September 8, 2019 — Behind bars and abandoned by his men, embattled Philadelphia mob don Ralph Natale became the first official American mafia boss to flip when he cut a deal with the feds 20 years ago this month. In September 1999, Natale, a polished and gregarious gangland chief known for keeping physically fit and being friendly with the press, copped a plea in a narcotics-trafficking case he was facing and agreed to testify against his underboss and protégé Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, in addition to corrupt Camden, New Jersey Mayor Milton Milan.
The 84-year old Natale currently resides in the Witness Protection Program. He headed the Bruno-Scarfo crime family out of Philly and North Jersey in the mid-to-late 1990s. As part of his cooperation deal, Natale admitted to ordering, sanctioning or personally carrying out 14 separate gangland executions.
Most enticing for authorities’ in flipping Natale was what they believed was his ability to directly connect the swashbuckling Merlino to a string of brazen mob hits that rocked the Philly underworld. Some of the murders were sanctioned by Natale from prison. Merlino, 57, has long been Public Enemy No. 1 for the feds in Pennsylvania.
Natale himself was taught to kill by storied Philly mob hit man and loanshark Felix (Skinny Razor) DiTullio, who operated out of the Friendly Lounge where Natale tended bar as a young man. Following learning the tricks of the mafia trade under Skinny Razor’s tutelage, he went on to craft a formidable reputation as a racketeer and enforcer for legendary Godfather Angelo Bruno in the 1960s and 1970s. Natale was Bruno’s point man in the crime family’s labor union rackets and traveled around the country on his behalf troubleshooting and palm-greasing.
Using Natale as his muscle, Bruno took control of the freshly-minted Atlantic City hotel and casino industry through a hostile takeover of the city’s bartenders, construction and hotel and casino workers unions. On orders from the man the media miscast as the Docile Don, Natale shot Irish mobsters George Feeney and Joey McGreal to death in 1970 and 1973, respectively. McGreal was slain on Christmas Eve in a dispute over power in Bartenders Union Local 170.
Bruno began losing his grip on the crime family when Natale was incarcerated for drug dealing and arson in January 1979 and he was eventually assassinated in March 1980. Natale did 15 years in prison and plotted his return to the streets, linking up as cellmates with a 28-year old Merlino in 1990 (doing a short stint for an armored truck heist) and deciding to go to war for the Philly mob throne he previously proudly protected while Bruno was alive.
An ambitious Merlino and his eager-to-please pals became Natale’s arsenal on the street in his fight against Sicilian-born John Stanfa, believed to have been one of the conspirators in Bruno’s assassination and installed as boss by New York’s Gambino crime family in the early 1990s. From his prison cell, Natale commanded a war that left a trail of bodies in its wake, Stanfa locked up for his role in the violence and he and Merlino atop the Philly mafia.
Natale walked out of prison in the fall 1994 the don of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family. His networking in the prison yard paid dividends and he secured backing from the Genovese, Lucchese and Colombo borgatas in New York. Merlino was named his underboss.
It’s unclear exactly when Natale was “made” into the mob. During debriefings with the feds and testimony in court, he claimed Merlino inducted him upon his release from prison in 1994, but his 2017 memoir Last Don Standing (co-authored by Larry McShane and Dan Pearson) states he was made by Bruno and New York Godfather Carlo Gambino in the 1960s.
Moving into a luxury condo resting on the Delaware River in Pennsauken, New Jersey, Natale set himself up a headquarters at the Garden State Park Raceway, holding daily meetings at the track’s Currier & Ives Room restaurant on the building’s top floor. The restaurant and the condo were wired for sound by the feds for virtually his entire reign.
With Merlino handling collections and shakedowns in Philly, Natale angled for leverage in political circles and got his hooks into Camden, New Jersey Mayor Milton Milan, funneling the young politician $50,000 in bribes. He also started dabbling back into the drug market and engaging in a high-profile extramarital romance with one of Merlino’s female contemporaries who was friends with his daughter.
FBI agents arrested Natale at his riverfront condo on a parole violation (associating with known criminals) in the summer of 1998. Almost immediately, Merlino seized power and cut Natale out of the loop. He was put on the shelf and no longer received tribute payments.
So, when Natale was nailed for pushing crystal meth, indicted in prison on September 16, 1999, he felt no more loyalty to Merlino and spilled the beans on their entire operation. Only Cleveland “acting boss” Angelo (Big Ange) Lonardo’s cooperation back in the 1980s compared in terms of coups by the FBI in its battle against the mob.
Skinny Joey might have gotten the last laugh though. Merlino allegedly kept Natale in the dark regarding details about certain mob murders carried out on his watch and jurors didn’t buy everything the charming and animated former mob boss was selling on the stand at a heavily-publicized 2001 trial. Merlino and several co-defendants were convicted of racketeering however found not guilty of all the murder counts brought. Milan was convicted at an earlier trial on Natale’s testimony and did seven years in the can.
Both Natale and Merlino were released from prison in 2011. Merlino remains the boss of the Philadelphia mafia today.