By Thom L. Jones
Way back in 1955, Alfred Hitchcock made this great movie called ‘The Trouble with Harry’ starring John Forsythe. An offbeat, hilarious black comedy about a bothersome corpse that keeps getting buried and then keeps re-appearing, causing all sorts of problems for peaceful neighbours in a New England township.
There was another Harry who caused all sorts of people, all sorts of problems, often involving dead bodies, but for quite different reasons.
At four eleven and about 110 pounds, it’s hard to believe Enrico Riccobene could have been a tough guy, let alone a wise guy, but he was apparently made into the Philadelphia family of the Mafia when he was just sweet sixteen, maybe seventeen, depending on which source you prefer to consult. With a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and a long white beard, in his later years he must have seemed more like Santa Claus in tight pants, or one of the seven dwarfs than a hoodlum with attitude.
Thirteen years before his induction into the Mafia, his mother and father had packed up and left their home in Enna, geographically the heart of Sicily and the highest regional capital in Italy, and made their way west across the island to Palermo. Mario the father, left for America first, finding a job in the coal mines of West Virginia, building up a nest egg, before sending for his wife Anna Cimmarri and three year old son, Enrico, who came across and joined him in 1913.
The son had been born with a birth defect that caused a curvature of the spine, and would also stunt his growth. It may have been lordosis, kyphosis or Pott’s Disease, which also affected Luciano Leggio, the infamous Mafia boss of Sicily who terrorized much of the island from 1948 until 1974.
Perhaps it was this acute physical deformity, combined with his Lilliputian appearance that would shape his future, creating a solipsistic crankshaft driving his personality through a lifetime filled with criminal endeavours. Strange and disabled as he was, it may be he looked into the badlands of his uncertain future and decided he’d play life a full-hand and to hell with the consequences.
The family moved to Philadelphia where Mario found work as a stonemason, settling in the South side of the city which had become an Italian enclave. In 1925 Anna died. By then, the family had become extended when Mario had adopted his brother’s two sons, Robert and Mario, on the death of their mother during the great influenza epidemic of 1918. In 1928, Mario Riccobene (the senior) remarried, and he and his wife Jennie, had eight children.
A year before, Enrico, now known by his English name of Harry, had become ‘mobbed up.’ He had left school in the fifth grade and went to work on the streets, some of his earliest criminal activity involving drug trafficking, an enterprise that stayed with him throughout his long and industrious career.
Sometime in 1927 he was ‘made’ or inducted into the Mafia family of Philadelphia, (referred to as ‘The Greaser Gang’ by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,) apparently by its current boss, Salvatore Sabella who had taken over control of the family in 1911. There may have been a number of leaders before him, dating back through the family’s tenebrous development, perhaps as far back as the 1890s. The Philadelphia Inquirer indicated in an article in 1903 that the Mafia existed in the city, although it did not name names.
Sabella had fled Palermo after the law had closed in on him for his part in a 1905 murder. He killed a violent and unstable butcher he worked for in Castellammare Del Golfo. Although only a young teenager, he was sentenced to prison, and sent to Milan to serve his sentence.
Immigrating to New York after he served his time, he arrived there at the age of twenty only a couple of years before the Riccobene family arrived in America. He at first settled in New York, before moving to Philadelphia and then becoming the head of the Mafia clan. He stayed in control of the Philadelphia family until at some point in the early 1930s, when for an unspecified reason, he abdicated and returned to Sicily. It has been claimed this was because he had been an ally of Salvatore Maranzano the powerful New York mob boss who had been gunned down in 1931, and he felt vulnerable as a result. His brother Dominick Sabella, a member of the New York Mafia, had apparently convinced him to join in the war. (1)
Harry claimed that he had been an ‘active’ participant in the New York underworld war that ultimately claimed Maranzano, to one source, but denied it to another. (2)
Sabella had taken some of his soldiers to help his old friend, and to fight in the struggle. There are organized crime sources that suggest Sabella became disenchanted with the American version of the Mafia following the alleged restructuring of the Italian-American underworld after Maranzano’s death, a move allegedly driven by Charlie Luciano, who had encouraged the recruitment of Calabrians and Neapolitans into the ranks, an affront to Sabella who believed the Mafia should be staffed only by Sicilians like himself. This in itself was enough for him to make the decision to leave Philadelphia and America.
Then again, it is quite possible that Sabella simply left following his arrest for assault in New York in 1930. A couple of years before he and two of his associates, John Avena and Joe Ida, (who would both, in due course, become heads of the family,) were arrested and charged with the murder of two hoodlums, Joe Zanghi and Vincenzo Cocuzzo, in South Philadelphia. The case against the three men was subsequently dropped. By the end of 1931, for whatever reason, Sabella was gone, returning to his roots in Castellamare del Golfo, in Sicily. (Some crime historians say he was deported when investigators of the murders discovered he was an illegal alien. He had arrived in America as a stowaway.) Just to confuse thing even more, he may have retired to Norristown, ten miles north of the city, and lived out his life as a butcher!
It is almost 100% certain that Harry Riccobene (right) was the youngest man ever made into the Mafia, at least in America. When he died, 73 years later, he was undoubtedly one of its oldest, actively serving members. Just how or why Harry got his button at an age when most juveniles are just getting acne, is something we will never know.
His father, Mario, himself a soldier in the Mafia, both in Italy and in Philadelphia, must have been blown out of his socks when little, teenage Harry came home, not from the corner drug-store and an ice cream sundae, but a mob meeting, where the big boss himself, Sabella, had metaphorically, pinned a ‘button’ onto his chest.
‘My father’, said Harry, ‘was very proud.’
