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Prison death of Rizzo's son-in-law angers family

Joseph Vito Mastronardo Jr., 65, of Abington Township, known as the Gentleman Gambler, died Nov. 9 in a federal prison in Massachusetts. The feds had told the family he would be in good hands.

Joe Mastronardo III wants answers regarding the death of his father, the “Gentleman Gambler.”
Joe Mastronardo III wants answers regarding the death of his father, the “Gentleman Gambler.”Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

MAYBE FRANK Rizzo could've sorted this out.

Because even Rizzo, the hard-nosed Philadelphia police commissioner-turned-mayor, saw his son-in-law Joseph Vito Mastronardo Jr. for what he was: a good man.

Maybe Rizzo could have explained to the prosecutors and the judge that "Joe Vito" was actually a kindhearted genius and a compassionate workaholic who was generous to a fault - even if he made a living as an unrepentant sports bookmaker.

And maybe he could've convinced the judge that he was gambling with Mastronardo's life by sending him to prison.

Mastronardo, 65, known as the "Gentleman Gambler," was a math whiz who shunned violence and raked in millions from wealthy clients throughout the United States. He eventually set up an Internet operation, stationed largely in Costa Rica, that federal prosecutors described as "bigger than enormous."

About 11:15 a.m. Nov. 9, Mastronardo talked with his wife, the former Joanna Rizzo, by phone while she was shopping at the grocery store. He called every morning and night from the Federal Medical Center in Ayer, Mass.

That afternoon, a chaplain called to say that Mastronardo had died. The family still hasn't been told exactly what happened.

In courtrooms, where he'd appeared many times, Mastronardo was branded a lifelong criminal. Technically, he was.

But out in the real world, he earned the respect of people on both sides of the law - from other bookies who monitored the influential "Vito line" while setting their own point spreads to the nuns at the Norwood-Fontbonne Academy who sent condolences after he died.

Mastronardo would awaken before sunrise and scroll through betting lines in his mini-mansion in Abington Township, Montgomery County. He was a frugal millionaire who cut coupons and used to go to a $3 carwash in Germantown, but who also put other people's children through La Salle High School, from which he graduated.

This "lifelong criminal" even paid taxes on his winnings, openly describing himself on IRS forms as a "professional gambler."

"He'd do anything for anybody," said Ryan Carney, a real-estate investor from Los Angeles whom Mastronardo assisted after Carney was in a serious car accident in North Carolina in 1998. "He was always there to give a hand and figure out how to put you in a better situation. He was a very selfless person."

Carney said Mastronardo helped get him medical care and legal representation and a hospital bed in his home after his accident, solely because he was a friend of Mastronardo's son - and not even a particularly close one.

"As soon as I came back to Philadelphia, he had everything lined up for my parents to talk to doctors and lawyers," Carney said. "Anything he could do to help."

There are a lot of stories like this about Joe Vito. And a lot of people are outraged that he's dead. They want answers.

In April, Mastronardo was shipped off to a prison medical facility 300 miles away despite repeated warnings from his doctors that he was in no condition to leave.

He was a cancer and stroke survivor who used a feeding tube and suffered from aspiration pneumonia that needed to be monitored constantly. His blood pressure would fluctuate wildly. He also used a cane. And sometimes an oxygen tank.

But the Federal Bureau of Prisons assured the court that its staff would provide Mastronardo with top-notch medical care.

When U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois rejected Mastronardo's plea for house arrest at his sentencing in February, Mastronardo's attorney, John Morris, equated it to a death sentence.

He was right.

"They gave a guy a death sentence for sports gambling," said Mastronardo's son, Joe.

"Jan DuBois is guilty of a far worse crime than anything my dad ever did," Joe Mastronardo said. "You killed a guy for no reason."

Wrongful death?

Joe Mastronardo, 33, had been helping to care for his father since around 2008. A doctor visited the house about twice a month.

"Pneumonia, you need to stay on top of it all times," Mastronardo said recently, sitting at the kitchen table of the family's posh home in the Meadowbrook section of Abington. "I got my dad to Abington Hospital I can't tell you how many times. Every single time he was OK. He went through some wars, but he made it."

Mastronardo's doctors were brought into court to explain his extensive medical problems, arguing that he should serve 20 months of house arrest - not prison time - on racketeering-conspiracy and money-laundering charges.

But federal prosecutors wouldn't budge, describing him in court filings as an arrogant mastermind and repeat offender whose nonviolent crimes "pose a threat to the public."

"The public is threatened by violent and nonviolent crime," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Bologna wrote in a February sentencing memo, which said that Mastronardo would receive "first-rate medical care" at a federal prison.

Bologna wrote that Mastronardo had "used his health" to stay out of prison following a 2006 bookmaking arrest and that he was trying to "use his health to get another house arrest sentence" in the latest case.

"He does not deserve another chance," Bologna wrote.

Joe Mastronardo told the Daily News this week that the family's preliminary investigation indicates that his father died of respiratory complications that likely would have been caught and treated if he had been at home.

He said he is considering a lawsuit as he awaits the results of an independent autopsy.

"These people are responsible for killing my dad," he said. "What would you do?"

Mastronardo said he recently spoke to his father's prison roommate, who told him that the treatment provided at the "federal medical center" was subpar.

"He was crying. He said they just don't have the right help," Mastronardo said. "They don't know what they're doing."

