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The Coronation – Little Nicky Becomes King

Within all the carnage in Philly underworld affairs in the early 1980s, Nicky Scarfo saw great opportunity. He wasn’t happy about his dear friend, Phil Testa going to an early grave, but he wasn’t in mourning for long, either, quickly angling to become boss of the Philadelphia mafia himself in the aftermath of The Chicken Man’s unsightly demise. The top spot was open and Little Nicky wanted it and he wanted it bad. In his mind, he had always played by the rules, putting in nearly 30 years working the back alleys of the underworld, and he rightly deserved the nod.

Hours after Testa’s wake, Scarfo was summoned from his home base in Atlantic City to South Philly and the Buckeye Social Club, headquarters of Pete Casella and Chickie Narducci. Taking his close friend and recently inducted mob soldier, Salvatore “Chuckie” Merlino as backup, he cautiously entered the club for the meeting, skeptical of the subversive duo’s intentions from the very start.

For intimidation purposes, Casella and Narducci had called in re-enforcements, lining up a group of their bulging-neck street thugs behind them in a show of force. They offered Scarfo and Merlino a seat and then went into a well-rehearsed diatribe about how they found out that Testa had been killed by Irish gangster John Berkery, in retribution for the December 1980 murder of labor boss John McCullough, and that the Commission in New York had just named Casella boss and Narducci underboss of the crime family.

Anybody who had ever met Little Nicky Scarfo knew, despite his diminutive stature, he wasn’t a man easily intimidated and their pitch and tough-guy posturing failed to make much of an impression. Suspicious of what he was being told, he called their bluff.

Scarfo had strong connections to the New York underworld and doubted that the Commission had signed off on any reshuffling of the family’s leadership without his being directly notified. He informed Casella and Narducci that he planned to go to Manhattan the following day and see what the powers that be in New York desired in person. Getting up from his chair and leaving with Merlino in tow, he had already begun strategizing on how best to undermine his adversaries’ plans and swoop in to take control of the Philly mob right from underneath their very noses.

It would be a surprisingly easy endeavor.

Meeting with members of the Commission in New York, Scarfo told them about the sit-down at the Buckeye Club and that he believed that despite what Casella and Narducci we’re promulgating, they were the ones that had killed Philip Testa. In turn, Scarfo was informed that the Commission had never been in contact with Casella or Narducci and had not in fact authorized their alleged new administration. Never one to hold back sharing his thoughts, Scarfo was vocal about wanting the boss’ chair, himself and the chance to avenge the death of his close friend.

His straight forward strategy proved effective. Before departing back home, Scarfo was given the Commission’s blessing to assume leadership of the Philadelphia mafia and do away with those who plotted Testa’s assassination.

He immediately returned to South Philadelphia to get his affairs in order and start building what would end up being his kingdom of blood. Little Nicky was beaming. He couldn’t have been happier.

In contrast, the rest of the local underworld should have been shaking in their boots, as a typhoon of vindictive terror would rage nonstop for the coming years due to one man and one man only.

That man was Nicodemo Scarfo.

Nicodemo Scarfo was born on March 8, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. As a young child, he worked in the blueberry fields across the river in Hammonton, New Jersey, learning first-hand about the tireless life of a day-laborer, a life he wanted no part of as an adult. He had big dreams, aspirations of attaining the stature and reverence of the movie star mobsters he grew up so admiring in the shoot’em-up flicks he would have his dad take him to see at the theatre as a kid. Idolizing infamous Chicago crime lord, Al Capone, since childhood, Scarfo wanted to become a gangster and that is exactly what he became.

When he was 12, his family moved to Philadelphia. Voted most talkative by his classmates at Benjamin Franklin High School where he graduated in 1947, Scarfo was small, but incredibly spunky. Flirting with a boxing career in his late-teens, he quickly made the decision that he was better suited for life outside the ring and went to work for his uncle, Nicholas “Nicky Buck” Piccolo, a well-respected mafia soldier in the East Coast underworld. Starting off with a few small gambling and loansharking rackets, Scarfo made a fast impression on his superiors the mob, showing himself as both a dependable earner and trusted enforcer.

While Nicky Buck Piccolo was teaching his nephew about the ins and outs of mob business life, Felix “Skinny Razor” Di Tullio, one of the mafia’s most feared assassins, was teaching him how to kill. Di Tullio took an early liking to the young Scarfo and Little Nicky was an eager student. Bonding in bloodlust, Skinny Razor taught Scarfo the art of the mob hit. It was a skill he would cherish, continue to hone and never lose.

In 1954, a year after his sister gave birth to his nephew Philip, Little Nicky Scarfo, was formally inducted into the mafia by soon-to-be deported Philadelphia Godfather Joe Ida at a ceremony held at a restaurant and bar named Sans Soucci in Camden, New Jersey. He had achieved his dream. He was a bonafide wiseguy, a goodfella ready to take on the world. And boy, did he ever.

On May 25, 1963, Scarfo solidified his status as a genuine tough guy by stabbing an Irish longshoreman to death in a fight over a booth at the Oregon Diner, a popular neighborhood restaurant located on Oregon Avenue and Third Street in South Philadelphia. Pleading guilty to a charge of manslaughter, Little Nicky did 10 months in prison before returning to a not-so-friendly homecoming on the streets.

Angelo Bruno was upset because of the hot-tempered Scarfo’s brazen behavior and was getting an earful of hate towards the violent-prone hood by his longtime Consigliere Joseph “Joe the Boss” Rugnetta, a bitter and vengeful old timer that held a grudge against Little Nicky for his refusal to court Rugnetta’s unsightly daughter. Scarfo’s uncle, Nicky Buck Piccolo did what he could, but it was of little use.