Perhaps Harry ‘made his bones,’ killed someone for the mob, and proved he had gumption and heart. Although he was short he could be as deadly as a stick of dynamite. He would show proof of that in his later life. Diminutive, bent like a banana, he apparently never backed away from anyone. Once after a gunman, a foot taller and one hundred pounds heavier, had shot him five times, he actually attacked his assailant and wrestled the handgun away from him.
Throughout the twilight years of prohibition, in the late 1920s, Harry developed a prosperous bootlegging business, tied up the zignetti games in his neighbourhood and built up a thriving loan-sharking business. In addition, over the years he moved money into legitimate business areas such as garbage haulage, jukeboxes, television tube companies in Philadelphia, New York and Richmond, Virginia, vending machines and somewhat incongruously, a talent agency. He moved comfortably between the Philadelphia Italian, Jewish and coloured crime groups, operating for many years as a liaison between black number operators and the Mafia hierarchy.
He had learned a lot about his trade working alongside Jewish hoods. In his bootlegging days, he had associated closely with Max ‘Boo Boo’ Hoff, who was one of his main booze suppliers. Hoff was a major player in the Philadelphia underworld, known as the ‘King of the Bootleggers,’ with a large, well-organized gang, and had criminal roots going back to the start of the roaring twenties. Harry had developed his gambling and numbers business under the patronage of another Jewish gangster, Harry Stromberg, alias ‘Nig Rosen.’ Also known as ‘The Mahoff,’ Stromberg, a Russian Jew, was a New York import, who moved to Philadelphia during the prohibition period to stake his claim in the city’s booming illegal potential.
Harry claimed that in these early years, he was considered an independent, doing a bit of everything. Diversification was the thing. ‘You had to be flexible,’ he recalled, ‘there was always a lot of competition on the streets.’
Was there ever!
There was the Duffy gang led by a Polish immigrant called Michael Cusick, who adopted a sobriquet of Mickey Duffy to sound like he was Irish. Irish was the thing before the Italians muscled into the street scene. There was the O'Leary gang, led by a real Irishman called Danny O'Leary. Boo Boo had his own gang who were in competion with the Haim brothers, Charley, Irving and Albert. Then there was the Sicilian Zanghi brothers, four or five evil gunmen who terrorised their neighbourhood until they were eventually put down or chased from the scene and last but by no means least, the infamous Lanzetti brothers-six gunmen, gamblers, drug traffickers and bootleggers-who caused all kinds of heartburn during the 1920s and 1930s, until three of them were dead, one was in prison and the remaining two headed north for Alaska, but getting no further than Detroit.
Harry had to work hard with all of this competition.
He developed and expanded his business interests in waste-removal, vending machines, illegal gambling through a numbers operation, ticket-agencies and drug trafficking. In the 1960s he allied himself with the notorious Harold Konigsberg, loan-sharking in New Jersey. Just what part he played in ‘KO’s’ operation has never been disclosed. Maybe Konigsberg used Harry as a club to beat his recalcitrant debtors over the head!
Tyrone DeNittis ran The Tyrones a popular Philadelphia rock and roll group of the 50s that recorded several hit songs including ‘Blast Off‘ and ‘I'm Shook‘ and appeared singing ‘Blast Off‘ in the film Let’s Rock with the Tyrones. Several Tyrones classics were used a few years ago on the soundtrack of the animated film The Iron Giant.
Later on, Tyrone DeNittis was listed in the 1980 Pennsylvania Crime Commission report as a mob associate of crime boss Angelo Bruno. According to the Crime Commission, DeNittis was the owner of a South Philadelphia talent agency which booked acts at various bars and clubs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. At the time of the report, DeNittis counted among his employees Harry Riccobene and his half brother Mario. The FBI claimed that Harry Riccobene was using the talent agency business as a front for his gambling and loan-sharking business. In the late 1970s, FBI wiretaps in the DeNittis Talent Agency recorded several meetings between Harry Riccobene, mob underboss Philip ‘Chicken Man‘ Testa and capo Nicodemo ‘Little Nicky’ Scarfo.
Recognized among his fellow mobsters as ‘Little Harry,’ or Il Gobbe, ‘The Hunchback,’ it was apparently a Philly cop who first tagged Riccobene with the derisory cognomen, ‘Harry the Hump,’ a nick-name he hated all his life. Considered a tight-wad with his money, he always complained that people considered him a lot wealthier than he really was.
According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, 709F 2d.215, 1983, Harry’s interest rate on the vig or interest on the loans he made was 5% per week, which would indicate he was no sloth at generating money!
The little gibbous mobster developed contacts in other parts of America, including New York, where he was a friend and confident of Charlie Luciano, and he also mixed with other powerful gangsters there, like Meyer Lansky. According to law enforcement sources, he was also a close friend and business partner of Russell Buffalino, the shadowy mobster who headed up the North-eastern Pennsylvanian office of the Mafia, from his base in Pittstown. The fact that he was close to the boss of other crime families indicated just how powerful Harry was in the ranks of the mob.
He operated all his working life as a ‘soldier’ in the Mafia hierarchy. Although he was never, apparently, promoted to capo or crew chief, he did in fact run and control a group of street-smart, tough hoods, including his two step-brothers, Mario and Robert, who he never allowed to be ‘made’ into the mob, he always claimed, for their own good. He knew what the life was like and didn’t want them tied into it in perpetuity the way he and other Mafiosi had to be. The police also claimed that Jennie, his step-mother was part of the gang. She and Harry were close all their lives and she was in fact, only two years older than he was.
