The prosecution ended its case Wednesday against mob boss Joe Ligambi and six co-defendants where it began two months ago, playing a taped conversation made by mobster-turned-informant Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli.
The conversation, featuring Stefanelli, Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini and Joseph "Scoops" Licata, was recorded in October 2010 at a meeting at the American Bistro, a restaurant in Belleville, N.J., just outside of Newark. Licata, 71, is a co-defendant in the ongoing trial. Fazzini, 45, pleaded guilty earlier this year.
A North Jersey-based capo with the Philadelphia crime family, Licata has been the forgotten man in the case. His name has seldom been mentioned by witnesses who the prosecution has used to tie Ligambi and the other co-defendants to gambling, extortion and loansharking operations at the heart of an alleged racketeering conspiracy.
But as he had been on another Stefanelli tape played back in October at the start of the trial, Licata was the principal speaker and center stage at the American Bistro meeting, commenting on the historyof the crime family, former mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo and Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti, Scarfo's nephew and underboss who became a cooperating witness.
The prosecution apparently hopes that another history lesson, in Licata's own words, will reinforce the allegation that he is part of the racketeering conspiracy. Specifically, he is charged with engaging in sports betting and with arranging a no-show job for Fazzini with a North Jersey union.
The snippets of conversation played Wednesday, however, had little to do with those charges.
Instead, Licata is heard complaining about problems during the Scarfo era and about Leonetti going bad. While not directly blaming Scarfo, he is heard telling Stefanelli and Fazzini how Scarfo "left the nephew there, that rat that buried all them guys."
Ironically, mention of Leonetti at the trial coincides with the publication of a new book, "Mafia Prince," written by Leonetti and Scott Burnstein, a Detroit-based organized crime reporter. In fact, U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo Robreno, in dismising the jury for the day Wednesday, cautioned members of the panel not to read anything about the case and made a specific reference to a recently published "book" without mentioning Leonetti by name.
"It is what it is," Stefanelli, a soldier in the Gambino crime family who had begun wearing a wire for the FBI in 2009, said in reply to Licata's lament.
Stefanelli committed suicide early in 2011 and has never testified. Dozens of tapes that he made, however, figure to surface in cases still being built by the FBI in New York and North Jersey.
The Ligambi trial is the first time any of Stefanelli's tapes have been played in public.
Licata also critized the late Saul Kane, a top Scarfo associate, who he said "was brainwashing" another mobster to whom he was sending letters in prison. The tone and tenor of Licata's comments seemed to focus on turmoil and discontent with the Scarfo regime.
In a brief cross-examination of FBI Agent John Augustine, Licata's lawyer Christopher Warren pointed out that Licata was talking about events that occurred in the 1980s. Warren has argued that the Stefanelli tapes and Licata's comments on them have no relevance to the ongoing trial.
He has described his client and the others picked up in those conversations, including Ligambi and several members of the Gambino crime family, as "a bunch of geriatric gangsters talking about the old days."
In fact, Licata underscored that point when he told Stefanelli, "They're all my friends, the originals. All my friends from 25 years ago."
The prosecution also played several other tapes recorded in Philadelphia during the Ligambi investigation, although defense attorneys seemed unclear what points were being made.
On one recorded in late April 2004, co-defendant and mob underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino has a discusson about who was coming to dinner for Mother's Day. In another there is talk about "fried meatballs."
Massimino's lawyer, Joseph Santaguida, referred to the "meatball" tape when prosecutors moved to enter the conversations into evidence. He also said that an unknown male who in another phone call told Massimino his grandson "wanted to meet the underboss" was clearly joking.
Co-defendant Damion Canalichio was heard on other tapes from 2006 talking about how he had gotten drunk at a wedding reception, had little recollection of what he had said or done and worried if he had offended anyone. Told by an associate that Marty Angelina was aware of what had happened, Canalichio said he wasn't concerned about Angelina.
"Marty's fuckin' worst drunk than me," he replied.
Angelina is another defendant in the case who pleaded guilty prior to the start of the trial.
The jury is in recess now until Tuesday when the defense will begin presenting its evidence. Closing arguments are scheduled for Jan.3 following a break for the holidays. Lawyers are expected back in court Thursday to argue Rule 29 motions seeking to have the charges dropped for lack of evidence or the prosecution's failure to prove the allegation. Robreno has not indicated when he will rule on those motions, but is likely to do so before Tuesday.
Co-defendant Anthony Staino, 54, said as he left the federal courthouse (Staino and alleged bookmaker Gary Battaglinii are the only defendants free on bail) that while he thought some of the motions had merit, he doubted any would be granted.
The last piece of evidence shown to the jury Wednesday before the prosecution rested was a video surveillance tape made by the Philadelphia Police Department's Organized Crime Unit. The tape showed Ligambi and others entering the Saloon, a South Philadelphia restaurant, for what authorities said was a mob Christmas party on Dec. 17, 2009.
Police Officer Cynthia Felicetti, who worked the surveillance detail, identified the individuals she saw going into and coming out of the restaurant that night. She said she and her partner were tailing Ligambi and Staino. Staino drove to the Saloon and, over the course of the next three hours, she said, they watched and video-taped mobsters entering and leaving the restaurant. The tape shown to the jury included shots of Ligambi, Staino, Fazzini and Licata.
Others seen that night, she said, included Angelina, Massimino, Gaeton Lucibello (who also pleaded guilty pre-trial), Steven Mazzone, Michael Lancelotti, Frank Narducci Jr. and the late Frank Gambino.
Felicetti said everyone was well dressed.
In his cross-examination, Ligambi's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., said the Philadelphia Police Department "was on it like three quarts of paint" when they saw Ligambi and the others heading for the restaurant for what he described as a "holiday party."
Keeping with a theme he has established throughout the trial, Jacobs implied that Ligambi and the others have been targeted not for anything they've done, but rather for who they are.
Jacobs asked Felicetti if is weren't true that "this was a group of nicely dressed, Italian-American men going to a popular restaurant during the hollidays?" The police officer conceded that that was an accurate description.
She also noted that while conducting her surveillance she saw a member of the Philadelphia Parking Authority ticket Staino's car because he had parked it too close to a fire hydrant. The ticket was introduced as evidence.
Staino apparently paid the fine.