With Scott Burnstein
With Christopher Graziano
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Mafia Prince is the first person account of one of the most brutal eras in Mafia history — “Little Nicky” Scarfo’s reign as boss of the Philadelphia family in the 1980s — written by Scarfo’s underboss and nephew, “Crazy Phil” Leonetti.
The youngest-ever underboss at the age of 33, Leonetti was at the crux of the violent breakup of the traditional American Mafia in the 1980s when he infiltrated Atlantic City after gambling was legalized, and later turned state’s evidence against his own. His testimony led directly to the convictions of dozens of high-ranking men including John Gotti, Vincent Gigante, and the downfall of his own uncle, Nick Scarfo — sparking the beginning of the end of La Cosa Nostra (the insiders’ term for the Mafia, translated as “This Thing of Ours”).
Somewhere Near the Atlantic Ocean, Spring 2011
HE WAS TAN AND FIT, AND WEARING A DARK WINDBREAKER-TYPE JACKET OVER NEATLY PRESSED DRESS SLACKS, WITH HIGHLY POLISHED BLACK ITALIAN LOAFERS. HIS GRAY HAIR WAS NEATLY STYLED, COMBED STRAIGHT BACK. HE WAS WEARING A PAIR OF BLACK DESIGNER SUNGLASSES.
The man seated inside an upscale hotel lobby bar looked like a country club golf pro and not a psychopathic Mafia killer worthy of the moniker “Crazy Phil.” Soft-spoken and polite, he was understated and handsome, and carried himself with an air of confidence.
After exchanging pleasantries, he removed his sunglasses and said, “You have to understand, I come from a very different world than you guys.” His tone was soft as he spoke, his eyes focused. “We live by a very different set of rules. In La Cosa Nostra, if you break the rules, you get this,” he said, shaping his hand like a gun and pointing it toward the ground. “And I broke the biggest rule of them all, I betrayed my oath.”
Philip Leonetti was right there in plain sight more than two decades removed from his life as the underboss of the Philadelphia–Atlantic City mob. Although he had once been a shark, a great white, swimming in a sea of other deadly and bloodthirsty sharks, he now appeared simply as a man—a man with a story to tell.
Over the next three days inside a plush suite high above the sandy beaches overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Philip Leonetti would provide chapter and verse of his life, both inside the mob and out, to this book’s coauthors.
This was our first time meeting Leonetti face to face, but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the next year we would meet several times in major cities all over the United States, with our final meeting taking place in winter 2012 back in Atlantic City, just steps away from the Georgia Avenue compound where it had all started.
This is the definitive inside story of the bloody rise and treacherous fall of one of the most ruthless Mafia empires in American history.
At the epicenter are two men: Philip Leonetti and his uncle Nicodemo Scarfo.
Crazy Phil and Little Nicky.
What you are about to read is their story, told, in part, by the coauthors based on extensive research and personal interviews, and also by Philip in his own voice. Different typefaces are used throughout to distinguish the two.
It is part Godfather and part Goodfellas, with shades of Casino, Donnie Brasco, and The Sopranos spliced throughout.
But this isn’t a Hollywood movie or television show; this is the real thing.
Little Nicky & Crazy Phil
DECEMBER 16, 1979
IT WAS A COLD WINTER AFTERNOON, THE TYPE OF DAY WHERE THE FRIGID AIR COULD LITERALLY TAKE A MAN’S BREATH AWAY. BUT ON THIS DAY IT WOULDN’T BE MOTHER NATURE PERFORMING THIS DAUNTING TASK; IT WOULD BE A 26-YEAR-OLD MOB KILLER WITH ICE IN HIS VEINS AND ORDERS TO KILL NAMED PHILIP LEONETTI, WHOSE NICKNAME, CRAZY PHIL, SAID IT ALL.
As the unmistakable sounds of the powerful and unforgiving white-capped waves pounding the shoreline a few feet away punctuated the crisp air on this dreary day, there was no force more powerful and unforgiving, more omnipresent in Philip Leonetti’s life than that of his 50-year-old uncle, Nicodemo Scarfo, the man who had raised him like a son after his own father had abandoned him as a child, and had turned him into a heartless stone-cold killer.
Scarfo, who was nicknamed Little Nicky, stood 5′5″ and weighed a mere 135 pounds. While he may have been small in stature, Scarfo had earned a reputation for committing acts of unspeakable violence that had made him a giant in the criminal underworld.
By 1979, he was the Philadelphia mob’s fastest rising star and had become the de facto boss of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, which, with the advent of casino gambling a year before, had become a boomtown for the mob.