Having a woman member as part of organized crime was not setting any kind of precedent. Rusty Rastelli, one time boss of the New York Bonanno crime family was married to a woman called Connie who drove his getaway cars and was deeply involved in mob business, to the point that it apparently cost her life. Midnight Rose who ran the famous candy store in Brownsville, Brooklyn, used as a hangout for the boys in Murder Inc. worked closely for Abe Reles, as did her daughter. In to-day’s Sicilian Mafia and in the Camorra of Naples, women are more and more taking a dominant role, moving from the kitchen and nursery into the front lines of organized crime. In May, 2002, a shoot-out near Naples, left a number of women dead, shot by other women, all part of a warring crime family dispute, illustrating that the ‘gentle sex’ are not so gentle when the chips are down.
Considered ‘pretty smart,’ and a ‘risk -taker’ by the underworld, Riccobene took one risk too many in 1956 and was arrested along with nineteen others in Cleveland for drug trafficking. Not the first time. His narcotic arrest-sheet went back to 1932. Convicted, he spent the best party of twenty years in prison, and was released in March, 1975. Harry and drugs were like apple pie and ice cream, although he never used them himself, even to alleviate the crippling illness that plagued him in his later life. He did however, make money from drugs, using any and every source available. He had a long and loosing battle with the law throughout his life, being arrested and convicted 34 out of 35 times.
He dealt with the black criminal underworld for many years. Black numbers bankers in South Philadelphia had traditionally relied on the Jewish and Italian mobs for protection and financial backing, and Harry used this connection to help him in his drug trafficking operation. But the riots and black power movement of the 60s ruptured the relationship between the Mafia and African-American mobsters in Philadelphia.
Through his long connection to mobster Saul Kane, Harry even operated with the Pagan motor cycle gang. Kane a bail bondsman, and consummate drug trafficker was an Atlantic City mobster known as ‘The Meyer Lansky’ of the Boardwalk. That Harry reached out to biker gang members to help him, was in itself no way revolutionary. Law enforcement officials have long believed that the Bonanno crime family of New York is linked into the notorious Hell’s Angels, the biggest motor cycle gang in the world
The Mafia crime family that Harry came back to in South Philadelphia was changing for the worse, although the catalyst was almost five years away. As always in the mob, it would be based on greed, triggered by violence and soaked in treachery.
There was to be, as Albert Camus, the French philosopher wrote:
‘Four quick knocks on the door of unhappiness’
And when opened, it unleashed a veritable Pandora’s Box of death and destruction never witnessed on this scale since the crazy days of Al Capone’s Chicago.
The war that tore apart the Philadelphia underworld, began after a meal at a landmark South Philly restaurant known then, as Cou’s Little Italy at 901 South 11th Street. Shortly after 9.30 in the evening of March 21st 1980, Angelo Bruno, the Mafia boss of the city, having enjoyed an early dinner, climbed into the passenger seat of a maroon Chevrolet Caprice belonging to a man called John Stanfa, a low level associate of the family who was in the construction business.
A forty-year old Sicilian, he had immigrated to America in the early 1960s and was inducted into the Philadelphia Mafia, soon after. He became the driver and bodyguard of the family’s boss for a period of time.
Stanfa lived just a few blocks from Bruno’s home and volunteered to be the taxi driver as the usual chauffeur that night, Ray Martorano, had been called away on business. Stanfa drove his boss the couple of miles or so down South Broad Street to Bruno’s modest row house and stopped outside it at 934 Snyder Avenue. He parked the car so that Bruno was sitting close to the sidewalk, and at some stage, the window on Bruno’s side was opened to help clear the air as both men sat and smoked.
Stanfa later claimed that after they had been talking for a few minutes, a man walked out of the shadows up to the car, jammed a sawn-off shotgun through the window, thrust it under Bruno’s right ear and fired, killing him instantly. At that range it would be logical to assume that the blast would have blown off Bruno’s head; however it was left it intact. It can only be supposed that the weapon was a small bore shotgun, like say a .410 calibre, (although some newspapers claimed it was a sawn-off 12 gauge) and this was used to avoid any damage to Stanfa, who I believe was in on the plot to murder his boss. Stanfa was slightly wounded in the arm and shoulder by spraying shot, and claimed he was unable to give a description of the unknown shooter. It has been claimed that Stanfa was unaware that the shooting was to go down that night and was simply an innocent party, if so, he was remarkably lucky not to be included in the damage wrought by the gunman.
Bruno’s murder was the first in a series of killings that would stretch into 1985, taking at least twenty-eight lives, including a woman’s, as violent men fought each other across the streets of South Philadelphia and into the gray suburban masses of the grimy industrial north New Jersey landscape and even onto the streets of New York.
Angelo Bruno (right) died for a number of reasons.
Some of the complaints levied against him were that he was too much a traditionalist, too conservative, too insulated from the changing facing of his mob family (he had closed the books in the 60s, and refused to consider new and younger men for admittance,) and above all, was too strict in trying to restrict drug trafficking activity. The 1977 passing of the New Jersey Casino Act which predicated the explosive boom in the casino and gambling development of Atlantic City should have rung warning bells, but didn’t.
Capt. Charles Bloom of the police department's Central Intelligence Bureau said.
‘If you had to describe Bruno, you could say, ‘make money, don't make headlines,'
Things just festered in the fifty strong mob family, and got worse. (3)
The man who undoubtedly was behind Bruno’s killing (and in fact may have actually carried out the hit himself,) was a street smart, tough, 67 year old mobster called Antonio Rocco Caponigro (left), often called ‘Tony Bananas,’ or sometimes ’Tony Biase,’ who lived in Verona in Essex County and ran a club called ‘The 311’ in the Ironbound district of Newark. He owned a massive farm, with a lake stocked with trout and kept thoroughbred horses and employed gamekeepers to maintain the estate. He owned a huge, three hundred unit motel complex with a restaurant and according to Nick Caramandi, a capo in the Philadelphia Mafia family, he was worth $70 million and kept a loan book on the streets worth $8 million.
