East coast mafia elder statesman, John Gambino, the Philadelphia mob’s contact in New York’s Gambino crime family, died of natural causes this week at 77 years old. The Sicilian-born Gambino was a cousin of crime family namesake Carlo Gambino (succumbed to heart failure in 1976) and headquartered most of his affairs out of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

The younger Gambino immigrated to the United States in 1964 along with his two brothers and eventual big city gangland running buddies Rosario and Joe. According to court testimony, “Cherry Hill John”  was inducted into the American mafia in 1975 and promoted to a captain’s post in 1987 by then Gambino-boss John Gotti.

One of Gotti’s top drug lieutenants, Gambino and his siblings based their cocaine and heroin operations out of the Café Valentino (which changed its name to Café Giardino in the 1990s) in Brooklyn. He became the first member of the Gambino clan to ever plead guilty to narcotics trafficking when he copped a plea in 1994 and was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.  Following his parole in 2005, Gambino was upped to the syndicate’s ruling council and in recent years has served as a trusted advisor to his nephew, reputed street boss Frank (Frankie Boy) Cali and alleged syndicate don Domenico (Italian Dom) Cefalu.

Despite being a “Five Family guy”, Gambino played a significant role in some watershed moments in Philadelphia mob history. Per sources and government documents, Gambino helped hide future Bruno-Scarfo crime family boss John Stanfa after he was part of longtime Philly mafia chieftain Angelo Bruno’s assassination in March 1980. Also a native Sicilian, Stanfa was Bruno’s driver and opened the car window for the triggerman in the hit, allowing for Bruno’s brains to be blown out in front of his South Philly row house. Stanfa eventually turned himself into authorities and did a prison stint for contempt of court.

Later in the decade, Gambino and his brothers backed Stanfa’s push to grab the reins of the Philadelphia family and then supported him in his regime’s war against a younger faction of the local mob led by alleged modern-day boss Joseph (Skinny joey) Merlino. The 76-year old Stanfa is doing life in prison from a 1995 conviction. Merlino, 55, is currently under indictment for racketeering out of New York.

In May 2010, Gambino was caught on an FBI wire dining with acting Philadelphia mob boss Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi and the Bruno-Scarfo organization’s New Jersey captain Joseph (Joe Scoops) Licata at La Griglia, a restaurant located just off the Garden State Parkway. Both Ligambi and Licata were busted on racketeering charges shortly thereafter but beat the case at trial.

“We gotta stay with the old rules,” Licata was recorded telling Gambino.

“It’s the only way to survive,” Gambino replied.

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