Friday, October 24, 2014
What a federal prosecutor described as a "night on the town with his mob buddies" has resulted in a four-month prison sentence for former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.
U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick imposed that sentence this afternoon after hearing more than three hours of testimony and argument in a probation violation hearing for the 52-year-old convicted Mafia leader.
Merlino, now living in Florida, will begin the sentence in 30 days, according to the order issued by Surrick. Once he completes that sentence, Merlino will no longer be on supervised release and will be free to meet and associate with whomever he chooses.
But that may be the least of his problems. According to testimony during the hearing, Merlino has been the focus on an ongoing investigation by an organized crime task force in South Florida. Authorities have apparently had the one-time South Philadelphia celebrity gangster on their radar since his arrival in the Sunshine State three years ago.
Law enforcement officials have been tight lipped about the nature of that investigation. A Broward County detective confirmed during his testimony that Merlino has been picked up on "dozens" of surveillances over the past three years. But Surrick upheld a prosecution objection when Merlino's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., asked what was being investigated.
In May, Merlino was questioned at length by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer about his finances. Authorities have made no secret of the fact that they would like to know the source of the former mob boss's income and how he has managed to live a comfortable life in the Boca Raton area while reporting minimal income.
"He reports almost nothing ... a paltry sum," Troyer said at one point during today's hearing. Yet Merlino lives in a posh condo and is seen being driven around in a Cadallac Escalade. The vehicle is owned by his longtime friend and one-time roommate Don Petillo.
Merlino said little as he left the courtroom following today's hearing.
Tan and dressed in an expensive, light gray business suit, white shirt and dark tie, and with what appeared to be a Rolex peeking out from under his shirt cuff, Merlino looked liked someone who had walked off a GQ photo shoot. His wife Deborah Wells-Merlino, his mother Rita and a dozen other friends attended the session.
The always outspoken Rita Merlino complained of government harassment, implying that her son had been unjustly targeted by authorities. Jacobs hinted at the same thing during his closing argument before Surrick.
Jacobs said the violation of supervised release summons came from Philadelphia despite the fact that Merlino had been under the supervision of probation department authorities in Florida.
"Prosecutors and the FBI have long memories (about) cases that don't turn out the way they want," Jacobs said. The lawyer, who has defended Merlino for years, was apparently making reference to a federal racketeering trial in 2001 in which Merlino was convicted of gambling and extortion, but acquitted of murder, attempted murder and drug dealing charges that could have carried a longer prison sentence.
Merlino was sentenced to 14 years in that case. He had spent more than 12 years in jail before being released to a halfway house in Florida where he opted to relocate. For the past three years he has been on court-ordered supervised release, the final leg of that sentence.
The probation violation charge was based primarily on surveillance conducted by local authorities on June 18. Merlino was spotted at an Italian restaurant, La Villetta, in Boca Raton, and later at Havana Nights, a cigar bar. He was, according to surveillance reports and testimony, seen in the company of three convicted felons, including John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini, a Philadelphia mob capo and a co-defendant in the 2001 trial.
Merlino was prohibited from associating with convicted felons and organized crime figures while on probation.
Jacobs argued that the meeting of Ciancaglini and Merlino in the cigar bar was a "chance encounter" and not a planned association. He also contended that there was no evidence to support allegations that Merlino and Ciancaglini had been together in the restaurant earlier that same evening.
He conceded that Merlino should have reported the encounter to his probation officer, but said Merlino had made a "mistake."
"It was an oversight," he said.
Jacobs also called Ciancaglini's wife, Kathy, as a witness. She said her husband told her he had "run into Merlino" that night and that he hoped Merlino would not get into trouble as a result. She said it was a chance encounter and that her husband had studiously tried to avoid being in Merlino's presence while he was on probation.
Troyer dismissed the defense argument of a chance encounter and asked why John Ciancaglini -- "he's available" -- hadn't been called as a witness rather than his wife. The prosecutor said the meeting was a clear violation of the terms of Merlino's probation.
"This isn't Casablanca," Troyer said, before paraphrasing the famous line from that classic Humphrey Bogart movie. "Of all the gin joints John Ciancaglini happens to walk into mine. This was a night on the town with all his mob buddies."
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial,net.