Joseph Santaguida, 81, a prominent Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer and a blunt-talking, impeccably dressed defender of mob leaders and drug dealers, died on Wednesday, May 13, from the coronavirus, his son said.
Mr. Santaguida had been battling Parkinson’s disease for several years before he contracted the virus, Rocco Santaguida said. He died at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital in New Jersey.
Mr. Santaguida had a long and colorful career representing players in the city’s underworld, including reputed mobsters Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino and Joseph “Mousie” Massimino, as well as Hakeem Bey, the violent leader of a South Philadelphia drug gang. He once survived the threat of a hit from a client’s rival mob boss, and was threatened with indictment by federal authorities who suggested he had encouraged illegal activities by his reputed mob clients.
Such attention-grabbing incidents seemed only to feed Mr. Santaguida’s outsize persona. Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., another longtime defender of reputed mob associates, who knew Mr. Santaguida for more than three decades, called him one of the last members of a generation of big-city criminal defense attorneys who proudly flaunted their charisma and flair, equally at ease sparring with prosecutors, wooing jurors, and cavorting with sometimes impetuous clients.
“He was top of the heap,” Jacobs said. “Very good, very bold — he got jurors’ attention because of the way he looked and sounded and acted."
Brian McMonagle, a prominent Philadelphia defense attorney who was in high school when he first met Mr. Santaguida, called him a “legend” with an impeccable sense of style and a booming voice.
“He was a fearless and gifted trial lawyer who took no prisoners in the courtroom or outside of it,” McMonagle said. “We will never see his kind again.”
Mr. Santaguida was born in 1938 and raised at 12th and Tasker Streets in South Philadelphia, according to his son. He was the oldest of three children; his father was a barber who for decades owned a shop at Seventh and South Streets.
Growing up, Mr. Santaguida thought he might sell clothes for a living, Rocco said, but his father insisted he attend college. He graduated from Villanova University and later Villanova’s law school, and began his career as a defense attorney in the city in the mid-1960′s.
Although he eventually became known for representing reputed mobsters and gangsters accused of a wide array of crimes, including murder, he told Philadelphia Magazine in 2008 that his practice was initially dominated by lower-level drug offenses.
“And, of course, when you get their drug cases, you also end up with their burglaries and robberies and their murder cases," he said.
He credited his upbringing in South Philadelphia with connecting him to reputed wiseguys.
“If somebody had a friend or a relative who was in trouble, they’d recommend you,” he said. “It seemed to me that everybody I knew from South Philly, instead of them being jealous or resentful when I became a lawyer, all seemed proud of me and went out of their way to help me and support me and send cases my way, to trust their loved ones with me.”
Merlino, the reputed former boss of the Philadelphia mob, was among Mr. Santaguida’s most notorious clients. Mr. Santaguida also represented Massimino, a reputed mob underboss who in 2013 was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison for a racketeering and conspiracy conviction.
But he was not purely a lawyer for La Cosa Nostra. Rocco Santaguida said his father represented many reputed members of the Junior Black Mafia. And he defended Bey, an alleged South Philadelphia gang leader, in 2008, when he was convicted of murder for an ambush-style street shooting. Prosecutors said it was one of several incidents Bey engineered in the neighborhood, including the separate murder of a federally protected witness.
Rocco Santaguida said that he knew many of the stories about his father’s unique work life while growing up, but that none of it bothered anyone in the family.
He said his father “thought everybody had good in them," and “always saw good in people no matter what they did and who they were.”
Mr. Santaguida’s wife, Marianne, died years ago. A son, Anthony, died in a house fire in Cherry Hill in 2017.
In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister and two grandchildren.
Funeral services were held Monday, May 18.