“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.
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 pronounced dead at 4:15 eastern standard time on March 16, 1981.
The ensuing chaos would last for the next two decades.