrassed the company he just paid $88 million for.

    And if the Inky and Daily News do nothing, it will look and smell like a cover-up that Lenfest is presiding over.

    The Inky is already going out of its way in a not-so-subtle campaign to resurrect its dead story.

    Inquirer editor Marimow, who usually responds to questions from Big Trial with silence, basically confirmed the scoop about Lenfest killing the story by saying, "It's an internal matter, and it's not open for discussion."

    Thanks, Bill.

    In the Inky story on McNesby's press conference, reporter Craig McCoy kicked it up a notch by writing, Police Commissioner "Ramsey said he was disappointed by reports that The Inquirer had declined to publish an article that explored the allegations involving the Daily News reporters."

    Yo Craig. Those "reports" appeared in only one place -- big, Gerry Lenfest's favorite blog.

    Why is the Inky allowed to campaign like this while over at the Daily News, editors and reporters act like they've been gagged by some lawyer?

    Over at the FOP, McNesby looks like he's just getting started on a public crusade. Meanwhile, somebody with access to supposedly confidential federal documents is busy leaking them. The allegations supposedly contained in witness statements against the reporters may or may not be true. But if they're down on paper and support the cops, expect to read them somewhere soon. If not in the pages of the Inquirer or Daily News, then maybe in the next FOP bulletin from McNesby.

    While Laker and Ruderman had nothing to say publicly to either the Daily News or Inquirer, on her Facebook page, Wendy Ruderman isn't keeping quiet.

    "So, I admit I'm having a bad week," Ruderman wrote over a big picture of a diaper. "How to convey that I (and Barbara Laker, the best, most honest and ethical reporter I've ever worked with) did nothing wrong to ... my enemies. It's like trying to reason with a foaming rabid raccoon. I feel dismayed, perplexed, incredulous, frustrated, sad, and more."

    Even her sister, Ruderman wrote, sent her an email that said, "I just want to know, did you give a source a diaper???????!!!!!!!"

    "Thanks Amy for making me realize how crazy this is," Ruderman wrote.

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  • 08/04/14--15:51: The Man In the Mirror
  • By Ralph Cipriano

    Sometimes you can conduct an exhaustive nationwide search for a talented top executive and never realize that the perfect candidate is right under your nose.

    Or in the case of H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, that ideal candidate is staring back at you in the mirror.

    After Lenfest and the late Lew Katz won the May 27th auction to buy the Inquirer, Daily News and for the inflated price of $88 million, Katz introduced Lenfest as interim publisher of the Inquirer. And then Lenfest announced that his first order of business was to find a new publisher.

    Lenfest was quoted in the Inquirer as telling employees that he already had identified five potential candidates and that he expected the hiring process to take several months. But it didn't take that long.

    In the interim, for the past couple months, Lenfest's name has appeared at the top of the Inky masthead alongside the title of interim publisher. Last Tuesday, "interim" was dropped from the title and Lenfest simply became publisher.

    There was no public announcement, no installation ceremony. No smoke signals emanating from 8th and Market. Just the dropping of one word, interim, from the masthead. Talk about anticlimactic.

    Today, an announcement from Lenfest went out to all employees with a tag of high importance.

    The email began: Interstate General Media Proprietor and Publisher H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest announced today that effective Sept. 10, Eric Ulken will join IGM as Executive Director of Digital Strategy for and the company's other digital news properties.

    Attention Jonathan P. Tevis, the new company spokesman who sent out the announcement from Lenfest: in the news business this is known as burying the lead.

    The news story was the big guy at the top of the masthead, not some new digital guy at

    When this was called to Tevis's attention, he responded in an email by saying "that question would be answered best by Mr. Lenfest himself." Lenfest, however, could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Back when the former owners of the Inky were feuding, Lenfest sent out a Nov. 8, 2013 email to all IGM employees saying the company needed to "attract new readers which in turn attracts new advertisers."

    "To that end, I am committed to finding the best new publisher available," Lenfest wrote. "One who can effectively increase our advertising revenue which is now at the bottom of our peers and our circulation online and in print while also supporting the principle of independent journalism."

    Apparently the one guy who can do all that is 84-year-old Gerry Lenfest, former cable TV guy.

    When the hedge funds used to own the Inky, there was talk of local ownership that would protect the newspapers as a public trust. There was a solemn pledge taken by all the owners to refrain from interfering in the operations of the newsroom.

    Gerry Lenfest doesn't play by those rules.

    First, he chucked the no-meddling pledge. Then, as one of his first big decisions, he decided to kill an Inky story that looked into allegations that two Pulitzer Prize winning Daily News reporters may have  screwed up a federal investigation of rogue cops.

    Lenfest also muzzled Daily News reporters and editors, preventing them from defending themselves.

    Not everybody is a fan of the censorship imposed by the new regime.

    About the killed Inky story, Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky wrote on Sunday, "It was ordered to be not published by Gerry Lenfest, who owns both papers. I think killing the story (even while I might question the Inquirer's motives) was a mistake and a consideration not normally extended to those outside our adjoining newsrooms."

    "I also think the Daily News not responding, and having the reporters not respond, is a mistake," Bykofsky wrote. "Get it out and let the chips fall where they may, that's how I feel ... Not publishing the 'expose' unless it was libelous ... makes the Daily News and the reporters look like they have something to hide."

    Stu is one hundred percent right here. The staffs of both newspapers should be turned loose to let it rip on this story of why the feds didn't prosecute the cops accused in the Daily News's "Tainted Justice" series.

    It's called journalism.

    Whatever the feds have on the two reporters should be laid out in print. If it's b.s. tell us why. Let the Daily News defend itself; let the Daily News keep reporting. Let us know whatever the Inky's got. It sure beats a coverup.

    Meanwhile the story is not going away. If the allegations against the reporters are down on paper we're going to read about it somewhere. Just not in the Inquirer or the Daily News.

    That's called giving away the franchise, and leaving your fate in the hands of some other news organization.

    And what about making yourself publisher and not telling anybody about it?

    Hey Gerry, you're in the news business. This whole messy battle over who would own this town's only two daily newspapers was all duked out in public and in the courts, remember? Why not make a public announcement that you're the new publisher and maybe call a press conference and tell us what you're planning to do?

    Nope, that's not the way they're going to play it. On Tuesday morning, a spokesperson released this canned statement on behalf of Lenfest:

    "Since the sale of the company, I've held the title of Interim Publisher as I took a deeper dive into the business," the statement said. "After more than two months in that role, I wanted to make the title permanent. I'm enjoying this role as the company continues to make big strides in building a winning culture by assembling a great team of journalists and executives. With all this said, I remain committed to recruiting another senior executive to lead day-to-day operations, and I've been actively working to do so."

    At the bottom of the statement from Lenfest, his spokesman wrote, "Note: Gerry Lenfest will not be available for interviews. This statement will serve as his comment. Thank you, Jonathan."

    So there you have it folks. An imperial new publisher with a license to meddle who doesn't see himself as accountable.

    And a couple of newspapers apparently engaging in coverups.

    Newspaper journalism in Philadelphia; what a mess.

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    By Ralph Cipriano

    In a grudge match before the state Supreme Court, defense lawyers for Msgr. William J. Lynn will square off against District Attorney Seth Williams.

    At stake is the freedom of Lynn, whose historic June 22, 2012 conviction on one count of endangering the welfare of a child was reversed on Dec. 26, 2013 by the state Superior Court.

    Both the district attorney and Lynn's defense lawyers have filed briefs in anticipation of a yet-unscheduled hearing before the state's highest court. The district attorney began his 33-page filing on July 10th by charging that Lynn "was a high ranking Archdiocesan official specifically responsible for protecting children from pedophile priests."

    "Instead, he relocated them, as part of a general scheme of concealment, in a manner that put additional children at risk of being sexually molested," the district attorney wrote. In reversing Lynn's conviction, "The Superior Court erred and should be reversed," concluded the brief filed by Chief of  the D.A.'s Appeal Unit Hugh J. Burns Jr., Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg, First Assistant District Attorney Edward F. McCann Jr., and D.A. Seth Williams.

    In their 55-page brief filed on Aug. 1st, defense lawyers Thomas A. Bergstrom and Allison Khaskelis, go on the attack, charging that the "Commonwealth's brief is replete with factual errors." The defense lawyers ripped the D.A.'s brief as an "unfair attempt to deflect this court's attention from the narrow issue actually before it," namely whether the state's original 1972 child endangerment law applied to Lynn. The defense lawyers further accuse the district attorney of "shrouding the narrow issue in a cloak of hysteria and emotions."

    The "distortion" in the district attorney's brief "insults the integrity of the Superior Court," the defense lawyers wrote. The charge of endangering the welfare of a child [EWOC] did not apply to him [Lynn] as he was neither a parent, guardian nor other person supervising the welfare of a child or an accomplice to the EWOC committed by [former priest Edward V.] Avery," the defense lawyers wrote.

    Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's former secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, is currently on house arrest after his conviction was reversed. He was the first Catholic administrator in the country to be convicted in the clergy sex abuse scandal.

    "Aware of the weakness of its position, the Commonwealth attempts to sway this Court's attention by introducing irrelevant facts distorted beyond recognition," the defense lawyers wrote. Contrary to what the district attorney wrote, Msgr. Lynn was "never charged with or convicted of reassigning pedophile priests under his control," the defense lawyers wrote. What Lynn was charged with was  EWOC and conspiracy to commit EWOC.

    The defense lawyers assert that the district attorney was attempting to mislead the Supreme Court by suggesting that former priest Avery was a pedophile priest reassigned "as part of a general scheme of concealment."

    "The Commonwealth never established such a scheme during trial," the defense lawyers wrote.

    This is true. The trial judge tossed one conspiracy to commit EWOC charge against Lynn and the jury found Lynn not guilty of a second conspiracy charge to commit EWOC.

    Contrary to what the district attorney claims, former priest Avery was never diagnosed as a pedophile or with any sexual disorder, the defense lawyers wrote. Instead, Avery was diagnosed as an alcoholic.

    "The time is ripe for this Court to put an end to the Commonwealth's deluded and contrived arguments once and for all," the defense lawyers wrote.

    The state's 1972 child endangerment law said: "A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits a misdemeanor of the second degree if he knowingly endangers the welfare of a child by violating a duty of care, protection or support."

    For nearly 40 years in Pennsylvania, that EWOC law was applied to an adult who had a relationship with a child, such as a parent, guardian or teacher who "knowingly endangers the welfare of a child."

    The defense lawyers in their brief say they were unable to find "any other case in the history of Pennsylvania jurisprudence where a defendant has been charged" under the original EWOC statute who didn't have a "direct responsibility for the care of the child."

    The law was amended in 2007 to include supervisors such as Lynn.

    The defense lawyers began their brief with a mea culpa:

    "The historical abuse by priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is well documented and beyond dispute," the defense lawyers wrote. "It represents horrific abuse of power and authority which has caused boundless pan and  suffering."

    "This brief in no way seeks to diminish or defend that reality, rather to defend a man who admittedly never abused a child and who was wrongfully covicted as a matter of law," the defense lawyers wrote.

    "The Superior Court correctly reversed Msgr. Lynn's conviction, and this Court must uphold this decision," the defense lawyers conclude.

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    Former Officers Thomas Liciardello [left] and Michael Spicer
    By Ralph Cipriano

    U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo C. Robreno let former Philadelphia Police Officer Michael Spicer out of jail this afternoon, setting bail at $175,000.

    In a second bail hearing, Robreno adjourned court after two hours of arguments. The judge wanted to give himself some time overnight to ponder whether he should also let out of jail Officer Thomas Liciardello, the man the feds say is the alleged ringleader of a band of rogue cops.

    Federal prosecutors have charged six former members of the city's Narcotics Field Unit in a 26-count racketeering indictment with stealing more than $500,000 in cash, drugs and personal property, while allegedly using excessive force, kidnapping drug dealers and falsifying police reports to cover their tracks.

    Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has already waved the white flag, calling the allegations "one of the worst cases of corruption I have ever heard." Ramsey suspended all six cops for 30 days, with the intention of firing them. He also announced at a press conference that he plans on destroying the former cops' badges. How's that for a presumption of innocence?

    Not to be outdone, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger wanted to see the six former cops held in jail without bail until trial because they supposedly were flight risks and posed a danger to the community.

    But five of the six former officers are now out on bail, and the judge was considering whether to let the sixth officer out of jail. Meanwhile, today in court a couple of defense lawyers sounded pretty cocky about the chances of their guys beating the rap when the government's much ballyhooed police corruption case finally comes to trial.

    Jimmy Binns
    Jimmy Binns, Spicer's lawyer, told the judge that his client would vigorously contest every charge.

    They haven't picked a jury yet, but the veteran criminal defense lawyer was feeling bold enough to make a prediction about the outcome of the case.

    "Vindication," Binns told the judge. "He [Spicer] will leave your courtroom not guilty of any crime."

    Jeffrey Miller, who represented Liciardello, said he wasn't usually in the business of making guarantees, but he too was feeling optimistic about his client's chances of beating the rap.

    "I certainly have that expectation," Miller told the judge.

    It's a curious case with many of the accusations dating back eight years. There is also no wiretap evidence to buttress the charges, according to the buzz in the defense bar, as well as no drugs or money seized from any of the defendants.

    Both Liciardello and Spicer had filed appeals to Robreno after their applications for bail had been denied by a federal magistrate judge assigned to the case.

    A big determining factor regarding bail for the accused cops was whether they did indeed pose a threat to the community, their lawyers conceded. Since the accused cops no longer carry badges and guns and no longer wear uniforms, they're no longer a threat to anybody, Binns argued. The defendants couldn't possibly duplicate their crimes now that they're no longer cops, Binns said.

    The prosecutor, however, argued that Spicer was a violent guy who had struck a drug dealer in the mouth with a sledgehammer, knocking out his teeth. Binns countered that the prosecutor was embellishing the facts of the case. The federal indictment only accused Spicer of punching a drug dealer in the mouth, knocking out his teeth.

    "He had a fist fight with a guy he was arresting," Binns said. It happens every day in my neighborhood.