His beloved nephew Philip Leonetti had become his right-hand man, his most trusted aide, and his most able killer. During the late 1970s, in the burgeoning Atlantic City underworld the ground shook when and where Little Nicky and Crazy Phil walked.
It was common knowledge to those doing business in Atlantic City that the equally feared and respected Scarfo and Leonetti were not to be fucked with.
So when a young mob associate named Vincent Falcone drew the ire of the extremely volatile Scarfo, Little Nicky decided that the penalty would be death and that Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti would be the executioner.
Phil Leonetti spoke to Vincent Falcone as the two men stood in the kitchen of a friend’s beachfront home in Margate, an upscale New Jersey beach community a few short miles south of Atlantic City.
Come on Vince, let’s make some drinks.
Inside the living room, just a few feet away, sat Nicky Scarfo, his reading glasses perched low on his nose and his Italian leather shoes resting comfortably on a coffee table as he perused the Sunday edition of the Atlantic City Press while watching the Philadelphia Eagles battle the Houston Oilers, who were led by future Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell.
“Vince, bring me a Cutty and some water,” said Scarfo in his trademark high-pitched voice, as Falcone set out two glasses for the boss, one to be filled with Cutty Sark, the blended scotch whiskey favored by Scarfo, and the other to be filled with water that Little Nicky used to dilute his drink.
Joining the trio of Scarfo, Leonetti, and Falcone on this fateful afternoon were two aspiring mobsters, young wannabe wise guys who, like Leonetti and Falcone, were members of Nicky Scarfo’s Atlantic City crew. The five men had gathered to have a preholiday celebration. Christmas, after all, was just nine days away.
But there was nothing festive about what would happen next.
After placing the bottle of scotch that his uncle had requested on the kitchen table, the 26-year-old Leonetti nodded toward Falcone.
Vince, get some ice.
The unsuspecting Falcone nodded in agreement and walked toward the refrigerator, turning his back to Leonetti and the others as he did.
Leonetti immediately reached into his black leather jacket and pulled out a small .32 caliber handgun that had been tucked in his waistband. Without hesitation, he moved swiftly behind Falcone and pressed the handgun to the back of his head, directly behind his right ear, and squeezed the trigger.
Propelled by the blast, Falcone flew forward and collided with the refrigerator, awkwardly landing on his back as a pool of blood began to turn the cheap linoleum floor a dark shade of crimson.
Nicky Scarfo, apparently no longer interested in the Eagles game, got up from the couch and, without saying a word, walked into the kitchen and kneeled down next to Falcone’s mortally wounded body, pressing his ear to Falcone’s chest to listen for a heartbeat.
“He’s still alive,” Scarfo said to Leonetti, who was standing over Falcone’s body, the gun still firmly gripped in his right hand, “Give him another one,” said Scarfo, who added, “Right here,” as he pointed to Falcone’s heart.
As Little Nicky knelt beside the fallen Vincent Falcone, Crazy Phil pumped another shot into his heart at point-blank range—Boom!—causing Falcone’s body to violently jerk as the bullet ripped through his chest and immediately ended his life.
“The big shot’s dead,” said a jubilant Nicky Scarfo, rising to his feet, belittling the dead man as a “piece of shit cocksucker” as he did.
Philip Leonetti, still holding the pistol, turned to one of the other men in the kitchen, a close friend of Falcone’s, fixed an icy stare on him and said:
He was a no-good motherfucker. I wish I could bring him back to life so I could kill him again.
It wasn’t the first time that Scarfo and Leonetti had killed together, and it wouldn’t be the last. Over the next decade, they orchestrated or personally carried out 20 more killings. Another half dozen, or so, that predated the Falcone murder would help define their reign as two of the most notorious gangsters of the 20th century.
Three things figured prominently in many of the murders: money, power, and Atlantic City. Eventually, Little Nicky and Crazy Phil had them all—all the money, all the power, and absolute control over Atlantic City.
They had ascended from a lowly mob street crew, loaning money to cash-strapped gamblers and shaking down two-bit wise guys, and risen to the pantheon of organized crime. They were the boss and underboss of the Philadelphia–Atlantic City mob, the CEO and COO of the nation’s bloodiest and most ruthless Mafia empire.
Ten years after the Falcone murder, the life of crime, power, and big money was over for Little Nicky and Crazy Phil. But in many ways, life was just beginning for Philip Leonetti.
