Defense attorneys for Nicodemo S. Scarfo said repeatedly during his federal fraud trial that Scarfo,
49, was targeted for prosecution because of the reputation and notoriety of his father, jailed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo D. "Little Nicky" Scarfo.
The jury, of course, saw it differently, convicting the younger Scarfo of all 25 counts he faced in the looting of FirstPlus Financial, a Texas mortgage company.
But now another voice has weighed in in Scarfo's defense. It's not a defense of what he did, but rather an explanation for how he ended up where he did. And it's also a plea for some consideration from Judge Robert Kugler when he sentences Scarfo in October.
The younger Scarfo never had a chance, said his cousin, mobster-turned-government witness Philip Leonetti.
"He's really not a gangster," Leonetti, 61, said in a telephone interview with Bigtrial this week. "His father had him under his spell...I used to tell him, 'Nicky, get away from these guys.' And when he was talking to me, he would agree' But then he would talk to his father and..."
He has been living in another part of the country with a new identity since his release from prison in the early 1990s. Considered one of the best mob witnesses to ever take the stand, Leonetti testified at nearly a dozen trials following his own conviction, along with his uncle and a dozen others, in a 1988 racketeering-murder case.
"I was very good at doing some bad things," Leonetti said of his life in the mob and under his uncle's influence, "but it's not who I was."
Leonetti's decision to cooperate sent shockwaves through the underworld. Among other things, his defection was a major factor in the decision of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, the Gambino crime family underboss, to flip and help the government convict mob boss John Gotti a few years later.
Gravano, however, couldn't stop being Sammy the Bull and after his release from prison returned to drug dealing. He ended up back in jail. Leonetti on the other hand has carved out a new and better life for himself and his family, far removed from the underworld where he was once a major player.
Life, he says, has been good.
He wishes his younger cousin had the chance to experience it.
"There is so much more to see and enjoy," he said. "Those guys in South Philly don't appreciate or understand that. They would say that I'm the sucker now because I'm living a normal life. But I was the sucker back then when I was in the mob."
Cynics of course, and there are many, say Leonetti's motives were financial and based on self-preservation. For years sources have said that the government allowed him and his mother Nancy, Scarfo's sister, to take more than $1 million with them into the Witness Security Program. The money had been stashed in a hidden safe in Scarfo's apartment on Georgia Avenue in Atlantic City.
"Sure, his life is good," said one mob source. "My life would be good too if I had a million dollars to rebuild it. Give me a break!"
Leonetti rolls with the criticism, saying there are more important things to focus on. He said he was fortunate to have the opportunity to change his life. He doesn't regret his decision to cooperate and testify for the government and he said he would urge his cousin to do the same. The problem, however, is that Nicodemo S. Scarfo, even if he had the inclination, may not have enough information to make a deal.
"Anything he could do to help himself, he should do," Leonetti said. "That's what I would tell him. I would tell him to cooperate and save as much of his life as he can. Don't be a sucker."
And don't, he added, worry about what your father is thinking.
"My uncle is an evil guy," said Leonetti, who confessed to his own involvement in 10 murders while
That's the message, Leonetti said, that he would like to convey to the judge before he passes judgment on his cousin.
"I wish they had called me as a witness," he said. "I would have told the jury."
But unless you've lived it, he added, it's difficult to understand. Both he and the younger Scarfo grew up under the dark shadow cast by Little Nicky, a psychopathic mob boss who was considered one of the most violent mob leaders in America during the period from 1980 through 1989 when he controlled the Philadelphia mob. The elder Scarfo, 84, is serving a 55-year sentence for racketeering and murder. His earliest parole date is 2033. He will likely die in prison.
"Nicky was a kid then," Leonetti said of his cousin during the violent 1980s. "He didn't want to get involved. But his father would badger him. A couple of times I remember him crying because his father wanted him to do something. My uncle destroyed his whole family."
Leonetti, who wrote a book Mafia Prince that detailed much of his life in the mob and that blistered his uncle, said he tried to do right by his cousin, but couldn't overcome the influence of the jailed mob boss. (The book was recently released in paperback.)
After he was released from prison -- Leonetti's 45-year sentence was reduced to five years, five months and five days because of his cooperation -- he would occasionally visit Atlantic City, checking in with his grandmother and his cousin.
"He didn't care that I had cooperated," Leonetti said of the younger Scarfo. "I told him then he should come away with me. He could have been with me right now. Instead, he listened to his father."
Back then, in an interview, Leonetti had predicted that "my uncle is going to get my cousin killed or indicted."
The younger Scarfo had already survived a mob hit in 1989 in Dante & Luigi's restaurant in South
Philadelphia. The Halloween night shooting left him with seven bullet holes in his body, but he miraculously survived.
"He told me he knew it was Joey Merlino who shot him," Leonetti said. "Maybe he could use that to help himself now."
