October 21, 2022 — The extortion of Philadelphia mafia don Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino’s uncle triggered the first salvo in the war he fought to win control of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family 30 years ago, according to FBI informant files. Merlino and his crew of boyhood pals, all trigger-happy young gangsters with Omerta pedigrees, got backing by the imprisoned Ralph Natale, a hit man, drug dealer and labor-union racketeer with ties to the east coast mafia’s old guard and went to the mattress for power in the Philly mob in 1992 against sitting Godfather John Stanfa, who had the support of New York’s Gambino and Genovese crime families.
Stanfa’s No. 2 man, Felix (Little Felix) Bocchino, was killed on the morning of January 29, 1992 sitting in his car in front of his house. The FBI believes one of Merlino’s closest friends carried out the Bocchino hit. Since Stanfa assumed the throne two years earlier, Little Felix had been shaking down South Philly bookmaker Michael (Sheiky) Baldino, Skinny Joey’s uncle on his mother’s side. Bocchino’s murder ignited a bloody two-year shooting war between Stanfa and Merlino factions, eventually won by Merlino when Stanfa was jailed in the spring of 1994.
The always slickly-dressed and consummately-cool-as-a-breeze Merlino grew up in the Philly mob. His dad was Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, the underboss to maniacal Bruno-Scarfo crime family don Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, the younger Merlino’s baptismal godfather and the leader of organized crime in Philadelphia and New Jersey in the 1980s. Upon Little Nicky and Chuckie Merlino being sent to prison in a RICO case in 1987, Skinny Joey and his like-minded entourage of up-and-comers wanted to take over the city themselves, however, never received the time of the day from the powers that be in the New York mob and instead found themselves under the thumb of Stanfa, an out-of-touch Sicilian transplant with no rapport with his organization’s youth movement.
During a short prison sentence for an armored truck heist he was serving in the early 1990s, Merlino found himself sharing a cell with Natale, once a member of slain Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno’s inner circle and doing a 15-year bid for arson, insurance fraud and narcotics trafficking. Natale blamed Stanfa and Little Felix Bocchino for being part of the plot to assassinate Bruno in 1980, a gruesome gangland execution that garnered headlines around the globe, and saw Merlino and his crew as a way to retain relevancy in an “MTV mob generation.” Merlino saw Natale’s experience factor and connections in New York as way to secure legitimacy in his plan to grab the reins of the crime family at just 30 years old.
When Merlino got back on the street, the extortion of his uncle Sheiky Baldino became a point of great contention. Little Felix Bocchino just wouldn’t relent, nor respect Merlino’s growing influence.
From prison, Natale got Bocchino on the phone at a Christmas party held in a South Philly bar in December 1991 and requested that he leave Baldino alone, as a favor to him and Skinny Joey. Little Felix told Natale, “I’m not doing anything wrong, you guys can do whatever the hell you want (as long as it doesn’t interfere with what him and Stanfa were doing)” and hung up. Natale would later recount a meeting in a prison visiting room between him, Merlino and Ciancaglini, where he told them, “We got to kill this guy Little Felix, the guy isn’t doing what he’s supposed to do. So we’re going to do what we got to do. Show these guys (Stanfa’s regime), where we’re at.”
Little Felix Bocchino, 74, was shot to death behind the wheel of his late-model, maroon-colored Buick sedan parked near his home on Mifflin Street in South Philly at 8:00 a.m. on January 29, 1992. Eyewitnesses say they saw a single white male in a sweatsuit and ski mask walk up to Bocchino’s car and open fire with a .38 caliber revolver.
Bocchino came from the North Jersey wing of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was in the Newark crew of consigliere Antonio (Tony Bananas) Caponigro, the man responsible for launching an unsuccessful palace coup and most likely the shooter in the shocking Angelo Bruno hit that took place in March 1980 outside Bruno’s South Philly rowhouse. John Stanfa was acting as Bruno’s driver that night and opened the window on his car’s passenger’s side for the assassin to get a clean shot at Bruno’s head. Bocchino is alleged to have delivered the murder weapon (a double-barreled shotgun) to the triggerman in the hit.
