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June 06, 2017

True or false? Ralph Natale was secretly initiated into Mafia by Bruno and Gambino

The subject of 'Last Don Standing' tells a good story even if it changes depending on who's listening

Mafia Ralph Natale
04122017_RalphNatale_MafiaWiki Credit/Kyle Cassidy via

Former mobster Ralph Natale used to refer to fellow Philadelphia mafioso Skinny Joey Merlino, whom he had met and befriended in prison in the early 1990s, as a fine young man. But in his new book, 'Last Don Standing,' Natale describes Merlino and the guys around him as “punks.”

Ralph Natale tells a good story.

Always has.

Problem is, the story changes depending on where he is and whom he’s speaking to.

A look at Last Don Standing, a Natale biography, underscores that point. Especially when the story he tells in the smoothly written bio by New York Daily News reporter Larry McShane and television producer Don Pearson is compared with transcripts of Natale’s sworn court testimony in a Philadelphia racketeering trial back in 2001.

Natale’s account of how and when he was formally initiated into the Mafia is a prime example.

In the book he says this occurred in the 1970s when he was the point man for Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno and a rising protégé for New York godfather Carlo Gambino, head of the crime family that bore his name.

Natale says the two mob leaders secretly and privately initiated him into Cosa Nostra.

“Ang and Carlo got together and they told me, “Don’t tell anybody about this,’” he says in the book. “We pricked our fingers and put our blood together. Carlo Gambino told me, ‘You belong to me now and you belong to Ang.’ Of course I was honored.”

Of course.

A secret ceremony that nobody else knew about conducted by not one, but two mob bosses.

“I left there feeling I was untouchable,” he says of the ultra exclusive rite of passage that took place in a building owned by Gambino in Manhattan’s garment district.

Compare that with what he said in response to one of the first questions posed to him by Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Gross when Natale took the stand as the chief government witness in the 2001 racketeering trial of Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino and six co-defendants.

“La Cosa Nostra is a descent into hell,” Natale said dramatically, minutes after placing his hand on a Bible and swearing to tell nothing but the truth. “I was there…at one level or another, for almost 40 years.”

The Q and A continued with Gross asking and Natale answering:

Q – When you came home from prison in September…1994 were you a member of La Cosa Nostra when you came home?

A – No. I was not.

Q – Did you eventually become…a member?

A – Yes. I did.

Q – And when did you become a member?

A – I was made an official member by Joseph Merlino…I took the position of boss…He was the underboss.

In the book, Natale says it was all for show, that he was just humoring Merlino.

“I never told him, that punk, that I was made by the two biggest guys. But he wanted to show everybody what he had – Ralph Natale. None of them would have gone near Joey Merlino if he didn’t have Ralphy.”

Speaking sometime in the regal third person, Natale is saying that he gave Merlino status and standing with mob families from other cities by allowing Merlino to “make” him.

If that account is true, why wasn’t it part of his court testimony?

At that point, he had agreed to cooperate and had sworn to tell the government and the jury all that he knew and all that he had done.

Did he forget about the secret making ceremony conducted by “the two biggest guys?”

Was he worried about hurting Merlino’s feelings?

Or was the follow-up story in the book because Natale knew his testimony under oath at the racketeering trial made no mention of the Bruno-Gambino making?

Natale spins….in the book and from the witness stand.

Another example, and one that has some wiseguys rolling their eyes and shaking their heads, is his claim in the book that he only decided to cooperate in the summer of 1999, a year after he was jailed on a parole violation. He said Merlino had reneged on a promise to financially support his wife and family and that’s why he turned on his former mob associates.

Natale, while in jail, was indicted on drug dealing charges in June 1999. If convicted he could have been sentenced to life in prison. Shortly after that indictment, word leaked that he was cooperating.

“Those punks, we made a pact…if I get jammed up you take care of my wife and family,” Natale told his biographers. “And if you get jammed up, your girlfriend, your mother – I’ll take care of them, and you know my record. Not a dime! I went away [in the summer of 1998], not an envelope. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m gonna see those punks in a courtroom.”

Whether Merlino and friends had financially abandoned Natale’s wife Lucia and his then girlfriend Ruthann is a matter of some debate. While some cash may have been delivered, it clearly wasn’t what Natale was expecting and the cash flow dried up quickly.

But the flip side of that argument is that Natale lost all credibility and standing in the underworld when he made his first move to cooperate. And that occurred not in the summer of 1999, but rather in the summer of 1998.

Questions and answers from his time of the stand in the racketeering trial paint the picture, indicating that Natale began planning his courtroom date with “those punks” shortly after he was jailed for violating his parole.

This time it was Merlino’s lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., asking the questions.

