Friday, April 12, 2013

Skinny Joey Talks About Nicky Skins And Life Without The Mob

Skinny Joey (2nd from right) posing with Goodfellas

By George Anastasia
For Bigtrial.net

They met in a Dunkin’ Donuts near the beach in Boca Raton.

Nicholas Stefanelli, a 60-something mobster from North Jersey, was full of propositions and ideas for “business” ventures.

Joey Merlino, recently turned 50 and out of jail for about a year, was all ears.

Merlino was looking for a fresh start in Florida, or so he said. Stefanelli had come recommended from a defense attorney in Newark who had worked on one of Joey’s cases. 

They talked for about an hour. At first, Stefanelli focused on ideas for bars and restaurants, businesses he knew Joey was interested in. Money and backers were available, he said. They could make something happen, he promised. Then he steered the conversation to past events in the world in which they both operated.

Stefanelli, known as “Nicky Skins,” was a soldier in the Gambino crime family.

Merlino, who everyone knew as “Skinny Joey,” had been or was (depending on your frame of reference) the boss of the Philadelphia mob. He had just finished a 14-year stint in a federal prison. He had no desire to go back. So when Stefanelli started asking about some of the guys up north and talking about pending criminal cases, Merlino pulled back.

There are certain things you don’t talk about, especially with someone you’ve just met.

A couple of Joes
“He  asked me about Joe (Ligambi, one of several prominent Philadelphia mob figures then awaiting trial on racketeering conspiracy charges),”  Merlino recalled. “I said he was a nice guy and I hoped he beat the case.”

Then Stefanelli asked about Nicky Scarfo Jr., who was in federal prison awaiting trial on charges that he and an associate had looted a Texas-based mortgage company, siphoning out more than $12 million through bogus business deals and phony consulting contracts.

“When he asked me about Scarfo, I said it was a shame what happened to that kid,” Merlino said. “I said his father (jailed mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, an unindicted co-conspirator in the fraud case) was going to get him 100 years … And I meant it.”

The meeting at the Dunkin' Donuts was in December 2011. A year later, Merlino learned that Stefanelli was recording everything they said when they sat down over coffee that day.

“The fuckin’ guy was wired,” Merlino said. “I got the tape. In fact, I got two from Joe Ligambi’s lawyer. He thought I had talked to the guy twice. But we had only met once."

"There were two tapes because the guy was wearing two wires, one on his body and one in his watch. He shoulda been fuckin’ electrocuted.  The feds sent him down here to set me up. I told him I’m legitimate. I don’t want nothing to do with any of that other stuff … What else could I say?”

Merlino is sitting in a posh restaurant in the W Hotel on Beach Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, a short drive from the condo in Boca Raton where he has been living with his good friend and former South Philadelphia neighbor Donnie Petullo.

For the first time since his release to a halfway house in Florida over a year ago, Merlino has agreed to talk publicly about himself, about where he is and what he hopes to do with the rest of his life.

“It’s beautiful down here,” he says. “Great weather. No stress. People come here, they live to be 100.”

At 51 (his birthday was in March) he is a little over halfway there. And it’s clear he hopes to make it the rest of the way.  He said repeatedly and emphatically during two days of interviews earlier this week that he has no intention of returning to Philadelphia.

The only things he misses, he said, are his family – and by that he meant blood relatives like his mother Rita, his sister Natalie, and others still living in South Philadelphia – and the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day.

He hardly mentioned the other Family, but that was like the 500-pound gorilla in the room during the interviews. Always circumspect and cautious, Merlino is savvy enough to know what to say and how to say it. He also is aware that a return to the streets of South Philadelphia and the clubs and restaurants where his mere presence caused a stir – “Joey’s in the room. It’s Merlino.” – would attract major law enforcement attention and could ultimately lead to criminal problems.

Joey's life as a wiseguy during the 1990s was Entourage in the Underworld. The popular HBO series about four young, good looking guys making it IN the movie business and making it WITH every beautiful broad they came in contact with was not that much different from Merlino's days as Philadelphia's one and only celebrity wiseguy.

Over lunch at Steak 954 – ironically a restaurant opened in the W Hotel by Stephen Starr, the iconic Philadelphia restaurateur -- Merlino did some quick math to explain how and why he has decided to turn his life in another direction.  By his own count, he has spent close to 19 years behind bars. If you add in the time he’s spent in halfway houses, the number is close to 20. That’s a big chunk of his adult life.

He missed his daughters – both now teenagers – growing up, but says he wants to be there to see them go off to college. They and his wife live in North Jersey where the girls attend school. He didn’t want to disrupt that, but they’ve visited on holidays and spent about six weeks with him last summer.

