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Feds’ case against reputed mobster Philip Narducci hinges on S. Philly barber with alleged ties to Mideast terror group

If any job title is more likely to provoke mistrust in a jury than “former Mafia hit man,” lawyers for reputed former gangland executioner Philip Narducci think they’ve found one: terrorist.

Reputed former mob executioner Philip Narducci smiles outside his restaurant, Chick's, on Washington Avenue in Philadelphia in July 2017.
Reputed former mob executioner Philip Narducci smiles outside his restaurant, Chick's, on Washington Avenue in Philadelphia in July 2017.Read more--- Elizabeth Robertson / File Photograph

Is any job title more likely to provoke knee-jerk mistrust from a jury than “former Mafia hit man”?

Lawyers for Philip Narducci — reputed former gangland executioner, more recent restaurateur, and current defendant in a federal loan-sharking prosecution — think they’ve found one: “Middle Eastern terrorist.”

In an unusual twist in an otherwise old-school mob case, Narducci’s lawyers hope to affix that label to their client’s chief accuser — a man whom they revealed last month to be a South Philadelphia barber, longtime FBI informant, and Lebanese national once found by a judge to have lied about his association with a group tied to the Iran-backed, anti-Israel terror group Hezbollah.

The defense strategy has drawn the ire of prosecutors, who dismiss it as a dirty trick aimed at smearing the man’s credibility. They have touted their informant as a trusted source for past U.S. intelligence operations and sought to bar any mention of the “T” word at Narducci’s trial, scheduled for May.

“They think they’re going to beat this case by saying he’s a terrorist to inflame the passions of the jury,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John S. Han said during a hearing last week before U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage. “Clearly, that’s their goal — make this case about terrorism, not about the facts of the case.”

So far, though, that consternation hasn’t stopped Narducci’s lawyer, Brian J. McMonagle, from seizing on the issue with gusto. He has derided the government’s support of the man, whom he describes as a “degenerate gambler” mired in debt to Narducci and using the FBI to bail him out.

“It’s unimaginable that the U.S. government would allow a terrorist to remain in the United States, allow him to use false pretenses to borrow money from business owners, indict the business owners, and hide from the jury the painful truth of this terrorist’s subterfuge,” McMonagle wrote in a court filing last month.

A question of credibility

Efforts to discredit government informants are nothing new in Philadelphia’s decades-long history of blockbuster Mafia trials — a catalog built on testimony from a rogues’ gallery of mob turncoats and wiseguys-turned-witnesses with rap sheets rife with material for any cross-examining defense lawyer. Investigators often say that they don’t have the luxury of choosing saints as their witnesses, and that only through informants with questionable pasts are they able to net larger targets.

But even among that lot, Rabih Masri, the man at the center of Narducci’s case, stands out.

Born in Lebanon in 1978, he came to the United States in the late ’90s, overstayed a tourist visa, and claimed political asylum once he was caught, according to court filings.

It is unclear whether he ever had any actual ties to terrorist activity or ideology. Federal authorities, who have referred to him in court as “Victim A,” declined to comment. Attempts to reach him for this article by phone, email, and at his barbershop and last listed address were unsuccessful.

Masri’s identity was divulged on various gangland forums online and in public court filings in the months after Narducci’s arrest. As of Friday, many of the internet postings had been taken down, and Savage, the judge overseeing the case, had sealed documents that identified him.

Still, a rough history of Masri’s past emerged during a recent hearing in federal court.

He told immigration authorities in the early 2000s that he had been a member of AMAL, a predominantly Shia political party and militia in Lebanon allied with Hezbollah. But he insisted he only joined at the behest of Israeli intelligence officers for whom he was working as a spy and that he never espoused the ideology or beliefs of the group

In fact, he reported in sworn testimony at the time, it was the discovery of his subterfuge that forced him to flee Lebanon for the United States under threat of death.

Judge Rosalind K. Malloy, the immigration judge who oversaw his case, didn’t fully buy his story and denied his asylum bid, partly on grounds of national security.

In her ruling, she questioned his credibility and accused Masri of trying to mislead the court on his links to AMAL. Yet the judge withheld an order to deport him back to Lebanon, citing documents that suggested he faced a legitimate threat of torture or execution should he return there.