    As to whether his client was a flight risk, Binns said "this thing's been under investigation for six years. He [Spicer] could have left a long time ago."

    While the government called Spicer a rogue cop, Binns said his client up until his arrest was a "man of impeccable reputation" for his 19-year career as a cop. He was also a "devoted father" of four kids ages 5 to 17, and a "good husband," his lawyer said.

    Binns argued against excessive bail, saying his client and his family were "people of modest means." Spicer's wife was a homemaker, Binns said. Since Spicer lost his job and landed in jail, his family has been "living in abject poverty," Binns said.

    The judge set bail at $175,000, settling for a lien on real estate.

    Like Spicer, Liciardello was a "highly decorated" cop for 18 years, his lawyer said. Liciardello is married and has two children. His father was a cop, so was an uncle. His wife is still a cop, Miller said.

    "He's got roots in the community, he's got a home," Miller said, even though that home was now in foreclosure.

    "His son is a sensational baseball player" who hopes to play professional ball, Miller said. Liciardello was a "wonderful family man" and a "good father."

    "He's loud, he can be pushy, but he's not violent," Miller said of his client. He poses no danger to the community. The defense lawyer told the judge about a petition circulated in the last few days in support of his client that was signed by 150 friends, neighbors and co-workers.

    Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek, however, told the judge that more important than the 150 people who signed that petition in support of Liciardello were the 20 witnesses who appeared before a grand jury and testified about the alleged abuses perpetrated by the cops. Those alleged abuses included kidnappings, threats if violence and excessive use of force.

    The prosecutor talked about one drug dealer who claimed he was on his knees, with his hands on top of his head when Liciardello whacked him with a pistol, "cracking open his head."

    The corrupt cops, the prosecutor told the judge, had a game going amongst themselves. Which ever cop inflicted the most pain "scores the most points," the prosecutor claimed.

    The prosecutor called FBI Special Agent Antony Balestrieri to the witness stand to testify about the federal investigation of the Philly narcotics cops.

    The FBI agent described how the cops were so callous in their treatment of suspects that when they wanted information out of one drug dealer in handcuffs, namely the code to his palm pilot, they dangled him over a balcony 18 stories high until he gave up the code.

    The FBI agent claimed that Liciardello allegedly threatened a lawyer for one of the drug dealers by saying, "I'm surprised you're alive," and "I'll be there when you die."

    The agent also claimed that Liciardello told the wife of a drug dealer who had recently changed her hair style that she looked better as a blonde than a brunette. This was taken as a threat by the wife, who thought it showed that Liciardello had been following her, the FBI agent claimed on the witness stand.

    Liciardello also allegedly told the wife of the drug dealer that "she would lose her house, her kids would be taken away from her, and the dog would be shot," the FBI agent claimed.

    But on cross examination, the FBI agent was asked if all the accusations against the cops had come from drug dealers.

    "That would be a fair statement," the agent replied.

    Miller  argued that one drug dealer who claimed he was kidnapped by the cops was actually being "put on ice" until a drug bust went down. During his alleged kidnapping, Miller told the judge, the cops took the drug dealer to a bar, where they drank beer and ate pizza.

    Miller also claimed the lawyer that Liciardello allegedly threatened was a habitual advocate for drug dealers. "He's the drug dealers' go-to guy," Miller said. The drug dealers' lawyer was always harassing the cops with frivolous lawsuits, Miller said. The cops finally retaliated by successfully suing the lawyer for wrongful use of civil proceedings, Miller said.

    Miller also argued that the wife of the drug dealer who felt threatened had recently changed her haircut, and had been followed by the cops. His client was only telling the truth, the lawyer said. So there was no witness intimidation.

    The prosecutor continued to argue that Liciardello belonged in jail because of his dominant role in the alleged crime wave.

    "He certainly is the leader of the officers," the prosecutor said.

    But defense lawyer Miller agued that during police raids that Liciardello was involved in, a lieutenant and a captain participated in the raids. So how could his client be the leader when he was outranked by superiors? And how could all these lawless acts happen under the noses of supervisors?

    Miller argued that going up against the government in a racketeering indictment was tough enough, but  that it was impossible for him to prepare a defense while his client was locked up in solitary confinement. He's been on the case for just a week and a half, Miller said, and he hasn't been able to talk to his client yet. A detective he hired also has not been able to talk to Liciardello, Miller complained.

    All the other defendants are out on bail, Miller argued; his client should be too.

    But the judge adjourned court until tomorrow, saying he need some time to think it over.

    Update: On Wednesday, Judge Robreno denied bail to Liciardello, ruling that he was the "de facto leader" of the alleged rogue cops, and that he could pose a danger to the community.

    According to the Philadelphia Daily News, as he left the courtroom, Liciardello mouthed to his wife, Selena, also a Philadelphia police officer, "Stay strong." But she was later seen crying outside the courtroom.

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    Reprinted with permission from yesterday's National Catholic Reporter.


    PHILADELPHIA — Defense lawyers for a priest and a Catholic school teacher convicted of raping a former altar boy claim that prosecutors didn’t tell them about a witness who would have bolstered the testimony of a key defense witness and called into question the accuser’s credibility.

    Claiming prosecutorial misconduct, defense lawyers are seeking a new trial in Pennsylvania Superior Court. In their latest filings they charge that prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland, a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says prosecutors can’t withhold “exculpatory evidence” that could clear a defendant.

    In a strange twist that confounds legal experts, the court ordered the filings to be sealed.

    The charge of prosecutorial misconduct is in an application to amend the appellant brief filed July 9 in Pennsylvania Superior Court by Burton A. Rose, a lawyer for former teacher Bernard Shero. Michael J. McGovern, who is also seeking a new trial for his client,  Fr. Charles Engelhardt, filed the same application to amend on July 10.

    The same day, the district attorney's office asked the court to seal the records in the cases. On July 29, the dockets in both cases recorded that the seal was granted, but no reason was stated regarding why.

    “That’s a very extraordinary remedy,” said Alan J. Tauber, a former defense lawyer for Msgr. William J. Lynn, who was also sent to jail because of accusations from the same former altar boy. “I don’t know what basis they would have to put this under seal.”

    A spokesman for the district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

    The application to amend concerns the testimony of Judy Cruz-Ransom, a social worker who was a victims’ assistance coordinator for the Philadelphia archdiocese.

    On Jan. 30, 2009, Cruz-Ransom and another archdiocesan social worker, Louise Hagner, drove out to take a statement from the accuser, then 20 years old, who had called in on an archdiocesan hotline the day before to report an allegation of abuse. Throughout court proceedings, the accuser has been identified as “Billy Doe.”

    At the criminal trial of Shero and Engelhardt, Doe testified he was high on heroin when he got into the car driven by Cruz-Ransom and gave a statement to Hagner, who was taking notes.

    Doe told the jury that when he met with the social workers, he was staggering and slurring his words and was basically in a “semi-comatose state.” That’s why he didn’t remember a bunch of tall tales he told Hagner, Doe testified to a jury.

    Hagner testified that Doe claimed that Shero had punched him in the face and tried to strangle him with a seat belt before he raped Doe, then 11 years old. Doe also claimed to Hagner that Shero had ripped his shirt during the attack, and that afterward, Doe threw that ripped shirt in the sewer.

    At the trial of Engelhardt and Shero, however, Doe conceded to the jury that Shero had never punched him the face or strangled him with a seat belt, or ripped his shirt. Doe also conceded that he never threw his shirt in the sewer.

    Hagner had testified that Doe also claimed that Engelhardt had anally raped him for five hours inside the sacristy of St. Jerome Church after Mass, and that afterwards, the priest had threatened to kill Doe if he told anybody.

    But at the trial of Engelhardt and Shero, Doe conceded to the jury that Engelhardt didn’t anally rape him and didn’t threaten to kill him. Instead, Doe told the jury that he engaged in mutual masturbation and oral sex in separate incidents with Shero and Engelhardt.

    Doe still insisted he was high on heroin when he met the two social workers from the archdiocese.

    On Jan. 13, 2013, at the trial of Shero and Engelhardt, a defense lawyer asked Hagner whether Doe appeared drunk or high the day she interviewed him.

    “No,” Hagner told the jury. “We would never interview anyone who was impaired.”

    A few times during the interview with Doe, Hagner told the jury, Doe “put his head down and made crying noises.” But when he lifted his head, the social worker said, “his eyes weren’t red and there weren’t any tears.”

    Hagner became the defense’s most important witness. In his closing argument at the criminal trial, defense attorney Rose argued that there was no reason why Hagner would have given false testimony.

    The prosecutor went after Hagner so hard on cross-examination that defense lawyer McGovern told the jury that the social worker was treated like she was “some sort of un-indicted co-conspirator.”

    During the prosecutor’s closing statement, Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti spent as much time attacking Hagner as he did the defendants. Cipoletti told the jury that Hagner was trying to protect the archdiocese, but “couldn’t keep track of her own lies.”

    Cruz-Ransom was never interviewed by police nor called to testify before a grand jury. She also refused to be interviewed by defense attorneys prior to the Engelhardt-Shero criminal trial. As a result, the defense didn’t call her as a witness because they had no idea what she would have said on the witness stand.

    In a separate civil action, Doe v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia et al, Doe is suing the church, Shero and Engelhardt  in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, seeking money for his alleged suffering. The case is expected to go to trial next year.

    It is for that civil case that Common Pleas Court Judge Jacqueline Allen issued an order April 2 compelling Cruz-Ransom to give a deposition requested by Doe’s civil lawyer, or “risk the imposition of sanctions,” according to the court docket.

    According to the application to amend, Cruz-Ransom stated in that deposition that she was accompanied by her own attorney when she spoke with prosecutors before the Engelhardt-Shero trial.

    The application prosecutorial misconduct because the prosecutors did not disclose that they had interviewed Cruz-Ransom nor did they turn over any record of what what Cruz-Ransom told them. The defense at trial was hindered because Cruz-Ransom’s testimony would have corroborated the defense’s chief witness, Hagner, claimed the application.

    Cruz-Ransom’s testimony would have backed up the trial testimony of Hagner that Doe did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they interviewed him and that he appeared to do some fake crying, the application claimed.

    According to the application to amend, Cruz-Ransom testified in the civil deposition that while she was driving, Doe directed her to a location near a dumpster in front of an apartment building where he claimed Shero had assaulted him. At trial, Doe had claimed that Shero had assaulted him in a park.

    On Jan. 30, 2013, a jury convicted Shero and Engelhardt of sexually abusing Doe.

    Shero, 51, was sentenced to eight to 16 years in prison, after he was convicted of the rape of a child, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault.

    Engelhardt, 67, was sentenced to six to 12 years after he was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault.

    According to the dockets in the Shero and Engelhardt cases, the district attorney is to file responding briefs in Superior Court on Friday.

    A third alleged assailant of Doe, former priest Edward Avery, 71, is serving two-and-a-half to five years after pleading guilty on March 22, 2012, to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child and conspiring with Lynn to endanger the welfare of a child.

    On Jan. 13, 2013, after he was called as a prosecution witness in the criminal trial of Shero and Engelhardt, Avery recanted his former guilty plea. On the witness stand, Avery stated he had never touched Doe. He had only pleaded guilty, he told the jury, because at the time he was 69 years old and was facing a prison sentence of more than 20 years.

    “I did not want to die in prison,” Avery told an astonished prosecutor Cipolletti. “I chose to take the plea.”

    Last month, after serving his mandatory minimum sentence of two-and-a-half years, Avery was turned down for parole because, he was told, he had not expressed any remorse for the crimes he had pleaded guilty to. Avery remains in jail, where he will presumably serve out the rest of his sentence.

    According to his lawyer, Mike Wallace, Avery said it was hard to express remorse for “something he didn’t do.”

    A fourth man sent to jail because of Doe’s allegations is Lynn, former secretary for clergy for the Philadelphia archdiocese.

    Lynn, 63, was convicted on June 22, 2012, by a jury on one count of endangering the welfare of a child, because in his supervisory role of abusive priests, he failed to prevent the rape of Doe by Avery. Lynn became the first Catholic administrator in the country to be sent to jail for the sexual sins of the clergy.

    The monsignor had served 18 months of a three- to six-year prison term on Dec. 26, 2013, when the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned his conviction. The state appellate court ruled that Pennsylvania’s original 1972 child endangerment law did not apply to supervisors such as Lynn, only to those who had direct contact with children, such as parents, guardians or teachers.

    The law has since been amended to include supervisors. After Lynn’s conviction was overturned, District Attorney Williams successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to review the case.

    Lynn is under house arrest as he awaits a hearing before the state’s highest court. A judge has confined Lynn to residing on two floors of a parish rectory in Northeast Philadelphia, where he must wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet at all times.

    [Ralph Cipriano, former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times, is an author and currently writes a blog for]

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    Anthony Voci  -- photo: Alan Weissman
    By George Anastasia

    Ron Galati has decided to roll the dice and put his future in the hands of a federal jury that will begin hearing testimony later this month in his murder-for-hire case.

    What's more, the South Philadelphia auto body shop owner and wannabe wiseguy is considering taking the stand in his own defense, a move that was hinted at in a motion filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson, the prosecutor in the case.

    In the same motion, Richardson alleged that Galati has made frequent payments to two prominent South Philadelphia organized crime figures, mob boss Joseph Ligambi and his nephew George Borgesi, but offered no explanation of what the payments were for.

    Galati, 64, faces from 15 years to life if convicted. His apparent resolve to go to trial and perhaps tell his story in his own words to the jury undercuts speculation and media reports that he might cooperate with authorities.

    "I don't know anything about anybody," he has reportedly told those close to him. 

    Prior to the start of a pre-trial hearing this morning, Galati's defense attorney, Anthony J. Voci Jr., said no decision had been made on whether Galati would testify. Voci spent most of the hearing  attempting to block the introduction of evidence detailing Galati's alleged prior criminal activities. Voci said that evidence would be highly prejudicial and would make it impossible for his client to receive a fair trial. The prosecution says the evidence should be permitted, but has agreed not to introduce evidence alleging mob involvement. 

    U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Rodriguez said he would rule on the criminal history evidence motion shortly. The trial, in federal court in Camden, is set to begin Sept. 15.

