The Saga Of Nicky Skins Continues
By George Anastasia
Pete the Crumb Caprio is expected to finish his testimony today in the retrial of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and his nephew George Borgesi.
As he has in early court appearances, the 84-year-old mobster-turned-informant offered a history lesson on the Philadelphia mob, particularly its North Jersey operations. He was a soldier and later a capo in Newark. Among other things, he acknowledged that, in league with members of the Genovese crime family, he plotted to kill Ligambi, Borgesi and another Philadelphia mob leader in the late 1990s.
The plan was to lure them to a meeting, shoot them and then bury their bodies in a landfill. Caprio was going to become the new boss. Before that could happen, he got jammed up in his own murder and racketeering case and eventually cut a deal with the feds.
Prosecutors hope that his testimony lays the groundwork for the conspiracy charge against Ligambi and Borgesi.
The jury is expected to hear from another North Jersey mob figure shortly, although he won't be on the witness stand. Just as they did in the first trial that ended in February, prosecutors plan to play a tape made by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, the Gambino crime family soldier who wore a wire for the FBI for two years. Stefanelli, 69, committed suicide in March 2012, but tapes that he made for the feds live on.
The jury will hear an hour-long composite of a five-hour lunch meeting Stefanelli taped in May 2010 at LaGriglia, a posh restaurant just off the Garden State Parkway in Kenilworth, NJ. Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor has called the session as a meeting of the "board of directors" of organized crime.
Ten mobsters, including Ligambi, Anthony Staino and Joe Licata from the Philadelphia crime family and the brothers Joe and John Gambino from New York's Gambino organization broke bread and drank wine that day.
Stefanelli was a made member of the Gambino organization and, with Licata, helped set up the meeting. The defense, as it did in the first trial, argued in opening statements that the lunch was merely a get-together for aging friends (most of those at the meeting were in their 60s and 70s) who talked about the old days.
But on the tape, Licata can be heard introducing Ligambi to the Gambino crime family members as "our acting boss." At another point, Licata and the others discuss a dispute with the Luchese crime family over territorial rights and poaching in New Jersey. The Lucheses, authorities allege, were horning in on Philadelphia's territory and Ligambi and Licata were trying to get the Gambino organization to support them in the dispute.
Talk also focused on a "making ceremony" -- a mob initiation rite -- that Ligambi presided over. Again, authorities hope that will solidify in the jury's mind Ligambi's role as the boss of the local crime family.
Whether it supports the conspiracy charge he faces, however, is another question.
The jury in the trial that ended in February couldn't decide. While it acquitted Ligambi of five charges tied to gambling and extortion, it hung on the conspiracy charge (along with two other gambling charges and an obstruction of justice count), leading to the retrial.
That same jury, however, found Licata not guilty of conspiracy when the only substantial evidence against him as the LaGriglia tape. (Licata's lawyer in that case, Christopher Warren, is now representing Borgesi who also faces a conspiracy charge. But Borgesi was in prison in May 2010 and had nothing to do with the LaGriglia meeting.)
The LaGriglia tape was the first Stefanelli tape played publicly. A second meeting at the American Bistro in Belleville attended by Stefanelli, Licata and mobster Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini, was also used in the first trial.
There are dozens of other tapes that have yet to surface, part of ongoing investigations that may or may not lead to indictments in New York and North Jersey. Stefanelli moved up and down the East Coast for the Gambino crime family. He met with Joey Merlino in Florida and he taped meetings with Anthony DiNunzio, a Rhode Island mob boss.
Merlino, the relocated Philadelphia mob leader, said he was leery of the smooth-talking wiseguy, avoided any discussion about organized crime and dismissed Stefanelli's business propositions.
"He was trying to set me up," said Merlino in an interview in May after learning that Stefanelli had been wearing a wire when they met.
DiNunzio, the New England mob leader, wasn't as cautious. He pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge last year built in part around tape recordings made by Stefanelli.
Those tapes are Nicky Skins's legacy. The fact that there have not been any other indictments raises questions in some circles about how good the rest of the Stefanelli tapes really are. And it also has led to speculation about the relationship between the FBI and the wiseguy.
Who was playing whom?
"My opinion, Skins did as much to sanitize his recordings as possible," said Steven Lenehan, a former North Jersey mobster who has been there.
Lenehan was the FBI's guy on the streets in the early 1990s, a mob associate-turned-informant who wore a wire as he interacted with dozens of gangsters, including Stefanelli. In fact, Lenehan recorded a heroin deal with Stefanelli in 1994 that led to Nicky Skins' arrest and first federal prison sentence.
Everyone is different, Lenehan said in a series of phone conversations and emails over the past six months, but there are ways to "protect" your friends even when you're wearing a wire. Lenehan's work as an informant resulted in about 30 arrests. He said he could have helped make even more cases.
