Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Reviews: Mafia Prince

Mafia Prince
by Philip Leonetti with Scott Burstein
I'm not too familiar with current organized criminal activity in the Philadelphia-Atlantic City-South Jersey area but throughout the eighties and nineties this area was shared by at least seven different Italian-American criminal organizations: the five New York Families, a small moribund North Jersey Family and the Philadelphia Crime Family, which had a dominant presence in Philly and Atlantic City. Although Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti would personify a new brash breed of go-go eighties mobster, in fact he was preceded by his good friend Philadelphia Family Boss Nicky Scarfo. Scarfo's reign was extremely violent. Scarfo was apparently something of a paranoid press obsessed pint-sized psychopath whose dedication to violence and to preemptive murder turned many family members and associates against him, including his maternal nephew and later underboss, Phillip Leonetti. It's one thing to kill someone who has broken some widely accepted Mafia rules. It's something else again to kill someone's "civilian" relative or order murders of crew members for the tiniest of transgressions, real or imagined. Scarfo's reputation for violence initially increased the amount of money flowing into mob coffers but he enjoyed killing too much. He brought in too many people whose only skill sets were intimidation and murder. Blood costs money. The relevant state and federal law enforcement agencies made putting Scarfo behind bars a top priority. 

This book primarily describes Leonetti's relationship with his uncle and Scarfo's rise to and fall from power. There are some things revealed within that I didn't know. Philip Leonetti, or "Crazy Phil" as he was known on the streets, was an accomplished murderer in his own right. During a mob war his mere presence caused one man to commit suicide (FWIW Leonetti said he just wanted to talk to the man) It's not really possible to feel too much sympathy for him.  But unlike a mobster such as Kenji Gallo Leonetti doesn't seem to miss the old days of murder and mayhem. He's also pretty circumspect about the day to day business in which he was involved. We read about control of or influence in unions but not much about how it was established or how it works on a daily basis. It was usually maintained by threat of murder.

Mob Boss Angelo Bruno takes the retirement package
Leonetti often justifies his actions or inaction by claiming that he had no choice. However, because he became a witness against several of his former friends or associates in the Mafia, I think that he always had a choice. The book gives plenty of examples why you wouldn't want to bring your relatives into the Mafia. There are instances when Leonetti muses that his uncle would kill him or thinks that he might have to kill his uncle. Sometimes this is darkly humorous. Who among us hasn't felt a sudden rush of irritation at a relative? But when you and your relatives are all killers, these feelings can be problematic. Other mafia soldiers wind up working for a captain who killed their father. They serve that captain loyally. Can you imagine such a thing? It was no secret either. The captain told the two brothers that he murdered their father because that man had killed his father. But it was business. It's possible that Scarfo's murderous nature might have stemmed from his relatively small stature (5'5") or other psychological issues but Leonetti doesn't have too much to say about that. 

Leonetti also leaves out huge portions of his personal life. It comes as a surprise halfway thru the book when he suddenly talks about his son or his wife (who is apparently not his son's motherThis book pulls the curtains back on the so-called Honored Society and shows that at its core it's no different than a street gang. I was amazed by how often the boss of a family had to negotiate with his men and form alliances rather than simply dictate. Of course sometimes such an approach is considered proof of weakness, which normally leads to bad consequences for the boss.

Crazy Phil enjoying a short prison stay
Men are murdered in front of their mothers. Women are abused. A rising Family star makes the critical mistake of calling off his engagement to a powerful man's daughter. And much like Robb Stark, he learns the hard way that his would be father-in-law wasn't pleased by the "insult". A Philadelphia mob leader goes to New York to get permission to murder his boss, a Scarfo predecessor. He's told "Do what you have to do". Considering this permission he carries out the hit and declares himself the new boss. He's then lured to New York to be formally recognized only to find out that the New York delegate lied to and manipulated him. When the New York people told him to "do what you have to do" they claim they meant for him to work things out peaceably. Murdering a boss without Commission approval is a Mafia capital crime. The hapless Philly mob boss and his driver were then tortured and killed. New York organizations took over his businesses, which of course was their plan all along. The treachery and brutality never stops.

IIRC Leonetti only admits to two murders. His uncle ordered and participated in many more. But you don't get a nickname like "Crazy Phil" by sitting on the sidelines and knitting sweaters. I'm sure, like many such authors in similar situations, Leonetti is leaving some things out. If you liked fiction like Goodfellas or The Sopranos, you will want to read this book. To hear Leonetti tell it, his dislike and distrust of his Uncle Nicky  was longstanding. What drove Leonetti over the edge was having Nicky state to Leonetti that he wanted Leonetti to murder Nicky's wife or listening to Nicky blame Leonetti and his mother for Nicky's son's attempted suicide. Of course I'm sure being convicted had NOTHING to do with Leonetti's approach to the feds. Leonetti briefly returned to Atlantic City to care for his ailing mother and grandmother after he had testified against the Mafia. The Philly mob knew he was there but such was his reputation that no one wanted to tangle with him. That's what he says anyway. 

After Leonetti's mother's and grandmother's deaths he returned to the Witness Protection program. He built thriving landscaping and construction businesses. He may be living somewhere close to you. One of his last statements in the book is "F*** my uncle." Given that Nicky would order that both Leonetti and Leonetti's mother, Nicky's sister, be killed, that's an understandable sentiment. This book is about 300 pages. It has a high number of typos. "Site" is used for "sight" ; "your" is used for "you're".

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