Back At War: Philly Mob Conflict Recap (1992-1996)

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Upset by the failed hit, Stanfa became obsessed with tracking down Biagio Adornetto, who quickly went into hiding following the attack in La Veranda, and killing him once and for all.

In the second in a long line of further embarrassments to the kind of ship Stanfa was running, Bellocchi was arrested three months later in a botched kidnapping attempt of one of Adornetto’s friend in the parking lot of another South Philly restaurant. He would eventually turn against his would-be father-in-law and scurry into the waiting arms of Uncle Sam.

The whole operation was a mess. Stanfa was becoming distracted. It appeared that the increasingly frustrated mob boss had even started to forget about his main competition in the Young Turks faction of his crime family, led by Skinny Joey and Mikey Chang.

On the other side of the fence, the Young Turks had done anything but forget about Stanfa, who they constantly referred to derogatorily as, “The Greaseball,” and who seemed to be losing more of a grip on the Philadelphia mafia contingent he led by the day.

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There just seems to be something about the Philly mob and the month of March that creates fireworks.

First there were the assassinations of Angelo Bruno and Phillip Testa that took place in March 1980 and 1981 respectively. Then there was the March 1992 shotgun attack of Michael Ciangalini that he barely escaped as he was returning home from a pick-up basketball game.

March 1993, almost exactly one year to the day of Mikey Chang’s near-brush with death, brought the first and only mob hit ever recorded by the federal government.

With Stanfa’s attention being taken up by the mini Days of Our Lives episode that was playing out within his own social and family circles, Mikey Chang and Joey Merlino were plotting their grab for power, specifically avenging the ambush Mikey Chang encountered the year prior, the one that he swore his older brother and Stanfa’s Underboss, Joey, had helped carry out.

Joey Chang worked at the Stanfa-owned Warfield Luncheon and Breakfast Express restaurant, located off a small side street in South Philly, a block away from Stanfa’s headquarters, Continental Food Distribution. Every morning at around 6:00 am, he would open the small diner that served a loyal clientele from the surrounding warehouse district, and work until the afternoon when he would close down for the day and join Stanfa at Continental.

On March 3, Joey Chang arrived at the Warfield at 5:45. At 5:57, three masked and armed assailants stormed in the front door and unloaded their guns into the young Underboss, striking him over a dozen times in his head, shoulder, stomach and neck. Within seconds, they were gone, speeding off in a dark-colored four-door sedan. Stunned, but not dead, Ciangalini laid in a pool of his own gushing blood, clinging to life.

Barely surviving the vicious assault put into motion by his own sibling, Joey Chang was permanently disfigured and incapacitated. His injuries a testament to the bitter feud that was raging on the streets of Philadelphia.

Fortunately for the FBI, they had caught the whole thing on tape via a court-authorized surveillance camera planted on a telephone pole located directly across the street from the Warfield. Unfortunately, the grainy footage failed to reveal a close enough look at the assassins or their vehicle to result in identification.

The attack on Joey Chang brought both sides of the conflict to a state of all-out war. They were going to the mattresses. Each faction was instructed to shoot and kill members of the other on sight and each went into bunker-mode, taking to close quarters and strategically planning all of their movements.

Things would only get worse and more outlandish.

One thing Stanfa knew for sure, was in order to have a chance to win the on-going street battle, he was going to have to bring in some reinforcements – men he knew could match the Young Turks in will and fearless attitude.

Again, the bumbling mob boss would make the wrong decision.

However, at first it looked like he made the right one.

The young Sicilian recruits that Stanfa had brought into the fold were out, “John John” Veasey was in. Veasey was a tough-as-nails independent hoodlum that had just got out of prison on a manslaughter charge in early 1993. He was brought to the Don by Frank Martines, Stanfa’s new Underboss in the aftermath of the Joey Chang shooting and immediately put to work as a trusted strong-arm and assassin.

Following over two months of fruitless endeavors trying to track down and kill all the top members of the Young Turks, Veasey, along with Stanfa faction enforcer Phil Colletti, hit paydirt on a steamy hot afternoon in early August.

Driving past the Young Turks’ new headquarters on 6th and Catherine on August 5, in an old Greenpeace building, Veasey and Colletti got Joey Merlino and Mikey Chang out in the open and gunned them down. Catching them as they were crossing the street, Veasey and Colletti fired a barrage of bullets that wound up killing Ciangalini and wounding Merlino.

Stanfa was elated. Finally, someone in his crew was taking care of business and getting the job done.

The Don’s happy mood wouldn’t last for long.