He’s working for an advertising agency, but looking to start his own business. He’s talked about restaurants, cafes, a Philly cheese steak shop -- "It's hard to get  rolls down here" -- and a cigar bar. Nothing yet, but everything is still in play. There's also talk about a book, a movie and a reality TV show.

“Anybody can be an actor,” Merlino says at one point.

“Look at Kim Kardashian,” adds Petullo. “What'd she ever do?”

Everyone at the table agrees that Kardashian has parlayed her physical attributes into a money-making career. Merlino doesn’t see any reason why he can’t cash in as well. He may not have a big ass, but he's got a lot of other things going for him. The only stipulation, he said, is that whatever he does has to be legitimate.

“This Stefanelli said he had plenty of investors and said we could do things,” Merlino said over a lunch of lobster bisque and a crab cake.Then he rolled his eyes.

“When I mentioned the cheese steak shop, he said we should franchise it. Call it Merlino’s and get investors," Merlino said. "He started talking about selling 10 or 12 franchises.  The 'Old’ Joey would have gone for that. But that’s not me now.

“I’m not gonna sell something I don’t have. If I had opened a cheesesteak place and was in business and somebody wanted to talk about a franchise, then it’s legit. But I’m not gonna sell something that doesn’t exist.”

That’s the 'New’ Joey.

He still looks and sounds like the guy who was the John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue, the reputed mob boss who held Christmas parties for the homeless and gave away turkeys at Thanksgiving in the housing projects.

He still has those same dark eyes that can shoot daggers and the quick, staccato delivery when he’s telling a story or asking a question. But if you take him at his word (and at this point there's no reason not to), he has a different perspective on life.

He’s seen too much.

He’s spent too much time in lockdown.

He’s tired of living a regimented life where others control when you get up, when you eat and when the lights get turned off.

Enough.

He’s also ultra cautious.

“Too many rats,” he said. “I want no part of that.”

Nicky Skins Stefanelli is a case in point.

Skins had gotten jammed up in a drug case in Newark two years before he met with Merlino. And to get himself and his son out from under, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI. He had already recorded dozens of conversations in North Jersey, New York and Rhode Island when he headed to Florida.

(Two Stefanelli tapes, but not the Merlino meeting, were played at Ligambi's trial earlier this year.)

The idea was to get Joey to incriminate himself, to admit that he was still part of the crime family back in Philadelphia, to talk about the old days, maybe to brag or boast about how – and this is the fed's position not Merlino’s – he had gotten away with murder.

Talk to anyone who has tracked the Philadelphia mob in the past 30 years and they'll tell you that Skinny Joey was involved in more than a dozen gangland shootings. They have tried, but failed, to link him to ten different murders.

Even over a casual lunch, Merlino won’t go there.

The racketeering case in 2001 that earned him a 14-year sentence, included a half dozen shootings. The jury found the charges “not proven.” Two years later he was tried in federal court in Newark for one of the same murders that was part of the racketeering case. While it seems mind boggling and counter-intuitive to a layman, the racketeering statutes permit what on the face appears to be double jeopardy. In any event, Merlino beat the murder rap in North Jersey as well.

“Not guilty,” said the jury.

He’s content to rest on those jury verdicts, offering very little else about the murder and mayhem that authorities allege he unleashed on the South Philadelphia underworld during the bloody 1990s, a period when, prosecutors alleged, the Merlino faction of the Philadelphia mob went to war with a faction headed by John Stanfa.

“I was found not guilty,” Merlino said. “What else can I say?”

Probably a lot more, but there’s very little chance anyone will ever get Merlino to open up.  Stefanelli, no doubt coached by his FBI handlers, was tap dancing around a volatile subject when he brought up the Scarfo name at  the Dunkin’ Donuts  meeting.

There is a history between the Scarfos and the Merlinos.

Joey’s father Salvatore “Chucky” Merlino was once the elder Scarfo’s top underworld associate and his underboss. But the volatile Scarfo had a falling out with his one-time best friend and threatened to kill the entire Merlino clan.

There is more to the story which when told in full sounds like an underworld soap opera. But that’s for another day. Just know that in law enforcement circles, the conventional wisdom is that Skinny Joey tried to settle accounts on Halloween Night, 1989.

