Deposed Philadelphia mob administrator Ronnie Turchi was killed 20 years ago this week, allegedly the first hit of the Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi mafia era in the City of Brotherly Love. Turchi had been the Bruno-Scarfo crime family’s consigliere from 1994 to when he was demoted in 1997. Ligambi led the family as acting boss from the summer of 1999 until this past August when he retired at his 80th birthday party. The head of the Philly mob’s numbers lottery racket, Turchi was found shot to death in the trunk of his wife’s car on October 26, 1999. He had disappeared on the evening of October 22, last seen alive leaving a dinner with a Ligambi underling in South Philly. His connection to a Ligambi predecessor would be his undoing. The homicide remains unsolved today and is considered an open and active investigation. Turchi was sent to federal prison in 1974 for arson and racketeering and did 15 years. Upon his release, he hooked up with newly-minted mafia don John Stanfa, a Sicilian-born wiseguy backed by the Gambino crime family in New York, and got “made.” Stanfa put Turchi in charge of the numbers business. After Ralph Natale and Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino took over the Philly mob in the mid-1990s, Natale named Turchi his consigliere. By the end of the decade, Natale would go on to be the first sitting mafia don in American history to enter the Witness Protection Program. Natale and Turchi came up together in the Philly mob in the Angelo Bruno regime of the 1960s and 70s. Starting in 1992, Natale commanded a war against Stanfa from behind bars (he was serving time for fraud and narcotics trafficking), using Skinny Joey and his “Young Turk” faction of the family as his muscle on the street. Following casualties on both sides of the highly-publicized mob feud and Stanfa’s incarceration on murder and racketeering charges, Natale declared victory and himself the boss of the Bruno-Scarfo family. In the six months between Stanfa being indicted in March 1994 and Natale being let out of prison in the fall of that year, Turchi attempted to buy his way into the boss’ chair, funneling a $10,000 payment to leaders in New York’s Genovese crime family in exchange for the nod as Godfather of Philly. However, Natale blocked the appointment, sending word to Turchi, he’d personally kill him if he tried assuming control of the Philly mafia before he hit the streets in September. Turchi stood down and Natale tapped him as his No. 3, hoping Turchi would bridge the gap between the Natale-Merlino regime and the remnants of the Stanfa crew. Three years into the arrangement, the rackets Turchi was made responsible for were far from flush and Natale pulled his stripes in 1997. Natale and Merlino fell out after Natale was jailed in 1998 and Merlino bumped him out of the way to grab power. Skinny Joey was taken into custody in the summer of 1999 and he gave the family over to Uncle Joe Ligambi on an acting basis. Merlino’s dad, Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, had mentored Ligambi in the Philly mob’s “Wild West” Scarfo days of the 1980s. Ligambi had recently been let out of prison on a murder beef – a 1985 hit said to be him making his bones under Scarfo – that was tossed on appeal. News of Natale cutting a deal with the government began circulating through South Philly in the fall of 1999 and according to informants Ligambi ordered Turchi’s murder to dissuade Natale from testifying against Merlino. Turchi disappeared after dining with young mob associate Roger Vella, one of Merlino’s drivers and message-relay mainstays of the late 1990s, on the night of October 22, 1999. Vella flipped soon thereafter and followed Natale into the Witness Protection Program, admitting his role in the Turchi murder conspiracy as the “set up man” as well as to a role in an unsolved 1995 gangland slaying. According to turncoat Philly mob capo Pete (The Crumb) Caprio, Ligambi told him “We banged Ronnie out to teach Ralph a lesson.” Caprio ran the Bruno-Scarfo’s New Jersey crew and joined Natale and Vella in the Witness Protection Program. The conversation took place when Ligambi allegedly reached out to Caprio to be introduced to mob bosses in New York’s Five Families. Ironically, the notoriously understated Uncle Joe is crediting with stabilizing the Philly mob and tamping down violence in the wake of the chaotic Scarfo, Stanfa and Natale-Merlino regimes. Natale and Caprio testified against Merlino at his 2001 trial in relation to murder conspiracies he was found innocent of. Vella has never been called as a witness due to reliability concerns. Merlino was convicted of racketeering and did 12 years behind bars, getting released in early 2011 and relocating to Florida. Ligambi beat a racketeering bust at a pair of trials, but he and Merlino are still suspects in green-lighting multiple mob hits in the late 1990s and 2000s, including the Turchi slaying. The 57-year old and perpetually suave Skinny Joey Merlino walked from a short federal prison sentence for a gambling offense earlier this month. Merlino was swept up in the 2016 “East Coast LCN Enterprise” case.
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