'Soprano' snitch brings down Mob

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The Independent US

The Philadelphia mafia, which once ruled over a crime empire that stretched up the east coast almost as far as New York, faced final humiliation yesterday as a marathon mob trial that involved more than 50 witnesses and 1,000 exhibits ended with guilty verdicts for Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

Jurors deliberated for a week following closing arguments in the trial of under-boss Merlino and six others on numerous charges, ranging from murder to drugs trafficking and extortion.

Prosecutors were disappointed the jury pronounced him guilty on 20 counts of extortion, but not of murder, implying a jail sentence of up to seven years, instead of life.

But the trial is still seen as a key chapter in the death of the city's Cosa Nostra. Ralph Natale, who took over as the family boss in the mid-1990s before being imprisoned in 1998, provided crucial tesimony against his underling. Never before has a sitting don assisted the federal government.

In return for promises of more lenient treatment for himself, Natale abandoned the vow of omerta – the mob's code of silence – and pointed his finger at his former henchmen. This betrayal was portrayed as emblematic of the breakdown of the old mafia across the US.

Stories told in the witness box would have given years of material to scriptwriters of The Sopranos, the TV series about a dysfunctional New Jersey mob clan. They revealed an organisation crippled by incompetence, petty jealousies and bloody internecine warfare. In 20 years, the mafia has dispatched 40 of its own in Philadelphia. "We kill each other; that's just part of our life," quipped one government snitch, Gaetano "Horsehead" Scafidi, midway through the trial. Three different murders are featured in the charges. Natale has admitted his involvement in 11 killings.

"These guys are just not cut out to be gangsters," said Frank Wallace, a former head of Philadelphia's organised crime unit. "They pretty much disposed of the generation that knew how to be gangsters in the strict business sense." Natale is on the record excoriating his younger associates, calling them "punks", "trash" and the "macaroni mob".

The disintegration of the Philly mob reaches back to the assassination of Angelo Bruno, who as family boss for 25 years was called the "Docile Don". The power struggles that followed his death triggered several brutal killings. "You know what they are?" said Barry Gross, an assistant US prosecuting attorney. "They're schoolyard bullies who never grew up."