Why Notorious Mob Informant R
 Natale Is Suing the United States Government

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Aug. 22, 2012

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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. 

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Mamabear1210 said... on Aug 22, 2012 at 02:23PM

“Excellent journalism.”

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2. Eric said... on Aug 22, 2012 at 03:31PM

“As far as mob journalism goes this is a boring article. Couldn't you have gotten a better writer? It should have just been a Q&A since there's not much writing. I guess this is what you get from a free rag like Philly Weakly.”

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3. ter and jon said... on Aug 22, 2012 at 06:09PM

“Several of us read the article and found it informative and interesting
Mr Eric must want more shoot `um up, drag out, sorted details and the inside dope (excuse the pun). Ralphie boy has to hold back some secrets. That`s why R N is writing a book. He might even hold out for movie rights . So, Mr E --pay up when the book comes out and get the inside info you want on hoods, mob, bad guys who lived, played and
did the deeds back in the day.
Meanwhile-----to the author....'Thanks for a good read ' and some sound observations.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 22, 2012 at 06:49PM

“great story, great writing it really makes you kinda feel for the man, respect him, maybe not like his past actions but, understand who he is today”

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5. Gwen said... on Aug 22, 2012 at 08:27PM

“Fascinating piece, I wish we had more in depth stories like this shared!”

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6. Anonymous said... on Aug 23, 2012 at 05:12PM

“Maybe if this case goes to trial it will bring to light other neglect of the prison authorities toward prisoners. Truthfully, there is no sympathy for this man when the reality is of all terrible actions and results of those terrible actions to other families that he is responsible for .”

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7. Anonymous said... on Aug 24, 2012 at 04:59PM

“Thank god? Dont you mean God? Goos story though even if he was a puppet id still like to see his book get published, wouldnt have to worry about money at all then”

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8. Anonymous said... on Aug 24, 2012 at 05:01PM

“He is the only guy i know of that went to jail not even made and came out as the boss. Why that is not included i dont know.....”

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9. Anonymous said... on Aug 26, 2012 at 09:11AM

“Enjoyed the article. Natale should be appreciative to his wife, sounds like an amazing woman. Raise five successful children while her loser husband is doing life on the installment plan....good for her. He never should have gotten the sweet deal he got, he should have died behind bars. Only a corrupted, warped justice department gives a deal to the likes of Ralph Natale.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Aug 27, 2012 at 12:49PM

“Doubt he has a case. Natale and his wife claim the Feds "did nothing" about his condition, then go on to list a number of times he visited doctors while imprisoned. As for being denied a visit to Wills Eye, consider the circumstances. To allow a family member to arrange an appointment for an imprisoned former mob boss to visit a doctor in the city that Natale was once running... come on. Who in their right mind would approve that? Too many possibilities for shenanigans there.
Now, he's been on the outside for a year, and still doesn't have a diagnosis. Good luck with proving neglect on the part of the Feds, Ralph. It ain't gonna happen. You're an old man and you're falling apart. Happens to everyone. He should be thanking his lucky stars that he made it this far, and didn't spend the last years of his life in a cell, as he should have.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Aug 27, 2012 at 01:43PM

“This was a fantastic piece. Really interesting to see Natale's life put into this perspective. Great job”

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12. PhilCane said... on Aug 28, 2012 at 05:25PM

“Good Story. However, there is one thing I'd like to bring to your attention. Joey Merlino didn't secede Ralph Natale, he succeeded him. The South attempted to secede from the Union. Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush as president of the United States.”

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13. Neal A. said... on Sep 8, 2012 at 12:32AM

“Silly girl, shotguns don't have bullets. No editors, or fact checkers?”

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14. Anonymous said... on Sep 13, 2012 at 03:53PM

“Interesting. By th way, where's he living now?”

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15. Anonymous said... on Oct 25, 2012 at 09:21PM

“Great story I'm happy he's out living life on the outside he's got his wife with him too you lucky son of gun God Bless you both!

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16. Sam said... on Jan 16, 2014 at 04:45PM

“I really liked this story! I hope to hear a follow up on it soon. Keep us posted please! http://www.albemarleeye.com/precision-optical/”


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