Philadelphia mob boss Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino foreshadowed his brash and rules-flouting reign at the helm of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family with his bold antics in the years before he fought and won a shooting war for power in the organization. A batch of newly-acquired FBI documents, including a series of informant “302” reports shows Merlino tried taking over the mob in Philly as far back as the late spring of 1987, directly on the heels of the arrest and imprisonment of bloodthirsty mafia don Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo in March of that year. His own jailing for an armored car heist in early 1990 put his plans for assuming the throne on hold.

The 57-year old Merlino is finishing up a brief federal prison term for a gambling offense. He’ll be in a halfway house this fall. Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, Skinny Joey’s dad, was Little Nicky Scarfo’s underboss until his demotion in 1986 for excessive drinking. The Merlinos, father and son, were banished from the Philly mob, ordered by Scarfo to be placed on the pay-no-mind list.

With Scarfo and virtually his entire command structure, including Chuckie Merlino, behind bars facing federal racketeering and murder charges in the spring of 1987, the younger Merlino didn’t stay on the sidelines for much longer. One 302 report describes how in late May of 1987, Skinny Joey, then just 25 years old, and the Ciancaglini brothers, sons of jailed Scarfo capo Joseph (Chickie) Ciancaglini, started approaching bookmakers, bar owners, loan sharks and drug dealers who had previously been paying tribute to Scarfo and demanded that they start paying them instead. Scarfo’s son Nicky Jr. and his uncle Anthony (Tony Buck) Piccolo, an old-timer in the crime family who he appointed acting boss in his stead, were trying to keep what was left of the Scarfo mob regime afloat and still expected envelopes every week for Little Nicky.

It was a confusing time.

“Nobody knew who to pay, so some stopped paying all together,” said one source making a living on the street as a bookie in that era. “Joey and Mikey Chang were coming on heavy right off the bat. Everyone figured they had the backing of their dads. Nicky Jr. was telling us to ignore them. I just shutdown for a while. It wasn’t worth the hassle.”

Merlino’s best friend was Michael (Mikey Chang) Ciancaglini, the most ambitious and fearless of the three “Chang brothers,” and equally eager to snatch power away from the Scarfo camp. Mikey Chang was bigger and broader than Skinny Joey and known for his quick temper and even quicker trigger finger. Mikey’s siblings “Johnny Chang” and “Joey Chang” were committed wiseguys with less explosive personalities.

One 302 report reads: Joey Merlino and Michael Ciancaglini began trying to extort Scarfo-protected sports gambling and shylock operations in the late spring and early summer of 1987 and Ciancaglini assaulted at least two of the shakedown victims as part of the extortion efforts.

“Around a month or two after Nicky and everyone got nailed in their RICO, Joey and Mikey were trying to cut into anybody they could find that had nobody to run to,” said a retired member of law enforcement working organized crime in South Philly then. “There was two, three years of this game being played of who were you kicking up to?…..Nobody was scared of Nicky Jr. and Tony Buck, Merlino was trying to throw weight around he didn’t have yet…..Mikey Chang was just a hurricane of a human being……Nicky had a ton to worry about his case and could only do so much from the joint, so people were scrambling. Joey and Mikey tried taking advantage of it.”

That same summer Merlino and a bookie in his dad’s old crew named Richie Barone began plotting an armored car heist. Stevie Rinaldi, a knock-around guy from their South Philly neighborhood, who worked as a security guard for an armored car company, was recruited and agreed to swipe a bag with $352,000 inside and leave it at a designated spot along Delaware Avenue for Merlino and Barone to scoop up. To cover his tracks, Rinaldi staged a vehicle malfunction and let bundles of cash fly out of the back of the armored truck he was diving in onto the I-95 expressway en route to his company headquarters in Pennsauken, New Jersey.

Rinaldi was promised $175,000,000 for being the job’s inside man. He only saw $13,000 and tensions quickly rose between him and Merlino, culminating with a series of fist fights and shootings throughout 1988 and into the first half of 1989. Meanwhile, Merlino and his one-time close friend Nicky Scarfo, Jr. were at further odds over the South Philly protection racket and the bitterness and festering bad blood was on the verge of reaching a boiling point.

Merlino and Barone were pinched for the armored car robbery in August 1989 when Rinaldi flipped. He was the star witness against them at their January 1990 trial. Merlino and Barone were convicted.

While Merlino was out on bond awaiting his armored car heist trial, Nicky Scarfo, Jr. survived being shot eight times on Halloween night 1989 as he ate a plate of pasta at a crowded Italian restaurant in South Philly. Informants have told the FBI that the masked gunmen in the brazen attempted mob hit was Skinny Joey and the wheel man driving the getaway car was Mikey Chang.

As Merlino dealt with his legal problems from his armored car score, the Gambino Family from New York officially deposed the Scarfo regime and installed Sicilian-born John Stanfa as boss of the Philadelphia mafia. Stanfa landed in the Philly area in the 1970s and with the backing of legendary crime lord Carlo Gambino and his cousins in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, went to work for Pennsylvania Godfather Angelo Bruno. He was acting as Bruno’s driver and bodyguard the rainy night in March 1980 when the so-called “Docile Don” was assassinated as he lit up a cigarette in the passenger’s seat of Stanfa’s car parked in front of his modest South Philly row house.

Skinny Joey Merlino reported to prison to begin doing his sentence for the armored truck robbery on February 28, 1990. Ironically, the near two year prison stint at McKean Federal Correctional Institute in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania provided him a much needed boost in his plans for taking over the Philly mafia. This boost came in the form of an old-school Goodfella from the Bruno era with connections to New York, connections he made on the “inside.”

Ralph Natale, Bruno’s labor union enforcer back in the 1960s and 70s, befriended Merlino at McKean, became his cell mate and began encouraging Merlino to seize power from Stanfa. Natale was in the can for drugs and arson and offered Merlino and his crew of boyhood friends backing from New York’s Genovese and Colombo crime families in their fight for the rackets in Philly.

This legitimized them. It was the kind of support and co-signing Skinny Joey and Mikey Chang didn’t have in the late 1980s following Scarfo’s bust when they tried to take power from Little Nicky’s loyalists.

With Natale coaching them from behind prison walls, Merlino and Mikey Chang went to war with Stanfa in 1992. The streets of South Philly ran red with blood for the next two years as bodies dropped on both sides of the conflict.

Stanfa was imprisoned for racketeering and murder in March 1994 and Merlino declared victory. Mikey Chang and Joey Chang were casualties of the war, as the siblings ended up on opposite sides of the battle lines — Joey Chang, who became Stanfa’s underboss, was crippled in a March 1993 shooting and Mikey Chang was slain in a drive-by shooting that summer.

Upon Natale leaving prison in the fall of 1994, Merlino named him boss and ran a shadow government behind the scenes.

He’s never relinquished the keys to the castle.

Natale, 84, entered the Witness Protection Program in 1999 and testified against Merlino and his lieutenants at a highly publicized 2001 trial where most of the Merlino regime were convicted of racketeering but acquitted of numerous gangland killings connected to Merlino’s campaign to become boss.

Merlino did 12 years in prison for his racketeering conviction. Released in 2011, he relocated to Florida and began running his crime family in Philly through a small group of buffers. Johnny Chang, Mikey’s older brother, was Merlino’s reputed underboss for a portion of his reign.

Today, Johnny, Chang, 62, is a capo and reportedly only semi active. Chickie Ciancaglini, 84, came out of prison a few years ago and briefly replaced his son as underboss, a title that was more ceremonial than anything. Chuckie Merlino died of cancer in prison in 2012.

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