Final Straw In Casasanto Murder Stemmed From Philly LCN Love Triangle


Slain Philadelphia mobster John (Johnny Gongs) Casasanto was an infamous ladies man and gangland cowboy. It was almost certainly one of the reasons he was shot to death a dozen years ago inside his own home by people he probably knew and it wasn’t something he hid. He flaunted it, reveled in it. And according to Gangster Report sources, he defiantly and recklessly shoved his skills as a conquest king when it came to beautiful and “connected” women into the wrong person’s face in the lead-up to his brutal demise.

In an alleged incident that occurred in the summer of 2003, Casasanto was squiring Debbie Merlino, the bombshell wife of flashy, hip Philadelphia mafia boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, around town one night on the Jersey Shore and had a run-in with members of Skinny Joey’s inner-circle, which resulted in threats being hurled in both directions and Casasanto delivering a pointed lewd gesture, per sources near Merlino and Merlino’s closest associates. Bumping into each other at a Margate, New Jersey nightclub, Johnny Gongs’ allegedly grabbed Debbie Merlino’s buttocks and yelled across the dance floor to her husbands’ associates, “You can tell Joey this is mine now.”

According underworld sources, when news of the reputed incident reached Merlino, “he went berserk.” Merlino was a rival of Johnny Gongs’ and away in prison serving a 12-year sentence for racketeering at the time of this reputed exchange. Casasanto had been sprung from the can two years prior on racketeering charges of his own. The 35-year old “wildcard” sided against Skinny Joey and his crew in the early 1990s in a bloody shooting war that erupted on the streets of Philadelphia between Merlino and Sicilian-born Godfather John Stanfa, for control of the city’s mob empire and had crafted quite the dubious reputation for bed-jumping with spouses and girlfriends of fellow underworld figures.

“There’s ways to do things and Johnny Gongs had no tact,” said one source. “He hated Joey, like many have, do and will, and wanted to stick it to him while he was away. That’s all that was about, nothing more. Johnny was the kind of guy that lived his entire life with a ‘I don’t give a fuck attitude’ and he didn’t curb that in the women he saw and how he acted about it. That’s was probably the thing that put it over the edge and wound up getting him clipped. He wanted to be a bad boy and a tough guy in the worst way. Some women like that. But acting that way can also get you two in the back of the head.”

Cut to the end of the line for Johnny Gongs – that’s how he got hit. Casasanto’s November 22, 2003 murder remains unsolved. Recent rumblings from the South Philly mafia rumor mill theorize that the 2012 killing of convicted drug dealer and FBI informant, Gino DiPietro might possibly be connected to the Johnny Gongs hit and the covering of tracks of those involved and was sanctioned by Merlino.

DiPietro’s name has never been publically linked to the Casasanto investigation, but Merlino’s and one of his murderers’ has – Philadelphia mob soldier Anthony Nicodemo, who pled guilty to charges related to DiPietro’s homicide back in the winter, is a prime suspect in the Johnny Gongs homicide and was mentored in the ways of the mafia by Merlino as an up-and-comer in the mid-1990s.

DiPietro’s, first cousin and one-time drug-dealing partner, Victor, discovered Casasanto’s corpse, laid out in his kitchen on November 22, 2003, after he and Johnny Gong’s little brother, Steven (Stevie Gongs) Casasanto had broke into his house after being alerted by neighbors of his condition, according to police records. Victor DiPietro was imprisoned in the late 2000s on narcotics violations sprouting mainly from taped conversations and interactions with his cousin, Gino, who was busted for coke distribution in 2004 and turned cooperator. Since his release from prison in the winter of 2011, Victor DiPietro has allegedly “gone straight.”

Stevie Gongs, like his brother, not a “made” man, but a mob associate, was busted alongside Nicodemo and a street protégé of his named Dominic (Baby Dom) Grande, (suspected by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to have been the triggerman in the DiPietro murder, however never formally charge), in a 2007 federal gambling indictment spawning from the poker room in the Atlantic City casino, the Borgata.

Nicodemo, 43, and Grande 35, were muscle and in charge of collecting from debtors in a mob-backed bookmaking ring overseen by syndicate sports gambling specialist Jack Buscemi and his young No. 2 in charge, Andrew Micali. The younger Casasanto was merely charged with betting through Buscemi and Micali.

Buscemi is alleged to be an underling of Philly mob stalwart Gaeton Lucibello, recently released from a stint behind bars on his own racketeering pinch. Micali has been linked to Merlino as well as acting as Buscemi’s second-in-command.

