"Little Nicky" Scarfo took over the Philadelphia Mafia in 1981 following the murders of long-time Philly boss Angelo Bruno and his successor, "Chicken Man" Testa, but it took a war with Harry Riccobene to consolidate his power.
by Allan May
Two decades of tranquility in the Philadelphia Crime Family came to an end on the night of March 21, 1980. Late that evening, as Mafia boss Angelo Bruno and his driver John Stanfa sat in a car outside Bruno’s row house in South Philly chatting and smoking cigarettes, a gunman stepped out of the shadows, leveled a shotgun behind the "Docile Don’s" right ear and pulled the trigger.
Several theories made the rounds regarding the murder of the popular and long-entrenched Philadelphia boss. One was that Bruno was getting old and losing control of the family and needed to be moved aside. Another held that he was asserting himself in Atlantic City, moving certain union people in to take advantage of the construction boom created by the legalization of gambling casinos there. Still others believe that the crime families of New York wanted to capitalize on the new casino industry in Atlantic City and orchestrated the murder. Whatever the reason, one year after Bruno’s murder, Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo had positioned himself to take control of the Philadelphia mob, including Atlantic City, and had negotiated an agreement with the New York families.
The change in leadership did not mean that tranquility was about to return to the City of Brotherly Love. Not as long as "Harry the Hunchback" was around.
"Harry the Hunchback" was Harry Riccobene. The hump on his back was from a birth defect that caused a curvature of his spine. Sometimes called "Harry the Hump," Riccobene was barely five feet tall, spoke in a high pitched voice, and had a long, white beard. How imposing could this guy be?
Once a prospective juror described him as looking like "a little Santa Claus." While Harry never kept a sleigh full of toys, he was prone to deciding who was naughty and nice. Like "Bugsy" Siegel and "Scarface" Al Capone, no one ever called Riccobene the "Hump" or "Hunchback" to his face.
Riccobene was born in Sicily in 1910 and was brought to the United States by his parents when he was 3 years old. Harry had two half brothers, Mario, known as "Sonny," and Robert. Harry became a made member of the Philadelphia Crime Family in the early 1930s. He was involved in bootlegging, gambling, loansharking, and at one time had a talent agency. In the 1950s, he was convicted in Cleveland for selling heroin and spent the better part of 20 years in prison. In March 1975, he was released and returned to Philadelphia.
After the deaths of Bruno and his successor, Philip "Chicken Man" Testa, Nicky Scarfo began purging the family of the people he felt wouldn’t fall in line under his leadership. Some family members were upset that Scarfo had moved so quickly into the top spot. John Calabrese was one of them He was murdered in October 1981. Frank "Chickie" Narducci, another, took 10 bullets in the face, neck and chest on Jan. 7, 1982. (At the time of Narducci’s murder he was involved in a RICO trial that had begun three days before. Harry and Sonny Riccobene were co-defendants in the case.) In addition, Frank "Frankie Flowers" D’Alfonso, an important family earner, was given a vicious beating as a warning to keep in line.
Riccobene’s own family members, including his stepmother, ran his operation. He had always recognized Bruno as the boss and paid him his due respect. A Philadelphia police detective once described the Bruno/Riccobene relationship: "Harry was an independent guy. Every year at Christmas he’d send Bruno something and that would be it." Apparently "Harry the Hunchback" could play Santa Claus.
In the early 1980s, Harry continued to run his operations – gambling, loansharking, video poker games, vending machines, and a methamphetamine business – hoping that his arrangement with Bruno would carry over to Scarfo. It didn’t. Scarfo wanted a percentage of Riccobene’s operation. When the "Hunchback" refused, Scarfo declared war.
In George Anastasia’s, Blood and Honor, in my opinion one of the best books ever written on organized crime, the author gives this overview of the war:
"This might seem strange to someone not familiar with the workings of the criminal underworld. But life inside the Scarfo organization was a three-dimensional chess game. Plots and intrigue unfolded on several different levels, and collisions occurred on various planes. So for months during the Riccobene war, protagonists would be in each other’s company and, on the surface at least, appear to be getting along famously. They would socialize at weddings and funerals. If they happened to be in the same restaurant, they’d greet each other warmly and buy each other a round of drinks. It was all part of the Mafia machismo that had taken over the Scarfo organization, all part of the battle being fought on Scarfo’s terms, a battle of cunning, guile, and deceit."
Scarfo assigned the contract on Harry Riccobene to Pasquale "Pat the Cat" Spirito. He was ordered to use Charles "Charlie White" Iannece and Nicholas "Nicky Crow" Caramandi to carry out the hit. After several blown opportunities during the early months of 1982, Scarfo put together a new plan. Frank Monte, the new Philadelphia Family’s consigliere, and Raymond "Long John" Martorano paid a visit to Harry Riccobene’s half-brother Mario. After listening to an offer to "serve up" Harry, Mario told the two men he would get back with them. Instead, he went straight to the "Hunchback" and exposed the plot.