Three weeks following Mikey Chang’s killing, Merlino and his crew came back blazing, engineering one of the most audacious mob assaults of all-time.

Directly in the crosshairs of the Young Turks’ wrath was the grumpy and growingly-frustrated Godfather, John Stanfa, himself.

If his family members got in the way, so be it.

The brazen attack took place in the early morning hours of August 31, in the midst of rush hour traffic on of all places the crowded Schulkill Expressway. While Stanfa and his son, Joe, were being driven to work by one of the Don’s bodyguards, a former U.S. Marine named Freddie Aldrich, in a late-model silver-colored Cadillac Seville, they were peppered with gunfire from a white van that had pulled up beside them. The white van had makeshift gun holes and had stalked Stanfa and his Caddy from the time they had left their house in rural New Jersey.

The first of the barrage of bullets struck Joe Stanfa in the face and neck. He was wounded and hurt, but not killed. The rest missed their targets and the marked-for-death mob boss luckily escaped unscathed. Aldrich probably saved both Stanfas’ lives by forcing the van off the expressway with his savvy driving skills.

Word quickly filtered back to the cops and to the Stanfa camp that the shooter on the brazen expressway attack was none other than Skinny Joey Merlino.

A fuming Stanfa was beside himself. He wanted immediate retaliation. He didn’t care who got it, he just wanted someone associated with the Young Turks murdered. Within weeks, he got his wish.

John Veasey caught Frank “Frankie Bronze” Baldino, a bartender and local social club proprietor that was known to hang around Merlino and his pals, in the parking lot of the popular neighborhood restaurant, the Melrose Diner, coming out to his car after a meal on the evening of September 17.

“Yo, Frank,” shouted Veasey, before firing a hail of bullets into the unsuspecting Baldino. Joe Gallara, another Stanfa loyalist, followed suit pumping several more shots into Baldino’s lifeless body strewn on the concrete.

Sprinting from the scene, the pair of gunmen retreated into a getaway car driven by Frank Martines and sped away into the night.

The war kept raging.

And then John Stanfa stubbed his own toe. Once again the Godfather’s poor judgment regarding who he chose to surround himself would rear its ugly head. It would prove the death blow to his entire regime. The final shoe to drop in a long line of embarrassing bungled situations and strategic missteps by the Sicilian Mafioso who many thought would be the one to resurrect the sinking ship that was the Philly mob in the wake of the Scarfo era.

With prodding from his brother, in late December 1993, a surprisingly guilt-ridden John-John Veasey, a man who had recently attacked a cousin of Frank Martines’ with a power drill for a series of perceived slights, contacted the FBI about cooperating against superiors in the Philadelphia mafia. Having been on the frontlines of Stanfa’s war against Skinny Joey the past year, he was a valuable acquisition for the government in their quest to bust the city’s down-on-his luck Don and they immediately equipped him with a recording device and put him to work.

The venture would be a short-lived one.

A mere three days into the operation, Veasey’s cover was blown and he was ordered murdered by John Stanfa.

But then, one more time, as if the gangland gods had a personal vendetta against him, Stanfa’s plans were thwarted by his own men’s incompetence.

The Godfather couldn’t catch a break.

On January 14, 1994, Martines and a 70-year old Stanfa captain named Vincent “Al Pajamas” Pagano, lured Veasey to a tiny apartment in South Philadelphia where they told him they were going to teach him the ins-and-outs of a numbers rackets they wanted him to begin running on their behalf. As Pagano sat at the kitchen table pretending to write down instructions and Veasey looked on, Martines stepped behind him, pulled out a gun, put it to the back of Veasey’s head and pulled the trigger.

“Bye, bye John,”

Two bullets went through Veasey’s skull, but it did little to phase him.

“What the fuck are you doing Frank?” he said, as he tried to keep his balance and figure out what was going on.

Pagano grabbed Veasey from behind and Martines pumped another shot from his 22-caliber pistol into his chest.

Still, their target wouldn’t go down. Instead, he broke free from Pagano’s grasp and charged at Martines. Wrestling to the ground, Martines began repeatedly slamming his gun into Veasey’s head.

“You’re dead, you’re dead,” he screamed.

“Not yet, I ain’t,” Veasey responded as he broke free once again.

Dodging a swipe at him by Pagano with a large kitchen knife, he knocked the blade away from the elderly mobster and took hold of it himself, while wisely kicking Martines’ pistol in the process.

Able to flee the blood-soaked apartment by backing his assailants off with the knife he took from Pagano, Veasey ran three blocks before collapsing at a black women’s doorstep. She called the police and a wounded and weary Veasey was rushed to the hospital where he informed authorities that Frank Martines had shot and tried to kill him.

