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Feds unveil 50-count indictment against 'Uncle Joe,' 12 others

If the Philly mob isn't dead then it just got tied up and shoved into a trunk.

If the Philly mob isn't dead - and federal prosecutors insisted yesterday it isn't - then it just got tied up and shoved into a trunk.

Yesterday, the feds finally busted "Uncle Joe" - the 72-year-old reputed Philadelphia mafia boss, Joseph Ligambi - and hauled in 12 of his alleged lieutenants and associates in the most sweeping government crackdown on the mob here in a decade.

The indictment unsealed yesterday said that Ligambi and his crew carried on mob enterprises, like loan-sharking and illegal sports betting, after Ligambi took over the Philadelphia crime family from Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino in 2001.

But Joseph C. Santaguida, Ligambi's attorney, said the reputed mob boss, who pleaded not guilty to all charges and has a bail hearing Thursday, claimed that the feds' case was "weak."

Asked if Ligambi, dressed in a white polo shirt and jeans, was the mob boss portrayed by prosecutors, the defense attorney said: "I don't know if [prosecutors] can even prove that. I don't think it's that strong a case."

The superseding indictment unsealed yesterday charged Ligambi and nine others with racketeering, conspiracy, loan-sharking, illegal gambling and related offenses. Three other defendants face lesser charges.

Authorities said that all the defendants were charged in January, but that the indictment wasn't unsealed until yesterday because the investigation was ongoing.

Two defendants, George "Georgie" Borgesi, 47, and Damion "Dame" Canalichio, a convicted drug dealer, are in federal prison and were to be released in December. (Borgesi, who is Ligambi's nephew, was a defendant in Merlino's 2001 racketeering trial.)

The 70-page, 50-count indictment was as surprising for what it did not allege as for what it charged.

Many of the alleged criminal misdeeds date from the early 2000s. And there is no mention in the indictment of three unsolved gangland slayings from 1999, 2002 and 2003, a period covered in the indictment.

A law-enforcement source close to the investigation but not authorized to speak publicly said these kinds of racketeering investigations typically unfold in stages as more evidence is developed. "Stay tuned," he said.

Eleven defendants were arrested yesterday and taken to federal magistrate court. A few were subsequently released on bail; the others were detained pending bail hearings later this week.

One prominent person who was not named in yesterday's indictment was Merlino, now serving the remainder of a 14-year sentence for racketeering in a federal halfway house in Miami.

He is to be released in September, and U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger - who helped prosecute Merlino in 2001 - said yesterday that he hoped Merlino "would do the right thing" when he is released and steer clear of the mob.

The indictment of the low-profile Ligambi had long been expected.

As outlined in the indictment, Ligambi; Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, 61; Anthony "Ant" Staino, Jr., 53; and others oversaw a criminal enterprise that from 1999 to January 2011 extorted money from businesses, operated illegal gambling businesses involving sports bookmaking and 86 video-poker machines, made illegal loans with interest rates in excess of 152 percent and threatened violence when victims didn't repay.

The indictment said, for example, that in April 2002 Canalichio and co-defendant Louis Barretta threatened "Victim A" while attempting to collect a debt that the two defendants referred to as "Uncle Joe's money." In a subsequent conversation, Canalichio allegedly told Victim A that he was "capable of cracking" Victim A if necessary to collect the debt.

Ligambi was also charged with obstruction of justice by making threatening statements to an individual so that the person wouldn't give a photo to the grand jury.

Authorities said members of the criminal enterprise tried to conceal their activities from law enforcement by talking in code over the phone and participating in "walk and talks," which the feds described as secret conversations while walking to and standing at locations where the defendants believed their voices couldn't be intercepted.

The indictment said Massimino, Gaeton "Gate" Lucibello, Martin Angelina, Canalichio and others owned and operated illegal gambling businesses, which were run out of the now-defunct Lou's Crab Bar and a private club, the 1st Ward Republican Club, in South Philadelphia, where members routinely met.

They also operated illegal gambling from two South Philadelphia sports bars, Cholly Bears and DiNics, authorities said.