In Plain Sight
ON MAY 1, 2011, THE WORLD WAS TRANSFIXED BY THE NEWS THAT OSAMA BIN LADEN, THE EVIL MASTERMIND OF THE 9/11 TERRORIST ATTACKS AND UNDOUBTEDLY THE MOST HATED MAN ON THE PLANET, HAD BEEN HUNTED DOWN AND KILLED BY MEMBERS OF THE UNITED STATES MILITARY’S ULTRAELITE NAVY SEAL TEAM SIX.
For most of the decade leading up to Bin Laden’s long-overdue execution, it was widely believed that the world’s most notorious terrorist was living inside a network of hidden mountain caves in the Afghan region of Tora Bora under the protection of the terror-friendly warlords who control the area.
But when Seal Team Six made its now infamous “trip to Atlantic City” (that is what they called the hit on Bin Laden), they did not find him inside a dusty mountain cave, but rather on the third floor of a carefully built million-dollar high-security compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, less than 800 yards from a prestigious Pakistani military academy, the country’s equivalent to West Point.
Despite a $25 million bounty on his head, the 6′4″ Bin Laden was hiding in plain sight. Within hours of his bullet-ridden corpse being ceremoniously dumped into the Indian Ocean, the FBI removed him from atop its Ten Most Wanted List, replacing him with the notorious South Boston Irish mob boss and former FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger.
Suspected in more than 20 killings, the ruthless and cunning Bulger had vanished without a trace in December 1994 after being tipped off by a corrupt FBI agent that the feds were preparing to wipe out his gang with a massive indictment under the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act.
As the international FBI manhunt for Bulger intensified, credible sightings were reported in South Florida, New York City, London, and Chicago from tipsters looking to cash in on a $2 million reward. Additional confirmed sightings in nondescript, Podunk towns—like Grand Isle, Louisiana; Sloan, Iowa; Sheridan, Wyoming; and Fountain Valley, California—affirmed the belief that Bulger was traveling with ease, always managing to stay one step ahead of the egg-faced FBI agents who remained hot on his trial.
It appeared that Whitey Bulger was everywhere, yet nowhere, at the same time.
That would all change during the early evening hours of June 22, 2011, when FBI agents and US Marshals acting on a tip, found the 81-year-old fugitive gangster holed up in a posh seaside condominium in Santa Monica, California, that was located three blocks from the Pacific Ocean and the scenic open-air Third Street Promenade that houses dozens of boutique-type shops and trendy restaurants.
Like Bin Laden in Pakistan, the elusive Whitey Bulger was hiding in plain sight. As we watched the television coverage and read the newspaper accounts surrounding their respective captures, we wondered where in the world was Philip Leonetti hiding?
Leonetti, the onetime underboss of the Philadelphia–Atlantic City mob, nicknamed “Crazy Phil,” was the crowned prince of the Mafia during the mob’s long-lost 1980s heyday in the Northeast United States. A stone-cold killer, he was the nephew and second-in-command of Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, one of the most bloodthirsty and ruthless crime bosses in the history of organized crime.
If Leonetti was the prince, Scarfo was undoubtedly the king of the Atlantic City–Philadelphia mob, and together they ran their Mafia empire from their headquarters on Georgia Avenue in the Ducktown neighborhood of Atlantic City, less than three blocks from the world-famous boardwalk and the glitz and glamour of the city’s neon-lit casinos, all of which they controlled with an iron fist.
A former associate turned government witness once described Scarfo by saying, “If Nicky had as much power as Hitler, he woulda outdid him,” and also said that “Leonetti was 100-percent Scarfo; he was just as ruthless and deadly as his uncle.”
Murder, mayhem, and wanton violence became the benchmark of the mob under Little Nicky and Crazy Phil, with more than two-dozen mob killings punctuating what would become one of the most volatile and tumultuous periods in the long and celebrated US history of the Mafia, or its more proper name, La Cosa Nostra, which is Italian for “this thing of ours.”
Leonetti himself was convicted of participating in 10 gangland killings.
Millions of dollars in cash poured in from traditional mob rackets like gambling, loan sharking, and extortion, while millions more came in from Scarfo’s very lucrative underworld street tax and a seemingly limitless skim from Local 54, Atlantic City’s largest casino union, which Scarfo and Leonetti treated like their own petty cash fund.
Scarfo and Leonetti worked closely with New York crime bosses, including: Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, the leader of the powerful Genovese crime family who stymied law enforcement for decades by pretending to be crazy—walking around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in a bathrobe, mumbling to himself; and “the Dapper Don” John Gotti, the ambitious Gambino crime family boss known for his $2,000 suits.
Scarfo and Leonetti were recognized as elite mafiosi, highly regarded and equally feared in mob circles throughout the United States.
