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August 04, 2016

Joey Merlino arrested in major mob bust

Mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino was arrested at his home in Florida this morning as the feds dropped the hammer in a multi-state, multi-defendant organized crime case.

Merlino, 54, was part of a massive roundup in which more than 40 mob members and associates were taken into custody. Indictments brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York offered a shopping list of crimes ranging from gambling, loan sharking and extortion to medical insurance fraud and untaxed cigarettes.

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Most of those charged were members of the New York-based Genovese and Lucchese crime families, according to documents released by federal authorities. Merlino, who authorities believe continues to head the Philadelphia mob from his home in Boca Raton, Florida, was charged with entering into a series of illegal “business” arrangements with New York mob figures.

No other members of his Philadelphia crime family were charged, but one source familiar with the investigation said more indictments could come from the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Philadelphia and Miami.

Merlino could not be reached for comment. He is believed to be in custody in Florida pending a preliminary hearing. In the past he has insisted that he left his life of organized crime behind when he was released from prison in 2011 and relocated to Florida.

“I want no part of that,” he said in an exclusive 2013 interview.

“Too many rats,” he added.

Ironically, it appears that Merlino and many of those charged Thursday were in fact the targets of an FBI undercover investigation in which cooperating witnesses, some wearing audio and video recording equipment, infiltrated the groups. The investigation includes hundreds of hours of taped conversations.

Merlino met frequently with at least one cooperator who recorded him and dozens of others, according to a law enforcement source who worked in Florida.

“Not only are you going to hear these guys,” said the source, “but you’re going to see them talking.”

Merlino’s foray to Florida has long been the focus of law enforcement interest.

Investigators repeatedly questioned how someone who had spent 11 years in prison was able to set himself up in a posh condo near the beach and live what appeared to be a comfortable and leisurely existence that included frequent trips to the gym and golf courses and socializing at fine restaurants and cigar bars.

His one source of income appeared to come from a restaurant bearing his name – Merlino’s – where he served as host.

That, however, could all be part of his past.

With two prior federal convictions, Merlino would be facing a lengthy prison sentence if convicted of the charges in the latest indictment.

Merlino emerged in the 1990s as the face of the Philadelphia mob. He was a charismatic and well-known personality, the city’s only celebrity gangster, the John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue. He and an entourage of young, well-dressed, good looking mobsters would frequent the clubs along Delaware Avenue and at the Jersey Shore.

His high profile was a contributing factor in his 2001 racketeering case. In that case, the federal government made a deal with mob boss Ralpha Natale who agreed to cooperate and testify against Merlino and six co-defendants. Merlino had been identified as Natale’s underboss.

It was one of the few instances in which federal authorities cut a deal with a boss to make a case against an underboss. And it underscored the crusade-like approach authorities brought to convicting Merlino.

They were partially successful.

Merlino was convicted of racketeering based on gambling, loansharking and receipt of stolen property charges. But the jury in that 2001 trial ruled that the government had failed to prove drug dealing, murder and attempted murder charges that also were part of the case.

Over the years, Merlino has been accused of orchestrating or participating in nearly a dozen gangland hits or attempted hits. He has never been convicted.

He also has been repeatedly identified in court testimony and documents as the suspect in the infamous 1989 Halloween night shooting of Nicky Scarfo Jr. in Dante&Luigi’s Restaurant. No one has ever been charged in that shooting. The younger Scarfo survived the attempted assassination.

Merlino, who has spent about 20 years (more than half his adult life) in prison, was also convicted in 1989 of an armored truck heist in which $375,000 was stolen. The money was never recovered. In the 2013 interview, Merlino joked that he took most of the cash with him to Las Vegas and lost it at the gambling tables.

He was most recently in the news when Pennsylvania gambling regulators moved to bar him from any state casino. He has been barred in New Jersey since 1984. Gaming regulars are expected to vote on placing Merlino on the state’s exclusion list later this summer.

The exclusion may be moot, however. If Merlino is denied bail in the current case and if he is eventually convicted of the charges he is facing, it could be years before he is back in Pennsylvania.