April 22, 2022 — After earning the support of the Genovese and Gambino crime families to lock down his ascent to the Philadelphia mob throne in 1994, former Bruno-Scarfo crime family boss Ralph Natale drove to New York to meet with Colombo crime family don Andrew (Andy Mush) Russo and try to get his backing, according to FBI records.
Natale was successful and came back from the Big Apple with co-signing for his new regime by three of New York’s Five Families in tow. His regime was sturdy, top to bottom, from BG to OG. Until, it wasn’t.
“Mush” Russo died this week of natural causes at age 87 under federal indictment for racketeering as boss of the Colombos. The 86-year old Natale passed back in January, having turned his back on the Philly mafia in 1999 to become the first sitting American mob boss to ever join Team USA.
Making a name for himself as an enforcer and labor-union troubleshooter for Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno in the 1960s and 1970s, Natale was incarcerated on federal drug and arson charges months before Bruno’s high-profile assassination in March 1980. Natale politicked behind bars for a decade and a half and teamed with a group of swaggering young bucks on the street led by Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, his cellmate near the tail-end of his 15-year bid, to win a shooting war for gangland supremacy in the City of Brotherly Love against Sicilian Godfather John Stanfa.
The Stanfa camp was backed by the Gambinos until Natale convinced the organization to recognize him instead due to Stanfa being Sicilian and not being able to corral the support of the Philly mafia’s youth movement. The FBI claims Skinny Joey, now 60, is the boss of the Philly mafia today, despite having lived in Florida for the last dozen or so years.
Stanfa was indicted for racketeering and murder in March 1994. With the out-of-touch Sicilian crime lord out of the picture, Natale’s road to being anointed the boss of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family suddenly became unimpeded and the violence, at least in the short term, ceased.
According to FBI records, Natale first received backing from the Genovese crime family after forging ties with lieutenants of then Genovese boss Vincent (The Chin) Gigante in prison. Then, the last remnants of the Gambino’s Gotti mob dynasty sent their support his way. Natale hadn’t even stepped out of prison yet, but by the summer of 1994, he was the undisputed don in waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
Natale walked free on November 5 and immediately held a welcome-home party for himself at his luxury New Jersey condo. Most of Merlino’s inner-circle were in attendance, however Merlino himself was back in the can serving out the final months of a parole violation. Per Natale’s FBI debriefing, Merlino’s best friend, Steven (Handsome Stevie) Mazzone, coordinated the gathering.
It was Mazzone, who drove him to Brooklyn, New York in the weeks leading up to Christmas to break bread with Mush Russo and the Colombos, according to Natale. Russo had just recently been let out of federal prison as well, leaving his cell in June 1994 and quickly taking the reins of the Colombo organization on behalf of his cousin, imprisoned boss Carmine (The Snake) Persico. Since both mob dons were on parole and couldn’t be seen associating with known felons, the December 1994 dinner between Natale and Russo was kept hush-hush and handled with the utmost care and caution by each of the parties involved.
“Stevie took me into Brooklyn, we were going to introduce me as boss of the La Cosa Nostra boss of Philadelphia and North Jersey,” said Natale in a 2015 interview. “They had a nice spread, we toasted the coming holiday and New Year. Mush was at the front of the table and some of his guys, some of his sons and nephews were there, too. I was told it was one of Mush’s wife’s cousins houses he used for meetings. Mush was a man’s man, a wiseguy to the core, but a diplomat. He made Stevie and I feel at home and we showed him the respect a human being like that deserves. We went back home with his blessing. And when Mush spoke, he spoke for Carmine. After that, I had the support of the Persico-Russos, the Chin and the Gottis. Even if Stanfa wasn’t in prison, he didn’t stand a chance once I got out and did my thing.”
Natale said he brought Russo a vintage bottle of wine he got through a connection in the liquor distribution business that they drank that night. Mazzone, 59, is currently facing a racketeering case and will go to trial in September. The FBI has long categorized Mazzone as Merlino’s underboss.