The Skinny Joey Era of the Philadelphia mafia began with a gun blast 30 years ago this week, when, according to FBI informants, Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, pumped 8 shots from a MAC-10 machine pistol into friend-turned-rival Nicky Scarfo, Jr. as he ate spaghetti and clams at old-school South Philly dining-staple Dante & Luigi’s on Halloween night 1989. Scarfo, Jr., son of then-jailed don Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, survived the attack, but the attempt on his life made it clear it was a new day in the Philly mob and Skinny Joey was making a play for power. Merlino, 57, was never arrested for the attack and went on to serve a short prison sentence for an armored truck heist and then became boss of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family himself in the 1990s, a job he still holds today. Per informants, Skinny Joey plotted to kill Scarfo, Jr. again after he took over the Philly mob. The 54-year old Scarfo, Jr. was eventually “made” into New York’s Lucchese crime family via an arrangement brokered by his father from behind bars. He was convicted in federal court in 2014 for mortgage fraud and racketeering and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Little Nicky Scarfo died of natural causes in 2017 at 87, having spent the final 30 years of his life locked up in a federal correctional facility. The Little Nicky Era in the Philly underworld was hectic, hell-raising and blood-ridden, a throwback to Prohibition and the brash, headline-grabbing antics of Scarfo’s gangland idol, Al (Scarface) Capone. Scarfo assumed power in 1981 and killed indiscriminately. Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, Skinny Joey’s father, was Scarfo’s close friend and underboss. Skinny Joey and Nicky, Jr. palled around together quite a bit until Little Nicky and Chuckie Merlino had a falling out and Little Nicky demoted the elder Merlino from his underboss post. When Scarfo and his mob entire administration, including Chuckie Merlino, were indicted in a giant murder and racketeering case in 1987 and finally off the streets, the crime family instantly split into two factions, one supporting the imprisoned Scarfo, who delegated his authority through his son and his uncle and acting boss Anthony (Tony Buck) Piccolo, and the other supporting the “Young Turk” camp led by Skinny Joey Merlino and his best friend Michael (Mikey Chang) Ciancaglini, son of Scarfo-era capo Joseph (Chickie) Ciancaglini. Skinny Joey and Mikey Chang began going after Scarfo-protected bookies and loansharks within weeks of Little Nicky getting put in the can.
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