Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Trial for Gambling, But Targeted for Murder?

Joseph Ligambi
He's charged with gambling and evidence played at a racketeering conspiracy trial Thursday tied him to a South Philadelphia social club where the mob did business.

But Damion Canalichio, a co-defendant of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and five others, is seen as much more than a bookmaker and video poker machine operator by the FBI. He is, they and Philadelphia police sources believe, the potential linchpin to solving one of three gangland murders for which no one has been charged.

Canalichio, they believe, knows the details behind the gangland slaying of  John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto in November 2003. And that, say several sources, is why he is sitting at the defense table with Ligambi and the others in a racketeering case that defense attorneys have described as a run-of-the-mill gambling investigation.

A conviction, authorities hope, might be the leverage they need to pry loose information about the murder.

Canalichio's role in the mob's alleged gambling operation was part of the focus of testimony and evidence Thursday as the prosecution moved closer to the end of its presentation in the now two-month old trial.

Prosecutors played several wiretapped conversations from 2006 in which Canalichio discussed business operations and other problems at the First Ward  Republican Club, an after-hours South Philadelphia bar that had nothing to do with politics but that was, according to authorities, a hangout and meeting place for mobsters and their associates.

Eric Esposito, who is still awaiting trail on gambling charges, ran the club, according to evidence. Martin Angelina, a mobster indicted in the current case and who pleaded guilty several months ago, was one of the club's owners.

Tapes played for the jury Thursday included discussions about a patron named Ralphie who was causing problems and picking fights in the club. In one conversation Canalichio described Ralphie as a "fuckin' junkie" and told Esposito that he wanted to "crack his head." In other conversations he asked both Angelina and mobster Michael Lancelotti to help with the problem.

Other tapes indicated that members of the Pagans, an outlaw motorcyle gang, had begun hanging out and causing problems at the club, a development that both Angelina and Canalichio agreed was bad for business.

"Everybody ran out scared to death," Esposito said while describing how a group of Pagans had come into the bar and intimidated other patrons, causing them to leave.

"Make it a Pagans bar and nobody's gonna go there," Angelina said while urging Canalichio to get them out of the club.

"How you get rid of them?" Canalichio replied. "They're like fuckin' termites."

Later in the same conversation Canalichio agreed that the Pagans were hurting the operation's bottom line. "Nobody's gonna make no money in there," he said. "It's gonna be death."

It was never made clear during testimony if the problems with Ralphie or the Pagans were resolved, although FBI Agent John Augustine, one of the key investigators in the case, conceded on cross-examination that neither Canalichio nor any of the other mobsters who were picked up on tape resorted to violence.

That line of questioning was in keeping with the defense trial stratgey to portray the defendants as businessmen, not gangsters; individuals who would try to talk and reason with unruly patrons rather than confront them. Ligambi's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., has repeatedly made the point that neither his client nor any of the other defendants are accused to any acts of violence.

He has described the indictment as "racketeering lite."

This is not the violent Philadelphia mob of the past, defense lawyers argued in their opening statements, drawing a distinction between Ligambi's reign as mob boss which began around 1999 and the violence of mob bosses like Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo and John Stanfa. Scarfo was boss in the 1980s. Stanfa in the early 1990s. Both periods were marked by bloody acts of violence, including dozens of murders and an equal number of assauilts.

The classic "Now youse can't leave" scene from the movie A Bronx Tale, in which a mob boss and his associates pummel a group of bikers who are causing a disturbance in a neighborhood bar run by the crime family, was apparently more in keeping with the Philadelphia mob of that earlier era than with the mobsters who ran the First Ward Republican Club.

The wiretap conversations played for the jury also allowed the prosecution to counter a defense claim that video poker machines controlled by the Ligambi organization were not money-makers. Some, the defense has argued, generated as little as $20 or $30-a-week.

That was apparently not the case with two machines in the First Ward Republican Club. When Canalichio asked Esposito how "the machines" did over a weekend, Esposito replied, "They did about a G each night."

A "G," Augustine told the jury was slang for "a grand," or a thousand dollars.

Canalichio's role in the mob's video poker machine and sports betting businesses have been detailed in evidence presented to the jury. With two prior convictions for drug dealing, the 44-year-old mobster could be looking at a 10- to 15-year prison sentence if found guilty in the current racketeering conspiracy case.

That, say federal investigators, is hardly "racketeering lite."

But whether that would be enough to get him to share what he might know about the Casasanto hit is another question.

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