On that night,  Nicky Jr. was having dinner in  Dante & Luigi’s, a neighborhood restaurant located on the corner of 10th and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia. The joint  had served up fine but inexpensive Italian dinners to three generations.
Nicodemo Savatore

In the fall of 1989, the Philadelphia mob was in disarray. The elder Scarfo, along with Chucky Merlino and a dozen others, had been convicted of racketeering-murder charges. All were serving lengthy federal prison sentences.  “Little Nicky” Scarfo,  a psychopathic mob boss, had driven the organization into the ground. During his bloody reign about 20 mob figures had been killed. With a dozen more behind bars, the organization, which never had more than 60 or 70 members, was in shambles.

Scarfo was trying to maintain control from prison through his son, Nicky Jr. (While they called him Jr., in fact his name was Nicodemo Salvatore and his father was Nicodemo Domenic.)

The younger Scarfo was dining on clams and spaghetti that night, one of his favorites. Two associates, his cousin John Parisi and another man, were eating with him. None of them noticed the guy with the trick-or-treat bag who walked into the restaurant and headed straight for their table. He was wearing a mask, but it was Halloween. It was only after he pulled the Mac-9 machine pistol out of the bag and opened fire that he attracted any attention.

By then it was too late.

Scarfo was hit six times. The gunman turned and headed for the door. As he walked out amid screaming customers who were ducking for cover, he dropped the gun.  A car pulled up. He got in and drove away.

About a week earlier, a Philadelphia police officer had been killed in the line of duty. Some drug dealer with a gun had started firing. The cop was wearing a bullet proof vest, but one of the bullets came in on an angle and ripped into his rib cage from the side. A fraction of an inch one way or the other and the bullet would have hit the vest. Instead, it tore into his heart. The cop died.

None of the bullets that hit Scarfo that night struck a vital organ. Less than a week after the shooting, he was released from the hospital.

“Can you fuckin’ believe it?” a Philadelphia police officer said at the time. “He’s not wearing a vest. He gets hit six times. And he walks away. How’s that fair?”

No one has ever been charged with the attempted murder of Nicky Scarfo Jr.

But Joey Merlino has long been the prime suspect. Underworld informants have fingered him as the triggerman. One, in fact, told the FBI how Merlino had deliberately dropped the gun that night because he wanted to send a message to “Little Nicky” Scarfo, who was doing 55 years in a federal prison on the racketeering charge at the time.

"Try the veal. It's the best in the city."
The elder Scarfo loved gangster movies. One of his favorites, of course, was The Godfather. And one of his favorite scenes was the restaurant shooting where Michael Corleone settles the score after his father was shot and nearly killed. As Michael leaves the restaurant, he drops the gun.

There was a purpose to the gunman doing the same thing at Dante & Luigi’s, or so the informant said.  Joey Merlino was settling a score that night. At least that’s the theory that law enforcement has been working on for the past twenty-four years.

Scarfo Jr. never identified his shooter. But the New Jersey State Police have phone tapes in which he and his father, talking from prison, discuss the hit. On the tape, Little Nicky refers to Merlino as “a snake” and tells his son to “take him to dinner,” code, said investigators, for killing him.

 Over lunch down in Florida, Merlino said he was home the night of the Dante & Luigi shooting. He was under a court-ordered curfew imposed in an unrelated case and had to be in his house by 7 p.m. each night. He couldn’t have been the shooter, he said.

Hardly a solid alibi, but his position none the less.

Several years later, word started to circulate in South Philadelphia that, from prison, Little Nicky had put a $500,000 contract out on Merlino’s life. When he was asked about this by TV reporter Dave Schratwieser, Joey calmly looked into the camera and in classic Merlino-style said, “Give me the half million dollars and I’ll shoot myself.”

Merlino has been charged with, but never convicted, of nearly a dozen other shootings -- the brother of a witness who was about to take the stand in a mob racketeering  trial; the ambush of a rival mob leader on a busy Philadelphia highway in the midst of the morning rush hour; the slaying of a mob capo who was balking about sending a monthly envelope filled with cash; the drive-by shooting of a video poker machine operator who had refused to pay a street tax.

 The list goes on and on. Even after he was arrested in 1999, authorities believe, Merlino continued to sign off on street violence. Three unsolved murders that occurred while he was in federal prison are also part of the murderous menu that the FBI and police homicide detectives believe Merlino served up in the Philadelphia underworld.

Gambling, loansharking, extortion and robbery have landed him in jail for a big chunk of his life. But talk to any of the authorities who have been tracking him for the past twenty-five years and they’ll tell you Joey Merlino has literally gotten away with murder.

Lunch is over and Merlino is sipping a cup of coffee at 954 Steak. It's a sunny afternoon. The restaurant windows face Beach Boulevard and the sparkling Atlantic Ocean.

Merlino is tan and fit and looking forward to his next visit to the gym. From his perspective, it doesn't matter what they say or think back in Philadelphia. Juries have been shown the evidence and heard the witnesses.