It was end of the line for Stanfa

Two months later, on March 17, 1994, Stanfa and 23 of his underlings were indicted on federal racketeering and murder charges.

There was virtually no wiggle room for anyone taken down in the high-profile bust.

Besides the extensive audio surveillance obtained via a variety of snitches and a recording device planted in the don’s attorney’s office, a frequent meeting place for him and members of his administration, almost Stanfa’s entire inner-circle turned against him and cut deals with the government – another slap in the face for the would-be triumphant mob boss that in the end just couldn’t get out of his own way.

A year and a half later, Stanfa and the few of his soldiers that remained free of government contamination, were all convicted and hit with harsh prison terms.

The tumultuous and tenuous John Stanfa era was officially over, setting the stage for the ascent of his rival, the young and brash Skinny Joey Merlino and Merlino’s jailhouse mentor, Ralph Natale, recently released from prison after doing 17 years on drug charges.

The pair took control of the Philadelphia crime family in late 1994, despite the fact that Natale had never been inducted into La Cosa Nostra. In effect, Merlino, only a soldier, “made” Natale shortly after he gained his freedom and then in turn, Natale appointed himself the new Boss and tapped Merlino as his Underboss.

The string of events were no doubt unconventional, however, they were backed by Natale’s contacts within the powerful Genovese family in New York and thus spawned a new day in the Philly mob, a time where traditional protocol meant next to nothing and life was as cheap as ever.

Natale, ambitious, if not, seasoned, and Merlino, finally where he thought he should rightfully be, ordered three quick murders to establish their presence with authority.

The first one was revenge for the Mikey Chang hit. Billy Veasey, John-John’s older brother and the person who had urged him to turn on his superiors in the mob, was killed on October 5, 1995, on the morning John-John was set to take the stand and testify against John Stanfa in court.

The message was stark and clear; it was a brother for a brother.

As Veasey turned the corner that morning at the intersection of Oregon Avenue and 17th Street, two masked gunmen ran up and pumped 10 shots into his SUV. Less than a half hour later, he was declared dead at the hospital.

One of the gunmen, according to FBI informant reports was John Ciangalini, Mikey Chang’s older brother that was in prison during the unrest.

Different don, same bloodshed. Some things in the Philly mafia just seemed destined to remain the same, no matter who was in charge. The assassination of Angelo Bruno set in a motion a pattern of wild and wanton violence that was still careening out of control a decade and a half later.

The end was far from near.

“Dutchie” Avicolli disappeared in April 1996 and is presumed dead, making him the second toe tag to be issued under the Natale and Merlino regime. A one-time member of Skinny Joey’s inner-circle, the good looking and often philandering Avicolli got entangled in a romantic relationship with the wrong female. Dutchie was carrying on a not-so-secret affair with one of the wives of Natale’s and Merlino’s their top men.

This was a major no-no in mob circles and an easy way to get rubbed out, as Avicolli soon discovered first hand when he vanished off the face of the earth never to be seen again.

The Joe “The Nodder” Sodano situation was a little bit different.

Nearly eight months after Dutchie Avicolli disappeared, Sodano, the captain of the crime family’s North Jersey crew up in Trenton, was shot twice in the head sitting behind the wheel of his Chevy Astro Van in the parking lot of a senior citizen’s home on December 7, 1996.

When Natale and Merlino assumed the mantle of power, Sodano, a longtime big-time moneymaker for previous family bosses Nicky Scarfo and John Stanfa, refused to acknowledge them as the syndicate’s new leaders.         In turn, he wouldn’t send a tribute from his rackets to the pair, nor attend a face-to-face meeting with them to explain himself, acts of disrespect that sent Natale and Merlino, primarily Natale, who knew Sodano from their time under Bruno together, into a state of rage.

Sodano was the final holdout from the Stanfa administration that hadn’t fallen in-line under them. He was spitting in their faces and they weren’t going to stand for it.

Natale assigned Sodano’s No. 2 man, Pete “The Crumb” Caprio the task of taking out his boss. Caprio, an overweight and slovenly mobster in his 70s, tapped his top hitman Phillip “Philly Fay” Casale, a convicted child rapist, to arrange and meeting with Sodano and kill him on the spot, which he did.

After the job was complete, Natale promoted Caprio to Sodano’s captain post.

The last dissident had been dealt with. The mass housecleaning served its purpose.

The kingdom was calm and steady.

But it wouldn’t last

 

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