October 1, 2019 — Philadelphia mafia boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino returns to the streets this week after almost a year and a half in federal prison for a gambling conviction. The slick 57-year old mob chief was sprung Tuesday morning from a Florida correctional facility and will report to a halfway house in Miami by the end of the week to begin his supervised release.
Merlino pleaded guilty to a single sports-betting count in 2018 after a hung jury in a racketeering case out of New York. He’s been living in Boca Raton, Florida since his release from a 12-year prison stint for a racketeering conviction in March 2011. Per sources, he maintains leadership of Philadelphia mob affairs through proxies and designated messengers.
“Joey is a force of nature,” said one retired FBI agent who worked Merlino cases. “He’s a gangster to his core. Most importantly in his line of work, he knows how to insulate himself.”
In the 1990s, Merlino and his fiercely-loyal crew of childhood friends fought and won a war for power in the Philly mafia’s Bruno-Scarfo crime family. His personal string of luck is downright uncanny; averting multiple assassination attempts, a collection of murder charges and seismic shifts in the country’s mob landscape during his 25 years on top of the historic city’s mob.
Flashy, camera-friendly and fashion-conscious, the handsome and quick-witted Skinny Joey is tailor made for the 21st Century mafia. Upon leaving prison in early 2011, Merlino fell in love with social media. Some people have taken to calling him the “Instagram Don.” Before his most recent run-in with the law as part of the so-called East Coast LCN Enterprise case in 2016, Merlino was driving a Rolls Royce and running a now-shuttered restaurant featuring his mom’s recipes in South Florida.
Merlino was raised as part of a mob aristocracy in the City of Brotherly Love. Skinny Joey’s dad was Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, the Philly mafia’s underboss in the 1980s and his uncle Lawrence (Yogi) Merlino was a valued capo in the era’s increasingly treacherous Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo regime. The Merlino brothers fell out of favor with Scarfo late in his reign and were placed on the “pay no mind” list.
Chuckie Merlino died in prison in the fall of 2012. Scarfo was nailed in 1987 on a slew of murder and racketeering charges and died behind bars in 2017.
Thirty years ago this month, Skinny Joey Merlino might have literally blasted his way on to the scene as a major player in the Philly underworld by trying to kill Little Nicky’s progeny “Nicky Jr.,” a one-time close friend, in a brazen Halloween night 1989 attack in which Nicky Jr. survived being shot ten times inside Dante & Luigi’s restaurant in the heart of South Philly. Skinny Joey was the No. 1 suspect in the case but never arrested for it.
Making an alliance with old-school mob figure Ralph Natale, a labor union enforcer for longtime Philly mafia Godfather Angelo Bruno in the 1960s and 70s, Merlino rode Natale’s contacts in New York’s Five Families — cemented behind prison walls — and his own guile and fearless ambition all the way to the Bruno-Scarfo clan’s crown in the 1990s. With Natale’s backing from prison, Merlino unseated Sicilian don John Stanfa by way of a shooting war that resulted in casualties on both sides and didn’t end until Stanfa was busted in 1994.
Natale, 84, flipped in 1999, entered the Witness Protection Program and testified against Merlino and others at a highly-publicized 2001 trial. Merlino had one of his father’s protégés, Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi, running the Philly mob on an acting basis for most of the last two decades.
The stately Ligambi, who came up in the crime family as a bookie in Chuckle Merlino’s crew, reportedly retired at a surprise 80th birthday bash held in his honor on the Jersey Shore in August. At least three sources name Skinny Joey Merlino’s close pal, 55-year old George (Georgie Boy) Borgesi as the organization’s newly-appointed acting boss. Borgesi is Ligambi’s nephew and, like Skinny Joey, was raised as a young-buck wiseguy in the Scarfo administration of the 1980s.
According to some, Merlino is already back to his usual M.O.
“It’s the same old song and dance, it’s pay to play with Joey….he’s already got feelers out looking for cash,” claims one South Philly gangland source. “And he’ll have a hundred different guys lining up to give it to him the second he hits the sidewalk outside the prison gate. That’s the beauty of Joey being Joey. It’s failsafe. Proximity to him is currency and he leverages every inch of that space.”