    Galati, dressed in a green prison jump suit, was brought to court this morning by two federal marshals. He is currently being housed in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia. He has pleaded not guilty to a charge that he hired two hitmen to shoot and kill Andrew "Drew" Tuono last year. At the time, Tuono was dating Galati's daughter Tiffany.

    The two hitmen and a third alleged  co-conspirator have all admitted their roles in the murder plot and have agreed to testify. Tuono was shot three times outside his Atlantic City home on Nov. 30, 2013. He survived. Tiffany Galati, who was with Tuono at the time of the shooting, may also be a witness for the government.

    Galati, a long-time associate of prominent Philadelphia mob figures, is facing two other criminal cases in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia. In one, he is charged with hiring the same hitmen to kill two rival auto body shop owners who he believed were testifying against him in a major insurance fraud investigation.

    In the second case, he, his wife, his son and more than a dozen other co-defendants are named in a multi-million dollar insurance fraud scheme. One of his co-defendants is Ligambi's son.

    The prosecution in response to a motion filed by Voci earlier, has said it does not intend to introduce any testimony about Galati's alleged mob ties, but reserved the right to address the topic should Galati's defense "open the door" on that issue.

    In a pre-trial motion Richardson wrote that, "Although multiple organized crime and `mob' ties exist and are relevant to this case, the Government does not foresee the introduction of this evidence.However, the Government reserves the right to introduce references to the mob and/or organized crime associations and/or activity if through argument, questioning, and/or testimony of the defendant `opens the door' or mentions these topics."

    Richardson also noted that prison records indicate Galati spoke with Ligambi by phone on at least three occasions while Ligambi was being held in the Federal Detention Center and being tried on racketeering charges. Ligambi, 74, beat most of those charges in two trials. The remainder of the case was abandoned by the government early this year.

    Richardson also wrote that, "On January 28, 2014, two days after Ligambi’s release from FDC Philadelphia following an acquittal and a deadlocked jury, law enforcement surveillance observed Ligambi at the defendant’s business, American Collision. Further, throughout the investigation of this case, it was learned that the defendant made frequent payments to Ligambi and his associate, George Borgesi, through a third party and sometimes twice a week through hand-to-hand transactions at American Collision."

    Borgesi, 51, was acquitted in the same trial as his uncle.

    Richardson's motion did not offer any explanation for why Galanti may have been funneling money to Ligambi and Borgesi. The mob's alleged role in an earlier Galati insurance fraud scheme that led to his 1995 conviction for fraud was alluded to in witness testimony during the Ligambi/Borgesi trials.  

    During arguments before Rodriguez today, Voci said the defense would not dispute the prosecution's claim that Tuono was shot by Ronald Walker and Alvin Matthews and that Jerome Johnson, a long-time friend of Galati's, provided the gun and helped set up the hit. All three men are now cooperating witnesses.

    But Voci said the reason for the shooting was not what the prosecution claims. Galati, should he take the stand, is expected to deny that he had anything to do with the shooting. Voci also argued that the prosecution should be limited in what additional evidence it can present to the jury about Galati's past criminal activities.

    Galati's conviction for insurance fraud in a 1995 case, for example, should not be permitted because rules of evidence prohibit the mention of crimes that are more than 10 years old. Galatai was convicted and sentenced to 37 months in prison in that case which in many ways echoes the new insurance fraud case pending in Common Pleas Court. 

    Voci also argued that allegations that Walker, Matthews and Johnson were paid by Galati to vandalize cars and set fire to a boat and a tow-truck should not be permitted because those events, even if true, had nothing to do with the murder-for-hire conspiracy that is part of the Tuono case. Finally, he argued that any mention of the murder-for-hire case pending in Philadelphia would be highly prejudicial because the allegations are virtually identical to the allegations in the case now pending in federal court.

    In both murder-for-hire cases, authorities allege Galati offered to pay Walker and Matthews and used Johnson as the go-between to set up the hits. The shootings in Philadelphia never occurred, authorities said, because the targets, Joseph Rao Sr. and his son Joe Jr., had closed their autobody shop before Walker and Matthews could make a move on them.

    The prosecution argues that evidence about Galati's criminal relationships with the Walker, Matthews and Johnson help explain why the three would agree to commit murder for Galati and for that reason should be presented as evidence. 

    Richardson, in his motion, said evidence of Galati's relationship with the three men could also be used to counter any testimony that Galati might offer. The prosecutor suggested that Galati planned to take the stand and argue that "he had no association, especially criminal, with his co-conspirators and that the shooting of the victim was unrelated to the defendant’s relationship with him. Moreover, the Government anticipates the defendant will testify that the motive behind the Victim being shot was due to the Victim `owing people money,' `constantly getting in to fights' or his drug use/dealing."

    Bits and pieces of the prosecution case have already been outlined in pre-trial motions. Among other things, authorities allege that Galati had threatened Tuono at a restaurant in Northfield in June 2013. The restaurant, identified today by Richardson as Salvo Kitchen, was owned by associates of Bogesi's, according to law enforcement sources. Those same sources said Galati "liked to hold court" while dining at the restaurant and frequently alluded to his mob connections.

    While authorities have never clearly indicated why Galati wanted to harm Tuono, Richardson's motion contends that at one point Galati said he would kill Tuono himself.

    "Galati told Michael Otterson [a potential witness in the case] in sum and substance that Galati would `kill him myself, I will strangle him, I will poke his eyes out' and `I am going to stab him right in the forehead with this thing,' referring to an ice pick type device," Richardson wrote. "In June 2013, Galati, members of Galati’s family and associates, including his cousin Anthony Valenti, had dinner with Tuono and Tiffany Galati at a restaurant in Northfield, New Jersey. During dinner, Galati took Tuono into the kitchen and threatened to kill him. Thereafter, Johnson and Mathews advised Tuono that if Galati was to instruct them to kill Tuono, they would follow through with the request."

    Another document indicates that on the night of the shooting, Matthews and Walker were told that if there was a girl with Tuono, she should not be harmed. Tiffany Galati, who is expected to be called as a witness, was standing next to Tuono as three bullets were pumped into his body.

    She was not hit.

    Now estranged from her father, she has given a statement to authorities and both she and Tuono have been interviewed in detail. They are no longer a couple, according to sources, but both may be used by the prosecution to build its case against Galati. 

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia


    Joey Merlino’s coming back to Philadelphia.

    But the erstwhile mob boss isn't happy about it.

    Instead of completing plans to open a restaurant in Boca Raton, the 52-year-old former South Philadelphia wiseguy will have to appear in federal court at 6thand Market Streets and explain to a judge why he should not be  sent back to prison for violating the terms of his supervised release.  

    According to a violation notice filed last month, Merlino was spotted meeting with mobster John “Johnny Chang” Ciancaglini and two other convicted felons on June 18 at a restaurant and a cigar bar in Boca. While on parole, Merlino is prohibited from meeting with any organized crime figure or felon. 

    Merlino, Ciancaglini and five other co-defendants were convicted in a highly publicized 2001 racketeering case in Philadelphia. Merlino, the  boss of the crime family at the time, was sentenced to 14 years in prison and three years of supervised release. 

    Ciancaglini, a mob capo, was sentenced to eight years and three years of supervised release. He has completed his entire sentence. Merlino was about to finish his supervised release term this week after which he would have been free to meet and associate with whomever he liked. 

    The timing of the violation was seen in underworld circles as an attempt by federal authorities to, in the words of one mob associate, “bust his balls.”  

    The alleged meeting with Ciancaglini and the two other felons occurred in June, according to court records, at La Villetta, an Italian restaurant and later at Havana Nights, a cigar bar in Boca Raton. Yet the violation notice was not filed in federal court in Philadelphia until Aug. 25 and Merlino was not notified until Sept. 2.  

    Contacted by phone, Merlino declined to comment but said his lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., was moving to set up a hearing as soon as possible. Merlino said he would offer an explanation in court. The issue will be argued before U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick. 

    “It doesn’t make sense,” said one source familiar with Merlino. “Why would he meet in a public place with Johnny Chang? What was so urgent or so important that he would risk his freedom?” 

    Merlino could be ordered back to prison. Other co-defendants cited for violating the terms of their supervised release have been sentenced to from four to six months in prison. What’s more, the judge could order that Merlino be placed on supervised release again for an extended period of time, thus limiting his ability to meet with individuals and to travel. 

    Merlino moved to Florida following his release from prison and has said repeatedly that he has no intention of returning to South Philadelphia or to the criminal underworld. His activities in Florida, however, have attracted both law enforcement and media attention.  

    The latest publicity has centered on reports that he intends to be involved in the operation of an Italian restaurant in Boca. As a convicted felon, Merlino could not be part of a business that held a liquor license. But he could be involved as a consultant or in some other capacity. 

    The restaurant, Merlino said in a phone interview, would offer “South Philadelphia-style Italian food.” 

    “There’s nothing like that down here,” he said, adding that his mother Rita might bring some of her homemade recipes to the kitchen.

    Merlino offered few other details, but he has been gathering mementoes, including newspaper headlines and clippings from his days as a Philadelphia mob celebrity. That kind of material, enlarged and framed, could be part of the restaurant décor. 

    Another Merlino co-defendant, Angelo Lutz, has done exactly that in his highly successful Kitchen Consigliere Café in Collingswood. Lutz, convicted with Merlino and Ciancaglini, has been a restaurateur for four years in the South Jersey food mecca that is Collingswood. 

    He started in a small, 38-seat establishment on Powell Lane and last year moved to a larger facility that seats close to 100 at the corner of Collings and Haddon Avenues, literally in the center of town. Reservations on weekends are a must at Lutz’s joint and Merlino, with his high profile name recognition, was apparently hoping to duplicate that success in the Sunshine State.  

    All of that is now on hold while the parole violation issue is sorted out.   

    Federal authorities are offering no explanation about the meeting but court documents indicate that two detectives in Broward County, FL,  had Merlino under surveillance on the night he and Ciancaglini met. 

    In May, Merlino, 52, had to appear before federal authorities and answer questions about his finances.

    Jacobs also represented him at that hearing. 

    How Merlino has managed to live a relatively comfortable life in Southern Florida with little visible means of income is a question that has been asked in both law enforcement and underworld circles since he opted to move to Florida when he was released from federal prison.  

    Despite his denials and claims to have left the mob, there are those who believe  Merlino is still a player in the South Philadelphia underworld and is routinely receiving cash from illegal activities there. Those who believe that scenario see the meeting with Ciancaglini as part of an ongoing operation. 

    Merlino has been living in a posh condo and is frequently seen at popular bars and restaurants in the Boca Raton area. The alleged violations occurred at two such places, according to a report filed in U.S. District Court which reads in part:

    On June 18, 2014, the defendant was observed by detectives from the Broward County Sheriff's Office (Florida) to be in the company of John Ciancaglini, Brad Sirkin, and Frank Fiori, all of whom are convicted felons. 

    According to the police report, on June 18, 2014, detectives were conducting surveillance of the defendant and observed him leaving his residence located at 67 Hawthrone Place, Boca Raton, Florida and enter a vehicle driven by Don Petullo. They followed the two to La Villetta Restaurant, located in Boca Raton, Florida. Shortly after the defendant arrived at the restaurant, several individuals exited the restaurant and met with the defendant in the parking lot.

    Joseph Merlino's vehicle and three other vehicles left the parking lot of the restaurant and headed to the Havana's Nights Cigar Bar located in Boca Raton, Florida. The defendant and the other individuals entered the establishment. Two detectives then entered the Havana's Nights Cigar Bar and observed the defendant in a VIP area within the bar interacting with John Ciancaglini, Brad Sirkin and Frank Fiori. John Ciancaglini is a co-defendant of Merlino in this case and is also known to be a member of the La Cosa Nostra of Philadelphia.

    In 2000 [ed. Note, correct date is 2001] along with the defendant, Mr. Ciancaglini was convicted of racketeering conspiracy, racketeering, aiding and abetting; conspiracy to extort a bookmaking business, aiding and abetting; and illegal sports bookmaking business, aiding and abetting. Mr. Ciancaglini was also convicted in 1989 of Hobbs Act conspiracy, Hobbs Act extortion, and attempted Hobbs Act extortion, aiding and abetting, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Brad Sirkin was convicted credit card fraud, in 1989 in Anaheim, California; and of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, conspiracy and money laundering in September 1992 in the Southern District of Florida. Frank Fiori was convicted of a felony fraud charge in 1997, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

    The defendant did not have permission from the probation office to associate with these convicted felons. 

    “It was a stupid thing to do,” said another underworld source while discussing the meeting. 

    The source, who has repeatedly scoffed at Merlino’s claim to have left the mob, added, “These guys can’t help themselves. They are who they are and that’s all they know.” 

    George Anastasia can be contacted at

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  • 09/10/14--15:09: Psalms and Prayers In Prison
  • SCI-Coal Township
    By Ralph Cipriano

    Father Charles Engelhardt spends his days in prison reciting prayers, psalms and hymns from the Liturgy of the Hours.

    "That's his anchor," Father Jerry Dunne says about Engelhardt's daily devotion to the official prayer book for the Catholic clergy.

    Dunne visits Engelhardt every month at the State Correctional Institute in Coal Township, Northumberland County, some 2 1/2 miles northwest of Philadelphia. That's where Engelhardt, 67, is serving a six to 12 year sentence after he was convicted on Jan. 30, 2013 of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor and indecent assault. The "victim" in the case is the credibility-challenged former altar boy known as "Billy Doe."

    Dunne has known "Charlie" Engelhardt for more than 40 years. The two priests are fellow oblates of St. Francis DeSales. They went to the seminary and college together, and worked along side each other at a couple of archdiocesan high schools, as well as in the same parish.

    Charlie has lost "a lot of weight" but his "spirits are unusually positive," Dunne says. "That fascinates me."

    "He's a person of very strong faith," Dunne says of Engelhardt. "He believes there's a purpose for all this. He believes that ultimately justice will prevail."

    Dunne, however, isn't so sure.

    "It just seems to me that it just gets darker and darker," Dunne says about the plight of a man he believes was falsely accused and convicted. "If it were me," Dunne says, "I would be crying every night."

