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.
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.