Ligambi goes on trial Tuesday in Philly mob case
PHILADELPHIA - October 8, 2012 (WPVI) -- Potential jurors won't be asked if they're "Sopranos" fans when jury selection starts Tuesday in a Philadelphia mob trial.
A federal judge has nixed defense questions about whether jurors have formed opinions about the Mafia from books or movies.
The indictment accuses Philadelphia's La Cosa Nostra of gambling, loansharking and extortion under acting boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi. But there's none of the public bloodshed that defined the family - and racked the city - in the 1970s and 1980s.
The FBI accuses the 73-year-old Ligambi of running the South Philadelphia-based crime family since Joey Merlino went to prison in 1999. Six co-defendants also will be on trial, while five others have pleaded guilty and three more await a separate trial. The jury will hear a timeline of La Cosa Nostra's activities during the past 40 years, under Angelo Bruno, Nicodemo Scarfo, John Stanfa, Ralph Natale, Merlino and, allegedly, Ligambi.
Defense lawyer Edwin Jacobs calls it unfair to compare Ligambi's alleged racketeering to the bloody reign of earlier bosses.
"By aligning the present defendants, who have not been charged with a single violent offense, with notorious past mafia leaders, the United States intends to instill fear in the jury and ... (find) they are guilty of crimes far more heinous than any of those charged in this indictment," Jacobs wrote in his trial memo.
According to the indictment, the Ligambi organization controlled illegal gambling machines and sports betting at several South Philadelphia bars and clubs, and threatened violence to collect debts. But there are no murders or even shootings alleged.
The bloodiest scene described in court papers may involve Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini's initiation ceremony. Ligambi couldn't draw any blood with a pin, so instead used the ceremonial knife to prick Fazzini's finger, according to a 2010 FBI recording.
"The ... blood splashed all over his shirt, my shirt," Fazzini, who pleaded guilty to racketeering this month, allegedly said on the tape.
The FBI describes him as a bookie with the North Jersey "crew" of the Philadelphia crime family, and said he'd been courted by the New York-based Lucchese family during a previous prison stint. But he sent word that he knew who his friends were - and planned to stay loyal to them.
"You either knew you were getting straightened out (meaning initiated) or you're getting clipped (meaning murdered)," Fazzini said on the tape, according to government filings.
Ligambi's last serious conviction was for gambling, 20 years ago, Jacobs said.
In addition to the racketeering activities, he's now charged with defrauding a Teamsters fund by getting health care for himself and his family members through a "no show" job at a mob-friendly sanitation company, and with obstruction, for allegedly threatening a wedding photographer not to turn over a photo from co-defendant Anthony Staino Jr.'s wedding to the grand jury.
The other defendants set for trial Tuesday are Joseph Massimino, George Borgesi, Damion Canalichio, Gary Battaglini and Joseph Licata.
The jurors won't be sequestered, but, for safety reasons, they'll remain anonymous and be brought to court each day from a remote location. The trial is expected to last two or three months.
Merlino, meanwhile, left prison and settled in Boca Raton, Fla. He turned 50 this year.
"You don't have to like it, but it is what it is," Fazzini said of the mob life on the 2010 recording, the FBI said.
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