By George Anastasia
It was Mob History 101, a primer on the wantonly violent and consistently treacherous Philadelphia branch of Cosa Nostra.
Jurors in the racketeering conspiracy trial of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi got nearly four hours of the murderous and mundane today as the trial entered its third week. With mob expert and former FBI agent Joaquin "Big Jack" Garcia on the stand and Ligambi's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., conducting a lengthy and detailed cross-examination, the anonymously chosen jury took a trip down a bloody memory lane.
Some highlights (or lowlights depending on your point of view):
-- Mob boss Angelo Bruno was shotgunned to death in March 1980, a hit that destabilized the once smoothly run organization. Bruno's consigliere, Antonio "Tony Bananas" Caponigro, was behind the murder of the so-called Docile Don and thought he had the approval of the New York-based Mafia Commission. He didn't. On that, Garcia and Jacobs agreed.
"He thought he was going to be knighted as head of the family," Garcia said. "Instead he was tortured and killed and money was left in every orifice of his body."
-- South Philadelphia steak shop owner and one-time high level bookmaker Danny D'Ambrosio should have been killed, under strict mob rules, for plotting with North Jersey mobster Peter "Pete the Crumb" Caprio (who later became a government witness) to murder Ligambi, his current co-defendant and nephew George Borgesi and then crime family consigliere Steven Manzone in the late 1990s. Caprio had the approval of three of the New York crime families, who supported what was to be his takeover of the Philadelphia organization. (The plot was never carried out because Caprio was arrested.)
But today D'Ambrosio operates his steak shop about two blocks from Ligambi's Packer Park townhouse.
Garcia conceded that under typical mob protocol, D'Ambrosio should be dead.
"He must have gotten a pass," said the burly former FBI agent. "I don't have inside information as to why (he) has a pass, but he does."
-- The attempted murder of Nicodemo Scarfo Jr. in Dante & Luigi's Restaurant on Halloween night 1989 was, after the Bruno murder, the "most notorious hit in the history" of the Philadelphia crime family, Jaocbs said.
"It's right up there," Garcia conceded, adding that Joey Merlino was the shooter that night.
On that Jacobs and Garcia clashed. Garcia said he was repeating what other mobsters had said in tapped conversations. Jacobs said the Florida-based Merlino has never been charged with that crime. Jacobs has represented Merlino in the past and has won acquittals on murder charges in both a racketeering trial and a murder trial.
Garcia also said he believes Merlino, 50, continues to run the Philadelphia family from Florida and that even when Ralph Natale was the titular head of the organization in the mid 1990s, Merlino was in fact the boss.
Natale, Garcia said, was a "straw boss," a boss in name only. "Merlino ran the streets...still does, even as we speak. That's my opinion," Garcia said.
Jacobs and Garcia debated dozens of other issues during the cross-examination with the defense attorney demonstrating detailed recall of events, cases and testimony stretching back more than 20 years. Jacobs is considered one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the Philadelphia - South Jersey area and has represented several major mob figures over the years.
Garcia, who retired after 26 years in the FBI, also had a stellar career working undercover and infiltrating organized crime and drug dealing networks. The two argued about mob protocol, agreed that there is a difference between a racketeer and a gangster (a gangster is more vicious and violent) and disagreed over what has emerged as one of the central issues in the case.
Jacobs has referred repeatedly to a meeting at a North Jersey restaurant in May 2010 as a "social"
The government contends that the session was a meeting of the leaders of the Philadelphia mob and the Gambino crime family and has used conversations secretly recorded by a cooperating witness to build the conspiracy charge against Ligambi.
Jacobs has pointed out that none of the tapes include discussions about crimes being planned or scores being settled. Garcia conceded as much, but he said the meeting in and of itself -- given the attendees -- was a "RICO conspiracy."
"It was a very important meeting," Garcia said. It was, he added, two organized crime families engaged in "relationship building."
The jury has heard snippets of nearly two dozen conversations from meetings at LaGriglia and The American Bistro, a pub in Belleville.
On one tape, Ligambi brings up the D'Ambrosio issue in a joking way. He told those sharing lunch that D'Ambrosio's father "comes over my house about three or four years ago. Said the FBI said you was gonna kill my son. He was telling me this on the step. I said, `What the fuck you talkin' about? Don't ever come around this house again. I don't know what you're talking about.' I mean, that's the kind of nuts you're dealing with. You know what I mean?"
Ligambi's comment underscored a point that was one of the underlying themes in Jacobs' cross-examination.
As he did in Ligambi's first trial, which ended with a hung jury on the conspiracy count, Jacobs appears to be trying to draw a distinction between Ligambi and the mob bosses in Philadelphia who came before him.
At one point he ticked off 15 murders and attempted murders that were part of the racketeering case against Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo in 1988 and nine murders and attempted murders that were part of the 1995 case against John Stanfa.
"In this indictment," he asked Garcia, "there isn't a murder or an attempted murder, is there? Or a gun or a knife or a slap in the face?"
The defense has argued that the prosecution, desperate to make a case after a 12-year investigation turned up precious little, hung a racketeering conspiracy charge around what amounts to second rate gambling activity.
Garcia, responding with what has been the prosecution's theme, said that violence wasn't necessary during Ligambi's reign because the crime family's reputation -- built by Scarfo and Stanfa -- was already well established.
While the lawyer and the witness disagreed on several major issues, there was consensus when they discussed food. Jacobs said that mobsters often meet for breakfast, lunch, dinner and "late night snacks" and asked Garcia if, during the two and one-half years he worked undercover as an associate of Gambino crime family capo Greg DePalma, that was the normal routine.
Garcia said it was.
"In fact," Jacobs said, "you gained 90 pounds in those two and one-half years."
Later, when a discussion turned to antipasto, Jacobs and Garcia again shared a laugh. Earlier in his testimony Garcia, who was born in Cuba, said he had to study Siclian food and culture when he posed as a Jack Falcone, a supposed Sicilian, to get close to DePalma.
"You know something about antipasto, then? " Jacobs asked.
"I've had my share of antipasto," Garcia responded.
"You've had everybody's share," said Jacobs.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.