He had been promoted into the post of consigliere, or family adviser, in 1978, following the death of the current counsellor, Joseph ‘Joe the Boss’ Rugnetta. Phil Testa, the family under boss had wanted to promote one of his own protégés into this job, a small, skinny, tightly-wound hoodlum called Nicodemo Scarfo.
Bruno however, distrusted the man, and in fact had banished him down into the wilds of Atlantic City in 1963, following a messy and much publicized killing committed by Scarfo, who along with Salvatore Merlino, attacked a longshoreman Joseph Dugan, and Scarfo in the scuffle, stabbed him to death, in the Oregon Diner in south Philadelphia.
Caponigro managed a huge bookmaking business in Jersey City that perhaps grossed as much as $2 million a week, according to mob informant, Tommy Del Giorno. Sports betting is the ‘cash cow’ of organized crime. The enormous profits it generates fund a host of illegal activities - for example loan-sharking, hijacking, drug trafficking-and it helps mobsters achieve the holy grail in their illegal careers-the entry into honest business which is particularly important as crime families as a rule, hold no liens over legitimate enterprises run by its members, so none of it has to be ‘kicked up-stairs.
Sometime towards the end of 1978, Caponigro was involved in a major dispute with the Genovese crime family of New York, who claimed the rights to this bookmaking operation as it was mainly based in an area they considered theirs. A sit-down in Manhattan was arranged between Bruno and the Commission heads and it was eventually decided that Caponigro held on to his business. (The Commission was formed sometime in 1931, as a kind of Board of Directors of the American Mafia, although most of its members came from New York or the Eastern Seaboard.)
After the meeting, there would have been much kissing of cheeks and shaking of hands as the gangsters departed, but Alphonse ‘Funzy’ Tieri (photo right), boss of the Genovese family, and its representative on the board, who had lusted after the behemoth gambling franchise, never forgot, and never forgave.
Restless for power and seeing his clock ticking away, Caponigro decided to make a play to take over the family, once Bruno was murdered, but first approached the powerful Genovese crime family again, this time for their blessing and support, hoping they would secure him the approval of the Commission, in his attempt. He had meetings in New York with Anthony ‘Fat Tony‘ Salerno who was a major powerbroker in the family. Salerno answered to Phil ‘Ben Turpin’ Lombardo who was second in charge to Funzi. Also along in the coffee sit-downs, was Vincent Gigante, one of the many peripheral figures who operated in the shadows of the Genovese family’s convoluted top management structure. Tieri, who like his contemporaries at this time, had a doctorate in the science of manipulation and deception, played a royal flush against Caponigro’s pair of aces, in a game of poker that was never played, except in each man‘s head.
‘Funzi’ had little time for Caponigro, and had long lusted after the enormously profitable gambling business the Philadelphia consigliere controlled, especially since the 1978 meeting that had gone against him. Tieri in effect gave his approval for the hit on Bruno, but after the act denied this, and was in fact probably instrumental in setting up the events that followed. Tieri wanted the Caponigro gambling concession and the Genovese family wanted access into the potential gold mine that would become Atlantic City. The stage was set for a theatre of treachery, deceit and death.
The Commission appointed Salerno, Gigante and the Genovese family consigliere, Bobby Manna, to investigate the murder of Bruno, and it has to be a fair assumption that their inquiries would lead only in one direction.
After the killing of Bruno, Scarfo himself had travelled to New York a number of times to meet with members of the Genovese family. He was comfortable dealing with the mobsters in the big city, his father after all had been a soldier in the same family. At this meeting, Bobby Manna told him that the Commission wanted him to be the new boss, but he turned it down as he felt Phil Testa deserved it more, and Testa was subsequently approved as the new head.
Less than a month after the Bruno killing, Caponigro and his brother-in-law, Alfred Salerno, who owned a jewellery business in Manhattan, also went across to New York. They met up that morning at the social club on Clifford Street, Newark, ran by Patty ‘Specs’ Martorano, a capo in the Northern New Jersey area for the family, and were chauffeured from there into the city. They had arranged to meet with the Genovese administration and liaised outside the New York Diamond Exchange on 47th Street, with a capo in the family, called Dominck Cantarino. He was supposed to take them to Vincent Gigante. They were never seen alive again, except by their killers.
Antonio Caponigro, the Chicago born hoodlum, who amassed a fortune first from bootlegging then gambling and loan-sharking, built himself a ship of death and sailed it into oblivion.
On April 18th, Salerno’s body was found in the trunk of an auto in the South Bronx. Stuffed into a mortuary bag, he had been so badly beaten, most of the bones in his face were shattered, and he had been shot in the head three times. A couple of days later and just a few blocks away, another opened car trunk revealed the naked corpse of Caponigro. He had been shot thirteen times in the head and his body repeatedly stabbed. His mouth and anus were stuffed with $20 bills, a message that ‘Tony Bananas’ was just too greedy for his own good. It was speculated from the wounds on his body that Caponigro had been brutally tortured to try to get him to disclose the identity of any other conspirators in the death of Bruno.
There are sources that claim the two murdered men had been taken to an isolated house in rural New Jersey, or upstate New York, where they had been killed by Gigante’s crew.
On the surface, it appeared the killing of Caponigro and Salerno was to avenge the ‘unlawful’ murder of Anthony Bruno. It was however, housekeeping by the Genovese mob to clean up the loose ends of a two year inter-family dispute. Funzi got his hands on the bookmaking business in Newark. The Genovese family consolidated their hold on New Jersey and Atlantic City and justice appeared to have been done in regards to the unlawful killing of a family head. Life has a way of setting things in order and leaving them be. Very tidy, is life.
Jersey State Police believed that Genovese mobster, John DiGilio who operated in the Northern New Jersey branch of the family, was a prime suspect in the double homicide.