With pressure mounting from his mob superiors, Little Nicky decided to relocate to Atlantic City, taking his sister, Nancy and his nephew, Philip with him. They all moved into a two-story apartment at 26 North George Avenue, a piece of property that was owned by his mother, Catherine. Starting a family of his own, Scarfo and his wife Domenica, a young woman he important from Sicily to take as his second wife after an earlier failed marriage produced his first son, Christopher, the couple had two sons of their own, Mark and Nicky, Jr.

Living in close quarters with the manacle gangster wasn’t easy. He would fly off the handle at the smallest provocation, raising his hand on multiple occasions to all of the households’ residents. To say he was a man who was rarely satisfied in every facet of life would be an understatement.

Taking to the downtrodden streets of AC with the same type of hair-triggered antics that he displayed around his family, Little Nicky made a fast impression on the boardwalk town that had seen its better days. Undeterred by his surroundings, Scarfo began carving out a small piece of the city’s rackets on behalf of himself and the Philly mob, while at the same time building up a fierce and loyal crew to watch his back, the core of which was made up of Chuckie Merlino, his brother Lawrence, who everybody called “Yogi,” and Nick “The Blade” Virgilio, a hard-drinking hit man whose slight, almost skeleton-like frame disguised a sinister assassin with ice his running through his veins.

A man with grandiose visions of one day becoming mob royalty, ruling over his subjects with regal flair and an iron fist, Little Nicky Scarfo was content biding his time in the shadows of New Jersey, patiently waited for his chance at the title in Philadelphia in the years to come and for things to play out naturally in his favor.

They would.

Boy, how they would.

What we know as the mafia in America today is an offshoot of several different secret societies in Europe, dating back centuries. The most prominent of these sects were the Sicilian Mafia, the N’draghetta, which has its roots in Southern Italy and the Camorra, spawning from Northern Italy.

Originally, the intent of such organizations was not criminal. They existed to protect the common citizen of these regions from a corrupt and oppressive government that did little to nothing to look out for the interests of the everyday working man. Over time, things changed and became increasingly more criminal in nature.

As hoards of Italian and Sicilian immigrants flooded the streets of major American metropolises in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, a number of loosely organized incarnations of these secret societies began springing up and making their presence felt in ethnic-centered neighborhoods across the country with a vast array of rackets. The onset of Prohibition in the 1920s made many early mob leaders incredibly wealthy as they spearheaded an underworld movement of supplying illegal liquor to a thirsty public, while causing heaps of newspaper headlines and bloodshed in the process.

At first, there was little to no connection between the various burgeoning crime conglomerates throughout the United States. Then a move towards consolidation and joint coordination slowly began to take form. The nation’s inaugural summit of organized crime powers took place in Atlantic City, when close to 50 mob czars from coast to coast came together to discuss business in the spring of 1929 at a ritzy hotel on the Boardwalk.

Just two years later in 1931 the modern American mafia was created in the aftermath of a carnage-filled mob war in New York City that pitted a group of old school underworld leaders, known as “Mustache Pete’s” against a group of young and hungry up and comers led by Charles “Lucky” Luciano. With Luciano coming out on top in the conflict, the fearless and beloved new Godfather called a meeting of fellow mob dons in Chicago and laid out his vision. Luciano proposed a nationwide crime syndicate made up of regional mob factions, called “Families,” which would all be overseen by a board of directors known as “The Commission,” which would be made up of only the most powerful and respected mob dons.

The syndicate and its rules would be paramilitary in structure. Each Family would be headed by a Boss, an Underboss, his second-in-command and a Consigliere or counselor, his third in charge. Beneath them would be a stable of Capos or Captains, who would each be responsible for a crew of Family soldiers and associates.

Attendees of Luciano’s underworld conference, held at the Blackstone Hotel located in the heart of the Windy City’s famous “Miracle Mile” on Michigan Avenue, unanimously agreed to the proposal and all came under the banner of what was dubbed, “La Cosa Nostra”, translated from Sicilian to mean “this thing of ours.” Following the meeting of the minds in Chicago, 26 American mob Families were formed. There was one for almost every major city in the country.

In Philadelphia, John Avena, a longtime lieutenant under Prohibition era crime lord, Salvatore Sabella, was named the city’s the first modern day mafia Boss. Sabella had sided against Luciano in his war with the Mustache Pete’s and as a result was told to step down and turn over the reins to Avena.

From practically the moment he assumed power, Avena butted heads with a former ally and one-time Sabella lieutenant named Joseph Dovi, who sometimes went by the alias “Joe Bruno.” Dovi felt slighted by Avena’s promotion and challenged his authority from the very start. The two fought it out on the streets for five years before Avena was killed in 1936 and Dovi took control of the Philly mafia for the next decade, expanding the crime family’s territorial reach into New Jersey and Delaware, with the aid of Underboss and overall right-hand man Michele Maggio.

Upon Dovi’s death from natural causes in 1946, Joe Ida, another former Sabella disciple, was named the city’s new don. Ida ruled unfettered for over a dozen years, however, had his rein atop the crime family ended by getting arrested at the infamous Apalachin mob summit in 1957, where dozens of gangland leaders were arrested as they converged on an upstate New York hunting cottage for what was supposed to be a conference of mafia bosses from the around the country, and soon deported back to his native Italy.

Briefly following Ida’s deportation, Antonio “Mr. Miggs” Pollina was named his successor, but quickly fell out of favor within the organization by plotting the murder of Angelo Bruno, a very popular and well-respected captain, who got wind of the plan to murder him and slickly turned the tables. Using his many ties to the New York underworld to his advantage, Bruno got the Commission to depose Pollina and tab him as his replacement. Showing a level of mercy not often displayed by men in his same position, Bruno spared Pollina’s life and instead retaliated by banishing the defeated former Boss into retirement, earning the nickname, “The Docile Don”.