Since then, authorities say, Masri has worked periodically as an informant for the government in national security investigations, chiefly in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The FBI vouched for him during his immigration fight, saying he’s not a threat.

At a recent hearing, prosecutors in Narducci’s case argued that Masri maintains he didn’t lie about anything in his immigration proceedings.

Still, McMonagle insists that the immigration judge’s years-old findings are now central to his client’s defense and that he should be able to raise the issue at trial.

“His credibility is at the heart of this case,” the lawyer said of the barber. “He has lied under oath before.”

And Narducci, McMonagle said, proved to be an easy target.

‘He’s a killer’

A former member of Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo’s crew, Narducci, 57, has spent more than half his life in prison for Mafia-related crimes. Prosecutors say they have tied him to at least three notorious gangland slayings, including the 1985 hit on Frank “Frankie Flowers” D’Alfonso.

But although a jury convicted him of that murder in 1989, the verdict was overturned on appeal, and a second trial ended in acquittal. And since his release from prison on racketeering charges in 2012, Narducci vows he has gone straight.

Now, he spends most of his days at Chick’s — the Washington Avenue gastropub that he runs with his wife and that is named after his father, Frank “Chickie” Narducci Sr., a purported mob captain killed on Scarfo’s orders in the 1980s.

That’s where he says he met Masri, a regular customer who in January 2018 asked for his help — purportedly to pay for an organ transplant for his dying mother. Narducci lent him $20,000 at an interest rate that prosecutors maintain was extortionate.

But Masri began missing payments, and by October his debt had ballooned to $115,000.

According to government court filings, Narducci became irate and allegedly dragged Masri into a back room at Chick’s, tried to force him to sign a notarized loan agreement, and when he refused began yelling and shoving him around.

As Masri tried to leave, the documents say, Narducci threw him against a car, shoved his face into the windshield, accused him of being “a rat,” and told him to go cry to the FBI.

Sure enough, he did.

The filings in Narducci’s case are rife with alleged threats Masri recorded over the next several months while wearing an FBI wire. But by that time, Narducci had turned to an associate, James Gallo, to help collect on the debt.

Gallo, a 44-year-old unemployed member of the city stagehands’ union who also has been charged in the case, describes himself as a decades-long customer of Masri’s barbershop. He says he attended the man’s wedding and went on dates with him and their wives.

Nevertheless, while wearing a wire, Masri recorded Gallo allegedly attempting to intimidate him repeatedly on Narducci’s behalf.

“He’s a killer, you ... idiot,” Gallo said of Narducci on Oct. 27, according to excerpts quoted in court papers. “He’s killed eight ... people.”

Two days later, while Masri was cutting his hair, Gallo asked why he wouldn’t just sign Narducci’s loan agreement.

“I’m not saying that he won’t come in and strangle you, but he’s going to kill you,” Gallo said.

The barber explained that he was worried that if he signed, Narducci could take him to court.

“What can they do?” Gallo responded. “Besides ... kill you.”

Masri paid Narducci $8,500 over the next three months — all of which came from the FBI, court documents say.

But when he missed additional payments in December, Gallo warned him to “stop playing games.”

“You know when you’re gonna care,” he said. “When he shows up with a ... ski mask, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, no’ … and that’s gonna be the last thing you’re gonna ... say.”

Gallo’s lawyer, Greg Pagano, maintains that his client wasn’t threatening Masri and instead was trying to warn his friend of the danger in stringing Narducci along.

For his part, Narducci says Masri conned him by playing on his sympathies to get money to gamble. When he couldn’t repay it, he turned to the FBI to wriggle out of his debts.

During the period Masri was ducking Narducci, he also was recording his conversations with another man from whom he had borrowed money — John Florio, a 42-year-old South Philadelphia home renovator. He has been charged in a separate case with threatening the barber with a gun during an attempt to collect money he was owed.

Florio’s lawyer, Peter J. Scuderi, described Masri’s background in Lebanon and his past credibility issues as a defense lawyer’s dream.

Prosecutors may stand by his story, Scuderi said, but “he could be the most impeachable witness I’ve ever had in my career.”