‘Johnny Dee’ was a powerful capo in the family. Listed by Forbes magazine in 1986 as one of the richest Mafiosi in America, he was also unique in the mob in that he wore a moustache and full beard. However, he himself was murdered in May 1988 in an inter-family dispute before he could be indicted or brought to trial. His killer, Louis Auricchio, was the brother-in-law of New Jersey State senator, John A. Lynch, Jnr. At least two other members of the Philadelphia crime family went down for their part in the plot that surrounded the killing of Bruno- veteran mobsters Frank Sindone and John Simone. It is probably safe to assume that Caponigro gave up their names before his execution squad finished him off.
Sindone was recognized as the Bruno family’s number one loan shark in Philadelphia and claimed he had more money than he could ever spend. He operated out of a small eatery called Frank’s Cabana. The FBI planted a bug there, and in 1976, heard conversations which indicated that Sidone was less than happy with Bruno and his style of management, and wanted out. Maybe he saw Caponigro’s grab at the throne as his own ticket to ride, maybe he even got greedy for it himself. Either way he must have seemed a threat to Testa. Sindone’s body was found behind a store on Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia. He had been shot in the head, three times. He had been lured to a house owned by mob associate Virgil Mariutti, and killed by Salvatore Merlino.
‘Johnny Keys’ Simone was a long-term member of the Bruno mob, and in fact a cousin of the late family Don. He had made overtures about making a play himself for the family leadership, reaching out to some contacts he had in the New Jersey branch of the Gambino crime family including Nicky Russo, an elderly soldier in the family, who apparently supported him in his objective. The late Carlo Gambino and Bruno had been close friends, to the extent that Bruno’s wife, Sue, owned property in Florida jointly with Carlo, and Bruno, until his appointment onto the Commission, had always used Gambino as his proxy server on matters of policy.
Paul Castellano the current head of the Gambino family was outraged when he became aware of the moves Simone was making, in view of the fact that he had been one of the Commission members who had voted in favour of Scarfo to replace Bruno as the family head, then accepted Testa as the alternative. In order to placate Testa and assure him that New York supported him and no one else, he ordered Sammy Gravano, a soldier in the family with a reputation as a stone-killer, to organize the hit on Keys. He was murdered on Staten Island in September 1980.
Castellano, like so many mobsters, obviously strongly believed in the writing of Nicolo Machiavelli:
‘If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe his vengeance need not be feared.’
Sometime in early May, Bobby Manna travelled to Philadelphia and called a meeting at Cous, the restaurant were Angelo Bruno had his last supper, and informed a group of senior men in the family that Philip Testa was moving up from his position as under boss to head the family, making his under boss Pete Casella, the family’s major drug trafficker, and Nicky Scarfo his consigliere.
Testa lasted only until March 1981, when he was killed by a bomb hidden under the porch of his South Philly home, in Porter Street. The blast blew off or burnt off most of his clothes, and his semi-nude body, shredded below the waist, was propelled fifteen feet into his wrecked home like a pulped mango. Amazingly, he survived the explosion, but died in hospital an hour later.
A cop on duty at the scene said to a reporter:
‘Hell of a bang. Looks like he went through a giant paper shredder!
Testa has a claim to fame beyond his violent death and place in the confused and chaotic happenings that occurred in Philadelphia after the murder of Bruno. In 1982, Bruce Springsteen included in his album ‘Nebraska’ a song he called ‘Atlantic City’ that covered in the lyrics Testa’s pyrotechnical departure.
Pete Casella, reported to the Commission that Nicky Scarfo and his group had killed Testa, when in fact, he had engineered the killing himself, greedy to get his own hands on the top job. However, by the time that Testa’s remains had been buried, the Commission had considered the situation, and heavily influenced by the Genovese management’s recommendations, had given their okay for Scarfo to jump a position and head up Philadelphia.
Nicky was called to a meeting sometime in May 1981, in New York with Salerno, Gigante and Bobby Manna, and told the Commission had approved him for the post as boss of the Bruno family.
Casella had built up enough brownie points to avoid being part of the ongoing murder trail, and was eventually banished to Florida, where in due course, he died of natural causes, two years later at the age of seventy-six, after living almost destitute with his daughter.
No one ever doubted that Scarfo was a real gangster and a ruthless killer. Law enforcement sources believed he personally killed at least 26 people, and probably ordered many more deaths in addition.
Like another diminutive Don, Carmine Galante, who reached his own eschatological appointment with destiny nine months before Anthony Bruno, Nick Scarfo was driven by demons that could never be satisfied. His was a much different style from that of Bruno who had always favoured conciliation over violence.
It’s probably safe to say, Nicky Scarfo gave the Mafia a bad name.
According to Philadelphia lawyer, Charles Peruto Jr., ‘The guy changed the meaning of La Cosa Nostra from 'family' to 'me.' He's used everybody he's ever come in contact with. One of his sons hanged himself. Another changed his name. What does that tell you?’
Scarfo’s predilection was to go straight for the jugular: ready-shoot-aim, as a solution for any problem. And one of these problems was Little Harry.
Riccobene hated and loathed Scarfo. He saw in him all the things that were wrong with the changing face of the mob. He thought of him as a “brash, violent dope.” As he told a Philadelphia detective called Frank Fiel, ‘…..this new breed, they’re not like us old guys who know what we’re doin; we took our lickin’s and kept on tickin.’
Not only did Harry despise Nicky Scarfo, what was worse, he refused to acknowledge him, pay him tribute and cough up part of his illegal earnings as was the way that things worked in the mob. The Mafia is the original pyramid scheme. Those at the bottom support the next layer up who do likewise, and the guy at the top gets all the cream. But Riccobene was not going to play ball with a man he had no respect for.
