The Violent Reign of Little Nicky Scarfo

The Philadelphia mob has had many bloody wars over the years. The most violent era was in the 1980s when Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo was boss. Scarfo’s reign would only last about 6 years but in that time he would personally kill or order the killing of over a dozen men. Many of these men were loyal soldiers in his family who Nicky simply found a reason to kill.

The Gentle Don Era

Nicky Scarfo had been a made member of the Philadelphia Crime Family since 1954. He was brought into the family by then boss Joe Ida. Young Scarfo was ruthless and a good earner, which was what helped him get made. The problem was that he rubbed many of his superiors the wrong way. He was viewed as reckless and disrespectful of mafia traditions.

In 1963, he was convicted of manslaughter after stabbing a man to death in the middle of a bar fight. Scarfo would only serve a year before returning to the streets. At this time, Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno was now in charge of the family. Bruno did not care for Scarfo’s cowboy style and sent him away to Atlantic City, which was essentially a banishment.

Atlantic City had not yet legalized gambling when Scarfo was sent there, so the rackets were fairly slim. When it was legalized in 1976, Scarfo found himself sitting on a goldmine. Young entrepreneurs like Donald Trump immediately began building casinos in the city. Scarfo was the most feared gangster in the city and used his reputation to extort Trump and all the other developers.

Scarfo’s main gig was forcing the developers to use his construction companies, such as his concrete company Scarf Inc. They had no choice but to comply as Scarfo could both intimidate personally and cause work stoppages. Scarfo also developed skimming operations inside the casinos once they were erected. Nicky was essentially a vampire sucking the money slowly out of the casinos.

If developers didn’t cooperate, Nicky wouldn’t hesitate to have them killed. Renegade mobsters would get the same treatment, such as Vincent Falcone. Falcone foolishly decided to test Scarfo’s power and would be gunned down by Nicky’s nephew “Crazy Phil” Leonetti. Scarfo even had a judge murdered who wouldn’t give one of his underlings a light sentence.

Bloody Power Struggle

The Philly mob family ran smoothly throughout the 1960s and 1970s under the Bruno regime. That would all change on March 21, 1980 when Bruno was shot and killed while sitting in his car. The “Gentle Don” era had come to a screeching halt and times were about to change for the worse. The hit was organized by “Tony Bananas” Caponigro, Bruno’s consigliere.

This murder set off a series of betrayals and murders that would throw the family into a violent chaos over the next couple of years. First Caponigro was killed on orders of the New York commission who hadn’t sanctioned the Bruno hit. Caponigro’s bullet riddled body was found with dollar bills stuffed in his mouth and anus, a clear message as to why he was killed.

The next boss would suffer a similar fate to Bruno. Philip “Chicken Man” Testa would take over the family, but he would last less than one year. On March 15, 1981, Testa was blown to pieces by a nail bomb that was planted under his front porch. It was a brutal hit even by mob standards, and once again the job of Philadelphia mob boss was up for grabs.

Scarfo saw this as his opportunity for a power grab. He was given the go ahead by the Genovese Crime Family to make his move. He enlisted Testa’s son Salvie Testa to kill Frank Narducci, the capo behind his father’s murder. Nicky Scarfo, once banished from Philly was now the boss of the family. Salvie Testa and his nephew Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti would become two of his top lieutenants.

The Scarfo crew had one faction left that was resisting their takeover, the Riccobene crew. Harry Riccobene and Scarfo had known each other for over 30 years but never liked each other. Harry saw Scarfo for what he was, a bloodthirsty psychopath. Over the next two years, at least 10 shootings took place with Riccobene losing 3 men and Scarfo winning the war.

Killing His Own Men

After Riccobene went to prison in 1984, Scarfo could finally relax in his position as the undisputed boss. The problem was that Nicky Scarfo did not know how to relax. On top of being greedy and violent, he was about to display that he was also jealous and extremely paranoid. The level of treachery in the Philly mob which had always been high, was about to be kicked up a few notches.

Instead of prospering, Scarfo and his regime spent most of their time thinking of who they were going to kill next. Sometimes the reasons for the hits were fairly legitimate, such as the murder of mobster John Calabrese, who refused to pay the family street tax.  More and more often however, Scarfo began to turn his suspicion and venom on his own men.

Pasquale “Pat the Cat” Spirito was one of the first members of Nicky’s crew that Scarfo decided had to be killed. His crime was not getting the job done after Scarfo ordered him to kill Harry Riccobene’s brother. Pat the Cat was a made man but was in way over his head. Like Angelo Bruno, he was gunned down while sitting in his car. Scarfo had one of his top killers Nick “The Crow” Caramandi do the job.