    But Charlie "never says anything negative or critical of anyone," Dunne marvels. "He's never lamented his circumstances. He never judges anyone."

    Instead, he just keeps his nose in the Liturgy of the Hours.

    "God, come to my assistance," is the prayer in the book for today, Sept. 10th. "Lord, make haste to help me."

    The hymn is "Morning has broken" popularized by Cat Stevens:

    Morning has broken, like the first morning
    Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
    Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
    Praise for them springing fresh from the word

    Engelhardt has told his lawyer, Michael J. McGovern, that the priest's job in jail is to come to terms with his present circumstances and figure out how they fit in with God's plan for his life. And McGovern's job, Engelhardt tells the lawyer, is to "get me the hell out of here."

    Engelhardt's co-defendant was Bernard Shero, 51, a former Catholic school teacher now serving an 8 to 16-year sentence after being convicted of the rape of a child, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault. Shero resides at SCI Houtzdale, Clearfield County, a prison located nearly four hours northwest of Philadelphia.

    His mother, Bonnie, who visits him every month, says her son has kept busy by signing up for law classes offered at the prison, as well as a drafting class. "He goes to the law library as much as he can," his mother says. Like Engelhardt, Shero remains convinced that he will ultimately be vindicated.

    "It was heartbreaking in the beginning but he is just doing so much better than I thought he would," she says. "He has a positive outlook about everything. He's sure his appeal is going to be heard. He's sure it's going to turn around and that the truth will come out."

    "He's not blaming anybody except for Billy," his mother said.

    Bonnie Shero wonders how her son was able to cope with going to jail for something that he didn't do.

     "This trial was on his mind for a long time and he just prepared himself for the worst," his mother says. "And when it happened he handled it better than most people would have."

    Shero has a radio in prison but the reception is terrible. His roommate has a TV but Shero doesn't have much say in what they watch.

    He spends his time reading Scientific American and Popular Science. People also send him books.

    "He has plenty of reading material," his mother says.

    While the prisoners do their time, the appeals in the criminal case progress plod through state Superior Court. Lawyers in the case aren't saying much and there isn't much reading material down at the courthouse. On July 29th, the Superior Court sealed the records in the appeals of both Engelhardt and Shero, at the request of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

    Williams filed to seal the records the day after Shero's lawyer, Burton A. Rose, filed an application seeking a new trial based on alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Rose has charged that prosecutors did not tell defense lawyers about an interview they conducted with Judy Cruz-Ransom, a social worker for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who would have further undermined Billy Doe's already shaky credibility.

    Cruz-Ransom was driving a car the day Billy Doe got in and gave an interview to Louise Hagner, another archdiocese social worker. During the interview, Cruz-Ransom testified at a civil deposition, Doe appeared to be sober, told tall tales and attempted without success to pull off some fake crying.

    Doe has maintained he was high on heroin the day he got into Cruz-Ransom's car and gave an interview to Hagner. Rose maintained that at the criminal trial of Engelhardt and Shero, the testimony of Cruz-Ransom would have buttressed Hagner's testimony and undercut Billy Doe's.

    Robert E. Welsh Jr., the lawyer who accompanied Cruz-Ransom to an interview with prosecutors Mark Cipolletti and Evangelia Manos, has been ducking Big Trial's questions for a week now. The district attorney's office is also stonewalling on why it sought to have the appeal records and the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct sealed in Superior Court.

    While the National Catholic Reporter wrote about the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and all other local media continue to ignore the story, as well as the many questions lingering from the local D.A's self-described "historic" prosecution of the Catholic church.

    But one filmmaker had found the Philly archdiocese trials to be fascinating.

    Ken Gumbert, a Catholic priest who teaches film studies at Providence College, is putting the finishing touches on a 53-minute documentary, Abuse in Philly; The Clergy Sex Abuse Trials.

    Gumbert hopes to have his documentary released by Jan. 1. He plans on pitching it to the networks and cable TV because he believes there is "great public interest in this type of story."

    The documentary is based on Big Trial's reporting on the prosecution of the archdiocese.

    "It's a tragic story of politics and passions getting in the way of the civil rights of individual Americans," Gumbert said. "It's a story that should be of interest to anyone concerned with civil rights and justice for all American citizens."

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    By George Anastasia

    It sounds like the plot from a Shakespearean play, but with a decided South Philadelphia twist.

    A father, upset because his daughter is dating a man he neither likes nor trusts, sends two henchmen to kill the unwanted suitor. If Shakespeare had written the story, the assassins would have carried swords or daggers.

    Ronald Walker said he used a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol.

    Walker took the stand this afternoon during the opening day of testimony in the murder-for-hire trial of Ronald Galati, a South Philadelphia auto body shop owner with a checkered criminal past that includes alleged organized crime connections.

    But neither Galati's past nor his suspected mob ties are expected to figure in the trial. Instead, the case will focus on the allegation that last year Galati, 63, hired three men to kill Andrew Tuono who was dating Galati's daughter Tiffany at the time.

    Tuono survived the hit and is listed as a potential witness. So is Tiffany Galati.

    "It's a simple case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson said in his opening statement to the jury of 10 women and two men this morning. "Mr. Galati wanted Mr. Tuono dead." The reason, Richardson said, was also rather mundane. "Mr. Galati didn't like Mr. Tuono."

    Testimony and evidence in the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks, may provide a more complicated and convoluted explanation for the Nov. 30, 2013, shooting in Atlantic City that left Tuono bleeding from bullet wounds to the stomach, back and hand.

    "I shot four times," Walker, a stocky 49-year-old with an extensive criminal record for drug dealing, assault, attempted murder and robbery, told the jury. "They said I only hit him three times."

    Asked why he stopped shooting, Walker replied, "Because there weren't no more bullets."

    Walker said he was hired by Galati and promised $20,000 for the hit. He said Alvin Matthews, a boyhood friend, was with him during the shooting and that another longtime friend, Jerome Johnson, had set the murder up at Galati's request. Both Matthews and Johnson, like Walker, have pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire and conspiracy charges and are cooperating with the government. They are also expected to testify.

    "This is a case about people, family and relationships," Anthony Voci, Galati's defense attorney, told the jury in a comment that hinted at the soap opera like nature of the case. How much the jury hears about Galati's strained relationship with his daughter and the reasons why he allegedly wanted Tuono killed may depend on whether Tiffany Galati is called as a witness.

    What the jury won't hear is testimony about Galati's alleged criminal relationships with Johnson, Walker and Matthews. All three are accused of playing similar roles in another murder-for-hire case pending in Common Pleas Court. In that case, Galati is charged with ordering the murders of two rival auto body shop owners, a father and son, who he suspected were cooperating in an insurance fraud investigation that had targeted him.

    Galati, his wife, his son and a dozen others, including the son of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, are also under indictment in Common Pleas court in a multi-million dollar insurance fraud case. Johnson, Matthews and Walker allegedly damaged cars as part of the fraud scheme. Authorities say Walker and Matthews were also involved in arson at Galati's behest.

    But Judge Joseph Rodriguez, based on motions filed by Voci, said none of that information can be used in the current trial because it has nothing to do with the attempted murder of Tuono.

    Galati, jailed since his arrest in the case, said little as he sat at the defense table next to his lawyer. In his opening statement, Voci told the jury there "was not a shred of physical evidence" tying his client to the case. Voci is expected to argue that there were other reasons why Tuono was targeted, reasons that had nothing to do with Galati.

    The government's case, in fact, is built almost entirely on the word of Walker, Matthews and Johnson. Voci is expected to use his cross-examination to challenge the credibility and motivation of those witnesses and to raise questions about their involvement and Tuono's involvement in the drug underworld.

    Walker and Matthews were arrested within minutes of the shooting and quickly gave up Johnson and Galati to law enforcement. Johnson eventually opted to cooperate as well. All three are expected to tell basically the same story.

    Walker said Galati wanted Tuono dead.

    "He said he had a problem with a guy and he needed it taken care of," Walker said, adding that Galati often talked in riddles and that at one point he told the auto body shop owner, "Say what you mean."

    "He said he wanted me to kill the guy. He wanted him dead...but he didn't want it come back on him."

    Walker said Galati at first suggested that they bury Tuono's body, but Walker balked. He said he eventually agreed to carry out the hit, but not dispose of the body. He said Johnson took him to two different locations in South Philadelphia where Tuono was believed to be staying, but that the target was not there either time.

    Finally, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he said was driving in a car with Johnson when a call came in from Galati informing them that Tuono was at the townhouse he owned in Atlantic City. Walker said he had Johnson drive him to a few drug deal deliveries that day and that they stopped at a  Church's Fried Chicken restaurant for lunch before heading down the Shore to carry out the hit.

    Prosecutors displayed surveillance camera shots from the fried chicken store that showed both Johnson and Walker placing orders at the counter that day. Matthews, Walker said, joined them for the trip to Atlantic City.

    He said Johnson dropped them off near Tuono's Carson Avenue townhouse. They waited on the darkened street and up an alley for several minutes before Tiffany Galati and Tuono walked out the door.

    Walker said he had been told by Johnson, "do not touch the girl."

    Walker told the jury that Matthews called out to Tuono, "Yo, my man. I wanna talk to you."

    "About what?" Tuono replied, according to Walker who said he then walked up to the target, pulled a gun and told him, "Don't run."

    Tuono ran, Walker said, and Walker opened fire.

    Tiffany Galati showed little emotion, Walker said when questioned by Voci. In fact, he confirmed an earlier statement he had made to police that "She just stood there as if she knew what was going on."

    Tuono, lying on the ground bleeding, yelled for her to "call 9-1-1, call the police," Walker said. Instead, he told the jury, she got into a BMW that was parked in front of the townhouse and drove away.

    Walker said he and Matthews began to run from the shooting scene, but when they turned a corner they saw a police officer pointing his gun and ordering them to stop. Instead, they kept running. Walker said he tripped and stumbled and that the police officer quickly caught up with him.

    Matthews was arrested within minutes a few blocks away.

    Both men began cooperating almost immediately. Walker admitted that at first he told authorities that Matthews was the shooter, but he said he later changed his story and admitted he was the one who fired the shots.

    Walker said he did not know Tuono's name and did not ask Galati why he wanted him dead.

    "It wasn't my business to know why," he said.

    George Anastasia can be contacted at

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    By George Anastasia

    The father sat at the defense table facing a murder-for-hire charge that could land him in prison for the rest of his life.

    The daughter sat on the witness stand, offering testimony that could help the government put him there.

    Ron Galati, the 64-year-old South Philadelphia auto body shop owner, and his daughter, Tiffany, 31,  squared off in federal court in Camden today in a bloody and twisted version of family feud.

    Galati is charged with hiring hitmen to kill Tiffany's boyfriend Andrew Tuono back in November. But her testimony, which included her eyewitness account of the shooting, covered a dysfunctional family dynamic that stretched back several years and that Tiffany Galati said shattered her relationship with her father, her mother Vicky and brother Ron Jr.

    The shooting of Tuono, she said, was a violent and extreme extension of her father's overly protective and authoritarian approach to parenting. Her father always came between her and whomever she was dating, she explained. He wanted her to break up with Tuono with whom she had begun living. When she refused to end the relationship, she implied, her father decided to end it for her.

    "There were bullets flying," she said of the night when she and Tuono were confronted by two gunmen allegedly sent by her father. "I had never been shot at before."

    Dressed in black slacks and a long gray sweater over a black shirt, her dark hair parted in the middle and flowing over both shoulders, Tiffany Galati appeared both angry and determined as she testified for the government.

    Her father sat quietly at the defense table, showing little emotion but occasionally whispering in the ear of his defense lawyer. Galati, who has two other cases -- including another murder-for-hire charge -- pending in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, has been held without bail since his arrest late last year. He has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer has implied that Tuono was shot for reasons that had nothing to do with Galati.

    That Tiffany Galati believed her father had orchestrated the attempt -- Tuono survived -- was clear from her direct testimony and from several asides she voluntarily offered in response to questions from both Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson, the prosecutor in the case, and from defense attorney Anthony Voci Jr.

    When Voci questioned her about a custody dispute she had with another boyfriend who is the father of her six-year-old son Jeffrey, Tiffany Galati conceded that her son lived with his father. But that, she said, was only because her father refused her request for money to hire a lawyer to fight the issue.

    "I asked him for money to help me get custody because I was living in New Jersey," she said. "He said he couldn't help me...but he had twenty thousand for the shooter."

    Ronald Walker, who testified that he was one of the men Galati hired to kill Tuono, said Galati promised to pay him $20,000 for the hit.

    Testimony in the trial, which began last week, is expected to conclude tomorrow. Closing arguments could come Thursday or Monday (there is no trial session on Friday). It appears that Galati will not take the stand in his own defense. Voci told Judge Joseph Rodriguez his case would take less than a day. Galati's testimony and cross-examination, were he to take the stand, would extend the defense case beyond one day.  

    The Galati family riff, detailed in Tiffany's testimony, included confrontations and angry text and email exchanges surrounding occasional attempts to mend fences. Tuono, who took the stand this afternoon, acknowledged that he frequently clashed with Ron Galati and sometimes with Galati's wife and with Ron Jr.

    They had all been friends at one time, he said, but once he started dating Tiffany, the relationship deteriorated. He admitted that he left phone messages in which he called Vicky Galati "a piece of shit."

    "Those types of arguments happened frequently before I got shot," he said. But he denied making an angry phone call to Vicky Galati in May of this year, even after Voci confronted him with a taped recording of the expletive-laden message from May 4.

    Tuono had told the jury he made the call in an attempt to "make peace" between Tiffany and her mother. The taped phone message, however, did not sound like a peace offering.

    "Tiffany was constantly crying," he said of his then girlfriend's relationship with her family.

    "They were fighting so bad it was unbearable," he said at another point.

    Tiffany Galati admitted under cross by Voci that in August 2013 she sent a graphic text photo first to her brother and later to her parents. The photo, not shown to the jury but described by Voci, was a picture of the residue of a miscarriage Tiffany Galati said she suffered.

    The photo was of a partially developed fetus in a toilet.