The moniker proved an enigma. Bruno might not have killed brazenly, but he killed. He also slowly eroded his support from within the Family by continually hoarding profits and refusing to delegate even the smallest amount of authority.

His power ultimately came from his ties to New York though and those were undeniable, keeping him on top for over two decades. Those ties could only hold the damn for so long and when casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City in 1976 and he refused to give the go-head to his troops to dive headfirst into the volcano of vice that was ready to erupt on the Boardwalk, it broke.

The evening of February 15, 1978 the entire state of New Jersey and most of the eastern region of the United States was buried in snow. The previous day had brought a vicious mid-winter storm that blanketed the region with snow drifts that reached waist high in some areas.

Just off the glitzy Boardwalk in Atlantic City, the gloomy weather was an ominous sign of things to come. The Little Nicky Scarfo era was about to get under way and even though it was over three years prior to him officially being anointed don, the message was clear; It was a whole new ballgame in town.

That cold and flurry-filled night Edwin Helfant, a municipal court judge in nearby Somers Point, and his wife, sat in a booth in the Flamingo Lounge on Pacific Avenue, less than two blocks away from the city’s main drag, where construction was just starting on what was soon-to-be the American gambling paradise of the late Twentieth Century. The bar and grill which was attached to the Flamingo Motel, was a dimly lit watering hole, with a smoky ambiance that harkened back to a time long past, when the city was in its inaugural heyday of being a nationwide tourist destination decades earlier.

Helfant was having dinner and a few cocktails, trying to relax in the midst of being under siege in his professional life, facing criminal charges and jail time for allegedly taking bribes on the bench and the possible loss of his state bar license which would stop him from making money on the side as a high-priced defense attorney. Things just weren’t going Helfant’s way.

They got much worse real fast.

As Helfant and his wife sat inside the Flamingo Lounge, a small man in a trenchcoat and ski mask quietly shoveled snow on the sidewalk outside near the entrance, attempting to appear like a good samaritan helping out the neighborhood by pitching in to clear the streets. His actual intentions were considerably more sinister.

While Helfant was in the middle of his meal, the shovel-wielding man with the trenchcoat and ski mask entered the lounge, slowly making his way to the judge’s table. The place was crowded that evening and barely anyone noticed the veiled figure moving cautiously through the room. Soon, they would.

Getting up close to Helfant, who sat with his back to a wall in a corner booth, the man pulled out a .22 caliber automatic pistol and unloaded five shots into him at point-blank range. Slumping onto the table, Helfant was dead before anybody knew what happened. With his shovel and pistol in hand, the man quickly rushed out the door, ditching the shovel in a snow bank a few blocks away and escaping into a car driven by none other than Nicky Scarfo.

The flamboyant gangland slaying, the type of public execution that could have easily be lifted straight out of a Hollywood film script penned by Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tartantino, was a long time coming. Helfant’s death warrant had in fact been signed years earlier.

Back in 1972, the portly and beak-nosed civil servant took $12,000 in cash from Nicky Scarfo and Nick “The Blade” Virgilio in exchange of a promise to get Virgilio a short sentence on a murder charge. Instead of keeping up his end of the bargain, Helfant pocketed the money himself and walked away from the arrangement, while Nick the Blade was hit with a decade-long prison term.

These set of circumstances did not bode well for Edwin Helfant, a greedy man who believed Scarfo and his mob cronies didn’t have the balls to do anything about it. He couldn’t have been more off base.

Serving six years of his sentence before being released on parole, Virgilio rejoined Little Nicky in Atlantic City in 1978, ready to get revenge on the crooked and arrogant judge for being double-crossed.

It didn’t take long for Nick the Blade to find that revenge.

Weeks after returning to the Garden State following his incarceration, Virgilio was given Helfant’s murder contract, a coming home present from Scarfo, as well as a reward for his patience. During his time behind bars, Virgilio would dream of the day he could personally avenge the slight, look the judge straight in the eye before killing him in cold blood. By intentionally holding off on murdering Helfant until Nick the Blade was sprang from the clink, Scarfo allowed his companion’s dream to become a reality.

Virgilio carried out the Helfant hit and relished every second of it.

The judge’s assassination told you all you needed to know about what direction the Philadelphia mafia was headed in.

It was about to be the Wild West.

Scarfo became famous for telling his soldiers he wanted things under his reign to always be done, ”Cowboy style,”, bold, brash and out in the open for everyone to see.

He would get his wish.

And he would get in spades.

The moment Little Nicky stepped foot back in South Philly following his meeting with the Commission, he began to assert his new authority as boss. Seeking to insulate himself from the deceit and disharmony that brought down his two predecessors, Scarfo named his closest confidant Chuckie Merlino his Underboss and installed four new captains, men loyal to him and him only. Joseph “Chickie” Chiangalini, a one-time close associate of Tony Caponigro’s who had switched his allegiances after the death of Angelo Bruno, Yogi Merlino, Chuckie’s little brother, Salvie Testa, the Chicken Man’s son and Philip Leonett, Scarfo’s his prized personal protégé, were all tapped to be the bearers of Little Nicky’s word on the street. He also opened the long dormant books even further and inducted two dozen more soldiers over the next several years, once again making sure only to welcome those into the fold that were staunch loyalists.

Next, he turned his attention to vengeance.