‘I never respected him. I didn’t think he was material for that position,” Harry once said. More significantly, ‘I thought he was a weasel.’
George Anastasia’s book ‘Blood and Honor,’ one of the better books written on the subject of organized crime, gives this overview of the war that moved inevitably into deadly set-pieces:
‘This might seem strange to someone not familiar with the workings of the criminal underworld. But life inside the Scarfo organization was a three-dimensional chess game. Plots and intrigue unfolded on several different levels, and collisions occurred on various planes. So for months during the Riccobene war, protagonists would be in each other’s company and, on the surface at least, appear to be getting along famously. They would socialize at weddings and funerals. If they happened to be in the same restaurant, they’d greet each other warmly and buy each other a round of drinks. It was all part of the Mafia machismo that had taken over the Scarfo organization, all part of the battle being fought on Scarfo’s terms, a battle of cunning, guile and deceit.’
Under the old regime, Harry would send Angelo Bruno a tribute every Christmas, and they were both happy with that arrangement. And that’s how Harry intended to carry on. But Nicky Scarfo wanted his cut weekly, so Harry offered him instead, the proverbial finger.
So Scarfo decided not just to get mad, but to get even. The hostilities between Scarfo and Riccobene started in 1982. As it happened, Nicky Scardo would be in prison on charges of illegally possessing a hand gun, and most of his ‘war’ on the Riccobene faction was supervised by Salvatore Testa.
Soldiers, Charlie Iannece, Nicky Caramandi and Pasquale Spirito were instructed to get Harry. They would drive across the city, stalking out Jennie’s home, the apartment of Harry’s girlfriend and the homes of friends and business associates in the hope of pinning the little guy down. After several abortive attempts, Scarfo decided on a new tack and the family’s consigliere, Frank Monte, was called to a meet and ordered to personally handle the killing of Little Harry. Monte then turned to one of his close associates, Raymond ‘Long John’ Martorano, and both men contacted Harry’s half brother, Mario ‘Sonny’ Riccobene. They promised him big time if he would arrange to set up Harry and he agreed. But Mario wasn’t playing fair, like almost everyone who thought of themselves as a hoodlum, and let Harry in on the plot.
Harry called a group of his closest associates together, including Mario, Joe Pedulla and Victor DeLuca and worked out their own game plan. At this meeting, held on April 25th at the Cherry Hill, New Jersey home of Pedulla’s mother, they laid plans for the first hit on Scarfo’s mob.
On May 13th, crouched in the back of a hooded pickup truck, Pedulla aimed and fired a scoped .22 calibre rifle, killing Frank Monte with eight shots as he was parking his car at a service station car wash in South Philadelphia at 9:30 pm. Monte died instantly. He was casualty number fourteen in the mob conflict following Bruno’s death.
Beside himself with rage, Scarfo arranged contact through Raymond ‘Long John’ Martorano with a Pagan motor cycle gang member called Jimmy DeGregorio who trafficked in drugs with Harry, and offered him $20,000 to kill Riccobene.
In keeping with all the double-crosses that seemed to go on in the South Philly mob scene, DeGregorio decided to try and up the ante. Cornering Harry, he tells him:
‘Longy gives me 20 [thousand dollars] if'n I off you, Harry,’the biker tells Riccobene. ‘Ah, go an' kill Longy instead,’ says Harry. The hit man, an ex-football player, picks him up by the lapels. ‘I can kill you right now, you little assbag,’ he says. ‘Nah, nah,’ says Riccobene. ‘You don't kill me. You go kill Longy and then you come back. We'll talk about it then.’
The shocked Pagan let Harry down and walked away in disbelief. As it happened, he didn’t kill anyone. After all, he was a government witness.
Angry that the biker had not followed through on the hit, Scarfo next turned to his godson, Salvatore Testa, the son of the late boss who had become shredded wheat that day in March the previous year. On June 8th 1982, Testa and another of Scarfo’s killers, Wayne Grande tracked Harry to a telephone booth, where the 74 year old was chatting to his 22 year old girlfriend. Grande ran up to the telephone box and shot Harry five times with a revolver. Incredibly, Harry barged out of the box, attacked Grande and wrestled the handgun away from him, before collapsing. Grande jumped into a waiting car driven by Joe Pungitore which screamed off. When a cop later congratulated Harry as he lay covered in bandages in a hospital bed, on his survival, and the way he had grabbed the gun, Riccobene replied with understated elegance: ‘He was done with it. It was empty.’
Seven weeks after the abortive attack on Harry, DeLuca and Pedulla driving a Ford through South Philadelphia, spotted 26 year old Salvatore Testa perched on a stool outside a restaurant, Lornezo’s Pizza, at the corner of 9th Street and Christian in the Italian Market. He was eating a bowl of clams. DeLuca pulled the car over and Pedulla leaped out racking up a shotgun and firing it three times at Testa who was blown off his chair. Although badly wounded, with an arm almost severed, he somehow survived the hit.
As Pedulla jumped back in the car and DeLuca gunned the engine, a passing police patrol car gave chase, and the two cars hurtled through the narrow streets until DeLuca lost control and the Ford hit a lamppost and overturned. The two mobsters were pulled unhurt from the wrecked car and arrested.
They were released from custody surprisingly quickly, in fact that day, and then took off, on the lam, so to speak. Riccobene contacted the fugitives through one of their wives, and agreed to negotiate their surrender back to the authorities on July 31st. In retrospect, Harry came to realize it was the worst thing he could have done. Tried and convicted for the attack on Salvatore Testa, both men rolled and became government witnesses. It was a breakthrough for the law enforcement agencies who finally discovered that all these killings and attempted killings were parts of a pattern which they came to call ‘The Riccobene War.’
