The opening arguments are done and King Rat is days into his song. South Philadelphia superstition, however, may have already decided whether Joey Merlino and his pals will successfully defend themselves against their racketeering charges. Seems as if there's a little mystique surrounding their 400-plus-pound co-defendant Angelo Lutz. The 37-year-old pseudo-celebrity first appeared on the scene as a Santa Claus who handed out Barbie dolls and basketballs to children at Merlino's infamous holiday parties for the homeless. But Lutz's 1996 Mummer's Parade appearance cemented his place in neighborhood lore long before he became just another alleged bookie and strong-armed loan collector. His rotund body was painted gold that New Year's Day and he paraded down Broad as the Italian-American String Band's "Golden Buddha." Later, the band's featured attraction put on an impromptu performance on Shunk Street where his jiggling flesh apparently proved irresistible to some neighborhood women who hurdled barricades to get their hands on Lutz's girth. "They said," Lutz told reporters at the time, "it was 100 years of good luck to rub Buddha's belly." Estimated between 394 and 475 pounds, Lutz was a South Philly caterer who also worked at a deli counter for much of the '90s. Photographs of him serving as "Mob Santa" and then as the "Golden Buddha" joined with the parade to jump-start a marginal, only-in-Philadelphia celebrityhood. By the end of that January, "Fat Angelo" Lutz found himself unsurprisingly ensconced at WIP-AM's Wing Bowl. Plugging a Merlino-owned restaurant on-air--the two attended St. John Neumann High at the same time--Lutz lost the competition, in which he ate just 75 wings in a half-hour compared to the winner's 150. Despite this disappointment, the hefty glutton was widely appreciated by La Cosa Nostra as an entertaining chap. In '98, he was the life of their softball extravaganza when he lumbered around the bases. Approaching home plate, feds armed with cameras urged him to slide. He didn't, but smiled for the FBI paparazzi anyhow. It seems now that Lutz's Buddha charm disappeared by November '99, when co-defendant George Borgesi--a gentleman about one-tenth Lutz's size--opened up a can of whupass on him. Lutz apparently tried to cash a postdated $2,000 check from Borgesi, the alleged mob consigliere, before he was supposed to. Borgesi didn't appreciate it, so he, according to a conversation picked up by state police surveillance, went "fucking berserk." He punched Lutz in the nose and kicked him in the head while he was unconscious on the ground. Bragging to a friend about the beating, Borgesi was recorded saying he would have killed Lutz if he had a gun on him. Not even that was enough to chase away Lutz, who seemed to enjoy being on the mob's periphery by operating two illegal-gambling operations. But as LCN operations went, an attorney close to the case says, "Fat Angelo's a nobody. He knows nothing. He's just a clown, the biggest liar in town." When Lutz got caught in the La Cosa Nostra dragnet last year, he told a judge that he lived with parents who needed his care. His mom put her house up as collateral so Lutz could be released two days before his father's death. Then his catering business at Eighth and Tasker went down the drain since he was barred from contact with most of his customers, whom the government considered unsavory. By the time the trial started last week, he and Borgesi buried their heavy hatchet--the consigliere's lawyer said brutal violence was just the nature of their friendship. But even in a court of law, the Golden Buddha was pushed off to the side and mocked by his associates. Forced to squeeze into a too-narrow desk, he now sits alone, like an adult at the little kid's Christmas table. He's relegated to secretarial duties, typing notes into his laptop computer. As if that weren't enough, Merlino attorney Edwin Jacobs twice called attention to Lutz's size, once saying he looks "10 months pregnant." Ever loyal, though, Lutz took on all comers outside the courtroom as the several defendants' wives tried to cut to the front of the line for the afternoon session. Before Tuesday's hearing, Lutz stood outside the courtroom as a friend haggled with U.S. marshals about how to get a small refrigerator into the building. After that issue was resolved (next time, use the loading dock instead of the front door), the lovable mob associate addressed his call to 610. "We just need a forum," he explained, "to proclaim our innocence." An attorney says Lutz easily could have avoided this entire rigmarole had he just copped a good deal early in the process. The attorney says he obviously didn't want to because "it makes him feel like he's important," pointing to Lutz' daily calls to sports-talk radio stations with a morning "Mob Update" as evidence. For the next few months, he does have a bit more clout than the other defendants: He heads home every night while they sit behind bars summoning the luck of Buddha.
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