The Philadelphia mob has limped along on life support for the past decade, its former leaders, Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi and Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, out of the picture after high-profile federal prosecutions.
But reports of La Cosa Nostra’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed Monday by U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain. In fact, the mafia was adding new soldiers to its ranks as recently as 2015, prosecutors say, in ceremonies overseen by veterans of those former regimes.
Fifteen mobsters have been indicted on racketeering, extortion, gambling and drug trafficking charges, according to the indictment. Chief among them is Steven “Stevie” Mazzone, 56, the reputed underboss of the organization who once served under Ligambi.
The 14 other defendants read like a Who’s Who list of made men, many of whom were previously indicted on organized-crime charges in Philadelphia in the last two decades: Domenic Grande, 41; Joseph “Joey Electric” Servidio, 60; Salvatore “Sonny” Mazzone, 55; Joseph Malone, 70; Louis “Louie Sheep” Barretta, 56; Victor “Big Vic” DeLuca, 56; Kenneth Arabia, 67; Daniel “Cozzy” Castelli, 67; Carl Chianese, 81; Anthony “Tony Meatballs” Gifoli, 73; John Romeo, 58; Daniel “Danny” Malatesta, 75; Daniel Bucceroni, 66; and John Michael Payne, 34.
McSwain, in unsealing the court documents Monday, said the defendants wielded the reputation and influence of the mafia to command criminal activity in the city and beyond, stretching their influence to the Jersey Shore.
All 15 defendants are due to appear in front of U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick on Jan. 8, according to court documents.
Attorneys for Arabia, Castelli, Bucceroni, Salvatore Mazzone, and Gifoli did not immediately return a request for comment.
Malone’s attorney, William J. Brennan, described his client as a family man who has operated a restaurant in the city — Malone’s Backroom Cafe on 18th and Ritner — for 40 years and keeps to himself.
“My client, who has led a quiet life, is presumed innocent, as is everyone else,” Brennan said Monday. “Unfortunately, when the federal agents arrived at his house, he suffered a heart attack and has undergone surgery. We’re now focusing on his health, but we look forward to defending on these charges.”
Michael Caudo, Malatesta’s attorney, said his client is looking forward to his day in court, and Rocco Cipparone, Barretta’s attorney, said he was awaiting discovery materials, eager to build his case.
“We’ll learn about the quality and character of government’s evidence and start to build our defense once we get the opportunity to do that,” he said.
It was unclear Monday if the other defendants had hired attorneys.
The indictment, and the investigation that spawned it, represents the first time in several years that so many reputed mafia associates have been swept up for racketeering charges. More recent efforts focused on single defendants, or smaller groups.
It also takes a top-down approach to dismantling the organization, charging both its reputed underboss, as well as alleged soldiers and associates who carried out commands from these more senior members.
Prosecutors say the group ran illegal sports gambling, extorted victims through predatory loan-sharking and pushed heroin, cocaine and prescription opioid painkillers. In one instance, during a botched attempt to buy two pounds of methamphetamine from a Philly drug dealer, members of the group conspired to kidnap and kill the man to uphold the organization’s reputation, the indictment said.
Federal investigators started building their case in October 2015, when Steven Mazzone, Salvatore Mazzone, and Grande presided over a “making” ceremony in South Philadelphia, during which a group of new soldiers were inducted into the mafia, according to the indictment.
In the following months, Grande allegedly put these new soldiers to work. The group was ordered to help Arabia and Castelli spread the mob’s influence into Atlantic City by extorting local bookies and loan sharks.
From their favored meeting places, like the now-defunct Broadway Theatrical Club in South Philadelphia, the group carried out those orders over the next three years, amid threats of violence, according to the indictment. In one instance, Malone commanded one of the soldiers to “go over there with a baseball bat and hit” an unidentified victim.
During that same span, the defendants expanded their illegal activities to include distribution of cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl, selling the narcotics to undercover federal agents on several occasions, the indictment said.
At one point, Servidio, DeLuca, and Chianese sought to buy two pounds of methamphetamine from a drug dealer in Philadelphia, but the drugs he sold them were fake. The group then plotted to kidnap and kill him, but their plans were never carried out, the indictment said.