    Tiffany Galati said she blamed her father for her miscarriage because of the stress he had put her under.

    The jury also was read the email message Ron Galati Jr. sent his sister in reply.

    In part, it read, "Do me a favor Tiff, don't text me shit that has to do with you and Drew...You want to know how I feel about it? I think it's the best thing that could happen to you."

    Tiffany Galati responded via text, telling her brother, "Consider me dead. Lose my number."

    In reply, Ron Galati Jr. wrote, "Tell me this. What was your intention?...Do you want sympathy. You don't talk to anyone...A picture of a dead fetus. It's sick."

    Tiffany Galati said the photo, texts and messages were indicative of how badly her relationship with her brother had become. She said they were once very close, "best friends," but that her father had turned her brother against her and Tuono.

    Tiffany Galati and Tuono are no longer a couple, but they were a tandem today. Tuono, 35, took the stand immediately after Tiffany Galati stepped down and provided another account of the night of the shooting. The jury has heard from the two hitmen, Tiffany Galati and Tuono. All have told basically the same story.

    Tuono said he and Tiffany were on their way to dinner that Saturday night. They walked out of his townhouse on Carson Avenue in Atlantic City and were confronted by two men. Tuono said he told Tiffany to keep walking and to get to their car. He said he turned and was shot in the hand. He then began to run away from Tiffany to draw the gunman's fire. He said he heard a shot, then felt a burning sensation in his hip and then another in his back.

    Tiffany got in their BMW and drove away. The gunman and his accomplice fled on foot and were arrested almost immediately. They quickly agreed to cooperate and told authorities Galati had hired them to kill Tuono.

    Tuono testified that as he lay bleeding in front of his home, he told the first police officer on the scene that Galati was responsible. But in a bizarre twist, Tuono said immediately after he was shot and as he lay bleeding, he called two close friends on his cell phone and left each the same message: "I just got shot. If I don't make it, I'll be looking over you."

    Tuono was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency surgery that night.

    Tiffany Galati said she also called friends from her cell phone as she drove away from the shooting scene. She admitted that when she was later questioned by police, she gave somewhat conflicting information, at one point saying she believed "cops had shot Drew (Tuono)."

    "I was very confused," she said when Voci raised those points during cross-examination. "I was scared and nervous. I'd never been shot at before...I don't know what I said. I was shaken up."

    When Voci suggested that no one was actually shooting at her -- Walker had testified earleir that he was told "not to hurt the girl" -- Tiffany Galanti just shook her head, and from the witness stand, looked at her father.

    "There were bullets flying," she said. "Who's to say one wouldn't ricochet and hit me?"

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    Tiffany Galati
    By George Anastasia

    Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday morning in the murder-for-hire trial of SouthPhiladelphia auto body shop owner Ron Galati.

    A jury of 10 women and two men will likely begin deliberations later in the day. Galati's future is in the balance. The 64-year-old wannabe wiseguy, who opted not to take the witness stand, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. A sentence near the top of the guideline would be tantamount to life.

    If the jury convicts, Galati's daughter Tiffany, 31, will be the witness who sealed his fate.

    If the jury acquits, or can't make a decision, Tiffany may also be the reason.

    The tart-tongued South Philadelphia princess was one of the last witnesses called by the prosecution in the weeklong case. She spent nearly three hours on the stand, largely supporting the testimony of three other key witnesses who said Ron Galati had hired them to kill Andrew Tuono, Tiffany's then boyfriend.

    Tuono, 35, was shot outside his Atlantic City home on Nov. 30 of last year. He survived the hit and also appeared as a witness.

    But the consensus from those who have followed this case is that the verdict will revolve around whether the jury accepts Tiffany Galati's version of the family dynamic at play when Tuono was shot.

    Ron Galati's lawyer, Anthony Voci Jr., has done a masterful job challenging the credibility of all the government witnesses. But he may have been most effective in raising questions about the motivation of Galati's daughter.

    Voci is expected to revisit that issue one more time Monday morning when he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson, the prosecutor in the case, offer their closing arguments to the jury.

    That Tiffany Galati was estranged from her father was never in dispute. That "Drew" Tuono was shot three times by Ronald Walker with assistance from Alvin Matthews and Jerome Johnson also was a given.

    Andrew Tuono
    Why Tuono was shot is the question on which the outcome of the case hangs.

    Richardson told the jury in his opening statement on Sept. 16 that this was a "simple case." And the evidence and testimony he put before the jury tried to keep it that way. Ron Galati, he said, was upset that his daughter was living with Tuono. He wanted her to break up with him and when she refused, he hired Walker and the others to have him killed.

    Johnson, according to the government's theory, was the expeditor who set the hit in motion. Walker testified that Johnson drove him and Matthews to Atlantic City on the night of the shooting and provided the .25 caliber semi-automatic that he used to pump three bullets into Tuono. Walker also said that Galati promised to pay him $20,000 for the hit. Matthews was supposedly in line for a car.

    But through a pointed and relentless cross-examination, Voci was able to punch some holes in the prosecution case. Most damaging was Tiffany Galati's admission that she had at one time solicited Johnson to harm another of her boyfriends, the father of her young son Jeffrey. From the witness stand she said she wanted her son's father beaten up, but not killed. 

    The implication that Voci was trying to plant was that Tiffany had tried to use Johnson earlier and that the Tuono shooting may have been a second act in the same bloody play. The fact that Tiffany Galati drove away from the Tuono shooting without calling police and a comment from Walker that she appeared to know what was going to happen the night he shot Tuono further underscored the scenario Voci wants the jury to at least consider.

    Reasonable doubt can lead to an acquittal or a hung jury. Either would be a victory for Galati.

    Tiffany Galati's character was also laid bare through her testimony. Again, on cross examination, she admitted sending her brother and parents a text photo of a fetus in a toilet, the residue of a miscarriage she said she suffered as a result of the pressure and tension her father had put her under because she was living with Tuono.

    The couple has since split.

    Tiffany Galati testified that she suffered two miscarriages, both pregnancies with Tuono, during the tumultuous period when they were living together and while her father was allegedly plotting to end their relationship and Tuono's life.

    Evidence and testimony has provided the jury with a look at a bloody and bitter South Philadelphia soap opera. Voci is apparently counting on the women on the jury to see Tiffany Galati for what he contends she is -- a spoiled, manipulative princess who always got her way. There is a theory in the less than scientific speculation surrounding jury selection that women, rather than men, are more likely to question the motives and credibility of a woman witness.

    The Galati camp was clearly happy when the jury panel chosen to hear the case included 10 women.

    But to buy into the defense story that  jury will have to ignore the heart of the government's case. The prosecution has not held any of its witness up as shining paragons of decency. Walker, Matthews and Johnson all have criminal records. Walker is an admitted drug dealer.

    They are not upstanding citizens, but they are the kind of people you would seek out if you were planning a murder. That's part of the prosecution argument. 

    The question that Richardson is expected to ask the jury is a simple one that goes to the core of what he has said is a simple case. Why would Walker, Johnson and Matthews all lie about Ron Galati's role in the murder plot? Once they decided to cooperate -- and Walker and Matthews did that a short time after they were arrested on the very night of the shooting -- why would they fabricate a story about who hired them?

    If Tiffany Galati was behind the hit and Walker and Matthews were looking to cut a deal, why wouldn't they have given her up that night instead of her father?

    That's what the jury will have to wrestle with.

    What the panel doesn't know is that Ron Galati is awaiting trial in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia in a separate murder-for-hire case that also involves Johnson, Walker and Matthews. In that case, Galati is charged with targeting two rival auto body shop operators -- a father and son -- whom he correctly believed were cooperating in an insurance fraud investigation in which he had been targeted. (He and 30 others were subsequently indicted.)

    The jury has not heard any of the details of the alleged Philadelphia murder plot, a plot that authorities say was set in motion on Galati's orders by Jerome Johnson, a plot that was to be carried out by Walker and Matthews. Sound familiar? The hit never took place because the rival body shop operators had closed their business before Walker and Matthews could make a move on them. But the conspiracy alleged in that case is almost identical to the plot laid out in the Tuono shooting.

    Voci, in a move that changed the dynamic in the Tuono case, filed a pretrial motion to bar any mention of the other murder-for-hire case, arguing that it might unduly prejudice the jury. Judge Joseph Rodriguez agreed.

    When the jury begins deliberations early next week its members know that Tiffany Galati once tried to solicit Johnson to harm a former boyfriend. What they don't know is that Ron Galati is charged with orchestrating a second murder-for-hire plot using the same group of conspirators who, Richardson says, played kill roles in the shooting of Tuono.  

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia

    It was murder-for hire, both the prosecution and defense agreed.

    The question was who did the hiring?

    That's the issue a federal jury began wrestling with this afternoon in the trial of South Philadelphia auto body shop owner Ron Galati who is charged with hiring three hitmen to kill his estranged daughter's boyfriend.

    After hearing closing arguments from the prosecution and defense, the jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for about a hour before recessing at 4:30 p.m. They will return tomorrow at 9:30 to continue.

    The prosecution contends that Galati, 64, a wannabe mobster, ordered the shooting of Andrew Tuono last November. Galati's lawyer, Anthony Voci Jr., has presented an alternative, contending that Tiffany Galati, the defendant's 31-year-old daughter, was behind the hit.

    "We agree," Voci said in one of the highlights of his impassioned, 90-minute closing, that Tuono was shot on Nov. 30 of last year as he and Tiffany Galati walked out of their home on Carson Avenue in Atlantic City.

    Voci said the defense also agreed that Ronald Walker carried out the shooting and that Alvin Matthews and Jerome Johnson were part of the conspiracy.

    "We agree to that," Voci said. "We might also agree that a Galati ordered it."

    Then the defense attorney paused, before adding. "The question is which Galati?"

    As he has throughout the trial, Voci pointed a finger at Tiffany Galati, contending that she set the shooting in motion and then when it went bad -- Tuono survived and Walker and Matthews were quickly arrested  -- she and the others conspired to blame her father.

    Less impassioned, but just as focused, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson urged the jury to reject the "grand conspiracy" theory presented by the defense. Instead, he asked the panel to use common sense and logic, honing in on the basics of what he has argued repeatedly as a "simple case."

    Walker, Matthews and Johnson, who was a 20-year friend of Ron Galati's, all have testified that Galati wanted Tuono dead, the prosecutor said. They all said that Galati ordered the hit. Walker and Matthews gave Galati up within minutes of their arrests which occurred shortly after Tuono was shot at 6:48 p.m. on Nov. 30.

    Johnson, who was originally indicted with Galati, became a cooperating witness in July, admitting his role in the alleged plot.

    Richardson said that while Tiffany Galati knew Johnson, she did not know Walker or Matthews. To accept the defense version of the story, he said, the jury would have to believe that the conspiracy included a fall back position to which everyone agreed.

    "How could she have convinced them to implicate her father?" Richardson asked. Then he sarcastically suggested that while they were plotting the murder she would have said something like, "And, oh, by the way, if you get caught, blame it on my father."

    As outlandish as that sounds, that was part of Voci's theory.

    During his cross-examination of witnesses, including Tiffany Galati, and in his closing argument, the defense lawyer portrayed Tiffany as devious, deceitful and murderous.

    "I have no idea what that woman is about, but she frightens me," said Voci, a former Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia who has prosecuted dozens of high profile murder cases.

    Ron Galati sat quietly at the defense table as Voci ripped into his daughter. The courtroom was packed with friends and family members of the defendant, including Vicky Galati, Ron Galati's wife and Tiffany's mother.

    Tuono sat on the other side of the courtroom with several law enforcement investigators.

    Voci argued that there was no physical evidence tying his client to the shooting and that the entire case was build on the "say so" of less than credible witnesses whose motivation was suspect. He described Walker, Matthews and Johnson as "three crumbs with criminal records" and said all three lied on the witness stand.

    He referred to Tuono as a drug dealer and drug user who twisted the facts to fit the image he tried to present to the jury when he took the stand. Among other things, Voci asked the jury to remember Tuono testifying about how he had tried to mend the breach between Tiffany Galati and her mother. Tuono said he had made a call to Vicky Galati as a "peace offering" after Ron Galati was arrested.

    Voci had played part of a phone message Tuono left in which he called Vicky Galati "a fuckin' piece of shit." That, the defense attorney said, was hardly a peace offering "in any language."

    But the defense attorney was most pointed in his depiction of Tiffany Galati, sarcastically referring to her as "mother of the year" while talking about the fact that another former boyfriend has custody of their six-year-old son. He also highlighted the fact that Tiffany Galati had once solicited Johnson to assault that boyfriend. And he reminded the jury again that Tiffany Galati had sent her brother and parents a photo of a fetus in a toilet after she suffered a miscarriage.

    The baby, she said, was Tuono's and the miscarriage was the result of the tension and pressure her father had put her under because she was living with Tuono.

    "She blames her father for everything," Voci said.

    Richardson told the jury that Ron Galati was a possessive and authoritarian father who sometimes called his daughter twelve times a day. He said Galati believed Tuono had taken his daughter away from the family.

    Ron Galati wanted Tuono dead, the prosecutor said and pointed to the testimony of several witnesses who backed up that allegation. 

    "This is a simple case," he told the jury again. "Ron Galati wanted Andrew Tuono dead and he sent them (Walker, Johnson and Matthews) to Atlantic City to do it."

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia

    Wannabe wiseguy Ron Galati was convicted of murder-for-hire and conspiracy charges today in a case that offered a look into a bizarre and twisted South Philadelphia family dynamic.

    A federal jury deliberated for about five hours over two days before returning guilty verdicts on all four charges Galati faced. No date has been set for sentencing, but the 64-year-old auto body shop owner is looking at 20 years or more at the top end of federal sentencing guidelines.

    With a prior conviction for insurance fraud and with two other cases pending in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, Galati could very well spend the rest of his life in prison.

    "We're not surprised, but we're disappointed," said Anthony Voci Jr., Galati's defense attorney. Voci said Galati took the verdict well. But members of his family were "devastated," according to Galati's twin sister Renee.

    "I can't believe it," she said through tears. "This is something my brother is not capable of."

