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Pop culture spurs 'phony Sopranos' in Penn Hills

Tony LaRussa
| Friday, Aug. 27, 2010

The "Penn Hills Family" -- actually four young middle-class men accused of humiliating and punishing their own while carrying out a string of mostly petty crimes -- appeared to be aping the Mafiosi of pop culture.

"La Cosa Nostra," as they also called themselves, had a map of Italy tattooed on their shoulders, met regularly to plot crimes, had members serve as lookouts during break-ins and distributed stolen items and cash to members as "shares" when a "job" was completed.

Blaming Tony Soprano and his ilk for the actions of these "phony Sopranos" would be misguided, according to a local expert on criminal behavior. Television and movies alone likely would not have provided sufficient motivation "to stimulate these kids into acting on their impulses," according to Carnegie Mellon University professor Alfred Blumstein.

"It doesn't sound like they necessarily committed these crimes because they needed the money," he said. "So it may be that they decided they could get some thrills by demonstrating to themselves that they were clever enough to get away with it -- in other words, the joy of the conquest."

Police this week charged Louis A. Amendola, 23; Thomas R. Maxwell, 19; Philip E. Vecchio, 21; and Shane A. Kesneck, 22, with being members of a corrupt organization, multiple counts of burglary and an armed robbery.

All four were released from the Allegheny County Jail after posting bond. They are scheduled for preliminary hearings at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in municipal court, Downtown.

Gang leaders used beatings and humiliation to maintain order, according to court papers that described these incidents:

• One member, Christopher Lang, 22, of Verona, who detailed the group's activities to police, said Amendola -- described as the self-proclaimed "boss" -- once "sucker-punched" him and broke his jaw because he told his girlfriend about their enterprise.

• On another occasion, Lang was knocked to the ground and Amendola pointed a gun at him while Kesneck stood over him with a baseball bat.

• During Christmas week 2008, group members beat Lang and ordered him to kiss the bared buttocks of Vecchio and Kesneck. Amendola photographed the incident and threatened to upload the pictures to the Internet, police said.

Lang provided police with details about the group's structure and operations. He is charged with a single count of burglary. Much of what he said was corroborated by gang member David Giesey, who has not been charged.

Melanie Fazi, owner of the Step Up Salon in Plum, which allegedly was burglarized four times by the suspects, was not surprised when she learned their identities.

"We always felt the burglaries were done by people who knew us," she said. "Lou (Amendola) had done some spackling work here for about two weeks, so he would have known about how we operated."

Fazi said Amendola developed a reputation for having a "tough-guy attitude."

"After he was done working here, we heard he was getting into trouble with things like fighting," she said. "So we really didn't want to be associated with him anymore."

Police say the criminal enterprise began to fall apart following the Feb. 22, 2009, arrests of three members -- Lang, Vecchio and Maxwell -- who were attempting to break into an eye care center in Penn Hills. The men told police that Amendola forced them to participate in the criminal activities.

Maxwell's mother, Linda Maxwell, said she was "baffled" by the accusations leveled against her son.

"I don't know what to make of any of this," she said.

He is a fan of Mafia movies, she said, but doubted they could have contributed to the behavior of which he is accused.

"He never caused us problems here. But after he was 18, I don't know what or who he got involved with," she said.

Rob Strauss, 20, of Penn Hills, who was a class president at Penn Hills High School when Maxwell and Vecchio were students, said he was surprised when he learned they had been arrested.

"I played baseball with Tom (Maxwell) while growing up," Strauss said. "He's a nice kid deep down and comes from a nice family. I've also known Phil (Vecchio) since we were kids, and he's a good guy.

"None of this makes much sense."

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