At the time of the attack on Nicky Scarfo, Jr. at Dante & Luigi’s in October 1989, Skinny Joey was out on bond facing charges of robbing an armored bank truck of $350,000 earlier in the year. It wasn’t his first run-in with the law either. Back in 1984 when he was 22 years old he was convicted of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes stemming from a fight in the Lido Restaurant in Atlantic City where he stabbed two men who had started up with him and buddy while in the middle of a meal. That same year, he was banned from all the city’s casinos for his alleged association to members of organized crime.
Convicted in the armored car heist in late 1989, Merlino was sent away to prison for the first time, a three-year stretch in a federal penitentiary that he would merely chalk up to the cost of doing business.
While behind bars, he became cellmates with a former close ally of Angelo Bruno’s, a one-time labor union strong arm and convicted drug dealer named Ralph Natale. Although they were nearly 30 years apart in age, Merlino and Natale became fast friends, sharing stories about the old neighborhood and scheming for a future hostile takeover of the Philadelphia mafia that they told themselves they would someday pull off in tandem.
From their positions locked up in a cage in the early 1990s, it seemed a ludicrous proposition. They weren’t even officially inducted members of the crime family they intended on assuming control of.
Nonetheless that’s exactly what they ended up doing.
After a decade off the radar in the East Coast underworld, John Stanfa, the one-time associate of Angelo Bruno and co-conspirator in his assassination, reemerged on the streets of Philadelphia and almost out nowhere and was appointed boss of the crime family.
Stanfa was a formally inducted mob soldier in both American La Cosa Nostra and the Sicilian Mafia and like his predecessor Tony Piccolo, the polar opposite of Nicky Scarfo – low key, understated and not obsessed with the media spotlight. Unlike “Tony Buck” Piccolo, however Stanfa, who had come over to the United States from Sicily in 1964 and for all intents and purposes, got assigned to the Philly mob by New York Godfather Carlo Gambino via contacts overseas, was eager to hold the mantle of power.
Masquerading in the legitimate world as a stonemason and bricklaying contractor, throughout the next 15 years he would have a family, marrying a woman named Nicolena, a fellow Sicilian, and conceiving three kids, all the while silently crafting a reputation as a reliable and trustworthy man of honor in the mob. In the year following Bruno’s murder, Stanfa took refuge under the protection of the Gambino crime family in Maryland, fleeing perjury charges stemming from prior grand jury testimony that came down in the weeks after the high-profile hit.
His life spared due to his underworld connections in Sicily, he avoided the same brutally morbid fates of Tony Caponigro, Frank Sindone, Freddie Salerno and Johnny Simone, each slain in cold blood for plotting against Bruno, however, he could not dodge the wrath of the government. Arrested in December 1980, Stanfa was sentenced to eight years in prison, shuffled far away from the soon-to-be firestorm of mafia-related violence that would engulf Philadelphia for the better part of the next decade.
In a stroke of good luck for John Stanfa, at the exact same time that he was being released from incarceration in April 1987, lunatic don Little Nicky Scarfo was being sent away behind bars for the rest of his life.
The path was clearing for a new boss and Stanfa wanted the nod.
With the backing of the Sicilian Mafia and the Gambinos in New York, Stanfa assumed the throne in 1990, after two and a half years of Tony Piccolo basically playing the role of lame-duck don and virtual mouthpiece for the imprisoned and never coming home, Scarfo.
Almost as fast as Stanfa took power, his flaws as a Godfather were being exposed and exploited. Starting in the very early months of the new mob Don’s administration, the sharks were already circling the perimeter, looking to challenge the new boss’ authority at every turn.
His command was tenuous at first, with many under his command sharing no familiarity with him and having little idea who he was as a person or as a leader. And it was all downhill from there.
Things went from bad to worse very quickly. And from there, they would get worse still, much worse.
One of, and without a doubt the primary circling shark at the time Stanfa became boss was Skinny Joey Merlino. Although not even out of his 20s, Merlino had major league mob dreams.
Starving for a shot at the brass ring from a very early age, he had a gargantuan ambition that dwarfed his notoriously diminutive stature, yet another stark commonality shared between him and Little Nicky Scarfo.
As he prepared to serve his prison sentence on the armored car heist, Merlino and his tight-knit crew of boyhood buddies, almost all of them, like Skinny Joey, sons, nephews, cousins and brothers of jailed members of the previous Scarfo regime, had already started to move in on territory that belonged to Stanfa and the Philadelphia mafia, showing no regard for underworld protocol and flaunting it.
Skinny Joey and his pals were barely associates and certainly far from holding the status as “made men,”, but that did little to deter them from shaking down anyone they could find for street tax and opening up gambling and juice loan rackets around the state without sharing either with the freshly-minted Godfather.