Fully intent of settling the score with the men who plotted Philip Testa’s assassination, Scarfo put out murder contracts on the heads of Chickie Narducci and Rocco Marianucci, assigning a revenge thirsty Salvie Testa the pair of tasks personally. Thanks to some of Pete Casella’s supporters in the New York mafia, he had his life spared, instead banished out of the city and forced to retire down in Florida.

Even without his father’s scheming Underboss being in his crosshairs, the young and ambitious Testa was in heaven about being allowed to take out Narduccui and Marianucci. Like Nick the Blade Virgilio with Helfant, Salvie wanted to be able to see eye-to-eye with his father’s killers before violently doing away with them.

Narducci, the primary conspirator against Chicken Man Testa, was the first to go. He got it coming out of his car, near his home, on January 4, 1982, just minutes after the federal racketeering trial downtown he was a co-defendant in had adjourned for the day.

Tipped off to his location by Chickie Chiangalini, another co-defendant in the case, Salvie and his best friend Joseph “Joey Pung” Pungiatore, approached Narducci on the street the moment he exited his vehicle and opened fire. One of Testa’s shots put him on the ground and then his final shot, where he had gotten face-to-face with his target, turned his light off for good.

Checking the first retaliatory murder of his hit list, Salvie swiftly moved Rocco Marianucci, the man who actually physically detonated the bomb that killed his father, into his sites. When Salvie was done with him there would be no doubt in anyone’s minds to why he was murdered.

The symbolism would be glaring and stark.

Marianucci’s bloodied and battered body was found in a parking lot on the 1500 block of South Eighth Street. The date: March 15, 1982, the exact one-year anniversary of Philip Testa being blown up. Just in case there were still questions as to motive, after Salvie had shot Marianucci more than 12 times in the head, neck and chest, he stuffed a pair of firecrackers in his mouth, making it more than obvious the reason he had to die.

Besides the revenge killings, Nicky Scarfo had other brutal business to attend to while establishing his regime. As you might expect, this business had to do with murder as well.

Settling old debts and announcing his presence with authority, Little Nicky ordered five executions in his first 12 months on the job. In addition to Narducci and Marianucci, he had John Calabrese, Stevie Bouras and Dominick “Mickey Diamond” De Vito murdered during his inaugural year on the throne, too.

The bloodbath was just starting.

The Ides of March – Chicken Man Goes Boom

“Well they blew up the Chicken Man last night, they blew up his house too,”– opening line to Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 song ‘Atlantic City’

The explosion could be heard blocks away. It shook an entire neighborhood, an entire city and an entire region of the country, to their very core. Ripple effects from the fiery mess would be felt for years. American rock icon Bruce Springsteen would pen a hit song about it, immortalizing the event in pop culture lore forever.

The Chicken Man was dead, literally blown to pieces by a homemade bomb made of nails as he walked through the front door of his house after a late night out on the town. It was a brutal death, for a brutal man. The ruthless and grisly dark side of a life often glamorized.

There was nothing glamorous about the murder of Philip Testa.

At the time of his passing in the early morning hours of March 15, 1981, Testa, known as the “Chicken Man,” because of his pockmarked face and his father’s one-time ownership of a poultry business, was as powerful a mobster as there came in underworld circles around the nation. He had money. He had power. He had respect. He also held the keys to the recently mob-built casino gambling empire known as Atlantic City, the once dusty Boardwalk town that over the previous few years had returned to its deep roots as the Eastern Seaboard’s Mecca of vice and exploded into a neon-lit treasure trove of cash and influence, the likes of which reached epic proportions.

This all put Philip Testa in a very enviable position.

So enviable in fact, people would kill for it.

And they did.

Multiple times.


Almost exactly one year before, on March 21, 1980, Testa’s predecessor, Angelo Bruno, a longtime respected don who held a seat on the infamous Mafia Commission, a nationwide mob board of directors, met a similar fate. At around 10:30 that evening, Bruno was shotgunned to death, the back half of his head blown off, as he sat in the passenger’s seat of an associate’s car in front of his row house in South Philadelphia. The heinous picture of the godfather’s corpse, his mouth agape and missing most of his cranium, was splashed across newspaper front pages throughout the world and has since become an iconic image of crime in the 20th Century, used in hundreds of print and television gangland retrospectives over the three decades since.

The culprit behind the palace coup and the high profile assassination of Bruno was Antonio “Tony Bananas” Caponigro, a power hungry gangster based out of New Jersey and Bruno’s consigliere the previous three years. The trust imparted on Caponigro by Bruno in naming him his third in command, proved misplaced. From almost the second he took his post in Bruno’s administration, he began plotting his boss’ demise.

The Chicago-born Caponigro, who earned his nickname due to his early days in the underworld running a sports book and juice loan racket out of a produce market in Newark, was the head of a growing intra-family movement that opposed Bruno’s strict opposition to narcotics distribution and any and all exploitation of the newly-fertile Atlantic City hotel and gaming industry. The Godfather’s decision to ignore his own edict and take money himself from known drug peddlers further isolated him from his troops and helped lead to his downfall.

Angelo Bruno was losing his grip on the crime family he had led for the previous two decades and right there stroking the flames of discontent was Tony Bananas, a fearsome thug that reveled in the treacherous politics and reckless violence of mob life. Bruno’s reign of notorious stability was about to be disrupted and Tony Bananas was leading the charge. His cause had support, but Caponigro’s lust for power clouded his judgment causing him to jump the gun, so to speak, and act too soon.

Orchestrating the hit on Bruno without the explicit sanctioning of the Commission, always a prerequisite for the slaying of a don, Tony Bananas made a play for the brass ring and lost. Within days of Bruno’s killing, a brazen crime some claim the all too eager Caponigro carried out himself, he was called to New York City to answer for his actions and was brutally and unmercifully murdered and sodomized, a message to the entire United States underworld that such behavior will never be tolerated. Several of Caponigro’s co-conspirators were done away with as well in similar fashion. Philly mob powers Frank “The Barracuda” Sindone, John “Johnny Keys” Simone and Freddy Salerno, Tony Bananas’ brother-in-law, all showed up dead in the coming months.

