After Ralph Natale was released from prison last year, he and his wife Lucy settled into new digs at an undisclosed location. It looks like the typical home of any other great-grandparents: A figurine of a cat in a Santa hat sits on the table alongside a mug with “Wish. Let your heart be light” emblazoned inside it. A flower portrait painted by one of the kids hangs on the walls. A dusty copy of Moonstruck sits atop the VCR next to a jumbo book of crossword puzzles.
Nothing about the place suggests Natale’s dubious distinction of being the first American mob boss to turn government witness.
“I love it here,” he’ll tell me later. “I’ve been here a few times to collect money in, uh, my former life.”
At 77, Natale has spent nearly half his life in prison. He went to prison for the first time in 1980, serving 15 years for firebombing a furniture store in an insurance scam. After he got out in 1995, he was Philly’s mob boss until 1999, when he was indicted for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine—after already having been picked up on a parole violation for associating with known criminals the year before. He was facing life when he cut a deal with the feds.
Now, he’s a free man for the first time in 13 years—and, for the first time ever, not in the mob or behind bars.
Emerging from the bedroom, he flashes a big smile and spreads his arms as if to say, So what do you think?
Trim and tan, Ralph Natale looks remarkably young for his age. He’s a handsome man with a tidy gray goatee, dark eyebrows and deep-set bright brown eyes lined with thick, jagged black lashes. Today, he’s sporting a knit sweater, light blue seersucker pants and brown leather loafers without socks. His shoes exactly match the color of his skin.
“The shirt is brand new. Well, it’s 15 years old,” he says with a laugh. “[My wife] bought clothes before the last time I went away, but she still had them in boxes.”
Natale sparkles with charisma and is quick with a joke, but being imprisoned for 28 years changes a man. He speaks with a slight lisp after ripping his bottom teeth out when, he says, prison authorities didn’t get him to a dentist to treat an infection fast enough. He’s partially deaf in one ear, but that’s from an incident on the outside when a shotgun went off in a car he was in.
He still enjoys a daily run at a nearby park, but he can’t sleep in bed with Lucy, his 80-year-old wife whom he met at a dance in South Philly when he was 14 and then married two years later. (“He’s quite nice now,” says Lucy over the phone. “He’s calmed down a lot.”) Instead, Natale sleeps on the couch every night because, he says, it feels more like a jailhouse cot.
“When we were younger, you know, we slept together!” he says. “But she understands ... she understands why.”
With the time for introductory niceties coming to a close, Natale sinks into the couch next to me. He lifts up his hand and traces a circle into the air a few inches in front of my nose with his fingertips. “You’re close to me,” he says. “But this part of your face, I can’t see.” He tilts his head. “If I look to the side, I can see peripheral.”
He faces me directly. “When I’m looking at you this way, it’s just black.”
Ralph Natale is going blind.
“I’m still beside myself,” Lucy says. “I’ve never dealt with someone who is blind or who is handicapped … I know he’s still getting searing pains across his eyes and around the side of his head, but he doesn’t tell you. He keeps it to himself.”
Natale says he’s been losing his sight steadily for years, and alleges that, while in prison, the federal authorities purposely deprived him of proper treatment. His testimony in four splashy trials helped the DOJ bring the most hidden parts of mafia life in Philly and New Jersey to light—and to send many criminals to prison. In return, he alleges, the feds willfully let him sink into darkness.
In May, Natale’s lawyer Conor Corcoran filed paperwork to initiate a lawsuit against the federal government. They’re charging that the U.S. Department of Justice deprived Natale of his civil rights. They allege that by denying Natale the proper care that might have stopped the progression of his blindness, they violated his Eighth Amendment rights by enacting cruel and unusual punishment.
Natale is suing the government for $10 million.
“He has nothing,” says Lucy. “It would be nice if he had a few dollars because he can’t see, so I can afford to [travel] back and forth [to see my children], or so he can get a car and someone could drive him around.”
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4