    The jury of 10 women and two men, after hearing five days of testimony, thought otherwise. The verdict was an endorsement of the prosecution case presented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson and a clear rejection of an alternative motive offered by Voci during an impassioned defense and closing argument.

    Galati was convicted of hiring hitmen to kill the boyfriend of his estranged daughter Tiffany.

    The boyfriend, Andrew Tuono, 35, was shot as he and Tiffany left their Atlantic City townhouse on Nov. 30 of last year. Tuono survived the assault. He was one of several witnesses called by the prosecution.

    While Galati liked to play the role of The Godfather and frequently quoted lines from famous gangster movies, the plot he was convicted of setting in motion was strictly a grade-B operation.

    Ronald Walker, the admitted shooter, was arrested within minutes of the assault. Alvin Matthews, his accomplice, was picked up a few minutes later. Both quickly told authorities Galati had hired them to kill Tuono. Walker said he was promised $20,000.

    A third conspirator, Galati's long-time friend Jerome Johnson, began cooperating in July after he was indicted along with Galati on the murder-for-hire, conspiracy and weapons offenses.

    Johnson, Walker and Matthews all testified for the prosecution.

    Galati wanted Tuono dead, they said. The motive? Tiffany Galati had moved in with Tuono, a one-time friend of Galati's.

    Galati was described by Richardson as an overly possessive father who sometimes called his grown daughter a dozen times a day. He was said to detest Tuono who he believed had taken his daughter away from the family.

    Both Tiffany Galati and Tuono testified for the government, laying bare details of the estrangement and the internal bickering and backbiting that sounded like a bitter and bloody version of Family Feud.

    Voci portrayed Tiffany as a spoiled and spiteful South Philadelphia princess who chose her drug-dealing boyfriend over her family. But Voci also argued that Tiffanylater conspired to have Tuono killed. The story offered another level of drama to the soap opera-like case, but apparently carried little weight with the jury.

    The defense attorney told the jury there was no physical evidence tying his client to the crime and that the prosecution's case was built around the "say so" of convicted criminals (Johnson, Matthews and Walker) who lied on the stand.

    "We had an uphill battle," Voci said after the verdicts were announced. "Any time you have a conspiracy case and three of the alleged conspirators are testifying against you, you have problems."

    Voci said he and Galati were heartened when the jury sent a note to Judge Joseph Rodriguez late this morning, after about three total hours of deliberation, announcing that it was deadlocked. Rodriguez urged the panel to continue, and shortly after 1 p.m. another note was sent out announcing the panel had a verdict.

    The supposition, Voci said, was that one or two members of the jury had at first held out, but were later convinced to vote for convictions.

    Voci declined to discuss the cases pending against Galati in Philadelphia. Galati is charged in a second murder-for-hire case involving the same three hitmen. And he is also facing insurance fraud charges along with his wife, son and 30 other co-defendants.

    There are those who believe Galati will throw in the towel on those cases and try to work out plea deals so that he can served concurrent sentences and do his time in a federal prison. They also speculate that part of a plea would involve leniency for his wife and son.

    Rumors that Galati might try to cut a deal and cooperate appear to be based on idle speculation.

    While Galati has been an associate of several major mob figures, including crime bosses Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and Joe Ligambi, sources say he doesn't know enough to implicate them in any serious criminal activity.

    One of Ligambi's sons has been charged in the insurance fraud case and authorities have said that Galati routinely made payments to Ligambi and his nephew, mobster George Borgesi. But there has been no evidence to back up those allegations and sources familiar with the situation say federal authorities were unlikely to bring another case against Merlino, Ligambi or Borgesi unless the case involved murder charges.

    There are three unsolved gangland murders, the slayings of Raymond "Long John" Martorano, John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto and Ronnie Turchi, that federal authorities would like to lay on the doorsteps of Ligambi and Merlino, but to date, there has not been enough evidence to make a case in any of those hits.

    The attempt on Tuono was not mob-related, but a personal matter, according to the testimony and evidence. In fact, the prosecution was barred from making any reference to organized crime and Galati's suspected mob ties.

    As it turned out, those connections weren't necessary to win a conviction.

    Members of Galati family say they are at a loss to understand the jury's decision.

    "There were so many discrepancies," said Galati's twin sister Renee in a telephone interview this afternoon. "We thought there was reasonable doubt."

    "I'm in a fog," she added. "This is my twin. I feel like I lost a limb."

    She said the entire family was devastated by the jury verdict, noting that Galati and his wife Vicky marked their 40th wedding anniversary today.

    "Vicky's lost a husband and she's lost a daughter," Renee said. "I know in my heart my brother didn't do this. It's just so twisted."

    Tiffany Galati, she said, drifted away from the family when she began dating Tuono who Galati and his family believed was a drug dealer. Tuono was "40 miles of bad road," she said. "But Tiffany didn't see it. She alienated everybody in the family."

    And ultimately, based on the jury verdict announced today, she helped the prosecution send her father to prison for what could amount to the rest of his life.

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia

    Joey Merlino's back in town.

    But the one-time South Philadelphia celebrity mob boss hopes he's just passing through.

    Merlino has a date at 10 a.m. tomorrow before U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick who will ultimately decide the short term future of the 52-year-old mobster.

    Merlino has to respond to a summons alleging he violated the terms of his supervised release by meeting with three convicted felons, including Philadelphia mob capo John Ciancaglini, in Florida on June 18.

    Merlino's attorneys have called the meeting a "chance encounter" that was "much less nefarious that the government wants this court to believe."

    Federal prosecutors have termed the defense argument "laughable."

    Surrick will ultimately decide who gets the last laugh.

    The hearing tomorrow stems from a violation citation filed on Sept. 2, just five days before Merlino was to complete the three years of supervised release that were part of his sentence following his conviction for racketeering in 2001. Ciancaglini was a co-defendant in that case.

    Merlino relocated to Florida after being released from prison in September 2011. He had served nearly 12 years of a 14-year sentence. With the permission of the probation department, he opted to settle in the Boca Raton area rather than return to South Philadelphia.

    His presence in South Florida has not gone unnoticed by both the media and law enforcement. But his lawyers, Edwin Jaocbs Jr. and Michael Myers, argued in a motion filed earlier this week that Merlino had been "scrupulously" abiding by the conditions of his probation and reported any encounter he had with a convicted felon.

    Under the terms of his probation, Merlino was prohibited from associating with known organized crime figures or convicted felons. If found in violation, he could be sent back to prison, placed on some form of house arrest or have his probation extended.

    In their motion, Jacobs and Myers continually referred to Merlino as 'Joseph," as in, "Anxious to leave his past behind, Joseph began carving out a new life for himself in Boca Raton" and "For the last three years, Joseph has scrupulously abided by the conditions of his supervised release." There are at least a dozen references to Merlino in which only his first name is used.

    The lawyers argued that the government's citation was based on faulty allegations. They also contended that the summons had not been issued in a timely fashion and that Merlino's actual probation period had expired before he was formally cited.

    In a counter-motion filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer, the prosecution said any delay was at the request of Jacobs and that both he and Merlino were properly notified on Sept. 2, five days before Merlino was scheduled to complete his three-year stint of supervised release.

    The citation cites two alleged violations.

    In May, Merlino refused during a government deposition to reply to a prosecutor's question about any financial dealings he may have had with a suspected organized crime figure. Merlino instead exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer. The deposition was part of a civil action brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia to determine Merlino's finances.

    In addition to his prison sentence, Merlino was fined $25,000 and ordered to pay $337,943.89 in restitution following his 2001 racketeering conviction. Merlino's sources of income have been a topic of debate in law enforcement and underworld circles since his release three years ago.

    He has maintained residences in upscale condos and townhouses in the Boca Raton area, frequents high end restaurants and night spots and is a regular at a popular gym. There are those who believe that despite his denials and his insistence that he has left South Philadelphia and the mob life behind, Merlino continues to have a "piece of the action," and that associates routinely send him or bring him cash.

    A second violation, the government alleges, occurred on June 18 when Merlino was spotted in the presence of Ciancaglini and two local men Brad Sirkin and Frank Fiore. All three are convicted felons.

    According to the citation filed in federal court, Broward County Sheriff's Department detectives had Merlino under surveillance on the night of June 18 and spotted him meeting with those three individuals in the parking lot of La Villetta, a popular Italian restaurant. The detectives then followed the group to Havana Nights, a cigar bar owned by Fiore.

    Two detectives who entered the cigar bar said Merlino was in the VIP section with Ciancaglini and the others, according to court papers.

    Merlino's lawyers have argued that the association that night was a "chance encounter." They contend there is no evidence supporting any allegation that Merlino was interacting with the others. Rather, they say, he happened to be at the same place at the same time.

    They argued repeatedly that "Joseph" was committed to starting a new life; that he had a job with a marketing and advertising company and that he was doing volunteer work with a drug rehab center and a foundation that provides training and education for those with autism.

    They also said that "Joseph" had recently arranged for his wife Deborah Wells-Merlino and their youngest daughter to relocate from Ocean Township, NJ, to Boca Raton. The couple's older daughter is now attending college.

    The move, the lawyers said, was further proof that "Joseph" was attempting to start a new life in Florida. Why else, they argued, would he ask his wife and daughter to uproot themselves and why would he "knowingly risk jeopardizing everything he had spent years working to achieve."

    Prosecutors, in their motion, seemed less than convinced that Merlino -- they NEVER referred to him as "Joseph" -- had left the mob life behind.

    "Merlino was the leader of the Philadelphiafamily of the La Cosa Nostra," Troyer wrote in his motion. "His suggestion that his meetings with convicted felons and LCN members and associates were mere 'chance encounters' is laughable, and is belied by the evidence. Equally preposterous is his suggestion that he did not know that he could not associate with the persons with whom he is alleged to have met."

    Troyer went on to note that in the 1990s, while on probation in a different case, Merlino was guilty of the same offenses.

    "He fully understands the seriousness of such violations," the prosecutor argued. "John Ciancaglini was a co-defendant of Merlino’s in the instant case. Frank Fiore is a convicted fraudster. Bradley Sirkin, who is related to a capo in the Lucchese crime family, is also a convicted felon. In fact, by Merlino’s own admission in his memorandum of law, Merlino met Sirkin in a federal halfway house. Any suggestion that Merlino did not know that these were prohibited persons is patently unreasonable."

    The prosecutor also said the government was prepared to back up its allegations with evidence and photos. He wrote that while in a halfway house in Florida prior to the start of his probation, "Merlino had off-site meetings with convicted felons and known LCN members and associates. Photographs of these meetings have been provided to defense counsel in discovery."

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia

    Joey Merlino can still draw a crowd.

    The one-time South Philadelphia celebrity mobster had a nearly packed courtroom for his probation violation hearing this morning. Friends, family members, law enforcement officials and more than a dozen members of the media showed up for a 90-minute proceeding that revolved around mundane technical issues and that offered all the drama of a first-year law school seminar.

    The proceeding before U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick ended without any resolution. But Merlino, 52, attracted a swarm of television cameramen and newspaper photographers as he exited the building at Sixth and Market Streets.

    "The Mummers Parade," Merlino said cryptically as reporters shouted questions at him and a small entourage that made its way toward Seventh Street and a parking garage. Merlino was scheduled to return to Florida later today.
    Philadelphia Inquirer/Yong Kim
    In an earlier interview with, Merlino said that one of the few things he missed since relocating to Florida three years ago was the New Year's Day parade.

    Whether he has to return to Philadelphia for another hearing will depend on how Surrick rules on what amounted to conflicting legal arguments posed by defense attorney Edwin Jacobs Jr. and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer.

    Jacobs said he believed Merlino was happy living in Florida and has no intention of coming back to his hometown for anything other than an occasional visit. He said Merlino is working "in sales" for an advertising company, but would offer no specifics.

    Troyer, in an interview outside the courthouse after today's hearing, seemed less than convinced.

    "I don't think Mr. Merlino has had a job in a very long time," said the prosecutor in response to a question about Merlino's gainful employment in the Sunshine State.

    Asked if federal authorities still list "Skinny Joey" an active member of the Philadelphia branch of La Cosa Nostra, Troyer replied, "That's the way we consider him."

    Jacobs on the other hand, repeated many of the arguments contained in a pre-hearing motion, insisting that his client is trying to start a new life. Both in his motion and in his comments, Jacobs indicated that federal authorities are making that difficult.

    "I think enough is enough," said the Atlantic City-based criminal defense attorney. "I think there are more productive things for the government to do than to follow Joey Merlino to a cigar bar."

    The probation violation petition alleges that on June 18, Broward County Sheriff's Department detectives spotted Merlino in Havana Nights, a Boca Raton cigar bar, in the company of three convicted felons, including Philadelphia mob capo John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini.

    At the time, Merlino was completing a three-year term of supervised release (probation) and was prohibited from associating with organized crime figures and convicted felons. Merlino was convicted of racketeering conspiracy in 2001 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He had completed his sentence and relocated to Florida to finish his probation. Ciancaglini was a co-defendant in that case.

    But the issue of association was never brought up during today's hearing which instead focused on a technical issue raised by Jacobs. In a motion filed Monday, Jacobs argued that the government had failed to properly issue a summons notifying Merlino of the alleged violation and as a result the court no longer had jurisdiction in the case.

    Jacobs said the law required that a summons be issued prior to Sept. 6, the day that Merlino's three-year probation was to end. Since no summons was issued, Jacobs argued, Merlino's probation legally ended on that day and the court no longer had jurisdiction over him.

    Troyer called Jacobs' position "preposterous" and the ultimate example of "chutzpah." The prosecutor said a parole violation petition had been filed on Sept. 2 requesting a court hearing. He said in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the court then issues a notice to appear in lieu of a summons.

    Troyer said Jacobs and Merlino had been notified prior to Sept. 6 of the pending action but the notice to appear was delayed out of "professional courtesy" to Jacobs who asked the court to put off setting a hearing date until he had resolved some scheduling issues.

    "This court gave him a professional courtesy that he now tries to take advantage of," Troyer argued. "It's the height of unreasonableness and the height of chutzpah."

