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Joey Merlino arrested in federal mob crackdown

Reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joey Merlino was arrested in Florida on Thursday as part of a sweeping East Coast mob takedown that snared dozens of alleged gangsters who authorities say were engaged in illegal gambling, gun sales, and health-care fraud.

Gambling, loan-sharking, gun trafficking, and ... skin-cream fraud?

Reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joey Merlino was arrested in Florida on Thursday as part of a sweeping East Coast mob takedown that snared dozens of well-monikered alleged gangsters.

"Mustache Pat," "Nicky the Wig," "Muscles," "Anthony the Kid," "Patty Boy," "Tony the Cripple," "Tugboat," "Fish," and "Rooster" were among the 46 alleged La Cosa Nostra members, leaders and associates named in the federal racketeering indictment announced by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

"These mobsters seemed to use every scheme known to us, from arson to shakedowns, violence, health-care fraud, and even untaxed cigarettes to keep the racket going," New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said.

One of the alleged crimes, fraud involving the prescription of compound skin cream, appears to be another indication of how an old-school criminal organization continues to evolve — or devolve — as new moneymaking opportunities arise.

The defendants include members of the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, and Bonanno crime families in New York, as well as Merlino, 54, who has been living in Boca Raton, Fla. More than half of those arrested were from New York, prosecutors said, and most others were from surrounding states such as New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Six live in Florida.

Merlino was one of three people accused of leading the "East Coast LCN Enterprise," which prosecutors say included mobsters from New York and Philadelphia who engaged in illegal gambling, gun sales, and health-care fraud. The other leaders were identified by authorities as Bronx restaurant owner Pasquale "Patsy" Parrello of the Genovese family and Eugene "Rooster" Onofrio.

According to the indictment, Merlino, Parrello, and Onofrio "supervised and controlled members of the enterprise engaged in illegal schemes." Prosecutors say they committed arson and assault to protect their interests.

Among other things, prosecutors accused the group of running an illegal casino in Yonkers, N.Y. — "The Yonkers Club"— where patrons could play poker, take part in dice tournaments, and bet on horse races.

The men are also accused of selling illegal cigarettes with a street value of more than $3 million, and committing credit-card fraud.

In 2011, the indictment says, several of the accused mobsters set fire to the car of a man they believed to be running a gambling operation near their Yonkers club. The same year, the indictment alleges, several others assaulted a panhandler after Parrello ordered them to "break his knees" for harassing customers outside his restaurant. They first threatened the wrong man, the indictment says.

Merlino is mentioned in connection with only a few of the allegations in the indictment, including participating in three sports gambling businesses — one based in Costa Rica, the other two operating in New York, New Jersey and Florida.

Merlino is also accused of participating in a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe unnecessary "prescription compound cream" to patients, the indictment says.

If convicted of racketeering conspiracy, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

"He lived a pretty good lifestyle down there in Florida. People couldn't figure out how he had a nice condo, a business, going to great restaurants, living it up," said John Apeldorn, former head of the Philadelphia police organized crime intelligence unit. "He was living the life of Riley."

Merlino was released from federal prison in 2011 after serving about 12 years on a 2001 racketeering conviction. He later served about three months in a Miami prison after he was caught associating with Philly mobster John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini at a Florida cigar bar in 2014. That violated the terms of his probation.

Merlino regained his freedom in April 2015.

"He's out. He's a free man," Merlino's attorney, Edwin Jacobs, said at the time.

Jacobs did not return a request for comment Thursday. Merlino did not respond to a text sent to his cellphone.

David Fritchey, who retired last year as chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, said he was not surprised that Merlino allegedly returned to a criminal lifestyle after his release.

"It's regrettable, but it's the way things are," Fritchey said. "We all associate with the groups that are part of our personal identity. Lawyers hang out with other lawyers. Newspaper guys probably hang out with other media types. Ballplayers with other ballplayers. It's not surprising that criminals gravitate back toward other criminals. It's sort of their way of life."

Once known as "Skinny Joey," Merlino built a chiseled body in prison, and reinvented himself as the maitre d' at a Boca Raton restaurant that bears his name and serves recipes inspired by his mother in South Philly. He has been living in Florida but has also frequented the Philadelphia area.

Merlino recently made headlines when the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board initiated proceedings to ban him from casinos in the state. Board spokesman Doug Harbach said that case was moving forward because Merlino refused to accept the papers.

"We're basically doing it in absentia because he did not respond to the filings we tried to present to him," Harbach said. "We tried to present the documents to him and he refused to take them. We tried to serve him at his restaurant, his home, at Harrah's, at SugarHouse."

Merlino had said he went legit after his time in prison. Prosecutors never believed him.

"He did his time, he didn't squeal when he was in prison, so he was owed," Apeldorn said. "He's a loyal person. He kept his trap shut. If you're putting together an illegal enterprise, I guess you're going to have to think about someone like that, especially with his connections in Philly."