This behavior was spearheaded by Merlino before he left for his stint behind bars – climaxing with his unsuccessful, yet statement-sending hit attempt on Nicky Scarfo, Jr. on Halloween 1989 – and continued by his loyal band of thuggish followers well after he departed the city and throughout his entire imprisonment.
The core of this group consisted of Michael “Mikey Chang” Ciangalini, Steven “Handsome Stevie” Mazzone, Gaetano “Tommy Horsehead” Scafidi, Michael “Dutchie” Avicolli, George Borgesi and Marty Angelina. Both Ciangalini and Scafidi were multi-generation Philly wiseguys. Scafidi’s father and grandfather were made members of the crime family. Borgesi’s uncle was Joe Ligambi, the former Scarfo soldier imprisoned during that time period on the Frankie Flowers murder.
Mikey Chang was Skinny Joey’s best friend and most frequent companion. They practically went everywhere together. And everywhere they went was a scene, with the pair cutting a colorful swath through the Philadelphia and Atlantic City nightlife districts. Young woman and men alike were drawn to the pair, especially Skinny Joey, due to his natural magnetism and charisma.
Just like back in the day with Little Nicky, Merlino loved the spotlight, the glare of the media cameras and they loved him right back. Much the same as with Scarfo, Skinny Joey reveled in the glitz and the glamour of living the life of a gangster. It was in his blood, in his DNA. And he did anything but fight it. He was born to be a goodfella and he knew it.
With Merlino in prison, Mikey Chang became the unofficial leader of the group of up-and-coming junior wiseguys known in the press as the “Young Turks.” Receiving counsel from Merlino and his newfound friend, pseudo-mentor and cellmate Ralph Natale, Cianaglini continued building up the mini gang’s racket portfolio with Skinny Joey locked up, funneling funds back to his buddy behind bars and further cementing the burgeoning crew’s status on the street as a force to be reckoned with.
By late 1991, tensions between Stanfa and the Young Turks were reaching a breaking point. All the bad blood that had accumulated in the two years since the Sicilian-born Godfather took over the crime family was about to boil over. Word was quickly filtering out to the street and directly to Stanfa personally that both former Scarfo lieutenants Chuckie Merlino and Chickie Ciangalini and Chin Gigante of the Genovese family were backing the Young Turks power play.
John Stanfa was pinned against the corner. He didn’t want things to come to violence but he was being left little choice.
In one last ditch effort to prevent all-out war and in a perceived act of good faith, in early 1991, Stanfa had named Joseph “Joey Chang” Ciangalini, older brother of Mikey Chang, as his Underboss. The idea was to have Joey Chang act as a bridge of friendship to his brother, Skinny Joey and the rest of the youthful and driven renegades that they represented.
For a while, it worked.
Then it didn’t.
The straw that broke the camel’s back in this fragile mob soap opera, the match that ignited a blood-filled mafia street war that set the region ablaze in gunfire and death for the next two years was a territory dispute that arose in Northeast Philadelphia.
Upon Stanfa taking power, he tapped longtime local mob soldier, “Little Felix” Bocchino, as one of his new capos and assigned him to be in charge of the street tax in Northeast Philly. Within months of being given his promotion, Bocchino’s authority was being challenged by Merlino and Mikey Chang’s crew of budding wiseguy lotharios who began squeezing area bookmakers and loansharks for extortion money themselves.
Bocchino, obviously upset and offended, reported the situation to Stanfa, through Tony Piccolo, the former Boss of the family that had been reassigned as Stanfa’s Consigliere. Stanfa sent Joey Chang to tell his brother and his friends to back-off.
They didn’t heed the advice.
Instead, Merlino and Mikey Chang are alleged to have arranged for Little Felix to be murdered. On the morning of January 29, 1992, Bocchino, 74, was shot dead behind the wheel of his maroon Buick in the driveway of his East Passyunk Avenue apartment as he prepared to start his engine and head to a local diner to grab breakfast.
It was the first mob hit in the state of Pennsylvania in seven years. A hungry and rabid press corps devoured the developing story of discontent in the local underworld, a tale that harkened back to the headline-friendly Scarfo era, and wanted more.
Soon, they would get it.
Infuriated at the killing of one his lieutenants and the insubordination being shown to him by Skinny Joey and Mikey Chang, Stanfa rallied his troops for battle. He also started recruiting new soldiers for his regime, some fresh off the boat from Sicily and all of whom the struggling Godfather believed would be loyal to him and him only.
The recipe was deadly.
And not just for his adversaries, but for Stanfa personally and the mob empire he led itself.
About five weeks following the Little Felix Bocchino murder, in the early evening hours of March 3, Michael Ciangalini wasn’t thinking about the flames of the gang war possibly starting to rage around him.
He was thinking about basketball.
A barrel-chested 6-foot-2 inches tall, Mikey Chang loved to play the game, loved to hang in the paint and bang around the basket with his boys from the neighborhood. That’s what he was doing that night in the late winter of 1992, when an intra-family squabble of epic proportions went from the dinner table to out in the open for everyone to see.