The next killing of a crew member would literally send shivers down the spines of Scarfo’s underlings. Little Nicky had become obsessed and angry about the amount of attention and respect other gangsters were showing to Salvie Testa. Infuriating Scarfo, Salvie had been given the moniker “The Crown Prince of the Philadelphia Mob”. Testa had been a loyal crew member but it didn’t matter to Nicky Scarfo.

Salvie had killed many men on Scarfo’s orders,and was as cunning as anyone in the Philly mob. Caramandi and Leonetti both were close friends of his and were hoping Scarfo would change his mind, but they weren’t about to say no to Nicky. In the end, Scarfo ordered Salvie’s best friend Joe Pungitore to set him up, which he did. Salvie’s hogtied and bullet filled corpse was found in September 1984.

Downfall of Little Nicky

After the Testa murder, fear spread like wildfire through the Philly mob. Everyone involved knew that they could easily be the next on the chopping block. When his underboss Chuckie Merlino started drinking uncontrollably, Scarfo demoted him and promoted his nephew Philip Leonetti to underboss. Even Leonetti was scared of his uncle, but for now was still in the fold.

With all the fear and resentment, it was just a matter of time before the Scarfo crew imploded. The first member of the Scarfo crew to turn government witness was Tommy DelGiorno. Tommy had been a captain in Scarfo’s crew but was demoted and knew that he was on shaky ground at best. He had committed several murders for Scarfo, but knew in the end his loyalty meant nothing.

Mafia Prince
Mafia Prince by Philip Leonetti, Available on Amazon

DelGiorno was soon joined by Nick “The Crow” Caramandi and Gino Milano. In 1988, Scarfo and his crew were charged with 10 counts of murder and racketeering. The wheels were falling off the Scarfo mob quick and most of the mobsters were wise enough to jump off the sinking ship while they still could. Scarfo’s power was diminishing as all of his shooters were leaving town or ratting.

The final nail in the Scarfo crew coffin was the defection of Nicky’s nephew and underboss “Crazy Phil” Leonetti. The hardened mob hitman genuinely feared his uncle and knew Scarfo would have him killed in prison. Leonetti at the time was the highest ranking mobster to ever turn witness, and his cooperation would close the door on the Scarfo reign once and for all.

Crazy Phil’s testimony helped to put more than 40 mobsters behind bars. Scarfo was convicted of 9 murders and a slew of other charges. In a sentence similar to Sammy Gravanos, Leonetti only served five years despite his involvement in 10 murders. He took off into the Federal Witness Protection Program.

The Post Scarfo Era

Leonetti went on to do some high profile interviews years later. In 1996, he sat down for a 30 minute ABC Primetime interview. It was one of the most revealing mafia interviews ever. He discussed the killings of his friends Vincent Falcone and Salvie Testa. He came off as a guy who was just a loyal soldier doing what his uncle wanted, something that many of his former associates took exception with.

Little Nicky would be shipped off to a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. He quickly began losing control over the Philly mob. He was not a boss like Carmine Persico who was still able to maintain power and pull strings from behind bars. Nicky’s influence was gone and there was little of his old crew out on the streets anymore. They were dead, in prison, or in the witness protection program.

Scarfo did put an associate named John Stanfa in charge when he left. They even cleared the promotion with the bosses in New York who approved. Stanfa was an old timer who was originally from Sicily. The streets of Philly had changed though. There was a group of young up and coming mobsters known as the “Young Turks” ready to take on Stanfa.

The leader of the Young Turks was an ambitious 30 year old Joey Merlino, aka “Skinny Joey”. He’s the son of Chuckie Merlino, the former Philly underboss demoted years earlier for excessive drinking by Nicky Scarfo. The younger Merlino is suspected of shooting Scarfo’s son Nicky Jr. in 1989 as family revenge. By the early 1990s, Stanfa and Merlino were at war.

It was Merlino and the Young Turks who came out on top, even after taking four bullets himself. Skinny Joey has proven to be a mafia boss with staying power. He has maintained control over the Philly mob for almost 25 years now. At times, he has put others in charge while he dealt with legal troubles. Today, he spends his time going back and forth between Philly and Florida.

While all this was going on, Scarfo was languishing away in federal prison. One can imagine how infuriated he must have been to hear about his empire crumbling, only to be took over by the man who shot his son. Scarfo could do nothing about it. He also was still gutted by the defection of his nephew Crazy Phil. The 87 year old former boss passed away from natural causes in January 2017.