Q – Isn’t the truth, Mr. Natale, that it was the summer of 1998 that you made your decision to become a cooperating witness, you approached the FBI with the idea, and they turned you down?

A – That’s not true, sir.

Jacobs then refers to a parole hearing later in 1998 at which the FBI “went to bat” for Natale as he sought release from jail .

Q – And in your presence, doesn’t an FBI agent explain that in 1998 they were not, for a variety of reasons, willing to accept you as a cooperating witness?

A – Can I explain this, sir?

Q – You can answer my question.

After a judge intercedes, Natale is allowed to expand on the question.

A – I spoke to Jim Maher [The FBI agent heading the mob investigation into the Natale-Merlino mob].. .about maybe doing something as a cooperating witness. I didn’t make no decision yet. I did not make a decision yet… I wanted to speak to him because when I was incarcerated I looked at myself again, and I said, ‘Here it goes again. For what?’ My dear friends took all my money. They didn’t give my wife a dime and I’m just sitting here. I said, ‘Could this be happening to me again?’

It happened to me in 1979 [when Natale was jailed on drug and arson charges], also. And I didn’t become a witness.

Natale and Jacobs sparred verbally for several minutes over the how, why and when of his attempt to cooperate, with Natale finally conceding that he tried to cut a deal in 1998.

Q – So Mr. Natale, the truth here is in the summer of 1998 you went to the FBI for the purpose of discussing becoming a witness for them. Isn’t that the truth?

A – Yes, it is.

But Natale insisted that he could not work out an agreement with the FBI. Jacobs, on the other hand, reading from testimony by Agent Maher at Natale’s parole hearing, said it was the FBI and not Natale, who nixed the deal that summer.

Q – Mr. Natale, I’m going to take the liberty of reading these eight lines to the jury…Quote, ‘Yes, it was. I was prior to that the…and we talked about his cooperating, the things he could do and so forth. We weren’t able to really get in a position where we could make any kind of cooperation. It was just impossible to do for a variety of reasons and I guess we finally decided that – and I think it was our decision, not Mr. Natale’s, that we could not put together a cooperation agreement at that time.”

From the witness stand Natale said that he did not cut a deal with the feds in 1998 because they couldn’t reach an agreement. He continued to insist, as he apparently does today, that the deal in 1998 fell apart because neither he nor the FBI could reach a consensus.

Maher’s testimony, read in open court, appears to indicate it was that the FBI decided not to take Natale up on his offer.

From an underworld perspective, it’s a matter of splitting hairs.

At the current mob clubhouse down on Ninth Street the take on all of this is simple: as soon as Natale reached out to the FBI in the summer of 1998 he was no longer entitled to any support from the organization. That’s why the cash flow to his wife and girlfriend dried up.

Like Natale, the South Philly mobsters may be adding their own spin to the situation, using facts that didn’t come out until later to justify their actions. It’s form over substance, but then that’s been the case in the Philadelphia underworld for the past 20 years.

The Natale-Merlino saga is just one example.

Natale spent nearly 14 days on the witness stand in that infamous 2001 racketeering trial. And while he clearly enjoyed the spotlight, his testimony had little impact on “the punks” he hoped to meet in court. His testimony about murders and attempted murders, charges that could have landed Merlino and several co-defendants in prison for the rest of their lives, was apparently less than convincing.

The jury returned not guilty or not proven verdicts for every murder and attempted murder charge. Merlino and the others were convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to jail. Merlino got 14 years.

Sixteen years later Natale and those defendants are all back on the streets,

Merlino, living in Florida, is said to still have a say on what goes on in the South Philadelphia underworld where several of his co-defendants are now located.

Natale is living in another part of the country, spending time touting his biography which paints him as one of the last, true blue Mafioso in America.

That, of course, is somewhat at odds with the facts.

Consider a final question-and-answer go-round between Barry Gross, the prosecutor, and Natale.

Q – Mr. Natale, if you did not have a wife and five children, would you be here today testifying?

A – Never in a million years.

Q – Why wouldn’t you be here?

A – I wouldn’t be here. I would go do what I had to do, like I did the last time. I’m here basically because no more La Cosa Nostra for me. I’ve done everything wrong a man could do in life. I broke every law that the government’s got, and broke every commandment that the dear Lord ever made. I make no excuses for that. I’ve done it all. But, the day I finally thought and walked into that courtroom and I looked at my wife’s face and my children, I could have spit on my – spit at myself. What I was and what I gave up before, and I say I’m going to give it up again, for what, for La Cosa Nostra and be abused? I will not do it again.

From the witness stand and in his biography, Ralph Natale tells a good story. It’s just hard to know when he’s telling the truth.