The only dissident to survive the bloodletting was John Stanfa, Bruno’s driver that fateful night in March 1980, and the man responsible for lowering the passenger side window so Caponigro could get a clean, unimpeded shot at the back of the Godfather’s head. Stanfa was a Sicilian-born Mafioso whose contacts in the old country reached out to save his life through their connections in New York’s Gambino crime family. Having little time to celebrate his respite from a certain and gruesome death, Stanfa, who would eventually rise to the rank of don himself a decade later, was imprisoned on contempt of court charges.

There is speculation that Caponigro had received tacit approval from Genovese crime family leader Frank “Funzi” Tieri, to murder Bruno, however, had been double-crossed. It didn’t matter though – he was gone and so was Bruno and that left a void at the top of the mountain.

That void would pave the way for the rise of Little Nicky Scarfo and his nephew and protégé Philip Leonetti, as Philip Testa, Scarfo’s longtime best friend and Bruno’s underboss, was named the new don of the Philadelphia mafia. Testa in turn tapped the small, yet ferocious Scarfo as his consigliere, which immediately placed Philip in the family’s inner-circle and in line for rapid advancement in the East Coast underworld.

The stability the Bruno regime had become known for was gone, never again to be found on the streets of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love it was no more.

Born in Mistretta, Sicily on April 21, 1924, Philip Testa arrived with his parents in Philadelphia in the late 1930s. His father was rumored to have connections to the mafia in his family’s homeland and Testa gravitated to an early life of crime, quickly rising up the ranks of the Bruno mob. Marrying a woman named Alfia from his native Sicily and having two children, a son Salvatore and a daughter, Maria, he was a devoted family man who unlike most of his gangster brethren favored quiet nights at home with his wife over carousing around the local nightclub and bar scene.

By the early 1970s, Testa was named Angelo Bruno’s Underboss and second-in-charge, mirroring the old school don’s low key approach to leadership. A staunch Catholic, Testa attended church regularly and dressed like a construction worker, giving him a working man’s appeal to the syndicate’s rank and file.

He wasn’t flashy, but he wasn’t shy either, running his various rackets with stern discipline, always making it a point, even after his rise to the top of the crime family, to frequently show his face on the street, personally going on collection routes until the very day he died. His trademark pockmarked cheeks and mustache gave him a menacing appearance, which aided his fearsome reputation.

Contrary to his gruff looks, Testa was more intellectual than one might have thought, fancying himself an amateur historian. He loved to read and was fascinated by the rule of Julius Caesar. During his final years it wasn’t uncommon to find the intimidating mob czar immersed in a book on Roman military history while spending time at his office headquarters at the South Bank Street Restaurant ran by his daughter.

A new day dawned in the Philadelphia mob with the Chicken Man’s ascension, loosening the ironclad reins Bruno had always put on his underlings earning potential. The floodgates were generously opened at the onset of Testa’s short regime, allowing his men to raid the local drug trade and labor union landscape. People quickly began to get rich. And greedy.

Another one of the first things Testa did when he took over as boss was to “open up the books,” and induct a new batch of soldiers into the sacred gangland fraternity, something Bruno had refused to do for a long time. Infusing new blood into the organization, Salvatore Testa and Philip Leonetti were part of the first group to be “made” or formally initiated into the crime family, furthered cementing their bond from boyhood best friends to blood brothers for life.

It wasn’t long before the same treachery and deceit that brought down Angelo Bruno less than a year prior was staring Philip Testa smack dab in the face. And just like with his predecessor, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

The fact that Testa’s tenure on top put money in everyone’s pockets meant practically nothing, the sharks were circling almost immediately. As the one-year anniversary of Bruno’s assassination approached, members of Testa’s inner-circle had already begun scheming against him.

When Pete Casella, Testa’s Underboss, joined forces with powerful capo Frank “Chickie” Narducci, to oppose Testa’s leadership and hatch the family’s second palace coup in less than 12 months, it was all but over for the Chicken Man. The rise of Casella, a long known heroin dealer, to the syndicate’s No. 2 slot, spoke volumes about the post-Bruno era in the Philadelphia underworld, where cash ruled supreme and loyalty and character would always take a backseat to the bottom line at the end of the day.

Chickie Narducci was a huge money maker for the crime family, running a series of profitable gambling and loan sharking rackets. He felt slighted by Testa when he wasn’t named to the new godfather’s administration upon Bruno’s murder. Desiring the family’s Consiglieri post, he resented being passed over in favor of Scarfo, believing he was more qualified and got screwed out of the job solely because of Testa’s friendship with Little Nicky. Most people suspect that it was Narducci that ultimately convinced Casella to turn on Testa in a grand master plan designed by him to eventually take total control of the whole syndicate himself.

It would never come to pass.

Unfortunately for Narducci and Casella, no matter how fresh the hit on Bruno was in their collective memory, they didn’t learn from the past. Much like Caponigro a year earlier, they wanted the throne at all costs. And just like with Tony Bananas, they weren’t worried about following protocol to get it, causing their cruel downfall.

In the end, the two aspiring dons proved too smart for their own good. They figured they could make killing Testa look like retribution for the recent murder of roofer’s union boss John McCullough, who had been feuding with Testa since Bruno’s passing, and pin the murder on an angry, revenge-seeking labor contingent.

They figured wrong.