Not proven. Not guilty.

"What else can I say?" he asks.

George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.  

33 comments:

  1. Great piece George. Question though. How did Merlino meet with Skins at a Dunkin Ds in 2010? Wasn't Joey still locked up?

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    1. Good cat5ch. Meeting was 2011. Thank you.

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  2. Great story! So if he is going straight who is running things here?

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  3. You the man George! How did you get this guy to meet with you in FL?

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    1. Im thinking theres an established trust between Joey n George. Mr.Anastasia has been at this for awhile.

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    2. How cool! He has an 'established trust' with a serial killer. Has he established trust with child molesters, rapists, terrorists, and others in the same moral universe as 'Joey'?

      The problem with guys like George Anastasia is that they can't write about these vermin without salivating over them. 'Joey' is a murderous psychopath for crisakes, not a rock star. I find the snide references to Kim Kardashian somewhat ironic since as pathetic as it is that she has become rich and famous while having no ostensible talents whatsoever, at least she's not a serial killer.

      George Anastasia is basically Liz Smith only instead of glamorizing shallow entertainment celebs he glamorizes evil people. There is a special place in hell for people like 'Joey' - AND Georgie.

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    3. Your a dueche bag Gary. Get a life. You have no clue as to George's personal views. George has accomplished more in the last 10 years than you probably have in your lifetime.

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  4. Who care's how they got to meet. it Was a great read and if the man is trying to be left alone down there. Good for him also. Any body following this has waited a long time to hear from Merlino. What he has to say now after being out on the street. It was a great read.

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  5. Are you going to do a video on this?

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  6. This Is A Big Joke its all the News Papers AGAIN Rapped up in One Story. Tell Us something We Dont ALready Know. THis News is Old,

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    1. That would be "wrapped" right? If you've heard this all before then you've gotten to talk first hand with Joey. Most of us haven't. That's what was new here...Joey in his own words talking about things that have been said and written about him.
      I'm assuming you already knew the particulars of Joey sitting down with Nicky Skins as well. You must really be wired! Most of us didn't have that access so that's why to some -- certainly not someone as connected as you -- this story had small pieces of new information.
      But thanks for taking the time to read it anyway.

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    2. Personally, I can't get enough G.A. Forget this stronzo. It's one thing for a reporter to sit down with a wiseguy who's flipped. But when a reporter sits down with one who hasn't??? Former gangster or not, I want to hear everything he has to say. Plus, as much as Joey likes to comment to the press, he never really says anything substantive. So to read about his discussions with a gambino soldier over coffee and sour cream donuts is fascinating. We always read about what others have to say or report concerning guys like scarfo or gigante (i.e., guys who haven't and never will switch teams), but we never get to read or watch interviews about what they have to say or their feelings on LCN..... "thank god for the american jury system", notwithstanding.

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    3. Thank you Sir for this story. Not all of us have an inside connection to Joey n I appreciate ur efforts. Im a Merlino fan n I approve this message.

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  7. great job !!!!! miss u on tv with dave

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  8. great article. thanks for doing your job George. its amazing that joey met with you. obviously you are a very respected reporter. all the best from Canada

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  9. george thanks for a awsome inside look at the truth about joe merlino and what really happened with the fbi trying to trick joey who was to smart to fall for that. from your fans in ohio.

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  10. Great article George good job, loving this bigtrial blog also, keep up the good work

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  11. George, did you get a chance to read "Mafia Prince?" If so, how was it? I'd love to hear your opinion. I read four of your books (Blood and Honor, Mobfiles, Goodfella Tapes, and The Last Gangster) and loved all of them. Also, do you think they will ever make a Philly mob movie? Thanks in advance. I'm a big fan, keep up the great work!

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  12. Very awesome! I've been waiting to hear from Joey. Thanks GA!

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  13. Who,s gona pay the 500,000.00 if they kill him , is my question? Scarfo,s in jail and claim n he broke!

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  14. Great job Mr. Anastasia. I've watched you and Dave and have read your articles for several years. You do a great job giving information and perspectives and have even predicted correctly several times. I have a library of organized crime books and dvd's with the Chicago Outfit and the New York families, but you informed me of the most recent Philidelphia family and Joey Merlino. I worked in a halfway house not far from Terra Haute In. and hoped to get Joey but agreed with his choice to go to Florida. Keep digging sir, we appreciate it.

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  15. No f*ckin chance Skinny Joey has changed. I'd bet my life he pulls a Casso and refuses the throne. Hes a gangster and killer and that'll never change. Hes gonna die in jail like every other high ranking mafia official unless theres another 911 and the FBI get preoccupied. Not buying this story one bit and anyone who does is a moron.