Merlino has always denied that allegation, which surfaced again during the FirstPlus trial when a government expert witness said that federal authorities believe Merlino, now 51, was the shooter that night. No one has ever been charged but the statute of limitation has long since expired in that assault and it's unlikely Scarfo could use that information to help himself, even if he chose to do so.
Scarfo has two prior convictions for mob-related gambling and racketeering. He is also under indictment in Morris County in a massive mob sports betting case tied to the leaders of the Luchese crime family. The younger Scarfo became a member of the Luchese organization after he was shot and had to flee the Philadelphia - South Jersey area in 1989.
His father, in prison with Luchese mob boss Vittoro "Vic" Amuso, arranged to have his son formally initiated into the crime family as an insurance policy against possible future attacks.
But that didn't stop Scarfo from being targeted in a different way. Leonetti said members of the Philadelphia mob tried to shake Scarfo down after he opened a restaurant, Amici, in Ventnor back in 1996.
"Joey Merlino sent guys down there to demand money," Leonetti said. "That's when I tol
Some things never change. Gambling, loansharking and extortion have long been the financial lifeblood of the Philadelphia crime family and with several mobsters who were convicted with him and his uncle in 1988 now back on the streets, Leonetti says those activities will continue.
"Look, if Joey Punge (Joseph Pungitore) wants to run a bookmaking operation, let him," Leonetti said of one of his former co-defendants now back on the street. "It's not hurting anybody."
The problem, Leonetti said, is when other organized crime figures try to muscle in on someone else's action. Mobsters like Merlino and George Borgesi, who was recently released from prison, have a reputation for demanding and grabbing. Some of the veteran wiseguys from Leonetti's era, guys like Phil Narducci for example, won't stand for those kind of guzzling or strong-arming tactics, he said.
"Somebody'll get killed," Leonetti said. "They should just let everybody go about their business, everyone make their own money and be honest with one another."
It's a life Leonetti remembers, but has no desire to relive. When he does pop into Atlantic
City, he said, he enjoys walking on the Boardwalk. "I think back to the days when I'd be walking with Saul Kane and talking with him," he said.
Kane, a mob associate who was known as the "Meyer Lansky" of Atlantic City, died in prison where he was serving a sentence for drug dealing. In his obituary Kane had family members list Leonetti as one of his survivors, a clear sign that he had a different view than the elder Scarfo of Leonetti's defection.
"But when I leave Atlantic City, I'm happy to go back to the life I now live," Leonetti added.
South Philadelphia wiseguys are myopic mobsters, he said, who don't see the world beyond Ninth Street. For many, Atlantic City and the Poconos define the edges of their universe. There is, says Leonetti, so much more to the world and so much more to life.
He is just sorry that his cousin will probably never get to experience it.
Leonetti said the only things he knows about the FirstPlus fraud case and Scarfo's co-defendant Salvatore Pelullo are what he's read. He said he knew Pelullo's older brother Artie, but not Salvatore.
"What were they thinking, buying a yacht and a Bentley?" Leonetti asked. "That's not smart."
The government charged that Scarfo and Pelullo had secretly taken control of FirstPlus in 2007 and then used bogus consulting contracts and phony business deals to siphon $12 million out of the company.
The money was used to support a lavish lifestyle that included their purchase of a $850,000 yacht. Pelullo also bought a $217,000 Bentley Continental and Scarfo and his wife Lisa bought a $715,000 home near Atlantic City. All of that and more, including jewelry Scarfo bought for his wife, has been forfeited to the government as part of the verdict in the case.
Now Scarfo is looking at a sentencing guideline range of 30 years to life when he appears before Judge Kugler in October.
Leonetti said he intends to write a letter in support of his cousin, asking the judge to show some leniency. Leonetti said he is one of the few people who truly understands what happened to Nicky Scarfo Jr.
"He wasted his whole life with his father," said Leonetti. "My uncle destroyed people."
Especially those close to him, he added. Mark Scarfo, the youngest of the mob boss's three sons, tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in 1988. He was just 17 years old. He remained comatose and was cared for by his mother and his brother Nicky for the rest of his life. Mark Scarfo died earlier this year during the FirstPlus trial.
The attempted suicide and the elder Scarfo's reaction to it say all you need to know about the mob boss, Leonetti said. His uncle was embarrassed by the incident. "He said if he came out of it (the coma), he was gonna send him away," Leonetti said.
Another source recalled that at the time Scarfo Sr. was on trial with Leonetti and a dozen other mobsters for racketeering. When the source offered Scarfo his condolences, the source said Scarfo brush him off and said of his comatose son, "He's soft."
That, Leonetti said this week, was his uncle -- mean, evil and self-absorbed.
His cousin, Leonetti said again, never had a chance.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.