    Jacobs argued that while he did cite scheduling problems, that was not a "waiver" of the requirement that a summons should have been issued prior to Sept. 6.

    Merlino, dressed in a finely tailored dark business suit, blue shirt and floral tie, sat quietly through the 90-minute hearing. Nearly two dozen supports sat behind him in the courtroom, including his wife Deborah Wells-Merlino,  his mother Rita and Kathy Ciancaglini, the wife of John Ciancaglini.

    "Johnny Chang," whose alleged association with Merlino in Florida back on June 18 is at the heart of the probation violation issue, was not in court, but was spotted sitting on a bench on Market Street outside the federal courthouse during the hearing. When photographers began to close in on him, Ciancaglini walked across the street to a Dunkin' Donuts.

    Merlino supporters have argued that the probation violation issue is another example of federal harassment, pointing out that while the alleged offense occurred on June 18 (and a related offense occurred on May 20), federal authorities did not formally notify Merlino until Sept. 2, five days before his probation was to end.

    "Why'd you wait so long?" Jacobs asked one government witness during today's hearing, but the judge sustained a prosecution objection, ruling that the question was irrelevant.

    The failure to issue a summons, as Jacobs argued, was another example of the government's disregard for the rules when it comes to Skinny Joey, his supporters contend.

    "Can you believe this?" Rita Merlino said as she left the courthouse.

    "A summons is a summons is a summons," said another Merlino supporter. "And they didn't have one."

    Judge Surrick said he would rule at a later date. If the judge accepts Jacobs' argument, the probation violation issue becomes moot and Merlino walks free. If Surrick decides that there was proper notice, then another hearing will be held to argue over the alleged violations.

    Merlino could face an additional six to 12 months in jail and/or be placed on extended probation, according to Troyer.

    As he left the courtroom today,  Jacobs was asked if chutzpah was a legal term.

    "I think it means I have an uncanny ability to understand and apply abstract legal principles," he said with a smile.

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    A Couple of Hustlers: Billy Doe [left] and Leo Hernandez
    By Ralph Cipriano

    In court nearly two years ago, Leo Omar Hernandez was the only witness who could corroborate any part of Billy Doe's wildly improbable tale about being repeatedly raped as an altar boy by a couple of priests and a school teacher.

    Hernandez was supposedly the "best guy friend" that Billy Doe first confided his story of sex abuse to back when they were high school classmates at the International Christian Academy in Northeast Philadelphia.

    Hernandez told the jury that when he and Billy were sophomores at the Christian Academy, they used a Bible verse as a weapon against a male teacher who got "touchy-feely" with them. In court, Hernandez presented himself as a clean-cut, straight-arrow, honorably-discharged Air Force vet living with his girlfriend and newborn son at a house he owned in Mayfair. But none of that turns out to be true.

    Billy Doe is currently suing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and his alleged abusers in a civil suit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. Meanwhile, his former "best guy friend" Leo Omar Hernandez has filed a medical malpractice case filed in Common Pleas Court against a Philadelphia osteopath, a male doctor that Hernandez claims got him hooked on drugs and then had an abusive sexual relationship with him.

    Records gathered for that medical malpractice case show that while Leo Omar Hernandez claims he's a victim, he also admits he's a former drug addict, steroid abuser, and a dancer in gay male strip clubs.


    Defense lawyers for a priest and a former Catholic school teacher convicted of sexually abusing Billy Doe plan to use Leo Hernandez's secret life in their appeal for a new trial in state Superior Court. The defense lawyers say the only witness to corroborate Billy Doe's story of sex abuse is a fraud and a liar.

    Hernandez presented himself to the jury" as part of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's family," recalled Michael J. McGovern, the lawyer for Father Charles Engelhardt. The priest is serving 6 to 12 years at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, Northumberland County after he was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor and indecent assault.

    "It turns out that he [Hernandez] has a dark side that was never revealed to the jury," McGovern said. "All these new revelations that are being brought to my attention ... raise the important question of how much did Detective [James] Dougherty and the district attorney's office know prior to him [Hernandez] being presented as a witness."

    A spokesperson for the district attorney's office, as usual, did not respond to a request for comment.

    The question of what the district attorney knew or didn't know about Hernandez's secret life won't be answered during a hearing set for Oct. 28. That's the date when a panel of state Superior Court judges is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the appeal for a new trial on behalf of Engelhardt and Bernard Shero.

    Shero, a former Catholic school teacher, is serving an 8 to 16-year sentence at SCI Houtzdale, Clearfield County, after being convicted of rape of a child, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault.

    McGovern says he's not going to mention the Leo Hernandez story during the few minutes he may get to argue his case before the Superior Court. But he does plan to include the Hernandez story in the formal record of his appeal.

    "We are eager to include this in a supplemental motion," McGovern said. "However, we do not wish to delay the proceedings any further than already have been delayed."


    On Jan. 15, 2013, Leo Omar Hernandez, then 24, was sworn in as a witness in the case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero.

    Hernandez told the prosecutor he left the Air Force in 2008. He moved to the Mayfair section of Philadelphia where he worked as a nursing assistant and was scheduled to graduate nursing school in May 2013.

    When asked by Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti if he had received an honorable discharge from the Air Force, Hernandez replied, "Yes." When asked by the prosecutor who he lived with, Hernandez replied, "My girlfriend, the mother of my newborn."

    Hernandez told the jury he met Billy Doe in 10th grade. "He was pretty quiet, a rule breaker, just different from the majority of the school," Hernandez testified. "I think that is why we clicked so well."

    Hernandez said he hung out with Billy Doe "every day" and acted as his bodyguard.

    "I was [Billy's] protector, confidant, whatever you want to call it," Hernandez testified. "He had gotten himself into trouble around the neighborhood because of the way he looked."

    At the time, Billy had "blond hair highlights in a predominantly Spanish and black neighborhood," Hernandez testified. "They could tell he wasn't exactly from the neighborhood. There was a couple situations where I had to get involved and protect [Billy]. And after that we just grew closer."

    Then a high school teacher got touchy-feely.

    "Teacher McAvinney, tall Irish fellow, white hair, he kind of weirded us out," Hernandez testified. "He was really touchy-feely, just awkward, just weird vibes that came from him all the time, weird sexual-type vibes to be specific."

    "So me and [Billy] came up with a plan and we found a Bible verse pertaining to homosexuality and we printed it out," Hernandez told the jury. "We typed it up, printed it out and stuck it under his door."

    On cross-examination, Hernandez was asked what the teacher had done to make him feel weird. "The same thing he did to [Billy]," Hernandez replied. "Pat my back, breathe over my shoulder, just be weird, really weird."

    In direct testimony, Hernandez said it was the episode with the touchy-feely teacher that prompted a confession from Billy.

    "And later on that night back at his [Billy's] house, we got to talking as to why we did that [put the Bible verse under the teacher's door] and everything else and this is when the topic came up about his past years," Hernandez said.

    At the time, Hernandez said he and Billy were alone in Billy's basement drinking "a couple of beers."

    The prosecutor asked about Billy's demeanor.

    "Angry and nervous," Hernandez replied. "I'm pretty sure it is not too easy to tell a guy, especially when you are not homosexual, hey, I was touched or fondled. It is hard for me to talk about it in front of all these people, so I can only imagine him telling his best guy friend about it."

    Hernandez then told the jury what Billy supposedly confessed about his sexual abuse.

    "Well, both grades, 5th and 6th middle school, St. Jerome's, that two priests would touch him, try to perform oral sex and what not," Hernandez said. "And eventually, after that happened, later on in 6th grade, a teacher got involved and eventually the teacher actually had sex with him. [Billy]. That was about the end of the conversation there."

    "I was shocked," Hernandez testified. "I was angry more toward McAvinney, I guess. That is the person I could relate his problem to."

    Hernandez told the jury he left International Christian Academy to spend his senior year in Puerto Rico. He came back two or three years later, but realized he could no longer be friends with Billy. The prosecutor asked why.

    "[Billy] got really involved in drugs, heroin to be exact," Hernandez testified. "And I was trying to get out of the city and make something of myself and I wanted [Billy] to be there with me but he just kept headed down that other path, so we just parted ways."

    While Billy was doing drugs, Hernandez joined the Air Force. But according to Hernandez, he never forgot about his "best guy friend."

    "I came back on leave, stopped at [Billy's] house," Hernandez told the jury. "I would always try my best to check in on him but he was still doing the same stuff so I left it alone."

    A few months before the trial, Hernandez told the jury, he just happened to bump into Billy. On the witness stand, Hernandez sounded like he was reprising "Glory Days," the old Bruce Springsteen song about a guy who bumped into an old friend who used to be a "big baseball player back in high school:"

    Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
    I was walking in, he was walking out
    We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
    but all he kept talking about was ... Glory days

    "I went to a bar after work, Hammerheads, Cottman and Frankford," Hernandez testified. "And I'm walking in and he is walking out. And we just see each other and what not and just yell and hug because it had been so long. And that was about when we first got back together."

    Hernandez said he didn't have any idea that Billy was headed to trial. But Billy told him, "Oh, I'm going to court soon." He didn't say anything else about the case, Hernandez claimed to the jury.

    Then, Hernandez got a call from Detective James Dougherty of the Special Investigations Unit, who interviewed Hernandez on Aug. 22, 2012.

    On a six-page "investigation interview record," Detective Dougherty wrote out both his questions and Hernandez's answers in a Q and A format.

    Q. "How often would you see or talk to [Billy Doe] after high school?"

    A.  "We stayed in contact with each other for about two years after high school and then he we parted ways because [Billy] had gotten so deep into drugs and I didn't want to be around him and the drug use. We had a fight about him using drugs. That was back in 2008."

    The last question Detective Dougherty asked Hernandez was:

    Q. "Leo, were you ever the victim of any kind of sexual abuse?"

    A. "No."

    Then Dougherty asked Hernandez to look over the record, make any corrections and sign all six pages of the statement.

    Hernandez signed every page. On the last page, he signed and dated the record of his interview with the detective.


    On March 28, 2013, less than two months after he testified in the Billy Doe case, Leo Hernandez filed a civil action complaint regarding "medical professional liability" in Common Pleas Court.

    The complaint stated that Hernandez was treated by a doctor "initially for a common cold and later for concerns he had regarding his energy levels, sexual performance, strength training, and overall health."

    "After an initial evaluation of Mr. Hernandez, which included an examination of his genitals," the complaint states, the doctor "injected testosterone directly into Mr. Hernandez's scrotum and testicles. It was the most pain Mr. Hernandez ever felt."

    After the injections, Hernandez "was almost in tears and in too much pain to walk," the complaint states. "The next day, Mr. Hernandez's scrotum ballooned to the size of a small cantaloupe."

    The complaint charges that the doctor "did not exercise reasonable and ordinary care in his medical treatment of his patient" and that the injections caused Hernandez "to lose his testicle and sustain other related injuries."

    A second amended complaint, filed June 10, 2013, claims the doctor provided Hernandez with "liquid-injectable testosterone along with an assortment of other steroids and related drugs -- in pill, powder and injectable testosterone, along with an assortment of other steroids and related drugs (upon information and belief), including but not limited to testosterone, Tamoxifen, Codeine, Clomid, Nolvadex, Xanax, Lorazepam, Morphine, Lidocaine, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Ativan, Hydrocodone, Clomifene, Citrate, Tamoxifen Citrate, Climofene Tablets a/k/a Fetomid-50 and Vicodin."

    Hernandez, according to the amended complaint, "became addicted to the narcotic drugs and other drugs" listed above that he claimed were "over-prescribed" by the doctor.

    In a document titled "Plaintiff's Answers to Lien Interrogatories" filed on March 8, 2014, a lawyer for Hernandez charges the doctor with "hooking him on pain medication in return for a sexual relationship" that "resulted in mental pain and suffering, including but not limited to, severe depression, anxiety, Plaintiff questioning his self worth and esteem, and damaging his ability to engage in meaningful, trusting relationships."

    The doctor, who admits to a sexual relationship with Hernandez, denies injecting him with steroids or over-prescribing any drugs.


    On May 22, 2014, Hernandez was deposed by a lawyer for his medical malpractice case. Hernandez testified that he lived alone in his house for the past three years in Mayfair. Before that he lived alone in Bristol Township for 14 months, he said. Hernandez testified that he served for two years in the Air Force at Elgin Air Force Base and received a general honorable discharge. But, he testified, he was discharged early because of a "failure to adapt."

    Asked why he failed to adapt, Hernandez replied, "Ask the military. I don't know. I didn't ask to be discharged. I just failed to adapt."

    On a military discharge record know as a DD form 214, it says that Hernandez served one year and ten months in "explosive ordinance disposal." Under a heading on the form that says character of service, it says "under honorable conditions (general)." But under "narrative reason for separation" it says, "misconduct (serious offense)."

    Hernandez testified at his deposition that he's a registered nurse who works at Albert Einstein Medical Center. He said his son did not live with him but with his mother in Gibbstown, N.J.

    He was asked whether he had worked as a dancer anywhere.

    "Yes," Hernandez replied. "Risque, Woody's, ICandy. That's all."

    Hernandez testified that he worked as a dancer at the three clubs during 2011. He usually worked one or two nights a weekend, he said, but not every week. He met the doctor in February 2011 while working as a dancer at either ICandy or Woody's, he couldn't remember which.

    Hernandez said he became involved in the relationship with the allegedly abusive doctor from March of 2011 to February or March of 2012.

    "We had developed sort of a friendship," Hernandez said. It happened "after letting him know that I was a nursing student, that I danced part-time to try and make some extra money to pay rent. I guess he took interest in maybe coaching me or helping me along in my travels and so that's how that started."

    "Since he already saw my body type and build from ICandy or Woody's, whichever club he had come out to," Hernandez said, the doctor told Hernandez he could show him how to "gain weight faster, be stronger and look better."

    Hernandez sent pictures to the doctor of himself half-naked and naked, and posted naked pictures of himself on, a website that advertises itself as the "gay men's social network."

    But five months after Hernandez testified he concluded his relationship with the abusive doctor, Detective Dougherty, investigating the Billy Doe case, asks Hernandez on a written Q and A form if he's "ever been the victim of any kind of sexual abuse?"

