Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Reputed mob boss Ligambi, others indicted

Reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi was all about money, not murder, say law enforcement and underworld sources who have tracked the surprisingly long tenure of Philadelphia's low-key, circumspect Mafia don.

Joseph Ligambi (right) and Joseph S. “Skinny Joey” Merlino in 1998. (File photograph)
Joseph Ligambi (right) and Joseph S. “Skinny Joey” Merlino in 1998. (File photograph)Read more

Reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi was all about money, not murder, say law enforcement and underworld sources who have tracked the surprisingly long tenure of Philadelphia's low-key, circumspect Mafia don.

On Monday, in a move that could signal the end of Ligambi's run, the alleged mob kingpin, 71, and a dozen other reputed members and associates of his organization were named in a 50-count indictment built around gambling and loan-sharking operations that sources say may have generated millions of dollars over the last 10 years.

But the indictment contains no alleged acts of violence: no murders, no beatings, no assaults. Instead, the allegations - centered on illegal sports betting and video-poker-machine businesses - allude to threats of violence, fear, and intimidation, the tools that authorities allege Ligambi used to maintain order, solidify his control, and line his pockets.

Ligambi was charged with heading a crime family that U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said used the threats of "force and violence to instill fear and exert power in order to make money."

The arrests, which went off without incident early Monday morning in South Philadelphia and South Jersey, capped an investigation that dates back at least 10 years, when Ligambi took over as acting boss of the organization for jailed mob leader Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

Unlike the indictments that brought down mob bosses like Merlino, John Stanfa, and Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, the 50-count indictment unsealed Monday contains no charges of murder, attempted murder, or assault. But it is replete with alleged threats of violence, several attributed to defendants who were secretly recorded during the investigation.

In one conversation, Anthony Staino Jr., a top Ligambi lieutenant, threatened to send "two gorillas" to deal with a deadbeat gambler.

Staino, who was arrested at his home in Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, headed the South Jersey operation of the crime family and was one of the few members of the organization who met regularly with Ligambi, investigators say.

On the tape, Staino, 53, demanded that a $48,000 debt be repaid and told an associate of the deadbeat, "I'm going to kill him, OK? I'm telling you right now, I'm going to kill him."

On another tape, reputed mobster Damion Canalichio, who was also named in the indictment, told an individual identified only as "Victim A" that the money he owned from a gambling debt was "Uncle Joe's money" and that if the debt wasn't paid, Canalichio, 41, would resort to violence. He then boasted about how he had beaten another debtor with a bat.

Ligambi, who appeared in court dressed in a white, open-collared golf shirt and blue jeans, pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include racketeering conspiracy, gambling, loan-sharking, and witness intimidation, during a brief hearing Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court. A bail hearing has been set for Thursday.

Bail hearings are also scheduled for Staino and several others charged in the case, including Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, 61, the reputed underboss of the organization; Martin Angelina, 48; Gaeton Lucibello, 58; and Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello, 44.

Two of the defendants, Canalichio and George Borgesi, 47, are in jail serving time on unrelated charges.

The indictment alleges that both Borgesi, who is in a federal prison, and Massimino, who was released more than a year ago from a New Jersey state prison, where he had been serving time on gambling and racketeering charges, continued to take part in mob activities from behind prison bars.

Borgesi, who is Ligambi's nephew, was implicated with Monacello in a gambling and loan-sharking operation that included the collection of at least $8,550 in debts from one individual.

Massimino, according to the indictment, continued to benefit from and issue orders about a video-poker-machine and loan-sharking operation from his prison cell.

Massimino, Staino, and Ligambi, the indictment alleged, also set up a front company called JMA Industries that they used to coordinate the video-poker-machine business.

The company's name came from the first initials of their names or nicknames - Joe, Mousie, and Anthony, authorities said. The indictment also alleged that the company issued W-2 forms and paychecks to Staino and to Ligambi's wife.

The indictment also made repeated references to threats of violence employed by those under Ligambi's direction to advance the operations of the organization.

The indictment charges that Ligambi and his associates forced one owner of a video-poker-machine company to sell his assets to them and that they tried to disguise the takeover by creating phony sales documents that transferred ownership of the company.

It also alleges that bookmakers now aligned with the crime family were forced to pay an annual stipend - or "street tax" - to avoid harassment from the mob.

While authorities declined to answer questions about the amount of money generated by the poker-machine operations, sources in both law enforcement and the underworld said that machines in good locations could generate from $500 to $1,000 a week in profit.

The machines were in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and coffee shops in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs, according to the indictment.

Authorities alleged that Massimino ran his operations from Lou's Crab Bar, a restaurant in the 1100 block of West Moyamensing Avenue.

The restaurant, which the indictment alleges was secretly owned by Massimino, was described as "a regular meeting place" for members of the organization.

Lucibello, the indictment charged, ran gambling businesses from two South Philadelphia bars, Cholly Bears in the 2500 block of South 13th Street and DiNicks, a bar in the 1500 block of Snyder Avenue.

Angelina and Canalichio, before he was jailed five years ago on drug charges, operated out of the First Ward Republican Club, a private club in the 2300 block of South Woodstock Street. Authorities said the club did not appear to have any connection to the Republican Party in Philadelphia.

From those locations, authorities allege, the defendants ran bookmaking operations and coordinated the distribution of illegal video-poker machines.

In most cases, according to investigative sources, businesses that agreed to have the machines split the profit with the mobsters, who placed the machines at the locations and provided maintenance.

Part of the federal case was developed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, whose investigators seized more than 80 machines during a series of raids last year in South Philadelphia.

Those machines were linked to Ligambi, Staino, and Lucibello, according to state law enforcement sources.

Two different sources who asked not to be identified said Ligambi and his associates could have been generating more than $1 million in income each year from the video-poker-machine operations, which date back several years.

Another state investigation, operation Delco Nostra, which focused on gambling and bookmaking in Delaware County, appears to have formed the basis for the charges filed against Borgesi and Monacello in the most recent indictment.

Monacello pleaded guilty to gambling and obstruction-of-justice charges in the Delaware County case and was sentenced to a year in a work-release program.

He and Borgesi face considerably more time for the conspiracy and gambling charges now pending - a maximum of 20 years.

Authorities allege that Monacello oversaw a gambling and loan-sharking ring for Borgesi, that Borgesi issued orders from prison, and that money was funneled back to him.

A key figure in that case, mob associate-turned-informant Frank "Frankie the Fixer" DiGiacomo, wore a body wire and recorded dozens of conversation for investigators.

While not identified in the indictment, DiGiacomo appears to be "Associate #1," who is alleged to have worked with Borgesi and Monacello in the collection of gambling debts.

The indictment also charges that Associate #1 met with Ligambi over a $10,000 debt that the associate owed to another individual, identified only as "PC."

Ligambi, according to the indictment, told Associate #1, "You don't have to pay him . . . that's the end of that guy."

But, authorities charge, Staino then told the associate that the $10,000 debt would have to be paid to him and Ligambi.

The long-rumored indictment of Ligambi and his top associates was, in fact, handed up in January, but remained under seal until Monday.

When asked, Memeger said the delay was part of an ongoing investigation.

Others charged in the case were Louis Barretta, 47; Gary Battalgini, 50; Robert Verrecchia, 42; Eric Esposito, 40; and Robert Ranieri, 36.

The indictment, said George C. Venizelos, head of the FBI office in Philadelphia, demonstrates that "organized crime is not glamorous, not honorable, but that it has not disappeared."