He's not expecting anyone still out on the streets to thank him, but as he looks from afar at the Stefanelli case he wonders."I think Skins might have protected a lot of guys," he said, offering an explanation of why there have not been any more indictments.
That Skins was a player in the underworld for decades is not in dispute. That he corporated was, according to several individuals who knew him, out of character.
"He was raised in organized crime," said Bob Carroll, a former prosecutor with the New Jersey Attorney General's Division of Criminal Justice. "He moved freely among the (crime) families."
Low-key, intelligent but also a suspected killer, Stefanelli came from the old school, Carroll said. The former prosecutor said he was "surprised" to learn Nicky Skins had become a cooperator.
"His temperament wasn't conducive to that kind of behavior," said Carroll who described Stefanelli as a guy who would do his time rather than turn government informant. "He was a longtime player, a career guy."
Stefanelli began cooperating in 2009 after he was again facing drug trafficking charges. Why he killed himself is open to speculation.The conventional wisdom is that as the investigations he was involved with were winding down and as the prospect of taking the witness stand publicly against his former associates grew nearer, Stefanelli decided he couldn't do it.
Instead, he went out with a bang.
Authorities say two days before committing suicide, Stefanelli walked into a video poker machine distribution office in Bloomfield, NJ, and shot and killed Joseph Rossi, the owner of the business. Sources say Rossi was the FBI informant who got Stefanelli and Stefanelli's son jammed up in a drug case in 2009.
In order to get out from under that charge -- and keep his son from being arrested -- Stefanelli cut a deal with the government and agreed to wear a wire, according to that theory. Once Stefanelli decided that he couldn't testify, he chose to end it all. First, in an act of revenge, he shot and killed Rossi. Then he checked into a hotel near the Meadowlands in North Jersey. Two days later his body was found in a hotel room. Cause of death was a drug overdose.
That's the theory of what happened, but no one in authority has provided specific details.
Anthony Rossi, who is the executor of his brother's will, says his family has been less than satisfied with what they've been told so far. And what they've been told, he adds, is very little.
The family has retained an attorney who is trying to get to the bottom of the FBI's relationship with both Stefanelli and Joe Rossi. The questions the family has, said Anthony Rossi, have to do with whether the feds were providing the kind of protection his brother deserved if he was cooperating.
The irony that his brother was killed by another FBI cooperator only adds to the uncertainty surrounding the case.
"We'd like some answers," Anthony Rossi said recently, adding that the family was prepared to file a civil suit against the federal government. "We've just heard so many stories and right now all we have are questions."
Anthony Rossi said he knew Stefanelli from the neighborhood. They were all from the Newark-Belleville-Bloomfield area. The "type of guy he was," doesn't fit with the stories that are being told, he added.
Lenehan also has his doubts. His take is that Stefanelli went to Rossi to shake him down, to grab some ready cash before he was taken off the streets and whisked into federal custody. Lenehan, who has been down that road, knows how the game is played.
"My opinion of Skins is that he was a tough guy, a gentleman and always reasonable," said Lenehan. "I'm sure if I hadn't been with Team America, he and I would have remained good friends. His defection shocked me.
"As to his suicide, I think he realized he blew his deal with the feds after the video poker guy was clipped. Skins was capable. It was a shakedown gone bad. Forget the nonsense he was paying the guy back for ratting on his kid. He was probably ready to be relocated and he knew (after Rossi was killed) instead of Iowa or Kansas, he was headed to prison forever. That's why he offed himself."
The jury in the Ligambi case, of course, won't get all the details and the speculation. They will hear that Stefanelli was a cooperator, that he made a tape of a meeting at LaGriglia and that he later killed himself.
Lenehan says it's more complicated than that. It always is. He makes no excuse for himself, for Stefanelli or for anyone else who has become a cooperator. He said he toyed with the idea of suicide at one point and still wrestles with his own decision to become an informant.
"The world is so enamored with this (mob) life," he said. (But) it's a business of greed and murder....My advice, if you're in the life, get out before you get pinched...You are not going to beat the federal government....You have more rats on the street than in the (witness protection) program. I took a shortcut at everyone's expense. Not an easy look back in the rear view mirror. I think that Steve Lenehan was Steve Lenehan's worst enemy, not the guys on the street and not the feds...I might be the only guy like me who thinks he deserves to get clipped for what he did. White washing your decision to turn by blaming others -- I read Phil Leonetti's book -- is hypocritical. I'm a guy who told on his friends. That's my legacy.
"But I'm not hypocrite...I know what I did and I'm not trying to sugarcoat it."
Neither, apparently, was Stefanelli. He just chose a different way to deal with it.
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