“If my friend Angelo Bruno was alive, if [Felix] “Skinny Razor” [Di’Tullio] was alive, if [one-time Chicago boss] Tony Accardo was alive, I would be doing life,” says Natale. “I tell you this with love. I get a chill. I would be doing life for the rest of my life. I would never be a witness. That’s how I am.”
“But them punks?” he spits. “No.”
Before he flipped, Natale was known, as one mafia source once told a reporter, as “a stand-up motherfucker.” It was a reputation earned the tough way: In 1982, a Senate Committee hearing on organized crime subpoenaed Natale to testify.
“They said if I gave them the right answers, I would be home in two months,” Natale recalls.
In a scene straight out of a mob movie, at the hearing, which aired on C-SPAN at the time, a young, muscular and bronze Natale theatrically refused to answer their questions, all macho bravado in the face of outraged lawmen. “I said, ‘You got the wrong guy.’ And I did 16 years.”
Natale does not admit fear. He insists that doing hard time, for him, was easy—even when his vision got to the point where he couldn’t read anymore.
Natale recalls that he first noticed a problem with his eyesight more than a decade ago, while at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fairton in New Jersey. As he stood in the yard, he realized he couldn’t focus on a pole that was about 50 feet away: “I [couldn’t] see the whole pole. The pole had stripes on it.”
Maybe his eyes were just tired, he thought, and needed a rest. But the stripes were still there the next day.
“I wrote a [request] to the medical department,” he says, “that I need to have my eyes checked, I’m seeing stripes.”
“He was starting to have problems with [his left] eye,” recalls Natale’s son Frank, a 59-year-old high school teacher and athletic director in Philadelphia. “That’s how it started, it was little by little.”
Natale says he continually appealed to the authorities about his deteriorating vision. The family alleges that he was taken a handful of times to scattershot doctors who provided different diagnoses, but he never received a definitive one.
His attorney says his lawsuit will demonstrate a pattern of purposeful neglect. “The [Department of Justice] treated Natale poorly because of who he was,” Corcoran says. “They didn’t get a definitive diagnosis. And efforts the family made in that regard were thwarted.”
Corcoran is referring to an incident in 2004 when Natale was being temporarily housed in federal prison in Center City while testifying in the Merlino trial. At the time, one of Natale’s daughters-in-law, Kathaleen Natale, was working as a CT scan technologist at Wills Eye Institute, a renowned eye-care center located just a few blocks away.
“[Ralph] was having definite vision issues, and with me working for Wills Eye, I realized how important your sight is and how if things go untreated, what can happen, so I was really anxious to get him taken care of and just to have someone look at him,” says Kathaleen, who now works at a different hospital. “I set up an appointment for my father-in-law to see a neuro-opthamologist.”
Kathaleen made the appointment while Lucy secured permission and arranged to pay marshals’ overtime and ancillary costs for Natale to be escorted to Wills Eye. But the appointment never happened.
“They just never brought him,” says Lucy. And no answers were forthcoming, she says, as to why.
Kathaleen canceled the appointment. “When we had to cancel, I gave [the doctor] the courtesy of telling him why. He said, ‘When you can get him down here, let me know and we’ll squeeze him in.’”
But, the Natale family alleges, no one let Ralph see the specialist despite the convenience and their offer to pay out of pocket for it. They suspect a specific U.S. Attorney who had it in for Natale made the call, but are withholding names until the lawsuit is filed.
“Here we have a man who, needless to say, has a very colorful history,” says Corcoran. “But … he’s entitled to the bare minimum standards of decency and civility. When they fail to give him basic medical care to identify the problem and then further, interfere with his family’s private attempts to help that problem, they become just as monstrous themselves, if not more so.”
Years after the Wills Eye incident, Natale was sent to see an eye doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. At the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, where he was sent while awaiting the appointment, he says he was put into a strip cell in solitary confinement for a month and a half. He recalls that it was winter, and icy air flowed in through a crack in a broken window.