A mob hit in the middle of a mob trial?
That's never a good thing. Particularly when the defense has spent two months harping on the same theme: this group of South Philadelphia wiseguys was not cut from the same violent cloth as the mobsters who ran the organization in the 1980s and 1990s.
What impact the shooting of Gino DiPietro will have on the trial mob boss Joe Ligambi and six co-defendants is an open question. Whether jurors heard about the hit and whether they connected it to the defendants are questions that can't be answered until the panel returns to the federal courthouse on Tuesday.
The trial recessed Wednesday after the prosecution presented its final pieces of evidence. DiPietro, a 50-year-old South Philadelphia drug dealer, was gunned down about three hours later. The defense is not scheduled to begin calling its witnesses until next week. Thursday was devoted to arguments, without the jury present.
But the overriding issue was whether the arrest of mob soldier Anthony Nicodemo in connection with the DiPietro shooting would have an impact on the trial process. Nicodemo, 41, has been taken into custody but not formally charged in the murder.
Ironically, his name was mentioned on one of the last secretly recorded wiretap conversations played for the jury. One of the speakers in that conversation was Damion Canalichio, a co-defendant in the case.
DiPietro was gunned down outside his South Philadelphia home around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. An SUV seen fleeing from the scene was traced to Nicodemo, who was taken into custody a short time later.
At least one and possibly two other men are believed to have been involved.
DiPietro, a convicted drug dealer who several sources say has been cooperating with law enforcement, was shot five times. And according to both law enforcement and underworld sources, there are as many potential motives as there were bullets fired.
While initial news reports quickly labeled this a "mob hit" because of Nicodemo's alleged involvement, DiPietro was described as someone who burned many bridges in the underworld and at least one high ranking law enforcement official cautioned that the motive could have been tied to the drug underworld rather than the Ligambi organization.
Whatever the motive, Nicodemo being linked to the investigation causes problems for the Ligambi defense team. A request for a mistrial in the two-month old case is a possibility. So is a time-consuming questioning of the 17 jurors (there are five alternates) when they return Tuesday to determine what, if anything, they heard about the shooting and whether it impacted their judgment.
If Nicodemo was involved, several sources said Thursday, then this was either a spur-of-the-moment action or "one of the stupidest hits" in the history of the Philadelphia mob. It is hard to imagine that any of the mob leaders on trial -- Ligambi, underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino or Anthony Staino -- would have approved an act of violence while their fates were being weighed by a federal court jury.
It also is a departure from typical mob protocol to use you own, quickly traceable vehicle for a hit.
That being said, the Philadelphia mob in recent years has been populated by hitmen who are not brain surgeons. Philip Colletti and John Veasey carried out the 1993 ambush of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and Michael Ciancaglini while driving in a Ford Taurus leased in Colletti's name.
Ciancaglini was killed and Merlino was wounded in that drive-by shooting which, like the most recent hit, occurred in broad daylight in South Philadelphia.
The DiPietro hit was also similar to the gangland slaying of Raymond "Long John" Martorano who was shot by two gunmen in his car less than a block from his home near Sixth and Fitzwater Streets in 2002. No one has ever been charged in the Martorano murder.
In fact, it is one of four gangland slayings (the others are the murders of Ron Turchi and Ralph Mazucca) that remain actively under investigation, a situation that adds another potentially devastating dynamic to the DiPietro investigation. If Nicodemo is charged in that crime, he could face a potential death sentence.
Would that be enough, law enforcement sources wonder, to get him to cooperate? He has already been mentioned in a New Jersey State Police affidavit as a suspect in the November 2003 slaying of John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto.
Canalichio, one of Ligambi's co-defendants, has also ben mentioned in connection with that investigation.
Nicodemo's most recent arrest was in connection with a mob-linked illegal sports betting operation being run out of the Borgata casino-hotel in Atlantic City. He got a four-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty in Atlantic County Superior Court.
But several sources said Thursday that in addition to the Casasanto hit, Nicodemo also has information about the murder of Mazucca, another South Philadelphia drug dealer killed in the 1990s in what authorities believe was a mob-connected slaying.
Mob informant Roger Vella has confessed to that murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison after agreeing to cooperate. Vella, according to an FBI debriefing memo, has linked nearly a dozen members of the Philadelphia crime family, including George Borgesi, another co-defendant in the current case, to that murder.
The question as the trial resumes next week, said several law enforcement and underworld sources, is what is going through the minds of Canalichio and Borgesi.
"If Nicodemo is charged with murder," said a former South Philadelphia mob figure who cooperated with authorities back in the 1990s, "then somebody is going to make a deal. They're all thinking that. And they've got to decide. Whoever comes in first (agrees to cooperate) gets the best deal."
And if you wait too long, the source added, "there might not be a deal at all."