Uncle Joe Has Nine Lives: Philly Mob Leader Dodged Bullet In ’83 Murder Case, Set Tone For Career

May 13, 2020 — Philadelphia mafia elder statesman Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi was indicted for disposing the dead body of a Gambino soldier in 1985, but had the case dropped before trial. The 80-year old Ligambi, who retired from his acting boss post last summer and may be serving in some consigliere-type capacity these days, was convicted of racketeering and murder four years later. In the coming years, “Uncle Joe” would develop a reputation for sliding out of legal trouble.

Matty and Salvatore Sollena, members of the Gambino crime family’s Cherry Hill, New Jersey crew, disappeared on November 6, 1983. Like most of the Cherry Hill crew, the Sollena brothers were native Sicilians and known narcotics traffickers. The crew, set up by the Family’s namesake, “Don Carlo” Gambino, for his cousins in the early 1970s, reported to mob brass in New York even though it headquartered right outside of Philly. The Sollenas were facing federal prison time, deportation and suspected of stealing from Atlantic City casinos controlled by the Philly mob contingent.

Salvatore Sollena, 39, was found in the trunk of his car on November 10 in the parking lot of the Four Seasons Hotel in Collingswood, New Jersey. On November, 19, Matty Sollena, 37, was found in the trunk of his wife’s car on a street corner in Marlton, New Jersey. Both Sollenas were shot in the back of the head, their arms and legs trussed and garbage bags placed over their heads and feet.

The Cherry Hill Gambino crew had strong ties to Philadelphia’s Bruno-Scarfo crime family dating back to its inception. Since the crew of “zips” operated on Philly mob ground, the Philly bosses got a piece of their action. Sometimes, they helped each other out with muscle work.

According to his indictment, Joe Ligambi, then just a Philly mafia associate, was summoned to Atlantic City one night in 1983 and given possession of Salvatore Sollena’s body to get rid of. A bartender and prolific bookmaker with a clientele that spanned Philadelphia and parts of North Jersey, Ligambi belonged to a mob crew ran by Lawrence (Yogi) Merlino and his brother, Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, the Philly mafia’s underboss.

Yogi Merlino and his sometime-driver Frank Kelly met Ligambi at Angeloni’s Restaurant on the evening of November 6, 1983 and at a booth in the back of the place passed Ligambi the keys to a car sitting in the parking lot, per the indictment. Kelly was an informant for the FBI and the New Jersey State Police and instructed to get close to Philly mob boss Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo and his inner circle, which included the Merlino brothers, who were longtime close friends of his.

Per Kelly’s grand jury testimony, Yogi Merlino told Ligambi to drive the car with Sollena’s body located in the trunk to the Four Seasons Hotel and leave it to be found. Salvatore Sollena was reported missing by his wife hours earlier. According to federal documents, Ligambi was slated to get his “button” – initiation into the mob – by way of his alleged participation in the Sollena hit, however, his induction was put on hold on Scarfo’s orders due to Chuckie Merlino’s demotion from his underboss role and the fact that he had not pulled the trigger.

The Sollenas operated out of a string of pizza parlors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania linked to the Pizza Connection heroin-smuggling network. Their cousin, Sicilian mafia boss, Gaetano (Don Tano) Badalamenti, headed the network, which smuggled heroin out of Europe in jars of pizza sauce destined for dozens of pizzerias spread throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In the fall of 1983, Matty Sollena was out on bond awaiting sentencing in a counterfeiting case. He had taken a heroin pinch in 1971. Salvatore Sollena was awaiting trial in two cases, a drug indictment stemming from his selling heroin to an undercover DEA agent in California and a bank fraud arrest where he was laundering narcotics proceeds using bogus cashier checks being cashed overseas. The U.S. government had begun planning deportation proceedings for both Sollena brothers.

Informants told the FBI and the DEA that Scarfo and the Cherry Hill Gambino crew suspected the Sollenas were skimming from Atlantic City casinos belonging to the Philly mafia and the Cherry Hill crew was upset that the Sollenas lost the crew millions of dollars when a drug shipment intended for their pizzerias was seized in Milan in May 1982. Because of the infractions, per the informants, the Sollenas were marked for death.

