Joseph Salvatore "Skinny Joey" Merlino (born March 16, 1962) is the former boss of the Philadelphia Crime Family from 1994 to 1999, with mobster Ralph Natale as front boss, and was said to have led the family primarily in extortion, bookmaking, illegal gambling, hijacking, drug trafficking, and loan sharking.
Family mob ties
Joseph Salvatore Merlino also known as "The John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue" is the only son of Italian-Albanian parents Rita and Salvatore Merlino, a former Philadelphia crime family underboss/soldier. Merlino's parents divorced after Salvatore was incarcerated. Joey was raised in South Philadelphia and Ventnor City, New Jersey. He is also the nephew of deceased Scarfo crime family Capo Lawrence Merlino and first cousin of Joseph N. (Fat Joey) Merlino, a building contractor who owns Bay Shore rebar corporation based in Pleasantville, New Jersey and Marco Merlino, who followed his cousin and father into the construction business. He has two sisters, Natalie and Maria. His sister Maria was engaged to Salvatore Testa until he broke it off a few years before he was murdered. He had been friends with future made man in the Scarfo crime family Michael (Mikey Chang) Ciancaglini and his brother Joseph "Joey Chang" Ciancaglini since attending Epiphany of Our Lord grade school in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the 1970s Salvatore owned and operated the 9M Bar at 9th Street and Moyamensing Avenue in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that Nicodemo Scarfo used as his criminal headquarters during his attempt to become the new boss of the Philly mob. The 9M Bar would later be renamed Anthony's Bar.
Joey's uncle Lawrence died in December of 2001 following his release from federal prison three years earlier from a conviction in 1988 on racketeering charges. Joey lived in Washington Square West, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as an adult. He is a huge fan of Philadelphia sports teams.
In August 1982, Joseph Merlino and Salvatore (Torre) Scafidi, son of bookmaker Gaetano Scafidi Sr., stabbed and beat two male patrons at the Lido Restaurant in Atlantic City. In 1984 Merlino was found guilty on of two counts of aggravated assault and one count of possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose. In August 1984 he was barred by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission from New Jersey casinos. His father Salvatore Merlino would also be banned by exactly the same commission as his son for his criminal activities on May 23, 1984. Around this time Nicodemo Scarfo demoted his father Salvatore from Underboss to soldier because of his alcoholism.
Joseph Merlino has been described as an extremely ruthless, bloodthirsty and power-hungry gangster, obsessed with committing murder, obsessed with gaining more and more power, and unusually obsessed with his own public image, Merlino has also been described as a younger version of the legendary New York's Mafia Boss John Gotti. "Joey was a party guy," said Philadelphia mafia soldier Ronald Previte an Philadelphia Police Department cop-turned gangster-turned government witness. "He liked to go out. He liked to party. He liked beautiful women on both of his arms. He liked the fame, publicity and limelight. Merlino was left $10 million by his father and blew it all before even becoming a made man. He often wore expensive jewelry, He was seen as a "robin hood" figure to the poor people and all kinds of people in Philadelphia handing out turkeys at christmas on camera. He hosted an annual christmas dinner for the poor, he gave alot to the community, he donated to children's hospitals for kids, He bought presents and gave them out to kids. Joey loved the high life, He craved publicity, he loved the spotlight, he was a very charming, funny and polite guy to people, and women went crazy over him, women absolutely loved and adored him. People really liked and respected Joey, he was had a very hypnotic, magnetic and charismatic personality. But he was very, very vicious, he was extremely violent, crazy and brutal, he had very, very violent temper and when he got mad, he turned into a savage animal, he was feared by a lot of his associates, underlings and even a lot of his rivals were afraid of him. He was a cold-blooded killer, he enjoyed killing people, he had an underworld reputation for brutality. He killed a lot of people, and he had a lot of people killed, he was an extremely violent guy and he loved violence and spreading fear and terror.
Merlino often invited TV crews to his annual Christmas party for the homeless, and was a fixture at the city's nightclubs, restaurants, and sporting events. With longtime buddies Salvatore Scafidi, Sonny Valenti, Michael Ciancaglini, and George Borgesi, he was known to beat up and rob people, and start fights in clubs.
On October 31, 1989, it is alleged that Merlino attempted to murder the son of Nicky Scarfo, Nicodemo Scarfo Jr. in a Bella Vista section, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Italian restaurant, Dante and Luigi's located at 762 South 10th Street wounding him several times in the chest, neck, and arm. Although police never charged anyone with the attempted murder, police and the FBI believe Merlino was behind the shooting to avenge an earlier plot by Scarfo Sr. on Merlino's father. Another motive for the attempted hit was to send a clear message that neither Scarfo nor his son Nicky, Jr. were any longer in charge of the South Philadelphia rackets. Fearing another Mafia war, Scarfo, Sr. had his son made into the Lucchese crime family in New York for his own safety where he later became a Capo. Senior being assisted by his sometime cell mate and then leader of the Lucchese Borgata Vic Amuso.