DuBois declined to comment on his sentencing decision, but told the Daily News: "I wanted to be sure he got the appropriate care in prison, but I'm very sorry that he passed."

Bologna referred a reporter to his sentencing memo, but said in an email that he extends his condolences "to the entire Mastronardo family."

'Gentleman Gambler'

Joe Vito's death hit his family and friends particularly hard because of who he was and who he wasn't.

Mastronardo was far from the stereotypical bookie who would send out mob goons with baseball bats to collect gambling debts. If bettors didn't pay, Mastronardo would simply waive the debt and tell them to find a new bookie. The end.

"He was a businessman. The business he operated just happened to be illegal in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania," said defense attorney Christopher Warren, who represented Mastronardo's son in the latest gambling case.

And although sports betting is a major moneymaker for the mob, Mastronardo managed to keep organized-crime figures away from his operation.

"There's a famous story about [former mob boss] Nicky Scarfo going up to get money from Mastronardo, and he told him to go f--- himself," said Warren, who has represented several reputed mobsters over the years, including Philadelphia boss Joey Merlino. "You got balls to tell Nicky Scarfo to go f--- off. Nicky was a psychopath."

The once-muscular Mastronardo had worked hard in prison to gain back the weight he'd lost over the years, telling Joanna Mastronardo in a Nov. 2 email that he was up to 168 pounds.

Mastronardo's spirits were high in recent weeks. He wrote about the possibility of going to Florida after he was released. On the morning before Halloween, he emailed his wife reminding her to "please make sure we have nice candy" for trick-or-treaters.

"This wasn't a guy who was dying," Joe Mastronardo said of his father.

Warren said that Mastronardo's death highlights potential problems with the federal prison system's medical capabilities and how its officials represent the facilities to judges and prosecutors in court hearings involving sick defendants.

"They say they can take care of it, but in reality I don't think they can," Warren said. "I think this case is a poignant example of that."

At Mastronardo's sentencing hearing, Bologna said the defendant's health problems shouldn't be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"It's his fault," Bologna said. "It's his decisions that put him in this situation."

Federal prison officials did not respond to requests for comment.

'He had a gift'

Mastronardo's case also raises another question: When are federal prosecutors going to catch up to the rest of the country when it comes to gambling?

Drive up I-95 and you'll see Lincoln Financial Field on the left and billboards for fantasy football website FanDuel on your right. Across the Delaware River, New Jersey is seeking to legalize sports betting. In Center City, SEPTA buses are wrapped in advertisements for DraftKings, another fantasy-football site.

Turn on sports-radio station 97.5 The Fanatic and you'll hear ads for the betting website

The government claims that video-poker machines in a bar pose a threat to society, but video-poker machines at SugarHouse Casino on Delaware Avenue are perfectly legal - assuming, of course, that government gets its cut.

Mastronardo, in fact, paid taxes on his illegal income and wasn't charged with tax evasion.

A summary compiled by the Mastronardos' accountant shows that the family paid about $2.2 million in federal and state taxes between 2000 and 2010 on $7.4 million of total income - including $6 million in gambling revenue.

"My dad paid more money in taxes than most people make in a lifetime," Mastronardo said. "People who don't understand the story say the government just didn't get their cut. Oh, they absolutely did get their cut."

Gambling fascinated Joe Vito from an early age when he worked as a shoeshine boy and, later, as a caddy at local country clubs. He'd call in bets on behalf of golfers and record their scores, as requested.

Soon, he started to sniff out moneymaking opportunities of his own, such as when golfers were overestimating their abilities. In some cases, he'd book the bet himself, rather than calling it in to a bookie. Over the years, he built those gambling hunches into a multimillion-dollar business.

In his prime, watching Mastronardo set lines and handle bets was like "watching a conductor conduct a symphony - or multiple symphonies at once," according to his former driver, Chris, who asked the Daily News to withhold his last name because it could hurt his job prospects.

"We'd watch the lines and he'd be barking out orders. He knew how to react to the slightest movements in pretty much every game that was on," Chris said. "He just had this gift of understanding the numbers and being able to manipulate them. He's one of the smartest guys I've ever met."

Chris said that Mastronardo "posed no threat to anyone," but that the government treated him "like he was big game and they were hunters. They wanted that trophy for taking him down."

"The lack of compassion they showed is alarming," he said. "You hear stories of people accused of far lesser offenses shown much more compassion than he was."

At his sentencing in February, Mastronardo looked gaunt in his navy-blue pinstripe suit with an oxygen tube in his nose. He was unable to speak when it was time to address the court, but whispered a message to Morris, his lawyer, who relayed it to the court, according to the Inquirer. "He can't apologize for the conduct of a lifetime," Morris said.

Even Rizzo, the former mayor and the father of Joanna, eventually saw that Mastronardo wasn't a crook. Mastronardo used to drive Rizzo to work when Rizzo ran a talk-radio show, and they often had breakfast together, according to Joe Mastronardo.

"My grandfather loved my dad, he admired my dad," Mastronardo said. "My grandfather called my dad a genius, that's what he called him.

"Everybody talks about Frank Rizzo and there's a statue of him and a mural of him. I love my grandfather and was very close to him. But as great as Frank Rizzo was, my dad was better. I've been wanting to say that for years."

On Twitter: @wbender99