On Saturday, August 21st, Scarfo’s team had another go at Harry; he was attacked as he waited at a set of traffic lights at Broad and Ritner Streets. A man in a jogging suit ran up to his car and emptied a revolver into it. Although bloodied by shattered glass fragments, Riccobene survived yet another attempt on his life. When police came calling on him at his home, and pointed out the damage to the car, he blamed local vandals. Throughout the rest of 1983 and into 1984 the violence continued.
Mario Riccobene was shot at while shopping in a jewellery store, at his home and even when he visited his girlfriend’s place. On April 23rd 1983, Pasquale Spirito was shot in the head as he sat in his car. Scarfo had instructed Spirito to kill Mario Riccobene for his treachery in pre-empting the first planned hit on Harry back in 1982. Spirito had for some reason held off on this, and then to compound matters had started to skim profits from the family’s street-tax collecting.
‘Pat the Cat’ had at one time worked with Harry and Mario, loan-sharking and bookmaking with the brothers, but had switched sides when the war stated brewing.
Thomas ‘Tommy Spats’ Auferio an ally of Harry’s was attacked and his car shot up, although he was not seriously wounded, then on October 14th, two of Scarfo’s hoods, Eugene Milano and Charlie Iannece attacked Frank Martines, a bookmaker and loan-shark in Harry’s gang. Martines miraculously survived although Milano apparently fired at him point-blank five times, shooting him to a moist dish-cloth.
The ‘blocker’ driver, there to head off any cop car or conscientious citizen, was Joe Pungitore. Another Riccobene ally, Salvatore Tamburrino was shot dead in his family’s variety store in southwest Philadelphia on November 3rd. One in the head, one in the chest and two in the legs courtesy of Phil Narducci and Nicky Milano.
A month later, a Scarfo gunman Francis Iannerella, cornered Harry’s other half-brother Robert, and blew him away with a shotgun blast.
At approximately 10 pm on the night of December 6th., Robert and his mother Jean, returned to her home in southwest Philadelphia. As Robert unlocked the back door, Faffy Iannerella stepped out of the shadows. In the struggle that followed, Jean was clubbed with the butt of a sawn-off 12 gauge shogun, and Robert trying to escape the gunman, scrambled over a Cyclone fence that separated his mother’s home from her next-door neighbour. The killer followed Robert and blasted him to death with one shot to the back of the head. Faffy had used high-powered buckshot to make sure. Discarding the gun, he raced to a blue car, parked nearby, containing the ubiquitous Joe Pungitore and Charles Iannacce, which sped off into the darkness.
A couple of days later, some of Harry’s shooters ambushed Nick Milano, Pugnitore and Sal Testa as they drove through the streets of South Philly. Ambushed at 11th and Catherine Streets, no one was injured, except the car, in what proved to be the last skirmish in the war.
On December 14th, Mario’s twenty-seven year old son, Enrico, who was not connected into the mob in anyway, committed suicide, apparently terrified by threats being made against him by Salvatore Testa and his pals. Late in the afternoon, he shot himself in the head in the walk-in safe of his jewellery store on Jeweller’s Row, Sansom Street. Phil Leonetti, Sal Testa and Laurence Merlino had been seen loitering outside the shop, and word had come down that Enrico was next on their hit-list. He had apparently received frequent telephone calls from Sal Testa telling him to come and meet them or do the job on himself. Literally frightened to death, the young man put himself out of his own misery.
Not longer after this, Salvatore ‘Chuckie’ Merlino sent word to Harry’s gang that the war was over. Scarfo, from his prison cell had decided enough was enough, and he was no longer chasing them.
It was the end of a less than perfect year for Little Harry. 1984 wouldn’t be that hot either.
Harry was arrested March 21st for the murder of Frank Monte. He was already in prison for illegal possession of a hand-gun. The main witnesses against him were Pedulla and DeLuca, and worse of all for a man as staunch as Riccobene, his half-brother Mario, who had himself become a government informant and like the other two, agreed to testify against Harry in return for shorter prison sentences.
Harry Riccobene, criminal, recidivist drug dealer, loan-shark et al was above all a man loyal to the code of his profession. Cole Younger, outlaw of the Wild West, after the Northfield bank robbery turned to custard, was asked by Sheriff Glispin to name the two who escaped capture. Cole responded by handing him a note saying, ‘Be true to your friends if the Heavens fall.’ It was this very credo that kept the little fellow straight and true, even though his back was bent. He was what the mob called ‘a stand-up guy’ one who did his time whenever his crime caught him out. It’s hard not to admire the way he never ‘rolled’ or became and informant in order to cancel or ameliorate the prison sentences he served over almost 50 years. It’s not that he was some kind of martyr, rather that he believed strongly in the substance of the oath he had taken as a young boy, to honour and obey the rules that governed his strange, almost medieval calling. As in the military, he saluted not the man in uniform, rather what the uniform stood for.
In one of the many ironies of the Riccobene war, Frank Monte had been the godfather to Mario’s son Enrico, the same one who killed himself in the week before Christmas, because he was in mortal fear of the men who had been under Monte’s control at one time. In another, long-time ally Joseph Casdia, who Riccobene had ordered to be killed and buried with lime because he couldn't trust him, stood by him.
Harry was the first mobster in the history of the Philadelphia Mafia family to testify in his own defence. He denied he headed any mob faction. He was a retiree ‘with a lot of time on my hands.’
‘There was no plot to kill me that I know of,’ he testified.
Following his trial, Harry Riccobene, the little guy, with a long white beard, and high-pitched, squeaky voice, was found guilty of the murder of Frank Monte. The jury deliberated for five days, presumably unable to come to terms with the fact that this, strange, diminutive, aged human being, was in fact the monster the prosecution had been painting him to be. He was handed down a mandatory life sentence.