The hours leading up to Philip Testa’s torturous demise were spent side-by-side with his son Salvatore, having dinner and then making a series of collections throughout the city from his robust gangland portfolio of rackets. It was a fitting scene, since the pair couldn’t have been closer.

Ruggedly handsome, with gumption and moxie by the boatload, “Salvie” Testa was obsessed with following in his father’s mobster footsteps and by his early 20s had already developed a well-earned reputation as a man on the rise in the East Coast underworld. He was strapping and charismatic, both respected and feared, earning the nickname “The Chicken Wing” from the local press corps for the constant companionship he shared with his dad. The father-son duo reigned supreme over the city, hand-and-hand intent on constructing a long lasting mob empire that would stretch multiple generations of their family.

That dream wouldn’t become a reality.

It was roughly 3:00 in the morning when Philip Testa returned to his home located on the 2100 block of Porter Street in South Philadelphia’s ritzy Girard Estates neighborhood from his moonlight collection route. He double-parked his car, a tried and true custom for East Coast gangsters throughout time, and made his way up his porch and to his front door. They would be the last steps of his life.

If the 56-year old don had been paying closer attention he would have noticed the suspicious black Volkswagon van parked across the street from his house, with the spindly, rat-faced young man slouched low in the front seat. He probably would have recognized him, too, since the man was Rocco Marinucci, his Underboss Pete Casella’s protégé and driver.

Nonetheless, fate was already in full motion and even if he had realized what was going on around him, he probably couldn’t have done much. The second Testa got out of his car, he was in the crosshairs. Underneath his porch was a makeshift bomb made up of carpenters’ nails and 13 sticks of dynamite, rigged to a handheld detonator in the possession of Marinucci.

Most likely, he didn’t feel a thing. The explosion happened in an instant. As Testa reached for his front door knob, Marinucci pushed a button and blew the Chicken Man into oblivion. Reverberations from the blast registered for miles. Flying almost 20 feet into his dining room, Testa’s charred remains were rushed to St. Agnes Medical Center and he was pr

onounced dead at 4:15 eastern standard time on March 16, 1981.

The ensuing chaos would last for the next two decades.

The Detroit Drug Wars (Part 2)

Unlike the Buttrum brothers and their Pony Down crew who looked to challenge top dog YBI at every opportunity or DFG which did an end-around and went out of state to move the bulk of its drugs, the Curry brothers were content to play second-fiddle to Butch Jones and his Young Boys empire. Minus the flashy handle and juvenile preening, the press didn’t want to write about the Currys. Their story didn’t have enough glitz and glamour. That was fine by them.

Lurking in the shadows, the Curry gang sat back and watched as YBI and Pony Down went to war with each other, racking up headlines and flouting the law with bloodshed and overly-boastful behavior. The fallout eventually spurred both of their downfalls and led to the Curry gang swooping in and coyly picking up the scraps left behind. Led by twin brothers, Johnny and Leonard Curry, the gang was centered on the Eastside, conveniently stashed away from primary YBI and Pony Down sales districts further west. Federal files allege the Curry brothers’ dad, Sam “Sammy Mack” Curry, acted as the gang’s top advisor and reputedly chipped in with startup cash back in 1978 when the gang was formed. Also along for the ride was the family’s baby brother Rudell “Boo” Curry, an eager lieutenant almost always at his older siblings’ sides, being groomed for a future leadership role.

The most recognizable figure from the Curry gang proved to be Johnny’s ace protégé, Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, a teenage street prodigy with a fierce and flamboyant reputation he had earned by the time he was 15 years old. Wershe rise to fame blew peoples’ minds and created frenzied news coverage. He had no business holding as much weight as he did, but somehow he climbed to heights in the urban underworld few his age or skin color have ever achieved. Being white and not even old enough to hold a driver’s license, he stuck out like a sore thumb, yet it made no difference. The lanky, mop-topped, almost gawky, fresh-faced 15-year old was Johnny Curry’s right hand man and that said it all. If Johnny trusted him and treated him like a son, the rest of the street had no choice but to respect him.

“They were an odd coupling,” said one former highly-placed member of federal law enforcement of Johnny Curry’s association with the teenage drug dealing wunderkind Wershe. “Seeing those two tooling around town together in Johnny’s Benz was like watching Superfly tote around the kid from Leave It To Beaver. At first glance, everybody was shocked. Then it was just accepted by everybody. It’s like on the streets and in law enforcement after everyone got over the novelty of the two of them running together, all of sudden he changed skin color. Within a few months, everybody just viewed him as black. There was no differentiation. That was the way he acted and those were the type of girls he dated and people he hung around with. It appeared very effortless for him. He lived the culture, so people didn’t view him as an outsider playing gangster. Surprisingly, the assimilation process was very fast, he was accepted very quickly by all the major players outside the Curry boys as one of their own. To his credit, he was very business savvy for a kid his age. He had a deep understanding of street politics and he knew how to exploit certain very complex and dangerous angles and use them to his advantage.”

Johnny and Leo Curry might not have been as well-known to the general public as many of the other kingpins of the day, but in the streets, they were as big as it came. Anybody who made a living in the drug trade at that time would tell you that Johnny, known as “Little Man” and Leonard, known as “Big Man” were as well-respected and feared in the Motor City underworld as Butch Jones, Gun Buttrum, Reggie Davis and Frank Usher. By 1986, they were the only ones left standing.

“The funny thing about that time is that a lot of guys who made major paper, guys like Little Man and Big Man, were considerably less well-known to the public than the guys who had these big personalities and were in all the headlines but didn’t hold a candle to cats like the Curry boys when it came to hustling,” Boyd said. “Nobody outside of the game back then would have been able to tell you who Little Man and Big Man were. They liked it that way. In the hood on the other hand, where it mattered the most, everybody knew the Currys’ weren’t anybody to mess with.”

