The players have changed, but in the Philadelphia underworld the story remains the same — wiseguys again caught in unguarded moments, talking about all manner of murder and mayhem as a cooperating witness wearing a body wire records them for the FBI.
A bail-detention motion filed against two North Jersey wiseguys last week in U.S. District Court offered up excerpts of conversations that prosecutors hope to introduce as evidence in the pending racketeering case against acting Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and a dozen associates.
The trial is set for September.
In a bizarre twist, the cooperating mobster — who law enforcement sources say made, and can be heard on, the tapes mentioned in the motion — will not appear on the witness stand. He committed suicide in February.
But the recordings by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli are expected to be played for the jury.
Call it "dead man talking."
A member of the Gambino crime family based in North Jersey, Stefanelli, 69, was described by an underworld source last week as a "bounce-around guy" who interacted with several organizations. He was a regular at mob-linked bars and social clubs along Bloomfield Avenue in and around Newark, N.J., and did business with wiseguys from New York and New Jersey, and with a Newark-based crew of the Philadelphia crime family.
It was his dealings with Joseph "Scoops" Licata, a North Jersey capo for the Philadelphia mob, and Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini, a mob soldier, that were detailed in the government memo. The memo mentioned two mob meetings recorded by Stefanelli.
Law enforcement sources have hinted that the memo is just the first chapter in the Stefanelli saga.
"Stay tuned," an investigator teased last week.
Stefanelli recorded dozens of conversations over two years in cases that stretched from Philadelphia to Providence, R.I., according to investigators. The tapes could figure in nearly a dozen prosecutions.
That, say individuals who knew Stefanelli, became too much of an emotional burden for the easygoing mobster.
"He couldn't live with what he had done," said one underworld source.
Rather than testify, Stefanelli killed himself. He checked into a Rutherford, N.J., hotel on Feb. 25 and was found in his room the next morning, dead of an apparent drug overdose.
Two days earlier, authorities say, Stefanelli had walked into a video-poker-machine company in Bloomfield, N.J., and shot and killed its owner, Joseph Rossi. It was a last act of vengeance, say sources, because Stefanelli believed Rossi had implicated him in a drug-dealing case two years earlier. That case led Stefanelli, who already had done time for narcotics trafficking, to cut a deal with the FBI.
"He didn't want his legacy to be that of a rat," said the underworld source. "This might have been his way of saying 'F.U.' to the feds."
If his tapes are used as evidence, the feds will have the last word.
Recordings have been highly effective weapons in prosecuting Philadelphia mobsters since the 1990s.
George Fresolone, a member of the same North Jersey crew as Licata, wore a wire for two years, building a series of cases that landed Licata and 30 others in jail. In the mid-1990s, the FBI bugged a Camden law office and built a devastating case that resulted in life sentences for mob boss John Stanfa and several of his top associates and jail time for 20 others.
At the end of the 1990s, Big Ron Previte wired up for the FBI and brought down mob leaders Ralph Natale and Joey Merlino and most of their organization.
Licata and Fazzini, who were arrested April 26, are the first to face the consequences of Stefanelli's defection. Both were held for trial at hearings Monday. They were recorded at length at two mob meetings Stefanelli helped set up, each at an unnamed restaurant in North Jersey.
The first, in May 2010, was described as a meeting between leaders of the Gambino crime family and the Philadelphia mob. Ligambi and a top lieutenant, Anthony Staino, a codefendant in the pending case, attended with Licata and Fazzini. The Gambino contingent included Stefanelli and others in that organization, including an individual identified only by his initials but believed to be John Gambino, described in the document as "a caporegime," a member of the "triumvirate" that oversees the Gambino organization.
The detention memo offers a capsule version of what was discussed, but it is clear that Licata holds court. At one point, he jokes with Ligambi about the 2003 gangland murder of John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto in South Philadelphia, which remains unsolved.
According to the memo, Licata laughs and tells Ligambi, "At least we finally got to get him!"
At another point, Licata complains that the son of jailed Philadelphia boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo was permitted to be "made," or formally initiated, into the Lucchese crime family.
"Licata expressed contempt for the action," the government memo reads, "saying, 'This is a slap in the face to us.'"
In other conversations, the loquacious Licata discusses mob traditions, gossips about other mob families and their members, waxes philosophical about how mobsters should conduct themselves, and provides a history of the Philadelphia crime family.
"We got to stay with the old rules," Licata says as he and others talk about attracting members who understood the values of La Cosa Nostra.
"The only way to survive, you need quality, not quantity," Gambino says.
"Guys made it about the money. It's not about money. It's about … brotherhood," Fazzini then adds.
Licata, who, according to sources, has earned millions working various mob gambits over more than 40 years, agrees. Money, he says, is "the green-eyed monster."
While defense attorneys have said little on the record about the latest government filings or the potential impact of the Stefanelli tapes, several noted last week that it technically is not illegal to belong to an organized crime family.
The background conversations, they pointed out, had nothing to do with the gambling, loan-sharking and extortion allegations that a jury will consider in the racketeering trial. While Licata and Fazzini have been added as defendants, the tapes don't change the nature of the allegations, the defense contends.
But prosecutors say the tapes provide a picture of organized crime that jurors can relate to. The conversations echo The Sopranos and The Godfather, frames of reference most jurors understand.
On tape, Fazzini underscores that point when he and Licata recall Fazzini's making ceremony. The memo includes an extended transcript of that conversation.
The event took place in 2007 at an undisclosed location in the Philadelphia area that they describe as a large warehouse or banquet hall. Ligambi presided over the event. Staino, Licata and others attended.
Fazzini jokes that he was not sure what was going on at the time.
"You either knew you were getting straightened out or you're getting clipped," he said, referring to another classic mob movie where that uncertainty was linked to a murderous double-cross.
While he waited alone in a basement, Fazzini explained, he immediately thought about "when they're in Goodfellas, and they walk in and the joint's empty."
In the movie, the Joe Pesci character got clipped. In Philadelphia, Fazzini got made.