In August of 1989, Merlino was charged with robbing an armored car of $1.3 million. He was convicted a few months later. He robbed those he committed the heist with. According to mobster Ralph Natale, he and Merlino began plotting to take over the Philadelphia mafia while they were cellmates in a federal penitentiary in 1990. Natale named Steve Mazzone, George Borgesi and Martin Angelina (an opponent of Nicky Scarfo, Jr.), all Merlino associates, as co-conspirators in the take-over plan. He was released from prison in April, 1992.
In 1994, Merlino muscled in and took over as boss of the Philadelphia mafia. Merlino enlisted the help of the Warlocks motorcycle gang and the Pagans motorcycle gang as contract killers.
When John Stanfa emerged as the new boss of the Philadelphia family, an all-out war broke out between Stanfa and the so-called "Young Turks" led by Merlino. On August 5, 1993, Merlino survived a drive-by shooting assassination attempt by Stanfa, only taking a bullet in the arse, as Michael "Mikey Chang" Ciancaglini was killed. On August 31, 1993, in retaliation, Stanfa’s son Joseph was shot in the face in a daring rush hour drive-by shooting on the Schuylkill Expressway, but survived.
During the all-out 1993 mob war, Merlino dodged more than two dozen attempts on his life. In November 1993, Merlino was arrested by the FBI, charged with violation of parole, and sent back to prison.
Stanfa was sentenced to several life terms for RICO violations in March of 1994, and Ralph Natale, subsequently jailed in June 1998, and Merlino allegedly took over upon getting out of jail in November 1994. It became apparent later that Merlino was really the power, merely using Natale as a figurehead. New York gangsters offered the position to Merlino and he turned it down. Merlino believed that the FBI would target the boss of the crime family more than any other member.
In 1995, Merlino survived additional assassination attempts. In 1995, Louis Turra, a reputed Philadelphia drug lord and leader of the South Philly Italian American drug gang known as the 10th and West crew, situated in South Philadelphia, was severely beaten by Merlino’s soldiers for failing to pay a Mafia street tax on his illegal earnings. Angered by the beating, Turra sought vengeance. His father Anthony Turra allegedly hosted a meeting at his house during which Anthony, Louis and his gang discussed killing Merlino. In January 1998, Louis Turra apparently hung himself in a New York City jail while awaiting trial.
In March 1998, Anthony Turra, on trial on charges of plotting to kill Merlino, was shot to death outside his home by a gunman in a black ski mask. He was shot twice, once in the eye, as he left for the federal courthouse, where a jury was deliberating in the racketeering and drug case against him and four other men. “We consider this an organized crime assassination, a mob hit,” Police Inspector Jerrold Kane said.
In the late 1990s Merlino allied himself with Steve "Gorilla" Mondevergine, boss of the Pagans MC motorcycle gang. Authorities believed Merlino would use the Pagans to help settle underworld disputes.
In June 1999, Merlino was indicted on charges of conspiring with members of th Patriarca crime family to purchase and distribute cocaine. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison on December 3, 2001, on racketeering charges, including extortion and illegal gambling. He was acquitted of murder charges, attempted murder, and drug dealing. "Ain't bad," Merlino said. "Better than the death penalty."
In March 2004 a federal jury acquitted him of August 2001 charges that he and Vincent Centorino (a member of the Philadelphia Mafia's North Jersey faction) had taken part in the 1996 murder of Joseph Sodano, a North Jersey capo. After Merlino's conviction, Joseph Ligambi took over as boss (though recent FBI developments have pointed to Ligambi being merely an Acting Boss for Merlino). Merlino was imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana and was released from prison on March 15, 2011. He was transferred to a halfway house in Florida and is now on supervised release. There is speculation that he will come back to Philadelphia once his parole restrictions expire.
Recent Indictment & Release
In September 2012 the Miami Herald reported that Merlino currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida. In an article released in April 2013 by George Anastasia, Merlino denied any current involvement in the Philly mob and stated that his life as a criminal is over. He was quoted in the interview stating "Too many rats" and "I want no part of that".
In October 2014, Merlino was sentenced to 4 months in prison for violating the terms of his release. He was spotted by a surveillance team on June 18, 2014 at an Italian restaurant, La Villetta, in Boca Raton, and later at Havana Nights (a cigar bar) in the company of three convicted felons, including John Ciancaglini (Johnny Chang), a Philadelphia mob capo and a co-defendant in the 2001 trial.
On April 25, 2015 Merlino was released from prison.
East Coast Enterprise
On August 4, 2016, Merlino was arrested with over 40 alleged mafia members and associates from the Lucchese, Gambino, Genovese, and Bonanno Crime Families on multiple charges including racketeering, health insurance fraud, gambling and more connected to what is being dubbed the "East Coast Enterprise". Merlino was released Friday, August 12, 2016 on $5 million bail while he awaits trial. Merlino was ordered to be on house arrest and wear an ankle bracelet allowing him to only be at his Florida home and restaurant "Merlino's" from 7am-7pm which is due to re-open in October.
In February 2018 the Judge declared a mistrial in the case due to a deadlocked jury. In order to avoid a retrial Merlino pleaded guilty to gambling charges on April 27. He is due to to be sentenced in September.
[Category:Philadelphia crime family]