As a result of their ability to avoid the spotlight, the Currys wound up being the longest lasting of all the Detroit drug syndicates of their era. Both YBI and Pony Down lasted five years apiece. So did Murder Row. The Davis Family Gang did them one better and lasted six. However, the Curry brothers ruled for almost a full-decade, acquiring equal riches with far less fanfare and acquiring the type of highly-placed connections in both local politics and law enforcement that his contemporaries like Jones or Buttrum could only dream of.

“Little Man was real slick, a behind the scenes guy who got things done,” Boyd said. “Big Man was out front, a little more outgoing and willing to engage with people outside their inner-circle. They weren’t on your TV screen at night on the nightly news, but they were the guys coming down the street or riding around Belle Isle with the freshest new cars and hottest threads.”

The Detroit Drug Wars (Part 1)

The years 1978-1990 on the streets of Detroit represent one of the most violent eras of crime in American history. In tune with the treacherous times across the country, practically all of the bloodshed in that period could be attributed to the local drug trade. Experts and local criminologists place the death toll at well over 1,000 gangland-related homicides. Throughout those dozen years both the product and consumer changed drastically, yet the landscape itself stayed pretty much the same – vicious as humanly possible.

“The streets were decaying, people were fleeing the city in masses and the dope peddlers took over what was left,” said Robert De Fauw, former head of the DEA in Detroit. “First it was heroin and then it was cocaine. Things got pretty chaotic. Murder was rampant and life was cheap.”

One retired DEA agent best analogized the climate to military combat.

“I served in Vietnam in the 1960s and that experience was the only thing I can equate to my experience working the narcotics trade in Detroit in the 1980s,” he said. “In terms of how much you’re observing death in its most raw and visceral sense, they were almost identical. Whatever side you were on, whether you were a cop or a dealer, you were constantly surrounded by death. Violence and murder was so commonplace, that after a while everybody became immune to it. Not that I didn’t feel for the victims, especially the innocent ones, but that it just became routine, kind of ho hum. Every second you turned around another bottom dropped. By the time I left Detroit, I was numb.”

Besides the carnage of the era, it was a time known for its decadence. And accordingly, the men who made their names in the era lived their lives lavishly with flamboyant showmanship and media-friendly panache and charisma. Eye-popping excesses were displayed all around town by these catchy-nicknamed urban crime czars, flashed for everyone to see at all the city’s trendiest nightclubs, most posh restaurants and front row at any number of local professional sporting events and music concerts.

“Some of those guys were walking around with chains around their neck that were worth as much as my entire year’s salary,” said one former Detroit police officer. “You’d see kids that you had once known as these little tikes on 10-speed bicycles bouncing around the neighborhood and all of sudden in a matter of months they’re driving a $50,000 Mercedes and flashing a cash roll that would choke a horse. That’s how fast you could get rich.”

The start of the 1970s saw the death of Detroit’s first genuine African-American Godfather in Henry Marzette and the emergence of more traditional black street gangs like the “Black Killers” and the “Errol Flynn’s”. The “BK’s” and “Flynns” or “Flynn Nastys” as they became known, were into drug dealing at a minor level and did engage in murder, but these things weren’t the gangs’ primary motivation and never came near equaling the level of their successors.

While early gang life in Detroit’s black community was more about an outlet for juvenile angst, male bonding and random petty crime than making truckloads of money, this new era on the streets brought outright bloodlust in the quest for dominance in the drug market and created demigods of aspiring kingpins. The gangs that formed in the latter-portion of the 1970s and then in the first half of the 1980s were considerably larger in size and more organized in their operations than that of their predecessors like the BKs or Flynns, and would far exceed in money earned, body count and overall exposure any urban criminal faction or individual gang leader of the past.

“There was a significant shift that took place on the streets around here in the late-70s and early-80s,” recalls former drug lord turned author Rob Boyd “Things moved from strictly gangbanging to pushing weight in the drug trade. All of sudden everyone is scrambling for the same dollar and the same spots to slang and it ain’t about gangbanging anymore. That’s when it became about business. Nobody could get rich from gangbanging. With powder, everybody could get fat and the market never went dry, so there was always more money that could be made. It was not about being brothers or being homeboys like it was before. It was about stacking as much paper as you can and showing it off.”

Widely-renowned sociologist Dr. Carl Taylor, a Detroit native who wrote his dissertation on urban crime and gang activity in the Motor City, concurred with Boyd’s assessment.

“The entire paradigm changed,” he said. “When things got organized and young black men realized they could reach for the American Dream on the street, which wasn’t just to get paid, but to get paid in full and they would be applauded for it by a lot of people, the game was immediately altered from that point forward. What spawned from that renaissance were highly-efficient war tribes. These weren’t just thugs or hooligans anymore. These were true sophisticated criminals with a mind for free enterprise.”

Following the imprisonment of Eddie Jackson, Marzette’s replacement atop the city’s self-proclaimed Black Mafia, in 1977, a void was created that was eventually filled by a pair of drug gangs going in polar opposite directions and representing polar opposite ends of the spectrum in the city’s narcotics industry at that time. The aptly-named and slightly-archaic Murder Row gang represented the old school and the flashy and innovative Young Boys, Incorporated or, simply, “YBI”, represented the new wave in the black drug game. While Murder Row was always subservient to a well-entrenched and immensely powerful middle man in order to get its product, YBI sought and eventually achieved virtually complete independence in the supply department.