As he was led away, Harry’s response to a reporter’s question on the verdict was:
‘I was railroaded.’
Mario ‘Sonny’ Riccobene (photo right below) entered the Witness Protection Programme after he finished
his prison sentence for his part in the killing of Frank Monte. Against their advice, he left the programme and returned to live in South Philadelphia in 1992.
On the evening of January 28th 1993, he was sitting in his red Ford Taurus station wagon, in the car park of the Brooklawn Diner in New Jersey, when according to Sergio Battaglia, a mob associate under John Stanfa, Raymond Esposito a gunman who was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, and known disparagingly as “Fredo,’ a mocking reference to the wimpy middle brother in the Godfather movies, walked up to the car and shot Mario dead. Mario had presumed no one would be interested in him for what he had done and been all those years before. He found out the hard way, the phys-co’s who made up the Philly Mafia had long and wrathful memories. Maybe whoever was behind his killing had read the musings of Salvatore Riina, the Sicilian Mafia boss who brought death and destruction on a scale never seen before on that troubled island:
‘Someone who betrays once can betray twice.’
Victor DeLuca, Harry’s one-time ally, who had double-crossed his partner of many years, had a tracheotomy removing his supraglottic or cancerous voice box. Harry sent him a message:
‘You should have lost it a long time ago.’
The Philadelphia crime family kept self-destructing in the years that followed the end of the Riccobene War. By the time the in-fighting in the Philly mob ended, it left at least 28 dead, dozens in jail and half a dozen rats who had been fully fledged members.
Nicodemo Dominico Scarfo, the mobster with a name only Hollywood could have dreamed up, eventually went to jail for good, the first time ever a Mafia mob boss had been convicted on a charge of first-degree murder. His acting boss, cousin Anthony ‘Tony Buck’ Piccolo also got the chop. John Stanfa the low level associate and one time chauffeur, suddenly made it to the top and became the next boss, but then, one day, he also went off to jail. His successor Ralph Natale went into the slams in due course, then like so many before him, flipped; the first time ever a mob boss had done this. Next in line was Skinny Joe Merlino, and in true tradition he is now serving time. His acting boss, Joe Ligambi is under indictment and no doubt will follow the well-worn path of his predecessors in due course. The acting underboss, Joey Massimino has already been indicted on gambling and loan-sharking charges.
As is often the case in to-days war against the mob, law enforcement’s greatest weapon was the use of informants, and there were plenty of them popping up out of the woodwork in the city of brotherly love.
There were John Veasey, and Tommy Scafide, Peter Caprio, Ron Previte, Robert Luisi, Philip Casale, Nicky Caramandi, Phil Leonetti, Tommy DelGiorno, Gino Milano, Larry Merlino, Norman Lit, Michael Madgin the list went on and on. Frantic men, who looked once too often into a mirror and saw faces of quiet desperation staring back with the realization that their depraved quixotic idea of what the mob was had turned into a harsher reality of betrayal and lies. When push came to shove, the so-called ‘men-of-honour’ quickly switched sides to save hides.
George Anastasia, the news reporter and author, claimed that ‘Omerta in Philadelphia is like the Liberty Bell-cracked and inoperative.’
Another renowned writer of mob mythology, Jimmy Breslin, reminisced on the mob in his recent book ‘The Good Rat.’
He called them: ‘Grammar-school dropouts who kill each other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily that are actually unintelligible or ignored.’
Probably as good a definition as you will find anywhere for the American Mafia.
The FBI considers the war against Italian-American organized crime in Philadelphia is just about done and all that’s left to do is mop up. The PPD organized crime unit believed their evidence indicated that the New York Lucchese crime family was waiting in the wings ready to pick up any worthwhile pieces left over, although that has not happened as of yet. No doubt Angelo Bruno is turning over in his grave in disgust. How could a mob family that may well date back to the 1880s be destroyed in such a short space of time?
Enrico Harry Riccobene (left), perhaps the only homunculus Mafioso in American history, died in the Dallas State Correctional Institute, Luzerne County, on Monday June 19, 2000. He had lived a long and tumultuous life, although a significant amount of it had been spent behind bars. Towards the end, he worked in the prison’s tailor shop, keeping the records. He lived on I-Block, and the inmates and guards treated him with respect- the kind that is reserved for men who have become more than just a legend in their lunchtime.
It seems that he found peace and contentment in the last years, although he was plagued by illness: osteosclerosis, diabetes and the cancer that would eventually kill him. It seems he actually enjoyed the tranquillity of life behind bars compared to the chaos of his life on the outside. He is reported to have said: ‘I never felt safe until I came to jail.’
Perhaps, if he read a lot, he may well have found time to contemplate the works of T.S. Eliot, who wrote:
‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.’
A Mafia man, the son of a Mafia man, Harry was a traditionalist and staunch supporter of the code that he followed with unswerving loyalty. But by the time he went off to prison for the last time, the secret society that he had joined and served in all those years, was not just a shadow of its former self, it was in a sense something even worse, it was becoming simply a piece of history.
Big Ron Previte, an ex-cop and mob informant made into the family by John Stanfa, said:
‘The Philly Mob is over. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to see it.’
If, as philosophers have mused, we are the dust of long dead stars, the mobsters of South Philly have most certainly lost their place in the firmament.
Some of the information used for this story came from articles in the Philadelphia Daily News which I acknowledge as the source, and the works of George Anastasia and Kitty Caparella, two of the best reporters to have covered the mob in Philadelphia.
(1) The Origin of Organized Crime in America. Critchely, David. Routledge. 2009
(3) Pennsylvania Crime Commission Report 1980
© Thom L. Jones 2010