|Ted Simon and George Martorano|
Earlier this month, George Martorano was released from a prison.
It was long overdue.
Martorano, 65, had spent 32 years in federal institutions. Jailed in 1983, he pleaded guilty a year later to drug dealing charges, admitting that he ran a multi-million dollar narcotics ring that dealt in cocaine, heroin and marijuana. It was his first offense. Yet the judge -- the late John B. Hannum -- sentenced him to life.
On the face of it, it hardly seemed logical or fair. It was the maximum sentence. Martorano could have gone to trial, gotten convicted and would have faced no harsher punishment. Where was the benefit in pleading out? Usually that factors in to the sentencing process. You take a plea, you catch a break.
Conventional wisdom at the time was that Martorano -- nicknamed "Cowboy George" and the son of mobster Raymond "Long John" Martorano -- was looking at a 10-year max. If he got lucky, maybe less.
Instead, the judge dropped the hammer.
Why Hannum chose to go in that direction is part of a bigger, more complicated story that literally changed the face of the Philadelphia mob. At least that's the position of aging mob informant Nicholas "Nicky Crow" Caramandi whose testimony in the late 1980s decimated the crime family he and Long John Martorano had once served.
Caramandi, now 80, turned government witness in 1986 after being busted in a mob extortion case that focused on the development of Penn's Landing. Martorano, he now says, was the reason.
While in prison awaiting trial, Caramandi had serious concerns about his future. Mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo was an intolerant despot and Caramandi wondered if Scarfo, who was behind the Penns Landing shakedown, would move to eliminate him in order to avoid being implicated.
Caramandi sought out Long John Martorano, who was also in the Philadelphia Detention Center at the time after being convicted of drug dealing and of the gangland murder of Roofers Union boss John McCullough. Caramandi asked Martorano to find out if he "had a problem with the Little Guy."
A few days later, while they were both in the prison exercise yard, Martorano said he had had some friends on the outside check into the situation. "You're dead," he said. The message was clear, Caramandi said; Scarfo planned to kill him.
Within hours The Crow was on the phone from prison to the FBI. The next day he was in federal custody and his life as an informant had begun.
But did he really have a problem with Scarfo? Caramandi now believes that Martorano had fabricated the story. The reason?
"He believed Scarfo and Bobby Simone had sold his kid down the river," Caramandi said. "So he used me to get back at them."
Bobby Simone, Scarfo's longtime lawyer and, in the minds of some at least, a mob associate, had represented George Martorano in the drug case before Hannum. Simone had convinced Martorano to enter the guilty plea.
Raymond Martorano, from prison, was as shocked as everyone else when his son got life. And, Caramandi and others believe, he held Scarfo and Simone responsible. If true, getting Caramandi to flip was a clever, almost Machiavellian move by Long John.
Caramandi's testimony brought down the Scarfo organization. It was the ultimate revenge for the Sicilian -born Martorano.
Caramandi was the chief witness when Scarfo, City councilman Leland Beloff and Beloff's aide, Bobby Rego, were convicted in the Penn's Landing extortion. Scarfo, along with a dozen top associates, was convicted again in a broader racketeering murder case in which Caramandi again took the stand.
Simone was later convicted for his role in the Penns Landing case and other alleged mob activities. He died in 2007.
Scarfo is still serving a 55-year sentence for racketeering. Many of his co-defendants have since returned to South Philadelphia and are now part of an underworld in flux. But that's a story for another day.
Long John Martorano was released from prison in the late 1990s after his conviction in the McCullough murder was overturned. He was gunned down in South Philadelphia in January 2002. He died two weeks later. No one has ever been charged with that murder, one of at least three that federal and local law enforcement investigators are still hoping to lay at the feet of a group of active mob members. Stay tuned.
George Martorano was set free on Oct. 5 under new guidelines that are part of a compassionate release program. He was, by all accounts, an exemplary inmate at a federal prison in Florida where he served as a mentor for other inmates in a program designed to help prisoners adapt to life behind bars and prepare for life on the outside.
Martorano educated himself during his three decades behind bars, taught life skills and creative writing, served as a counselor and mentor to scores of prisoners and wrote more than a dozen plays and novels. If anyone was entitled to a break, it was he.
"Extraordinary" is just one of the superlatives Martorano's lawyer, Theodore Simon, uses to describe his client. Simon, who worked tirelessly to win Martorano's release, said Martorano had impacted the lives of thousands of inmates in a positive way through his teaching and counseling and that society would benefit from his release.
"He's turned lives around," said Simon, a highly regarded defense attorney whose clients have included Amanda Knox, Ira Einhorn and Robert Durst, among other high profile defendants.
He said he was hard pressed to think of anyone who had been as "transformed" as Martorano during his time behind bars, calling him "an extraordinary human being."
Simon said Martorano had "provided consistent, extraordinary and exemplary service to his fellow inmates by having created numerous programs and classes, mentored countless inmates, taught classes to thousands of inmates while at the time becoming an author of more than 30 literary works."
"I have always maintained that it is a gift to be a lawyer," Simon added in a prepared statement, "but on Oct. 5, the day of George's release, the bigger gift will be for society and all the good that George will continue to do."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Foulkes, who represented the prosecution in the release process, also cited Martorano's exemplary prison record in explaining her office's position.
"During his 32 years of incarceration, George Martorano provided exceptional assistance to other inmates in furthering rehabilitation and re-entry skills, mentoring inmates with significant mental health issues, and serving as a suicide watch counselor for troubled and depressed inmates," she said in a prepared statement released this week. "Prison staff praised Martorano for promoting a culture of non-violence and contributing to a healthy environment within the prison walls. Those factors influenced the decision to support his early release."
THIRTY-TWO YEARS! Other inmates, convicted of murder and more heinous crimes, often serve less time. Martorano's supporters, who for years argued for his release, called him the longest serving non-violent offender in the federal prison system.
And while he's now a free man and has reportedly relocated to Florida, the how and why of Hannum's life sentence remain central questions in the George Martorano case.
Was a deal struck and did the judge knowingly bury Cowboy George because of who his father was? Did the push for life come from federal authorities who hoped to flip George and get him to cooperate? Or were Simone and Scarfo behind the move, orchestrating a deal to legally rub out the Martorano faction?
Another twist, less nefarious but equally as detrimental to George Martorano, was this: Hannum was subpoenaed as a character witness for Bobby Simone who was on trial for income tax evasion in federal court in Camden in the summer of 1984. This was after Martorano had pleaded guilty, but before he was sentenced.
Hannum was criticized in the media for testifying on Simone's behalf, even though his testimony was considered innocuous. Simone, who defended himself, beat the case, offering a novel argument in which, among other things, he described himself as a degenerate gambler who was deeply in debt to mob loansharks.
He had a choice, he said, he could pay the mob or pay the IRS. "Who was I suppose to pay?" he asked. "The interest is about the same. The health aspect is a little different."
There are those who believe Hannum was still bristling at the media criticism that September when he sentenced George Martorano. As a result, that theory goes, the judge bent over backwards not to be perceived as showing any favoritism to a Simone client. Hannum denied motions to recuse himself from the case, another point Martorano raised in several failed appeals over the years.
We may never know what actually motivated the judge.
But Simon said his client believes he has the answer.
"At some point in time, the full, complete and accurate story will be told," the lawyer said, noting that his client is a skilled and prolific writer.
Whatever factors were in play, the result was what many now believe was an unwarranted and unfair life sentence for George Martorano.
And that, in turn, led to a life-altering decision by Nick Caramandi that changed the face of the Philadelphia mob.
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.