Natale downplays the money. For him, it’s a matter of justice. “[The lawsuit] might help, and it might not,” he says. “I’m not dependent on that and my wife’s not dependent on that. We live with the help of our family. We have enough to pay the rent.”
But for a lifelong gangster, Natale has a very definite and clear idea of right and wrong. “You know the old cowboy song. ‘I ain’t afraid of living and I ain’t afraid of dying.’ That’s where it’s at,” he says. “[But] maybe [the lawsuit] will show [the feds], ‘This is not what you should have done.’”
“They didn’t like him,” says Lucy. “They never liked him because of his lifestyle, because of what he did.”
When he came clean, Natale confessed to participating in gangland murders, drug trafficking and extortion, among other crimes. After he admitted that he was the trigger man on two murders and authorized six shootings in the 1990s while testifying that he also bribed former Camden mayor Milton Milan to award construction contracts to mob-controlled companies, Milan called Natale “the devil himself.”
Natale’s been called lots of things by many people: the devil, a loving father, a liar. Lucy makes a good point: “When he gave his testimony, [the feds] believed him,” says Lucy. “But they didn’t believe him when he said he had a problem.”
Ralph Natale was an Italian South Philly tough guy who says his father, Spike, ran an illegal gambling operation for the mob and served time at Eastern State Penitentiary. Natale has said that his father worked for Angelo Bruno, a Sicilian-born emigrant known as “the Gentle Don” who ruled the Philadelphia mob from 1959 until March 21, 1980, when a shotgun bullet shattered his skull as he sat in his car.
Bruno’s death marked the end of the old-school Philadelphia mob, in which wise guys kept low profiles, stayed out of the drug business and lived and died by omerta, the code of silence that forbids cooperation with authorities.
In the ’70s, Natale got a gig slinging drinks at the Rickshaw Inn, a Cherry Hill spot where local mob guys hung out. When three of Bruno’s men who were running the local bartenders union went to prison for labor racketeering and extortion, Bruno promoted Natale to run the union. In return, Natale diverted health-insurance funds into Bruno’s pocket.
“Angelo Bruno was a decent, honest gangster,” Natale says.
Observers of the Philly mob say that it never recovered after Bruno’s murder. Bloody power struggles, renegade alliances and an unprecedented number of confidential informants defined the years of chaos after Bruno. So many mobsters sang for the feds that the FBI started calling the Philly mob the “South Philly Boys’ Choir.” And every single boss since Bruno’s murder has been killed or arrested.
First, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa anointed himself boss until a nail bomb detonated beneath his porch a year later. Next came Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, notorious for a flashy strut and a tyrannical flair for ordering executions considered excessive even by mob standards. When he went to jail in 1989, John Stanfa, Bruno’s former driver who was with him the night he was assassinated, was installed as boss. That lasted until he was convicted of murder, racketeering and assorted charges in 1995.
As Stanfa was heading to prison, Natale was heading out; he saw the opportunity to take over, and he had ambition to do so. While in prison, Natale says he met Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, who would eventually secede him as boss and become his ultimate enemy. But at first, they hit it off—or at least had mutual goals.
Merlino and his crew, made up mostly of relatives of old-guard Philly mobsters, were nicknamed the “Young Turks” and, reportedly feeling they were the rightful heirs to Philadelphia’s La Casa Nostra, had been in a bloody war with Stanfa. Natale says he first encountered Merlino at FCI McKean, a federal prison in western Pennsylvania: “He was under death threat at this time because he tried to kill Nicky Scarfo’s son … he was afraid, he was shaking. I said, ‘Now you’re with me.’ I took him in off the bus.”
They hatched and executed a plan to run the show when they got out, and it worked. Natale was installed as the official boss of the Philly mob, with Merlino his reputed underboss. (Natale’s detractors have long claimed that Merlino was always really in charge, and just used Natale as a figurehead to gain approval of the old heads.)
The partnership soured after Natale went back to prison. Facing life after being indicted on drug-trafficking charges, Natale became a government witness in August 1999. He’s long explained that he flipped because Merlino stopped making financial payments to his wife while he was prison.
“When I left, [Merlino and his crew] were living in brand-new homes and they were driving Mercedes-Benzes and that’s the truth,” he recalls, voice rising. “Not once did they come over the house and see if Lucy was OK, how she’s doing.”
(Over the years, Natale has told this story many times. Today, he doesn’t mention that Merlino also stopped payments to Ruthann Seccio, Natale’s young girlfriend at the time.)
It was a power struggle that fell along the lines of age. In Natale’s view, the younger generation didn’t share the values—the honor—of their elders.
“I would never become a witness before,” he says. “It was just—different. Different! … Now, I couldn’t wait to sit in the courtroom and call them punks ... Cowards!”
If Bruno’s murder was the first nail in the coffin of the old way of doing things in the Philly mob, Natale’s cooperation with the feds was the last.
PW's Summer Guide 2015