In other words, they were untouchable.
Or so it seemed.
As Scarfo and Leonetti grew in power, so did the efforts of the FBI and the US Department of Justice to stop them. They had become Public Enemy No. 1 and Public Enemy No. 2.
When it was over, the Scarfo organization would be decimated and Little Nicky, its supreme leader and Lord High Executioner would be sentenced to life in prison, narrowly escaping the death penalty, following a series of convictions in both state and federal courts in the late 1980s that rocked the foundation of the Philadelphia–Atlantic City mob. The trials featured testimony from several mob turncoats who had betrayed their sacred oath of omerta and agreed to cooperate with the government by testifying against Scarfo, Leonetti, and 15 of their men.
Scarfo, now 83, remains behind bars as this book is published, currently housed at the high-security US Penitentiary in Atlanta, after spending the last 25 years in various maximum-security federal penitentiaries all over the United States.
Leonetti would receive 45 years in prison for his life of crime, which included convictions for murder and racketeering. But Crazy Phil would only serve five years, five months, and five days behind bars after agreeing to cooperate with the federal government in 1989, betraying his uncle Nicky Scarfo and his blood oath to La Cosa Nostra, to which he’d sworn his undying allegiance less than a decade earlier.
At the age of 36, Philip Leonetti, who had become the youngest underboss in the history of La Cosa Nostra gained the more dubious distinction of being the highest-ranking member of the nationwide crime syndicate to flip and cooperate with the government.
The impact on the underworld was akin to that of a plane flying into the World Trade Center before 9/11.
It was unfathomable; but it happened, and the Philadelphia–Atlantic City mob would be left in tatters, its infrastructure so badly damaged that more than two decades later it has yet to fully recover.
Leonetti the government witness proved to be just as deadly as Leonetti the mob killer. Dozens of mobsters and associates were convicted as a direct result of Leonetti’s testimony, and he would figure prominently in the demise of New York mob bosses Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and John Gotti and more importantly, La Cosa Nostra itself.
When he was done testifying, Leonetti would settle into a life inside the confines of a top-secret world: the witness security wing of a remote federal prison tucked away in a dusty Arizona desert.
Joining him would be Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the former underboss of New York’s Gambino crime family, who followed Leonetti’s lead and also defected from La Cosa Nostra.
Ironically, as Leonetti and Gravano enjoyed life together in the Arizona sun, reminiscing about their glory days in the mob, Nicky Scarfo and John Gotti, the bosses they betrayed, were rotting, locked down for all but a half hour of each day inside eight-by-ten-foot concrete cells in one of the nation’s toughest federal prisons, located in Marion, Illinois.
By the early 1990s, the US La Cosa Nostra was still a deadly nationwide criminal organization, but it had become a shell of its former self.
Leonetti, the man who brought the mob to its knees, was released from prison and disappeared into the Witness Protection Program with a new identity and a new lease on life. Not yet 40 years old, Philip Leonetti had to start over and completely reinvent himself, and he couldn’t have been happier to do so.
While Gigante and Gotti would go on to die inside the federal prisons that became their homes, Leonetti’s uncle, Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, would remain alive and well in his.
Scarfo has vowed revenge and has openly plotted to kill his once-beloved nephew and his entire family. The evil and vindictive Scarfo would place a $500,000 bounty on his nephew’s head, a bounty, which according to the FBI, still stands today.
A letter written in the mid-1990s by a deranged Scarfo to his own mother, Leonetti’s grandmother, paints a chilling picture, as the jailed mob boss makes a not-so-veiled series of threats against Leonetti and his mother, Nancy, who is Scarfo’s own sister:
“I will never forget them animals and what they did to this family, but you still love them, which makes me know you lost your mind. I want you to live forever, but I want you to have your senses so you could see what is going to happen to those wild animals. If you love that witch, you better say all your prayers for her and her crazy son, because I don’t need no prayers and beside all of that, FUCK GOD, too.”
In another letter, this one intercepted by the Bureau of Prisons, a tamer Scarfo wrote the following to one of his lawyers:
“I maintain myself to see these people suffer one day, this is what keeps me going.”
What keeps Philip Leonetti going is the new life that he started with his family, far away from Atlantic City and the mob, and for the last decade or so, away from the watchful eye of the FBI and the US Marshals who run the Witness Protection Program.
Hiding from both the mob and the government, Philip Leonetti—we would come to learn—was, like Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger, hiding in plain sight.
