IT HAD BECOME the defense team's mantra: The Philly Mafia doesn't whack people anymore.
No murders in nearly a decade. Reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and his associates were being prosecuted for "racketeering-lite." Sure, maybe they owned some video-poker machines and loaned cash at high interest rates - but, hey, so does SugarHouse Casino and Capital One.
But on Wednesday - the same day federal prosecutors rested their case against Ligambi and his top lieutenants - a body dropped in South Philly in what could be the city's first mob hit since 2003.
Police were questioning Anthony Nicodemo, 41, a reputed mob soldier, in connection with the killing, and were seeking a warrant to search his Packer Park home.
Yellow crime-scene tape stretched across Iseminger Street near Johnston, where cops were scouring the area for evidence.
A woman from the neighborhood who was afraid to give her name said she'd heard five gunshots around 3 p.m., when a man neighbors and police sources identified as Gino DiPietro, 50, was shot several times in the back and fatally wounded on the narrow street.
"He was in and out of trouble. He'd been in jail for drugs," a neighbor said of DiPietro, who'd apparently been ambushed while getting into his truck on the block. He was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital and was pronounced dead at 3:21 p.m.
Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti, the former underboss and hit man for ex-mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, was supposed to travel to Philadelphia this weekend as part of a media campaign for his new tell-all book, Mafia Prince. But Wednesday night he got a call from an FBI source who told him to stay away in light of the shooting.
"He said, 'I can't tell you what to do,' but he said definitely not to come because something's going on," Leonetti told the Daily News.
Police were tight-lipped about the shooting Wednesday, but one law-enforcement source said DiPietro, believed to be a mob associate, may have made enemies by cooperating with authorities while incarcerated. His brothers are known mob associates.
"It's like an Agatha Christie story. There would be multiple people who would want to do that," said one law-enforcement source familiar with the players involved.
Tensions were high in the hours immediately after the slaying. Distraught relatives of the victim angrily told reporters to leave. On the next block of Iseminger, north of where DiPietro was gunned down, where relatives of Nicodemo live, they shouted at reporters to stay away from their homes.
"It's a shame, because this is a nice neighborhood and it's near Christmas," said one neighbor who did not want to be named, adding that he knew the Nicodemo family. When told that Anthony Nicodemo had been taken into custody in connection with a homicide, the neighbor said, "It can't be. They're nice people. Nothing happens around here."
Nicodemo, whom law-enforcement sources describe as a "made" member of the Philly mob, pleaded guilty in 2009 to participating in running a sports bookmaking ring inside the Borgata Hotel Casino poker room. He has been called a suspect in the murder of John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto.
One mob source speculated that an attack on the DiPietro family could be "tying up loose ends" in connection with the 1995 gangland-style slaying of Ralph Mazzuca. Ligambi's nephew, George Borgesi, now on trial in the racketeering case, has long been a suspect, but he was never charged in that case.
"In Philly, they just shoot each other and there will be 50 reasons why," said the mob source, describing the multiple theories traveling by word-of-mouth Wednesday night.
But Leonetti said Ligambi would never order a hit while the mob is trying to convince jurors that it's harmless.
"Now this makes them violent guys. It looks like an ordered hit," Leonetti said. "It's very bad."
Ligambi, 73, and his co-defendants - Borgesi, Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, Anthony Staino, Damion Canalichio, Gary Battaglini and Joseph "Scoops" Licata - went on trial in mid-October on racketeering charges built around alleged loan-sharking, extortion, sports betting and the operation of video-poker machines going back to 1999. The defense is expected to begin next week.
"These guys are playing a deadly game," said Stephen LaPenta, a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant and organized-crime investigator. "This is either the beginning or the end of the violence."