Both Stanfa and Bocchino went to prison in the 1980s, with Little Felix getting out from a tax evasion bust in 1985 and Stanfa walking free from contempt charges in 1988. By the beginning of the new decade, Stanfa had assumed the boss’ seat with the blessing of the Gambinos and the Genovese and Bocchino became his unofficial street boss or underboss. During the Bruno era, Little Felix was tasked with looking after the Philly mob’s gambling interests in the Garden State, per state police records. At the start of the 1990s, Stanfa assigned Bocchino responsibility for getting all his new regime’s street tax operations in gear throughout Philly and New Jersey.
Skinny Joey Merlino and his tightknit crew refused to get in line behind Stanfa and Bocchino. Merlino’s camp included his best friends, Michael (Mikey Chang) Ciancaglini, Steven (Handsome Stevie) Mazzone and George (Georgie Boy) Borgesi. Ciancaglini, Skinny Joey’s right-hand man, and Borgesi, his top advisor, had a father and uncle, respectively, in prison from the Scarfo-era RICO case. Mazzone’s mentor in the mob, Lou (Louie Irish) DeLuca, was allegedly killed in 1990 for refusing to pay extortion money to Merlino and Natale from his gambling and loansharking rackets in South Philly.
Natale claims he was informed that Handsome Stevie Mazzone “made his bones” on the Little Felix Bocchino murder. He told the FBI that Merlino and Ciancaglini came to see him in prison before and after the hit and let him know Mazzone was the shooter and had lost control of the gun at one point through the course of carrying out the job.
“Joey and Mikey said they wanted to make Stevie, they were getting ready to make him. I said, ‘well, let him do what he’s got to do.” And Stevie went out and did what he had to do.”
Mikey Chang would lose his life in the Merlino-Stanfa war, shot to death on a South Philly street corner in August 1993 in the midst of a “walk and talk” with Skinny Joey, who was wounded in the attack. After Mikey Chang died, Handsome Stevie Mazzone moved up to being Merlino’s right-hand and second-in-command. Stanfa was swept off the streets in March 1994 and sent to prison for the rest of his life. Natale came out of prison that fall and unknowingly became a front boss for Merlino for the next four years.
The 59-year old Mazzone has never faced charges in the Bocchino homicide. Natale pleaded guilty to ordering the Little Felix hit in 2000 as part of his historic plea agreement when he became the first sitting boss of an American La Cosa Nostra crime family to cut a cooperation deal with the government. Merlino, Mazzone and Borgesi went down in a major federal racketeering case that same year, but avoided any murder convictions. The Bocchino hit wasn’t one of the six homicides charged in the 2000 RICO indictment.
If you believe Uncle Sam, Skinny Joey, Handsome Stevie and Georgie Boy are back running the Philadelphia mafia today. Next month, Handsome Stevie Mazzone will be sentenced as the Bruno-Scarfo clan’s underboss in another federal racketeering case. Mazzone pleaded guilty earlier this year and is expected to get 6-to-8 years in prison — he was caught on tape conducting a 2015 mafia induction ceremony in which his and Georgie Boy Borgesi’s younger brothers were allegedly “made” into the crime family.
Natale fell out with Merlino and his crew in the late 1990s when his use by them was no longer needed. Almost as soon as he was jailed for a parole violation in the summer of 1998, Natale was angling for a deal with the FBI. He got his wish in 1999 once Merlino, Mazzone and Borgesi were indicted on a wide slate of racketeering and homicide counts. In the end, Natale’s testimony against his former lieutenants only led to conviction on the racketeering charges and he ended up doing more time behind bars than any of them did. Natale died of a heart attack back in January at age 86.
This article was originally posted here