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  16. I agree with you. Look at Sammy the Bull telling Diane Sawyer, "nah, never again-- riding off into my golden retirement sunset in AZ" and then next thing he's off to the fed again by getting pulled into a f*ckin low-life, club/ecstasy/heroin scene with his kids and some young punks in the neighborhood?! What a way to go out- he'd have been better off having been caught wearing a Liberace costume on his knees wrapped around Congressman Weiner's <-repeat word twice in an NYC hotel room than this small-time sh*t in Arizona: at least there'd have been a Hollywood ending. Stay classy, Sammy!

    Merlino was never even out of it. How else was he gonna pay those college tuition bills? In the age of facebook and twitter, he's probably been schooled up on how to stay really discreet, unlike the 1980's heydays.

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  17. I think it's pathetic the way the mob groupies post here trying to sound like they're 'mobbed up' (e.g. Joey's too smart for da FBI"). Does George Anastasia say anything to dissuade the impression that he admires these scumbags? No. He's as pathetic as the dumbest kid on here posting things like "Awesome post. Joey da man. He don't want no throne, he he he."

    How old is GA anyway? World's oldest mob wannabe.

    In my opinion, to be 60 something and as infatuated with the mob as the most dimwitted kid in [insert trashy suburb somewhere in metro NYC or Philly here] is a fate far worse than death.

    Congratulations, Georgie Boy. You gotz a sitdown wit' Joey. Das pretty friggin' awesome, huh? Did you, like, wear sunglasses to 'dis ting' and when it was over, kiss his pinky ring and sort of strut off, bouncing side to side, saying things like "oofa doon doodaleeno" (i.e. nonsense syllables that sound vaguely Italian-ish) to impress the stupid?

    Again, a fate far, far worse than death.

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  18. Joey's just excited to be free. Soon enough..........he'll grow tired of South FL and see it for the hell hole that it is.

    Instead of moving to Philly he'll probably go to North Jersey and try to run his old crew from there thinking he's isolated.

    Seriously though................South FL is a snake pit and a disgusting place. I thought I'd love it there and I realized very quickly I F'd up bad.

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  19. Gary Joseph, where the f#@k do you get the right to sand blast a well respected reporter like Mr. Anastasia???? Especially when you have two first names one as your first and the other as you r last??? Oh, yeah that's right some jag off living in Cumberland county in South Jersey, do your self a favor shut your pie whole around the barrel of a gun and pull the trigger!!!

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  20. George Anastasia is a personal favorite of mine as far as crime reporters go. To say he cannot report on somebody like Joey Merlino without salivating over them is pure ignorance to the fact that George in no way condones the crimes supposedly committed by the people he writes about.So FUCK YOU!

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  21. Was thinking about Joey when I saw this...

    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2013/05/gold-shipment-vanishes-in-mysterious-miami-airport-heist/

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  22. Hey George-
    How come all of your books aren't available in ebook format-specifically Mobfather and The Goodfellas Tapes. I own all your books in print form but I'm in the process of going all digital and those are 2 of my favorites. Let's say, hypothetically, that you had versions of one (or both) of these books scanned into your home computer in pdf format. Now let's also say, hypothetically, that it's Christmas-time and one of your biggest fans (who, again, already owns the print versions of these books) would love to get these in digital format. If all these these hypotheticals were somehow true, then, hypothetically, this big fan's email address would probably be ConstableServices.RI@gmail.com. By the way, great article/interview-sounds to me like we could be seeing "The Skinny on Joey: The Joey Merlino Story" By George Anastasia & Joey Merlino. Looking forward to it (hypothetically, of course) Happy Holidays George and thank you for all the many hours of entertainment you've provided over the years. -Kenny N.

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  23. George, I just bought Blood and Honor on Nook over New Years and couldn't put it down, amazing book. I have read everything LCN related and it is seriously up there as one of the best.

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  24. Joey "skinny "merlino.
    Is the man.
    He survived the bloody street wars.
    Went to prison.
    Did his time.
    Stand up individual in my book.

    So...
    You have others in that life who inform on there "friends".
    I am a great fan of ga.I will deafitly read his book.
    Pay to see his film.
    And watch his realatily t.v. show.

    Better than doing another 20 yrs in a cage. (By youre self)

    Right?

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  25. See that your girls get into college & stay the hell outta Philadelphia Joey. They ( feds,cops ) will always be lookin' for the smallest little thing on you because of the 1990's. Leave that miserable decade behind you & God Bless................

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