Flamboyant gangster "Skinny Joey" Merlino took over virtually all organized crime in Philadelphia after the city’s bloody mob wars in the 1990s — but after a pair of recent convictions, he claims to be reformed.
Joey Merlino came of age in an era where the Mafia in Philadelphia was decimated, taking full advantage of the power vacuum to assume control of the family. And in order to reach the underworld, Merlino wasn’t afraid to be downright brazen.
Philadelphia residents were long used to their local mobsters killing each other left and right, but everyone was still shocked on August 31, 1993, when a drive-by shooting orchestrated by Merlino took place between mobsters right during morning rush hour traffic on the busy Schuylkill Expressway. And this was just one episode in the all-out mob war that put Joey Merlino at the top of the Philadelphia family.
From drive-by shootings to openly courting the press, Joey Merlino was always brash and never willing to play by the rules. This is the wild story of Joey Merlino’s rise and fall.
Joey Merlino: Born Into The Mob
Joey Merlino was born into a mob household on March 13, 1962, with his father, Salvatore “Chuckie” Merlino, once underboss for the notoriously violent boss Nicky Scarfo, and his uncle Lawrence “Yogi” Merlino, a capo under Scarfo in the 1980s.
Entering the family business, Merlino conducted himself with an air of entitlement, and he picked up his first conviction for an Atlantic City stabbing incident when he was just 20. In 1990, Merlino was sentenced to four years for conspiring to steal $350,000 in an armored car robbery and would make a life-changing pact in prison.
In Pennsylvania’s McKean Correctional Institution, Merlino met Ralph Natale, a long-standing Philadelphia mob associate, currently serving a 16-year sentence. In the young and charismatic Merlino, Natale, nearing 60, recognized a golden opportunity, and the pair started plotting to take over the Philadelphia family from incumbent boss John Stanfa.
With Scarfo imprisoned, Stanfa had received the blessing of the New York Mafia Commission to head the family. Merlino and the new wave of South Philly mobsters dubbed “Young Turks” by the media believed Stanfa had no place on the Philadelphia throne and that they could do better.
Merlino’s associates, and boyhood friends, Michael Ciancaglini, Steven Mazzone, George Borgesi, Gaetano “Tommy Horsehead” Scafidi, and Martin Angelina would take on the Stanfa faction for control of the family, and if they succeeded, Natale would be the boss with Merlino as his underboss. On January 29, 1992, Merlino’s faction struck first with the killing of Felix Bocchino, before Merlino was even paroled in April of that year.
Stanfa, recognizing the tenuous situation, sought to appease Merlino and his best friend Michael Ciancaglini by inducting them into the family in September 1992. Becoming a “made” man at the age of 30 didn’t instill loyalty in Merlino. Instead, the promotion gave him the prestige he needed to act even more boldly, and soon bullets were flying again in the city of brotherly love.
On August 5, 1993, Merlino survived a drive-by assassination attempt taking four bullets in the leg and buttocks, on a South Philadelphia Street corner, while Ciancaglini died from a shot to the chest.
On August 31, 1993, Merlino’s faction retaliated with their own infamous drive-by shooting on Stanfa and his son while they were driving on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia rush hour traffic. Stanfa escaped uninjured and his son survived a shot to the jaw.
The tit-for-tat killings continued with Merlino escaping death, as a remote-controlled bomb under his car failed to go off several times.
Boss Of The Philadelphia Mafia
In November 1993, Joey Merlino was sent back to prison for a year for parole violations, providing temporary reprieve from the battlefield. Then in 1995, the problem took care of itself when Stanfa was convicted and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences for directing the bloody campaign against Merlino’s mob faction.
Natale and Merlino then took over, with the Philadelphia/South Jersey family having deteriorated into a dysfunctional mess, resembling a street gang rather than the smooth and sophisticated criminal enterprise of former boss Angelo Bruno’s day.
Natale’s tenure as Philadelphia’s boss was less than effective. There were even whispers that Natale, who wasn’t even “made” when he plotted to take over, had paid for his induction into the family. By 1998, Merlino, who had happily accepted the underboss’ position knowing the Feds would target Natale, had assumed control, cutting Natale off.
Merlino had support in the family through the older Joe Ligambi, who was recently out of prison. Ligambi, a protégé of Merlino’s father “Chuckie,” had in turn become an uncle figure to Merlino, and an important ally.
In the boss’ chair, Merlino relished the limelight as a hard-partying celebrity gangster, and the media even dubbed him the “John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue,” after South Philadelphia’s main drag, according to America Magazine. Merlino would throw annual Thanksgiving and Christmas parties in South Philadelphia as a man of the people, but he also gambled to excess while refusing to pay for his losses.
Merlino seemed untouchable, or at least believed he was, but by mid-1999, he was indicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy, with the charges later expanded to racketeering and ordering or approving several murders.
Joey Merlino’s Conviction And “Retirement” From The Mob
Ralph Natale had been indicted for financing drug deals the year before and was still bitter over Merlino having cut him off, so he became the first American Mafia boss to become a government witness, testifying how he and Merlino conspired to take over the family in the early 1990s.
Merlino’s ensuing trial was the result of a ten-year investigation that featured an extraordinary 943 pieces of evidence and 50 witnesses, according to ABC News.
The FBI had hoped Merlino would never see the light of day again. However, he was eventually acquitted of all three counts of murder.
Merlino was sentenced to 14 years for racketeering crimes, though, responding in typical Merlino fashion, saying, “ain’t bad. Better than the death penalty.”
After 12 years, Merlino was released in 2011 and sent to a Florida halfway house for six months followed by supervised release.
Then moving to Boca Raton, Merlino denied any current involvement in the Philadelphia Mafia, while working as a maître d’ in a restaurant bearing his name, from 2014 until it closed in 2016.
Merlino had to then serve four months for associating with a Philadelphia mob pal, and on August 4, 2016, Merlino was one of 46 people arrested in a wide-sweeping RICO indictment, accused of taking part in a massive medical fraud scheme in Florida, as well as illegal gambling. Merlino eventually received a two-year sentence, and in October 2019, was granted an early supervised release.
When Merlino was imprisoned for 12 years, Joe Ligambi had taken over stabilizing the family, with court documents from 2020 confirming Ligambi as Philadelphia’s consigliere, but was Merlino still the real boss of the family?
As of today, the FBI believes that Joey Merlino still runs Philadelphia’s crime family from afar through a series of intermediaries and street bosses. But has he actually gone straight, or is it one big con?
After learning about Joey Merlino, read about the Mafia in the 1980s. Then, learn about the blood-soaked reign of Lucchese Family underboss Anthony Casso.