La Cosa Nostra (This Thing of Ours)
WHAT WE KNOW AS THE MAFIA IN THE UNITED STATES IS ACTUALLY AN OFFSHOOT OF SEVERAL DIFFERENT SECRET SOCIETIES IN EUROPE THAT DATE BACK CENTURIES. THE MOST PROMINENT OF THESE SECTS WERE THE SICILIAN MAFIA – THE ’NDRANGHETA – AND THE CAMORRA, WHICH ORIGINATED IN NAPLES.
Originally, the intent of such organizations was not criminal. They existed to protect the common citizens of these regions from a corrupt and oppressive government that did little to nothing to look out for the interests of the regular working man. Over time, as these groups evolved, they became sophisticated criminal organizations.
As Italian and Sicilian immigrants flooded the streets of major American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of loosely organized incarnations of these secret societies began to take form, making their presence felt in ethnic neighborhoods across the country.
Street gangs with ties to the Old Country set up shop and operated a vast array of rackets. The onset of Prohibition in the 1920s made many early mob leaders incredibly wealthy, as their street gangs spearheaded an underworld movement supplying illegal liquor to a thirsty public, while causing heaps of newspaper headlines and bloodshed as they battled over turf.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Chicago, where Al Capone, the most celebrated gangster of his era, became the face of organized crime in the United States.
At first, there was little to no connection between the various burgeoning crime conglomerates operating throughout the United States. A move toward consolidation slowly began to take form as the bosses began to recognize that true power and strength could only be accomplished by establishing a nationwide crime syndicate.
This American organized crime syndicate would come to be known as La Cosa Nostra, which in Italian means “this thing of ours.”
The inaugural summit of this newly organized syndicate would feature the nation’s top gangland bosses, nearly 50 men operating street rackets in US cities from coast to coast. The meeting took place in the spring of 1929 at the legendary Ritz Hotel on the world-famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. Atlantic City, known as the World’s Playground, was riddled with vice and became the original Sin City long before modern-day Las Vegas was even contemplated.
Backroom casinos, showgirls looking for a quick buck, and a nonstop flow of booze during Prohibition made Atlantic City the perfect choice for such a gathering.
Two years later in 1931, the modern American Mafia was created in the aftermath of a carnage-filled mob war in New York City that pitted a group of old-school underworld leaders, known as Mustache Petes, against a group of young and hungry underworld visionaries led by a man born Salvatore Lucania, who would come to be known as Charles “Lucky” Luciano. With Luciano’s group emerging victorious, the ambitious new “Godfather” called a meeting of fellow mob leaders in Chicago and laid out his vision for what would become La Cosa Nostra.
Luciano proposed a nationwide crime syndicate made up of regional mob factions, called Families, which would be overseen and governed by a board of directors known as the Commission. The Commission would be comprised of only the most powerful and respected mob dons—men like Luciano and Capone.
The syndicate and its rules would be paramilitary in structure. Each family would be headed by a boss, an underboss, and a consigliere, or counselor. The hierarchy of the family would also include a cadre of capos, or captains, who would each be responsible for a crew of family soldiers and associates.
Attendees of Luciano’s underworld conference, held at the Blackstone Hotel in the heart of the Windy City’s famous Miracle Mile on Michigan Avenue, unanimously agreed to the proposal and unanimously pledged their allegiance to the newly established La Cosa Nostra.
Following the meeting of the nation’s top criminal minds in Chicago, 26 American mob Families were formed. There was one for almost every major city in the country, with the New York and Chicago mobs being the most prominent.
In the city of Philadelphia, John Avena, a longtime lieutenant under Prohibition-era crime lord Salvatore Sabella was named the city’s first modern-day mob boss. Sabella had sided against Luciano in his war with the Mustache Petes, and as a result was told to step down and turn over the reins to Avena. From the moment he assumed power, Avena butted heads with a former ally and onetime Sabella lieutenant named Joseph Dovi. Feeling slighted by Avena’s promotion, Dovi immediately challenged his authority. The two men and their respective factions battled for control on the streets for nearly five years, a war that culminated with Avena, the boss, being killed in 1936.
Dovi took control of the Philadelphia Mafia for the next decade, expanding the crime family’s territorial reach into parts of neighboring states New Jersey and Delaware. When Dovi died from natural causes in 1946, Joe Ida, another former Sabella disciple, was named the city’s new don. Ida ruled unfettered for over a decade, but his reign would end following his arrest at the infamous Appalachian mob summit in 1957, which ultimately led to his deportation.
Philip Leonetti was a Mafia Prince who, for a while, inherited the crown. A fascinating tale of mob money and murder by someone who was there.”
-Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy and Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas
- On Sale
- Apr 29, 2014
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Running Press