One of these informants filling the feds in on what was going on was Frank Kelly, who managed Yogi Merlino’s Atlantic City headquarters, T.K.’s Pub. Kelly, an ex-cop, had met Little Nicky Scarfo and the Merlino brothers in the 1960s when he was working with Philadelphia mob associate Alvin Feldman in a pornography distribution racket out of Baltimore. He had lost contact with the Philly wiseguys once Feldman was killed in the early 1970s, but by the end of the decade, he was being encouraged by his handlers in the FBI to reestablish contact.

The feds had flipped Kelly in 1971. To facilitate the reintroduction to the Scarfo camp, the FBI arranged for Kelly to be hired as the assistant director of travel and tours at the Resorts International hotel and casino in AC and then in the same position at the Playboy Hotel and Casino. Scarfo had been stationed in Atlantic City since the 1960s and when he was promoted to boss of the Philly mob in March 1981, he remained there and assigned Chuckie Merlino to watch over Philadelphia on a day-to-day basis, while Yogi stayed close to him in AC.

Beginning around 1979, Kelly reinserted himself into Scarfo’s orbit, currying favor with the diminutive future don by getting him VIP perks at his casinos and paying him large tribute envelopes of money he said came from bookmaking but in reality came from the FBI. When Ligambi was allegedly tasked with dumping Salvatore Sollena’s body in November 1983, Kelly was told by Yogi Merlino to follow him in a crash car to avoid detection and possible interference and once he left the car containing Sollena’s hog-tied corpse at the hotel parking lot, to drive him away from the scene.

Kelly entered the Witness Protection Program in the spring of 1985. On July 26 of that year, Ligambi and Yogi Merlino were indicted for aiding and abetting in the Sollena murder. The case never made it in front of a jury though, as the U.S. Attorneys Office dropped the charges in January 1987 when they found inconsistencies in Kelly’s testimony in front of a grand jury in regard to the Sollena body disposal endeavor. While Kelly claimed the meeting at Angeloni’s occurred on the night Sollena disappeared on November 6, 1983, the coroners report stated the date of death as November 8.

It didn’t matter though. Ligambi and Yogi Merlino were on their way to be indicted on more charges in the weeks and months to come along with the murderous, power-starved Little Nicky Scarfo and his entire mob leadership hierarchy. The entire regime was convicted of racketeering and murder at a 1989 trial. Yogi Merlino wound up cooperating and entering the Witness Protection Program. He told the FBI that the Cherry Hill Gambino crew apologized to him and Scarfo for the problems encountered related to the Salvatore Sollena hit.

Ligambi was found guilty of the 1985 gangland slaying of Scaro rival, Frank (Frankie Flowers) D’Alfonso, committed three days prior to his indictment in the Sollena case and finally paving the way for his “making” into the mafia. The murder conviction was eventually tossed due to judicial and prosecutorial misconduct and Ligambi gained his freedom in 1997 after being acquitted at a second trial.

Upon his release, Ligambi cozied up to Chuckie Merlino’s son, Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, who had taken over the Philly mob by force in the 1990s, and has reportedly helped him run the crime family for the last 23 years. Ligambi stabilized the borgata as acting boss when Skinny Joey was incarcerated for racketeering for the all of the 2000s, politicking the regime back into the good graces of New York’s Five Families after Merlino followed suit from the Scarfo era and turned the Philly mob into a battleground the previous decade as he climbed his way to the top.

Merlino, 57, got out of prison in his racketeering case in the winter of 2012 and relocated from South Philly to South Florida. Ligambi, per sources, assumed the role of consigliere.

Returning to the helm in 2015 following a brief respite — beating a racketeering case of his own and bridging the gap between Merlino and the Scarfo era figures being let out of prison –, Ligambi retired from his acting boss duties last summer at his 80th birthday party. Per sources in the federal government, “The Uncle,” and Merlino are the targets of an ongoing cold-case murder probe, looking into at least five mob-related slayings (1999-2012) informants tie them to ordering.

Chuckie Merlino and Nicky Scarfo died behind bars in 2012 and 2017, respectively. Yogi Merlino passed away in Witness Protection in 2001.

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