After playing a few games of pick-up hoops at a park up a few blocks from his row house on McKean Street in South Philly, Ciangalini was on his way home when he noticed a suspicious looking van parked on the corner. Before he knew it, a pair of trenchcoat-wearing men in ski masks and toting shotguns exited the vehicle and took aim at him.
As shots rang out in his direction, the helpless and unarmed mobster darted towards his front door. Barely avoiding the masked assassins, Mikey Chang made it into his house before he got hit by the more than two dozen shotgun blasts fired at him and his residence – where his wife and two young daughters were – that fateful night that would forever change things within the Ciangalini family, not to mention set in motion a chain of events that eventually brought down the crime syndicate they were all a part of.
According to federal informants at the time, Mikey Chang swore that one of the masked men that tried to kill him that evening was own brother, Joey. Not one to ever take an attack like that, especially one that put his family in potential harm, Mikey Chang swore vengeance on his sibling, making it his mission to try and kill his brother Joey at all costs.
These were chaotic times to say the least. The failed hit attempt on Michael Ciangalini sent everyone scrambling. Nobody knew what was going on. Parties, both within the mob and within local law enforcement circles, were racing frantically trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together and figure out who was with who and who was behind what.
Being that a good portion of the major players in this drama were in prison allowed the feds to monitor phone calls and in-person visits and get a more clear picture of the seemingly always changing scenario.
From incarceration, Merlino was heard speaking on the phone to Mikey Chang about the incident as was Mikey Chang with his father, Chickie, and brother, Johnny Chang, who were each locked up behind bars as well.
Johnny Chang, the Ciangalini family’s middle brother, advised Michael against retribution and told him to wait until he was released in a year or two so he could come home and mediate a solution that didn’t involve bloodshed.
Shockingly, Chickie Cianaglini supported his one son Michael’s desire to kill his other son and namesake Joseph and wasn’t afraid to voice this opinion.
People on both sides of the law were aghast.
It was a twisted and macabre family dynamic to say the least.
Tensions subsided briefly with the release from prison of Skinny Joey Merlino in May and appeared to observers to be headed for a resolution when a few months later in the fall, John Stanfa held a making ceremony and officially inducted both Merlino and Michael Ciangalini into the crime family.
To those close to him, though, Stanfa would tell them that making Skinny Joey and Mikey Chang was a strategic move to get the pair of wildcards to lower their guard so he could kill them easier in the near future. The no-nonsense Don had it all planned out perfectly. He was quoted by several sources around that time as repeating the old gangster adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Things wouldn’t be that easy.
At the same making ceremony that Merlino and Mikey Chang got their buttons, John Stanfa also inducted a number of the Sicilians he had recruited. The likes of Biagio Adornetto, Rosario Bellocchi and Sergio Battaglia were going to be Stanfa’s frontline soldiers. He believed their pure Sicilian blood made them superior to those he already had around them.
Almost immediately, the Godfather began sending his new recruits on hits. Initially it looked like Stanfa’s plan for eventual European dominance over his American crime syndicate was off to a good start.
Local wiseguys Francisco DiGiacamo and Rod Colombo were the first to show up dead. They had made the fatal mistake of disrespecting the Don with their freewheeling antics on the street.
Sonny Ricobene got it next. He had recently left the witness protection program, returning to South Philadelphia in hopes of gaining forgiveness from the newly appointed mob regime for his cowardly behavior the previous decade. Stanfa didn’t see things the same way and ordered his execution.
Although it was one big happy family with Stanfa and his Sicilians at the onset, it didn’t take long for infighting set in and it would be these pending squabbles that would eventually help take down Stanfa’s short-lived mafia empire.
The dispute centered around friction that developed between Adornetto and Bellocchi, involving the courting of Stanfa’s beautiful 24-year old daughter Sara. Both aspiring mobsters wanted to date her. When Sara chose Bellocchi over Adornetto, it set things off on a dangerous course.
Adornetto resented the rejection and began displaying insolence to both Bellocchi, his rival in the game of love, and Stanfa, his boss. The disrespectful behavior got him marked for murder.
Everything came to a crescendo on December 30, 1992, when a masked and shotgun-toting Bellocchi staged a daring attack of Adornetto, while Adornetto worked his job as a pizza maker at the trendy and posh South Philly eatery, La Veranda. On a busy night from before the New Year, Bellocchi charged into the restaurant, approached his target in the open kitchen in the back overlooking the entire place, and pulled the trigger.
Someone had put the wrong sized bullets in Bellocchi’s shotgun and it malfunctioned. Undeterred, his went out to his car, got his pistol and returned into the now hysteria-filled bistro and chased Adornetto around the dining room to the shock of a packed house of patrons, one of which was a state senator.
The incident would be the first public embarrassment incurred by Stanfa and his administration.
It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Not by a long shot.