SALVATORE J. Avena, a highly regarded South Jersey lawyer for 63 years, specializing in personal injury and criminal cases and as a counselor to police organizations, could not shake his identification in the press as a "mob lawyer."
"It's unfair," said Richard L. Friedman, his partner in a Camden law firm. "I'd say over the years no more than 3 percent of his practice involved mobsters."
But Avena's legal representation of leaders of the Philadelphia-South Jersey organized crime family and his own indictment in 1996 on racketeering and related charges branded him as the lawyer for the mob.
And then there was the fact that Avena's father, John "Big Nose" Avena, was a mob boss murdered by rival gang members on Aug. 18, 1936, leading some to a like-father-like-son conclusion.
Salvatore was 10 when his father was murdered.
Salvatore Avena, onetime deputy New Jersey attorney general, a Cinnaminson Township committeeman and public safety director, an Army veteran and devoted father and grandfather, died Monday. He was 87 and lived in Mount Laurel, N.J.
He was acquitted of the racketeering charge in U.S. District Court in May 1996, by a jury that was deadlocked on other charges. That October, the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to retry him.
During the proceedings in federal court, it was revealed that the FBI tapped Avena's Camden law office for two years to record conversations among Avena, his client, John Stanfa, and other mob figures who met there.
Over the years, Avena represented Angelo Bruno, the "gentle don," who was murdered on March 21, 1980, and Philip "Chicken Man" Testa, who was killed by a nail bomb on his front porch on March 15, 1981. Stanfa was convicted of racketeering and other charges in March 1994 and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.
Avena was an unlikely figure to be connected with violent criminals. He was always courtly and was more like a favorite uncle than a hard-charging defense lawyer.
He was active in numerous charities, especially those involving youth sports. He was also active in supporting the Scheie Eye Institute, having been a patient of Dr. Harold G. Scheie in the '80s. He and his late wife, Francine, attended most fundraising parties for the institute.
"He was a wonderful lawyer," said Friedman. "In his day, he was one of the best trial lawyers for personal injury and criminal cases."
When Avena opened his office in Camden, people on the Philly side of the Delaware "heard about this bright young lawyer," and came over to see him.
"He was always concerned about others," Friedman said. "When people came to see how he was doing, he would always ask them about themselves and their families. That's the kind of man he was."
Celeste Morello, author of a number of books on the Philadelphia mob, interviewed Avena for information about his father for one of her books.
"He had very good memories of his father," she said. "His father used to give him those Big Little books, read the Sunday comics to him and take him to the shore."
When his father was murdered, the family was living in Philadelphia. After the killing, his mother, Grace, moved to Palmyra, N.J. Salvatore attended high school there and went on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and Dickinson Law School, from which he received his law degree in 1950.
Morello said Avena emphasized to her that he never received any favors from mobsters. He did everything on his own, he said.
He worked his way through college as a restaurant bus boy and picked produce on South Jersey farms.
His wife, the former Francine Marino, died in September 2012 at the age of 80.
His daughter, Gracia Profaci, is married to Joseph Profaci, son of Salvatore Profaci, a leader of the Columbo crime family in New York. He also is survived by a son, Salvatore J. Jr., and six grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, John A.M. Avena.
Services: A Funeral Mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Charles Borromeo Church, 2500 Branch Pike, Cinnaminson, N.J., for Salvatore J. Avena, Camden lawyer who died Monday at the age of 87. Friends may call at 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday at the Mount Laurel Home for Funerals, 212 Ark Rd., Mount Laurel, N.J.