Did 'King Rat' Natale entrap himself in writings?
RALPH NATALE has always been a talker. In 1994, after doing 15 years in prison on drug-dealing and arson charges, he talked himself into bed with a hot blonde half his age - his daughter's best friend - with empty promises of a better life and a yarn about his 62-year-old wife's ailing health.
RALPH NATALE has always been a talker.
In 1994, after doing 15 years in prison on drug-dealing and arson charges, he talked himself into bed with a hot blonde half his age - his daughter's best friend - with empty promises of a better life and a yarn about his 62-year-old wife's ailing health.
While he was boss of the Philadelphia mob, the FBI secretly recorded Natale talking about sketchy business deals, insubordinate underlings, a proposed Atlantic City strip club with "the finest broads" and his hatred for government informants who rat on fellow Mafia members.
In August 1999, he became the rat, to avoid spending the rest of his life in jail. "King Rat," as Natale was dubbed at the time, was believed to be the first sitting mob boss in America to testify against his own crime family.
And he kept talking. Day after day in federal court, he testified about La Cosa Nostra customs, gangland murders, controlling the South Jersey bartenders' union and life on "the dark side."
The guy wouldn't shut up.
Now 76, having recently completed 11 more years in prison for drug trafficking and racketeering, Natale's mouth - and his pen - could get him into trouble once again.
The washed-up mobster is trying to cash in with a tell-all memoir that's steeped in braggadocio and is raising eyebrows among South Philadelphians and organized-crime investigators. He's yapping about murders he committed and implying that his federal testimony against former mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and other mobsters was exaggerated.
And he lays it on thick.
"Not a word of kindness or a simple touch of love from either mother or father since I was old enough to remember," Natale writes in a very rough first draft of his book, a portion of which was obtained by the Daily News. "So this made me unfeeling when, as a man, I took men's lives who wanted to take mine, or something that belonged to me or what I believed in at that time, 'La Cosa Nostra.' "
Natale covers a lot of territory in his proposed memoir, from the 1918 flu pandemic that killed his paternal grandparents to the mob's push into the Atlantic City gambling industry.
"This is a true story of a little boy who grew up to become a Don," Natale writes.
The mushy stuff and the worn Mafia clichés aren't what have piqued the interest of federal investigators. But their former star witness talking about killing people? That's a different story.
"He wants the prosecutors to look like a bunch of chumps because he figures he got one over on them by holding back on these murders," said Celeste Morello, a South Philly mob historian who has read some of Natale's material at his request.
"He said we'd be famous and rich from the book," Morello said. "He was saying, 'You're going to make a million dollars.' "
When Natale was indicted on drug charges in 1999 and agreed to become a cooperating witness, he was ordered to spill his guts - without holding back about crimes he'd committed. He admitted his role in eight murders and four attempted murders, loan-sharking, extortion and other crimes.
But in his handwritten memoir, Natale reconstructs a meeting in the 1960s between then-Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno and then-Gambino crime-family boss Carlo Gambino at Ferrara's pastry shop in New York City. In one passage, Bruno refers to Natale's "capacity to kill in a blink of an eye" and says Natale "has killed without hesitation on my orders before, and has done this without creating a storm with the police."
One problem: Those killings, if they occurred, would predate those that Natale admitted to as part of his plea deal in 2000. And there's no statute of limitations on murder.
Morello said that Natale told her that he had also "killed a guy in Center City before he got involved with the mob" - another murder that would have occurred before those that Natale admitted.
Natale and Morello had a falling out after discussing the book for five days in late July. Apparently, he doesn't take kindly to a woman criticizing his work.
"This is one disrespectful bastard," said Morello, author of the Before Bruno series chronicling the history of the Philadelphia Mafia. "He got so melodramatic. I couldn't believe I was talking to a mob boss."
Natale is now claiming that he was initiated into the mob, or "made," by Bruno in 1968 in one of Thomas Gambino's warehouses in New York City, Morello said. That story contradicts Natale's testimony during the Merlino trials, when he said he was made by Merlino in a hotel near Veterans Stadium in 1994.
"He told me he just said whatever the feds wanted him to say," Morello said. "That's what he accepted as part of the deal. And he swears what he wrote is the absolute truth."
The Daily News is withholding the location of Natale's residence because there are still a few wise guys around who wouldn't mind putting a bullet in his head for testifying against the mob.
Ruth Seccio, mother of Natale's ex-girlfriend, Ruthann Seccio, is furious over Natale's attempt to profit from a life of crime.
"He's a liar, he's a bulls----er, he's a thief, he's a murderer. He's everything you can imagine a demon could be," Ruth Seccio said this week at her apartment at 28th and Morris streets.
"That Ralph Natale, if I could shoot him, I'd shoot the bastard," she said, seemingly only half-joking. She recalled how she and her daughter lived in fear of angry mobsters after Natale - who is still married to his wife, Lucy, 79 - turned government witness.
Organized-crime investigators have looked at Natale's writing, but he doesn't specify which murders he's talking about. That leaves them little to go on, a law-enforcement official said.
Natale is an admitted killer. But many insist that he's a liar, too. So how do you know if he's spinning mob-infused fish tales to make some money, or talking about real victims with real families?
"It's like chasing a shadow," said a law-enforcement official familiar with Natale's memoir.
Natale did not respond to a request for an interview.
Attorney Edwin Jacobs, who represented Merlino during the trials in Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., and cross-examined Natale extensively, said that Natale's book should probably be marketed as a novel, not an autobiography.
"I wouldn't believe him under oath, so why would I believe anything he says in a book?" said Jacobs, who made sure to add that he wouldn't buy it even if Natale finds a publisher.
"He took the stand having been pumped up as the best witness ever presented at a racketeering trial. After six days of cross-examination, I don't think there was a person in the courtroom who believed anything he said."
Stephen LaPenta, who investigated Natale when working for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, said that he's not surprised that Natale is trying to convert his killings into cash and grab some attention with a book.
"All these guys have egos bigger than the f---ing Hindenburg," LaPenta said. "He's a stone-cold murderer, and he's a pathological liar. You're dealing with someone who would sell your mother's eyes."
It's unclear whether Natale formally remains in the witness-protection program. Morello said that he doesn't sound particularly concerned about his safety.
"He speaks recklessly," Morello said. "He said he doesn't fear anything from anyone."
But LaPenta and other current and former law-enforcement officials say that Natale should watch what he says and writes these days.
"Will someone whack him? Who knows," LaPenta said. "I think anybody that rats is at risk, period. It's like being a little bit pregnant. You can't be. Once you rat, you're vulnerable to anything."