Formed around 1975, the Murder Row gang was led by Francis “Big Frank Nitti” Usher and Harold “The Hawk” Morton and until around 1979 could stake claim to being the largest and most feared drug conglomerate in Detroit. Usher and Morton, oversaw a lethal crew of lieutenants and street workers that reached close to 50 people and slung the finest of European heroin. Like many black drug lords of the past, the Murder Row boys were supplied with their product by the city’s Italian mob contingent.

The relationship between the mob and Murder row was a natural one. Big Frank Nitti was introduced to Detroit mafia drug kingpins Giovanni “Papa John” Priziola and Raffealle “Jimmy Q” Quasarano, a pair of men with deep ties in the international narcotics market, by mob Street Boss, Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, Usher’s early mentor in the underworld. Most Italian mobsters traditionally look down on aspiring Black criminals and racketeers, but Tony Jack took a quick liking to a young Usher in the 1960s, kept a close eye on him and put him to work as a gofer. For years, Usher could be found flanking Giacalone at his usual haunts around town, eagerly absorbing everything he could from the city’s toughest mobster and taking pride in being allowed to be part of his inner-circle. In the ultimate sign of acceptance, Tony Jack tagged Usher with his nickname, “Frank Nitti”, a reference to Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti of the infamous Al Capone mob in Chicago during Prohibition.

The Story of Detroit’s Chambers Brothers & The REAL ‘Crack Commandments’

From The Delta to The D

The Story of The Real New Jack City

The rags to riches tale of the Chambers brothers, seven siblings that migrated to the Motor City from less-than meager beginnings in the Deep South, plays out like a Hollywood movie script. The first of the Chambers family set foot in Detroit in the early- 1970s and they would keep coming all the way until the middle of the next decade. They were ambitious souls in search of prosperity in any form, ready to take it by any means necessary. It took a little while, but by 1985, the Chambers had gone from growing up dirt poor, without indoor plumping in rural Arkansas, to being multi-millionaires living a life of luxury and excess while ruling the Detroit underworld’s narcotic industry with corporate-like acumen and efficiency.

Sent to prison in 1988, the Chambers brothers and their gang of Southern recruits, credited by some for being the first group in the city to start selling crack cocaine, left a rich and heavily-layered legacy. All striking eerie resemblances to one another with their wide foreheads, extra-dark skin, and short, stout frames, the Chambers boys transcended the drug game to become cultural influences and pseudo-pop culture icons. Anybody who is a fan of the movie New Jack City or the New Jack Swing music-genre of the early-1990s pays homage to the Chambers crew, primary inspirations for the term, ‘New Jack” itself and everything it represented.

It all started in 1987 when Barry Michael Cooper, at that time an investigative reporter for the Village Voice, came to Detroit to do a story on the city’s drug trade. He contacted world renowned sociologist Dr. Carl Taylor, a native Detroiter who taught at Michigan State University and lived in East Lansing, and Taylor pointed him towards the Chambers gang, which he spent several weeks in the Motor City observing first-hand.

What he ended up witnessing was documented in an award-winning feature for the Village Voice titled, “New Jack City Eats It’s Young”. The article spawned a movement, the term “New Jack” going on to represent a substantial shift in urban youth culture and a blending of music, film, dance and fashion.

Inspired by Cooper’s words, Harlem-based recording artist and producer Teddy Riley created the “New Jack Swing” sound, a late-80s and early-90s music genre fusing rap, jazz, traditional R&B and hip hop. Within months, the Village Voice piece was optioned for a movie and became the 1991 gangster classic, New Jack City, starring Wesley Snipes as flamboyant and diabolical drug kingpin Nino Brown, a character partially-based on one of the Chambers brothers and his methods of operations.

Although both the new sound and popular film – written by Cooper himself – were based in New York, the roots of both were unquestionably seeded in Detroit with the Chambers gang and everything it stood for. A career-making, nationally-televised speech by a then-unknown Governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton delivered at the 1988 Democratic Convention further ingrained the Chambers family into the fabric of that time by citing their rise and fall as an example of the criminal ingenuity being displayed by the nation’s youth and the severity of country’s crack epidemic. The enterprising culture exuded by these brothers resembles that of a legitimate businessman in many ways. Except they are not. Crack has and will continue to ruin lives nationwide. On the contrary, marijuana has finally been disassociated from this heinous crime, courtesy of the decision to legalize in many states. Proper businesses have emerged with the industry exploding, there are even companies that provide dispensary supplies. This shows how far we have come.

“I don’t believe that family (the Chambers) came up North to become criminals, but that’s what they became,” said Dr. Carl Taylor. “They came to Detroit to better themselves, get jobs in the plants, find a better life. When they realized that they couldn’t sustain that dream or that certain variables prevented them from attaining it, things got twisted real fast and they turned to making a living on the street. Obviously, they were pretty good at it.”

Taylor points to the gang’s ability to find such success in spite of the fact that the Chambers boys and their crew were viewed by most as outsiders, interlopers from the South with a country mentality, as one of its significant legacies.

“What they did was a rare in the sense that these young men were outsiders and they were able to come in without any real help from the Detroit homeboys and basically take over a huge part of the city just for themselves,” he said. “These were country boys and guys around here kind of dismissed them as hayseeds and didn’t really give them the time of day at first. But it wasn’t long before that all changed and the locals were forced to give them their respect because they (the Chambers) were a force of nature in that once they got going, their operation was rolling and constantly growing.”

When the final curtain closed on the gang and its antics, the Chambers Brothers organization was the most lucrative street-level drug dealing operation in U.S history up until that time. The Chambers family took the whole city by storm. Detroit had never seen anything like this batch of Southern-raised sin-spinners. These young men might not have originally come to the city thinking they would turn it on its head. But they did. Boy, how they did.