Philadelphia Mafia figure returned to prison for meeting friend
PHILADELPHIA — A reputed former mob boss was ordered back to prison Friday for violating parole, and his lawyer complained that the FBI would pursue his client “to the grave.”
Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, the reputed head of Philadelphia's La Cosa Nostra in the 1990s, must serve four additional months for failing to report a meeting with a former co-defendant at a Boca Raton, Fla., cigar bar.
“I never had dinner with Johnny Ciancaglini. I bumped into him,” said Merlino, appearing fit and tan on a return trip to Philadelphia. “I didn't report it. ... It just slipped my mind.”
Merlino, 52, has been living in south Florida since 2011, when he left prison after spending more than a decade behind bars for a Philadelphia racketeering conviction. His lawyer maintains that Merlino plans to work as a maitre d' at a new Boca Raton restaurant that will bear his name.
“His mother helped us out greatly with recipes,” said Stanley Stein, the elderly businessman funding the restaurant, who said he flew Merlino up for court hearings this month in a private jet and paid for his stay at the Four Seasons hotel.
The FBI has been tailing Merlino as part of a new, unspecified criminal probe, according to testimony Friday from organized crime task force members. The night of the cigar bar meeting in June, five people in five cars were on the surveillance detail.
Two FBI task force members — who feared they stood out among regulars as they sipped pricey drinks — said they observed Merlino talking with Ciancaglini and other felons in a glass-enclosed VIP section of a spot called Havana Nights.
“It's very obvious what is going on. This is a night on the town with his mob buddies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer argued Friday.
Defense lawyer Edwin Jacobs Jr. insists the contact was random and amounted to nothing more than “a couple of minutes of chit chat.”
Ciancaglini's wife testified that she often visits Merlino in Florida but said her husband steers clear to avoid legal trouble for either of them. Ciancaglini stayed at the hotel when she and Merlino attended the bar mitzvah of Merlino's nephew in Malibu, Calif., she said.
Troyer argued that Merlino violated parole when he refused to answer financial questions — instead invoking his Fifth Amendment rights — during an interview with officials.
Although Merlino appears to be enjoying an enviable lifestyle, he reported having almost no income.
“He miraculously survives on a paltry amount of money,” Troyer said.
Debra Merlino testified that she has a successful business and has long supported him. She and the couple's younger daughter had just moved to Florida when officials filed the parole violation notice last month, days before Merlino's supervision was to end.
“We were pretty much planning on moving ahead with our daily lives,” Debra Wells Merlino testified.
That may be more feasible early next year.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick did not extend Merlino's supervised release. However, the FBI might still be watching.
“I think they would follow (Merlino) to the grave,” Jacobs said.