June 30, 2016
It looks like reputed mob boss Joey Merlino has played his last hand of blackjack at the SugarHouse Casino.
Or any other Pennsylvania casino for that matter.
Investigators for the state Gaming Control Board have filed a petition asking that Merlino’s name be added to the casino exclusion list, a move that would prohibit the 54-year-old mobster from entering any casino in Pennsylvania. Skinny Joey has been on the New Jersey casino exclusion list since 1988.
While Merlino’s criminal history and organized crime ties are believed to be the driving force behind the move, an “altercation” at the SugarHouse Casino on March 9 has precipitated the action, according to documents filed by gaming board investigators back in April.
Contacted this week by text message, Merlino, who now lives in Florida, declined to comment about the incident or the petition. But of being placed on the exclusion list, he quipped, “They’re doing me a favor.”
Merlino’s penchant for high stakes gambling is well known in underworld and law enforcement circles. Mobster-turned-government witness Ronald “Big Ron” Previte testified at Merlino’s racketeering trial in 2001 that during one football season Merlino bet and lost more than $200,000 to a sports book Previte was operating.
“I’m still waiting to get paid,” Previte, an FBI informant, said from the witness stand.
Merlino was sentenced to 14 years after being convicted of gambling and racketeering charges in that case. He moved to Boca Raton, Florida, after his release, but has been a frequent visitor to Philadelphia. He has gambled at area casinos during most of those visits.
The SugarHouse incident, according to law enforcement sources, happened while Merlino was in town for an early celebration of his birthday. He turned 54 on March 13. He had also been to Philadelphia this spring to attend the wedding of the daughter of one mob associate and the baptism of the infant of another alleged member of his organization.
The reputed mob boss was with an entourage of 12 men (his apostles?) and two women on March 9, according to state filings. Merlino sat down at a blackjack table around 1:30 a.m. and within minutes got into an argument with another patron who bought in to the same game.
Security surveillance videos picked up the action, according to government documents. Merlino and the patron were standing up and arguing when another member of Merlino’s group moved in and began to push and shove the unidentified patron.
A second member of Merlino’s group, according to the petition, then joined the dispute and “threw three punches” as the rest of Merlino's entourage squared off against a group of men accompanying the man with whom Merlino was squabbling.
During the confrontation, according to the petition, “The large group of males, including Mr. Merlino, reportedly threatened the other group and (said) that they would wait outside for them.”
Security personnel intervened and escorted Merlino and his group out of the casino. The report noted that before he left, Merlino shook hands with the patron with whom he had been arguing.
The story of the fracas and Merlino’s addition to the exclusion list was first reported Wednesday night by Dave Schratwieser on a Fox 29 TV nightly news broadcast.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is expected to approve the petition to add Merlino’s name to the list at a meeting later this summer. Merlino will be one of more than 500 individuals barred from state casinos, but an examination of names on the list indicates he is one of the first “made” or formally initiated mobsters to be banned.
Two associates who were part of an indictment that led to his 2001 racketeering conviction are currently prohibited from entering the casinos. Ralph Abbruzzi, who pled guilty to gambling charges, and Angelo Lutz, who was convicted along with Merlino and five co-defendants, are both excluded.
Lutz, who runs the popular Kitchen Consigliere restaurant in Collingswood, Camden County, said he hopes to challenge his exclusion, arguing that while he is no longer interested in gambling, his name of the list prohibits him from doing business in a casino and has forced him to forego an opportunity to open a restaurant in one of the gaming halls.
While the exclusion process includes the option of a formal hearing, authorities contend Merlino has waived his right to respond because he has ignored petitions sent to his home and restaurant in Boca Raton and to his former home in South Philadelphia.
Authorities say Merlino also refused to sign for and accept a copy of the state’s petition last week while gambling at the SugarHouse on June 17 and Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack on June 18.
“Mr. Merlino refused to sign the receipt for the petition and refused to accept a copy of it” when approached by a casino compliance officer at 3:20 a.m. on June 17, according to a state filing. A similar scene played out at 3 a.m. the next morning at Harrah’s, according to authorities.
“Mr. Merlino’s failure to respond constitutes a waiver of his right to a hearing,” wrote James Armstrong, assistant enforcement counsel with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, in a memo filed on June 21.
Armstrong, who declined to comment, noted in his filing that “Merlino has been identified as a member of organized crime by various law enforcement agencies.”
But the formal petition for his exclusion focuses primarily on the March 9 altercation.
Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for the Gaming Control Board, said Merlino’s criminal record and mob affiliation were part of the reason for the action. In addition to his racketeering conviction, Merlino has served time for an armored car robbery.
But it was only after he began frequenting the state’s casinos and drew attention to himself in the March 9 incident that the state moved to exclude him, McGarvey said.
Unlike New Jersey and Nevada, Pennsylvania has opted to take a reactive rather than proactive approach to mobsters in casinos. In New Jersey and Nevada, dozens of identified organized crime figures have had their names added to the exclusion lists even though many have never set foot inside a casino.
McGarvey said Pennsylvania has taken the position that “due process” should apply and that only after a criminal figure is spotted in a casino will the state take action.
“If they’re not going in a casino, there’s no issue,” he said.
Merlino clearly fits the description of someone “whose presence (in a casino) would be inimical to the interest of the Commonwealth” as outlined in casino legislation. These include anyone deemed a “career or professional offender,” a person “convicted of a criminal offense … punishable by more than a year in prison,” someone who has “been convicted of a gambling crime” or someone “having a notorious or unsavory reputation.”