Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo

Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo
Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo

He was described by one law enforcement official as Philadelphia's answer to Crazy Joe Gallo. That was one of the more favorable comments made about Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, who after four years of unrelieved bloodletting, emerged in the mid1980s as the undisputed leader of Philadelphia's crime family.

Lt. Col. Justin Dintino, head of New Jersey's State Police Intelligence Bureau, told a U.S. Senate committee Scarfo was "an imbecile." How then by 1984 had this "imbecile" jockeyed his way to the top of the Philadelphia Mafia underworld when in the last four years some 20-odd mobsters had been rubbed out? Frank Booth, director of intelligence for the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, said it was because "there is nobody left to challenge him."

But Little Nicky Scarfo, with fierce instincts for survival, is a lot smarter than he is given credit for. Always on guard, he was confined in prison during part of the Philadelphia bloodletting and officials noted he actually patted down a son when he came to visit.

During the gang war, the 5-feet-5-inch Scarfo was sent away for 17 months to a federal penitentiary on a gun charge, perhaps a fortuitous sentence since it kept him out of the line of fire during the height of the killings. And Little Nicky, renowned for his hot temper and penchant for violence, turned his incarceration into a bonafide plus, maintaining and even enhancing control of his organization while in a prison 2,000 miles from his home.

Probably realizing he was on top of the heap, Scarfo did nothing to upset his chances while behind bars, and showed the unusual forebearance actually to request he spend the last two weeks of his 17-month stay on a two year sentence in solitary confinement. The reason: He had been feuding with another inmate and didn't want the dispute to get out of hand and in any way endanger his upcoming release.

There had been considerable speculation that Scarfo had succeeded where predecessors like Angelo Bruno and Phil "Chicken Man" Testa had failed. He cut deals that they had not been able to do, so that gunners from the much larger Genovese and Gambino crime families in New York stopped invading the City of Brotherly Love and knocking off the native mafiosi.

Scarfo must be given credit for knowing how to count. There was no way he could match the soldiers the Genoveses and Gambinos could trot out from New York to back up their claims to the illicit business flowing from the Atlantic City casino industry.

Angelo Bruno, the "Gentle Don," who had ruled the Philadelphia mafiosi for two decades in relative peace, died because he could not count as well as Little Nicky. He thought he had the answer to the New York mobs' superior numbers in the rules of the Mafia.

Atlantic City was long recognized as part of Philadelphia's territory, so Bruno, at times a member of the national Mafia commission, informed New York he stood by his rights under the bylaws of the Honored Society. No outside family could come in without being invited by the host Mafia and Bruno wasn't inviting.

However, there were mega-millions involved in controlling restaurants, bars, beer distributorships, laundry, vending machines and other businesses, to say nothing of rights to run gambling junkets and more direct connections with the casinos. The only one interested in Mafia rules was Bruno, and when a gunshot tore a gaping hole in his head in March 1980, his objections became moot.

His successor, Chicken Man Testa, was blasted away by a remote-control bomb. Then Scarfo took over and he cut his deal. If you can't beat your foes in a Mafia war, he reasoned, the next best thing is to join them. The pie was enormous in Atlantic City and Little Nicky settled for a healthy slice instead of trying the impossible and the suicidal by attempting to keep the whole bag.

Ironically, it was Angelo Bruno who set Scarfo up to take control in Philadelphia. He had been displeased with Little Nicky's violent ways way back in 1963 when the hoodlum got a prison term for manslaughter after stabbing a longshoreman to death in an argument about a seat in a restaurant. Bruno looked for the worst place to send Scarfo when he got out and decided on Atlantic City, which, in the mid-1960s, was a stagnant, depressed area.

Ten years later the plush casinos were licensed and Little Nicky, in mob vernacular, "had really stepped in it." He was on the scene, had the connections with the power structure and suddenly was a big man in the mob—under Bruno and Testa, but coming on.

There were those seeking to unseat Little Nicky even after he apparently solved the New York rampage. The forces of Harry Riccobene, a diminutive man with a flowing white beard and a mean disposition, put up a stiff battle against Little Nicky. However, they did not give as good as they got (although they did kill Salvatore Testa, the 28-year-old son of the slain Chicken Man Testa, regarded as a real comer in the mob).

Still the Scarfo men, sharing their leader's reputation for ruthlessness, drew more blood. Riccobene's nephew, Enrico, actually committed suicide when he learned that three of Little Nicky's boys were laying for him outside his Sansom Street jewelry store. And one of Riccobene's half brothers, Robert, was shot dead about the same time by a Scarfo supporter in a jogging suit. By the end of 1984 the 74-year-old Riccobene was almost certainly permanently removed from the crime picture when he was convicted in the murder of Frank Monte, a Scarfo loyalist.

Scarfo was definitely on top. Some called it dumb and murderous luck and predicted he would fall. They were right. Scarfo had too suspicious a nature and he soon turned to ordering the deaths of loyal followers, starting with Salvatore Testa, his most competent hit man, because he feared he would make a play for his position as family boss.

For a time Scarfo wanted to kill two of his own cousins out of the same fear, but others talked him out of it. According to informer Phil Leonetti, Little Nicky even considered having his wife murdered because he felt she had "little by little" robbed him of "around $400,000." She was gambling at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.

As the body count mounted, many younger wise guys realized they could be the next victim of the mad boss's wrath, and they started defecting to the FBI. Scarfo, Leonetti and 15 others were convicted in 1988 on murder and racketeering charges. While they waited sentencing, there were further defections from among those convicted, the most important being Leonetti, who was Scarfo's "beloved"—to use Little Nicky's word—nephew and recently appointed underboss. Leonetti became a very important federal witness and guaranteed enough evidence against Scarfo that he would never be a free man again.

Scarfo ended up in Marion Penitentiary doing life in a maximum security cell where later John Gotti would also be lodged. Scarfo was known to refer to Phil as "my faggot nephew."