    And Hernandez's answer, which he signs and dates on Aug. 22, 202, is "No."

    How does he ever get around that?

    In his deposition, Hernandez described his drug use.

    "I stopped taking pills and all other drugs that should not have been in my body after I almost died in a Las Vegas hotel," he said. He said he got sick after taking drugs allegedly provided by the doctor including "Nitrous oxide, Percocet, Viocodin, Xanax, testosterone, marijuana, alcohol." In the deposition, Hernandez said he also used synthetic heroin.

    "After I just got my testicle stuck I'm poking myself with needles, I'm doing Percocet," he testified. "I'm talking Xanax. I'm doing whippets. I'm smoking weed. I'm shooting my ass with needles and dancing at the club. I'm living this completely outrageous lifestyle. .. It was just a madman's lifestyle. I don't know who does that."


    Michael J. McGovern, the defense lawyer for Father Engelhardt, has a hard time believing that Detective Dougherty didn't know about the secret life of Leo Omar Hernandez.

    "Jimmy Dougherty is one of the sharpest detectives I've ever dealt with," said McGovern, himself a former prosecutor in the district attorney's office. "You mean to tell me he didn't know any of this toxic information?"

    Had the dark side of Leo Hernandez been known, McGovern said, he believes that the prosecutors in the Billy Doe case would have decided not to proceed. Or the jury would have found the defendants not guilty.

    McGovern can't believe what's going on in Common Pleas Court.

    Less than two months after Hernandez "perpetrated a fraud" on the jury in the Billy Doe case, McGovern said, Hernandez filed his own civil case on his way to "bonanza land."

    Billy Doe and Hernandez, McGovern said, are now going down "parallel railroad tracks looking to get paid."

    Maybe that's what Billy and Leo were really talking about the night they allegedly bumped into each other at Hammerheads.

    Ralph Cipriano can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia

    They want a do over.

    And if they're granted a new trial, they don't want any mention of the mob.

    That's the essence of a 72-page motion filed by lawyers for Salvatore Pelullo and joined by lawyers for Nicodemo Scarfo and brothers John and William Maxwell asking Judge Robert Kugler to overturn their convictions and order a retrial in the FirstPlus financial fraud case.

    A hearing on the motion and the government's response is set for Monday. Sentencings, which were originally scheduled for Oct. 21, 22 and 23, have been moved to January for all four defendants.

    The defense motion is built around the argument that organized crime involvement was improperly and inaccurately introduced into the fraud case and created undue prejudice for the defendants. Lawyers for the Maxwell brothers have also filed separate motions raising issues specific to their clients. John Maxwell, for example, argued again that he was only following the advice of professionals hired by the company and had no direct knowledge of the scam.

    Kugler rejected similar arguments that were filed by the defense both before and during the lengthy six-month trial.

    While it's unlikely the judge would reverse himself, the filings set the stage for a continued appeal on what was a major defense argument: the government created undue prejudice by introducing the spectre of organized crime in a case that had no proven mob connections.

    The evidence in the case failed to conform to the picture painted for both the judge in pre-trial arguments and for the jury during the trial, Pelullo's court-appointed lawyers Troy Archie and Michael Farrell argued in their motion.

    The "unsubstantiated allegations made the defendants criminals in the jurors' minds before the trial even started," the lawyers wrote. They argued that the prosecution relied on "gossip, hearsay, stereotypes, innuendo, appearance and image" rather than evidence in its attempt to present a case in which it was alleged that the defendants "had pilfered a public company in order to aggrandize the mob's wealth."

    Scarfo, 48, and Pelullo, 46, were convicted of orchestrating the behind-the-scenes takeover of FirstPlus Financial Group in May 2007. The troubled Texas-based mortgage company was then looted, the government alleged, through bogus consulting contracts and straw business purchases that resulted in $12 million being siphoned out of the company.

    Among other things, the prosecution alleged that the money was used to support the lavish lifestyles of Scarfo, the son of jailed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo D. "Little Nicky" Scarfo, and of Pelullo.

    Those life styles included fancy cars -- Pelullo bought a $217,000 Bentley Continental -- expensive homes and a yacht (valued at $850,000) that was christened "Priceless."

    The scam began to unravel in April 2008 when the FBI conducted a series of raids in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Texas. the raids targeted the FirstPlus offices in Irving, Texas, and the offices of businesses set up by Scarfo and Pelullo in Philadelphia and in the Atlantic City area. Pelullo's home in Elkins Park and Scarfo's $715,000 home in Atlantic County were also hit.

    The government alleged among other things that Scarfo fraudulently obtained a mortgage for that home through the FirstPlus scam. Scarfo's wife, Lisa Murray-Scarfo, pleaded guilty to a mortgage fraud charge and is awaiting sentencing. Several other co-defendants also pleaded guilty prior to the start of the trial.

    Scarfo and Pelullo were each found guilty of more than 20 counts, ranging from racketeering conspiracy and fraud to money-laundering and obstruction of justice. John Maxwell, the CEO of FirstPlus, and his brother, William, a lawyer hired by the company, were also convicted of racketeering conspiracy and related offenses. Three other defendants, including Scarfo's longtime criminal defense attorney Donald Manno, were found not guilty.

    The trial opened in January and the verdicts were delivered on July 3.

    The indictment handed up in the case also listed the elder Scarfo and Luchese crime family boss Vittorio "Vic" Amuso as unindicted co-conspirators. Both are serving lengthy federal prison terms and were inmates together in Atlanta at the time the scam was hatched.

    But in the motion for a new trial, lawyers argued that there was no evidence -- other than Scarfo's familial tie to the his father -- to back up the government's claim that the mob was involved in the FirstPlus takeover.

    "The Government has been allowed to visit the sins of the father upon the son," the motion reads in part, adding that the spectre of organized crime "infected the trial" and created an undue prejudice.

    The defense said that the investigation began as an organized crime probe, but said when the evidence instead demonstrated that it was really a "garden variety white collar fraud," the government continued to promote it as a mob case, using organized crime references and allegations in wiretap affidavits, pre-trial motions and in arguments to the jury. The defense argued that those references and unsubstantiated claims created the unfair prejudice that tainted the case and that should result in the convictions being thrown out and a new trial ordered.

    "The problem is that the Government refused to let go of the LCN/Scarfo fixation," the lawyers argued. "Instead of simply altering its theory to focus on the alleged FPFG fraud, the Prosecutors shoehorned their theory into an LCN mold that simply didn't fit."

    George Anastasia can be reached at

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    By George Anastasia


    It looks like an encore is planned for U.S. District Court in the ongoing Skinny Joey Merlino saga.

    U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick issued a one-page ruling this morning denying a motion by Merlino's lawyer seeking to have his probation violation voided. Instead, Surrick set a hearing on the issues for Friday at 10 a.m.

    Merlino, who has been living in Boca Raton for the past three years, drew a media horde when he appeared earlier this month for the first hearing in the case. That proceeding focused on a motion filed by defense attorneys Edwin Jacobs Jr. and Michael Myers who argued that federal authorities had failed to properly notify Merlino of the alleged violations.

    Merlino, they said, had not been given a summons to appear in court prior to the expiration of his three-year probation. Prosecutors argued that the practice in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania was to file a notice of a violation rather than issue a summons. Merlino and his lawyer were informed on Sept. 2, five days before Merlino's probationary period ended, that a notice was to be filed and a hearing scheduled. Merlino's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., asked for a delay in setting a hearing date so that he could check his case load. The formal notice was not filed until Sept. 16.
    Surrick, in a 13-page opinion filed later today, accepted the government's position, ruling that
    "Merlino cannot complain that the official September 16, 2014, Notice was issued untimely...because it not was issued until the 16th at his request. Moreover, Merlino cannot credibly argue that he did not receive proper notice of his alleged violations and hearing prior to the expiration of his supervised release term. On September 2, 2014, Merlino was properly given notice of the alleged violations and received the opportunity to schedule the hearing at his availability."

    Surrick's ruling sets the stage for a return trip to Philadelphia by the one-time celebrity mob boss. 

    The hearing on Friday will focus on the specific charges leveled against Merlino. These include his failure to respond to questions about his financial dealings with an alleged mob figure and his association and meeting with mobsters and convicted felon, both violations of the supervised release.

    Merlino, 52, was convicted of racketeering conspiracy in 2001 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He served about 12 years before being released to a halfway house in Florida where he subsequently relocated.

    He has been living in the Boca Raton area for the last three years and is currently involved in the opening of an Italian restaurant. The establishment will be called -- what else? - Merlino's and will offer "South Philadelphia-style" Italian cooking, according to the one-time mob boss.

    Merlino, in an interview last year, insisted he has left the mob life behind and is trying for a fresh start in the Sunshine State. Law enforcement authorities are skeptical.

    The probation violations cited in the pending case include Merlino's refusal to answer a question about his financial dealings with a suspected mob figure during a deposition taken in May. The deposition was part of a civil inquiry launched by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia into Merlino's finances.

    Authorities are skeptical about Merlino's claims of employment. His lawyer said he works in sales and advertising. The feds want to know how he has managed to live a comfortable lifestyle -- living in a posh condo and driving a late model SUV -- since his release from prison.

    The second violation alleges that Merlino knowingly associated with mob figures and convicted felons on June 18. Under surveillance at the time of detectives from the Broward County Sheriff's Department, Merlino was spotted meeting with John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini and two other felons in the parking lot of a restaurant. The detectives then followed the group to Havana Nights, a popular cigar bar, where they reported that Merlino, Ciancaglini and the others were socializing in the VIP section of the bar.

    Ciancaglini, a mob capo in the Philadelphia crime family, was convicted with Merlino in the 2001 case. While Merlino has claimed that he is no longer involved with the crime family, law enforcement sources have speculated that he continues to play a role and that he periodically receives cash from mob gambling and loansharking operations in the Philadelphia area.

    Ciancaglini and Steve Mazzone, another co-defendant in the 2001 case, have been identified as two local mob leaders overseeing what remains of the Merlino organization.

    George Anastasia can be contacted at

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    By George Anastasia

    What a federal prosecutor described as a "night on the town with his mob buddies" has resulted in a four-month prison sentence for former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

    U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick imposed that sentence this afternoon after hearing more than three hours of testimony and argument in a probation violation hearing for the 52-year-old convicted Mafia leader.

    Merlino, now living in Florida, will begin the sentence in 30 days, according to the order issued by Surrick. Once he completes that sentence, Merlino will no longer be on supervised release and will be free to meet and associate with whomever he chooses.

    But that may be the least of his problems. According to testimony during the hearing, Merlino has been the focus on an ongoing investigation by an organized crime task force in South Florida. Authorities have apparently had the one-time South Philadelphia celebrity gangster on their radar since his arrival in the Sunshine State three years ago.

    Law enforcement officials have been tight lipped about the nature of that investigation. A Broward County detective confirmed during his testimony that Merlino has been picked up on "dozens" of surveillances over the past three years. But Surrick upheld a prosecution objection when Jacobs asked what was being investigated.

    In May, Merlino was questioned at length by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer about his finances. Authorities have made no secret of the fact that they would like to know the source of the former mob boss's income and how he has managed to live a comfortable life in the Boca Raton area while reporting minimal income.

    "He reports almost nothing ... a paltry sum," Troyer said at one point during today's hearing. Yet Merlino lives in a posh condo and is seen being driven around in a Cadallac Escalade. The vehicle is owned by his longtime friend and one-time roommate Don Petillo.

    Merlino said little as he left the courtroom following today's hearing.

    Tan and dressed in an expensive, light gray business suit, white shirt and dark tie, and with what appeared to be a Rolex peeking out from under his shirt cuff, Merlino looked liked someone who had walked off a GQ photo shoot. His wife Deborah Wells-Merlino, his mother Rita and a dozen other friends attended the session.

    The always outspoken Rita Merlino complained of government harassment, implying that her son had been unjustly targeted by authorities. Jacobs hinted at the same thing during his closing argument before Surrick.

    Jacobs said the violation of supervised release summons came from Philadelphia despite the fact that Merlino had been under the supervision of probation department authorities in Florida.

    "Prosecutors and the FBI have long memories (about) cases that don't turn out the way they want," Jacobs said. The lawyer, who has defended Merlino for years, was apparently making reference to a federal racketeering trial in 2001 in which Merlino was convicted of gambling and extortion, but acquitted of murder, attempted murder and drug dealing charges that could have carried a longer prison sentence.

    Merlino was sentenced to 14 years in that case. He had spent more than 12 years in jail before being released to a halfway house in Florida where he opted to relocate. For the past three years he has been on court-ordered supervised release, the final leg of that sentence.

    The probation violation charge was based primarily on surveillance conducted by local authorities on June 18. Merlino was spotted at an Italian restaurant, La Villetta, in Boca Raton, and later at Havana Nights, a cigar bar. He was, according to surveillance reports and testimony, seen in the company of three convicted felons, including John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini, a Philadelphia mob capo and a co-defendant in the 2001 trial.

    Merlino was prohibited from associating with convicted felons and organized crime figures while on probation.

    Jacobs argued that the meeting of Ciancaglini and Merlino in the cigar bar was a "chance encounter" and not a planned association. He also contended that there was no evidence to support allegations that Merlino and Ciancaglini had been together in the restaurant earlier that same evening.

    He conceded that Merlino should have reported the encounter to his probation officer, but said Merlino had made a "mistake."

    "It was an oversight," he said.

    Jacobs also called Ciancaglini's wife, Kathy, as a witness. She said her husband told her he had "run into Merlino" that night and that he hoped Merlino would not get into trouble as a result. She said it was a chance encounter and that her husband had studiously tried to avoid being in Merlino's presence while he was on probation.

    Troyer dismissed the defense argument of a chance encounter and asked why John Ciancaglini -- "he's available" -- hadn't been called as a witness rather than his wife. The prosecutor said the meeting was a clear violation of the terms of Merlino's probation.

    "This isn't Casablanca," Troyer said, paraphrasing the famous line from the classic Humphrey Bogart movie. "Of all the gin joints John Ciancaglini happens to walk into mine. This was a night on the town with all his mob buddies."

    George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial,net.

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