Johnny Gongs got his nickname because of his crazy behavior and penchant for beating people like a drum. (a gong is an ancient Asian ceremonial drum), per FBI documents. Through contacts he made in prison with New York wiseguys, Johnny Gongs tried to arrange a mob transfer of sorts in the year before his death, asking John Alite, an Albanian gangster who worked as a top confidant and enforcer for John (Junior) Gotti, the son of the Teflon Don of late 1980s and early 1990s fame, to ask Gotti if he could become a member of the Gambino crime family. Alite and Casasanto became acquainted while locked up together. FBI records related to mob prince Gotti report that Stevie Gongs would often visit his brother in prison and return home with messages he’d shuffle from Alite to Gotti.

Johnny Gongs
Johnny Gongs

Eventually, Alite became an FBI informant and testified against Gotti in court (he just collaborated with iconic Philadelphia crime reporter to pen a gangland tell-all entitled “Gotti’s Rules”). He told his FBI handlers of a meeting he was summoned to by then-Philadelphia acting mob boss Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi at Ligambi’s lawyer’s office in 2002 where he was “debriefed” about Johnny Gongs and his activity in prison – the older Casasanto was rumored to have possibly aided prison officials in a heroin-smuggling investigation at the federal correctional facility he was housed in from 1994 until 2001.

The reserved 75-year old Ligambi is the Family’s  reputed consigliere today and allowed Johnny Gongs back into the fold in the Philly underworld while he was looking after mob affairs in Merlino’s absence during the 2000s. He might have put him to quick use, too, if you believe some, including Casasanto himself. Johnny Gongs’ name surfaced as a suspect in the 2002 murder of Raymond (Long John) Martarano, a grizzled gangland vet said to have butted heads with Ligambi regarding his return to the rackets following a 25-year prison term and a hit Casasanto is reported to have boasted openly about taking part in in an effort to get his button (earn membership into La Cosa Nostra).

The marriage of the charismatic Skinny Joey Merlino and the stunning brunette he met while she was a waitress at the popular Philly hotspot the Saloon over two decades ago, isn’t conventional. Skinny Joey, currently in the last weeks of a short four-month sentencing for a parole violation, has been living sans spouse in Florida since his release on his big RICO collar in early 2011, yet claims that they remain together and that her business dealings finance his new ritzy beachside lifestyle.

In his early heyday in the east coast rackets during the 1990s, Merlino, 52, was an expert skirt-chaser according to multiple news reports and first-hand accounts and frequently seen bar-hopping with women other than his wife before he was put away as a guest of the government in the summer of 1999.

Joey & Debbie Merlino
Joey & Debbie Merlino c. 2013

The attractive Debbie Merlino might not exactly be categorized as the picture of fidelity, either, according to several sources. A little over five months after her husband was convicted on his highly-publicized RICO, she was discovered with murderer and drug dealer Billy Rinik in an early-morning federal raid of her luxury condo, where Rinik, the government’s target in the raid, was discovered hiding under her bed. Testifying at Rinik’s 2003 murder trial, Merlino denied being in a romantic relationship with Rinik, explaining instead that he had been staying at her house the prior month to the December 2001 raid helping her take care of her and Skinny Joey’s infant daughters.

According to exclusive Gangster Reports, Skinny Joey is being investigating by the FBI for possibly authorizing the Gino DiPietro murder and could have another murder-loaded indictment coming his way in the future – his 2001 conviction avoided a number of murder counts charged in the case.

Matters of heart in the Philly mob in the 20-year Merlino era have proven fatal in the past. Just ask the family and friends of former local wiseguy and lothario Michael (Dutchie) Avicolli, missing since 1996 and presumed dead. Avicolli’s death resulted from an alleged feud between him and Merlino’s current acting boss Steven (Handsome Stevie) Mazzone related to a love-affair tit-for-tat involving wives, girlfriends and nieces and concluding in his murder and according to FBI informants, burial on desolate New Jersey farm property. Mazzone, Merlino and their boyhood chum and future consigliere George (Georgie Boy) Borgesi (now just a soldier) has also been implicated as taking part in the Avicolli hit. Nobody, however, has ever been charged in the Dutchie Avicolli murder and Avicolli’s body has never been found.

*Featured image shows Joey Merlino enjoying a recent day boating down in Florida prior to his current four-month stay behind bars for violating his parole. Merlino will be let out on May 3 and off any and all government restrictions.


  1. So, Johnny Gongs, gets killed and Skinny Joey is the reason? This article mentions others that might’ve wanted him dead, if inly b/c he “disrespected” them. It’s going to take more than hearsay/he must’ve been mad to make this probable charge stick. But like some say/mention, the Feds have a “hard on” for him and will try him for everything that’s happened in last 20 yrs because they can and want to


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