Behind bars and abandoned by his men, embattled Philadelphia mob don Ralph Natale became the first official American mafia boss to flip when he cut a deal with the feds 20 years ago this month. In September 1999, Natale, a polished and gregarious gangland chief known for keeping physically fit, copped a plea in a narcotics-trafficking case he was facing and agreed to testify against his underboss and protégé Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino in addition to corrupt Camden, New Jersey Mayor Milton Milan. The 84-year old Natale currently resides in the Witness Protection Program. He headed the Bruno-Scarfo crime family out of Philly and North Jersey in the mid-to-late 1990s. As part of his cooperation deal, Natale admitted to ordering or personally carrying out nine separate gangland executions. Most enticing for authorities’ in flipping Natale was what they believed was his ability to directly connect the magnetic, swashbuckling Merlino to a string of brazen mob hits that rocked the Philly underworld. Some of the murders were sanctioned by Natale from prison. Merlino, 57, has long been Public Enemy No. 1 for the feds in Pennsylvania. Natale himself was taught to kill by storied Philly mob hit man and loanshark Felix (Skinny Razor) DeTullio, who operated out of the Friendly Lounge where Natale tended bar as a young man. Following learning the tricks of the mafia trade under Skinny Razor, he went on to craft a formidable reputation as a racketeer and enforcer for legendary Godfather Angelo Bruno in the 1960s and 1970s. Natale was Bruno’s point man in the crime family’s labor union rackets and traveled around the country on his behalf troubleshooting and palm-greasing. Using Natale as his muscle, Bruno took control of the newly-minted Atlantic City hotel and casino industry through a hostile takeover of the city’s bartenders and hotel and casino workers unions. On orders from the man the media miscast as the Docile Don, Natale shot Irish mobsters George Feeney and Joey McGreal to death in 1970 and 1973. McGreal was slain on Christmas Eve in a dispute over power in Bartenders Union Local 170. Bruno began losing his grip on the crime family when Natale was incarcerated for drug dealing and arson in January 1979 and was eventually assassinated in March 1980. Natale did 15 years in prison and plotted his return to the streets, linking up as cellmates with a 28-year old Merlino in 1990 (doing a short stint for an armored truck heist) and deciding to go to war for the Philly mob throne he protected while Bruno was alive. An ambitious Merlino and his eager-to-please pals became Natale’s arsenal in his fight against Sicilian-born John Stanfa, believed to have been one of the conspirators in Bruno’s assassination and installed by New York’s Gambino crime family in the early 1990s as the boss of the Philadelphia mafia. From his prison cell, Natale commanded a war that left bodies in the street, Stanfa locked up for his role in the violence and Natale and Merlino on top of the Philly underworld. Natale walked out of prison in the fall 1994 the don of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family. Merlino was named his underboss. It’s unclear exactly when Natale was “made” into the mob. During debriefings with the feds and testimony in court, he claimed Merlino inducted him upon his release in 1994, but his 2017 memoir Last Don Standing (co-authored by Larry McShane and Dan Pearson) states he was made by Bruno and New York Godfather Carlo Gambino in the 1960s. Moving into a luxury condo resting on the Delaware River in Pennsauken, New Jersey, Natale set himself up a headquarters at the Garden State Park Raceway, holding daily meetings at the track’s Currier & Ives Room restaurant on the top floor. With Merlino handling collections and shakedowns in Philly, Natale angled for leverage in political circles and got his hooks into Camden, New Jersey Mayor Milton Milan, funneling him $50,000 in bribes. He also started dabbling back into the drug market. The feds arrested Natale on a parole violation for associating with known criminals in the summer of 1998. Almost immediately, Merlino seized power and cut Natale out of the loop. When Natale was nailed for pushing crystal meth, indicted in prison on September 16, 1999, he felt no more loyalty to Merlino due to the slight and spilled the beans on their entire operation. Skinny Joey might have gotten the last laugh though. Merlino apparently kept Natale in the dark about certain mob murders carried out on his watch and jurors didn’t buy everything the former mob boss was selling on the stand at a heavily-publicized 2001 trial. Merlino and several co-defendants were convicted of racketeering but found not guilty of all the murder counts brought. Milan was convicted at an earlier trial on Natale’s testimony. Both Natale and Merlino were released from prison in 2011. Merlino remains the boss of the Philadelphia mafia today.
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