Riccobene, who had hoped to avoid open warfare, now went on the offensive. Frank Monte became the first victim of the war. On May 13, 1982, Riccobene gunmen Joseph Pedulla and Victor DeLuca staked out Monte’s car, which was parked outside a Southwest Philadelphia gas station. When Monte returned to his automobile around 9 p.m., Pedulla, with a .22 caliber rifle with a scope mounted on it, put six slugs in Monte’s head and back. He died within an hour.
With the first casualty of war recorded, Anastasia states, "For the rest of 1982 and for all of 1983, squads of gunmen cruised the streets of South Philadelphia looking for targets."
In June 1982, Scarfo forces got their first shot at Harry Riccobene. The "Hunchback," who was almost 70 years old at the time, was in a phone booth talking to his 23-year-old girlfriend. Scarfo gunman Salvatore "Wayne" Grande approached and pumped five bullets into the little man. Incredibly, Riccobene wrestled the gun away from Grande who was 100 pounds heavier and nearly 50 years younger. Police arrived and found Riccobene leaning against the phone booth, bleeding all over the sidewalk, an empty six-shooter in his hand. True to mob protocol, Harry told police that he couldn’t identify his assailant.
In July the Riccobene forces struck back. Pedulla and DeLuca spotted Salvatore "Salvie" Testa, the "Chicken Man’s" son, enjoying a bucket of clams outside a South Philadelphia pizza shop. A shotgun blast from Pedulla knocked Testa off a wooden crate he was seated on, and nearly severed his left arm. Although in critical condition, Testa survived and looked forward to the day he could return to the fray.
Meanwhile, Harry, who had made a quick recovery from his wounds in June, was the target again in August. As he was sitting in his automobile, a gunman, disguised as a jogger, ran by and emptied his gun into the car. Miraculously none of the bullets hit Riccobene.
While both sides blasted away at each other, "Little Nicky" Scarfo was able to stay out of harm’s way. He was safely tucked away in Joe Valachi’s former home, the federal prison in La Tuna, Tex., serving 17 months for a parole violation: possession of a gun.
Scarfo gunman Nick Caramandi, one of the main characters of Anastasia’s, Blood and Honor, talked about stalking Harry and later Mario Riccobene all over the city. He said the hit team would sometimes work from 7 a.m. until late into the night. They staked out Riccobene’s stepmother’s home, girlfriend’s apartments, the homes of friends and business associates, all in hopes of getting an open shot at their adversaries.
The failure to kill the Riccobenes infuriated Scarfo and he responded by ordering the murder of Pat Spirito, to whom he had handed the original murder contract. Described as a "reluctant hit man," Spirito was murdered by Iannece and Caramandi on April 29, 1983. Caramandi describes Spirito and the aftermath of the hit:
"Spirito was not cut out for the Scarfo mob. He had come out of Trenton and moved to South Philadelphia at a time when mob members were low-key operators concentrating on gambling, loan-sharking, and bookmaking. He was greedy and ambitious, attributes that Scarfo could appreciate, but he lacked the killer instinct. He thought he could slide by generating enough money to keep the Little Guy down the shore satisfied. But he underestimated Scarfo’s bloodlust. Spirito was a money-maker, but he was also a whiner and complainer."
After we killed him, "everybody was happy. Everybody hated him. I never seen a guy hated so much."
After Spirito’s murder, Caramandi and Iannece were assigned to Salvatore Testa. Caramandi stated that the word coming from Scarfo out of La Tuna was that he wanted to "hear noise." Scarfo was pleased that Caramandi and Iannece had taken care of Spirito. They were promised their "buttons," – becoming made members of the family – when Scarfo returned.
One of the reasons Scarfo wasn’t hearing any "noise" was because both Harry and Mario Riccobene were behind bars themselves, having been convicted of the aforementioned RICO charges. Caramandi and Iannece were told their next target was Robert Riccobene. They were assigned at first to work with Eugene "Gino" Milano, a made member of Salvatore Testa’s crew, and later with Francis "Faffy" Iannarella.
Six months would go by before there was another casualty in the war. On Nov. 3, 1983 Nick Milano and Phillip Narducci followed Riccobene loyalist Salvatore "Sammy" Tamburrino into a variety store he operated on the ground floor of his home. As his horrified mother watched, Tamburrino was shot to death.
The last murder in the Riccobene / Scarfo War came a little over a month later on Dec. 6. Two crews of hitmen had been stalking Robert Riccobene all day. That afternoon, Iannarella, Iannece and Joey Pungitore caught up with him outside his mother’s house. Riccobene had just driven up with his mother and parked. As they walked toward the house Riccobene spotted Iannarella carrying a sawed-off shotgun. Riccobene took off with "Faffy" in pursuit. Iannarella fired a blast as Riccobene vaulted a fence. The shot caught Riccobene in the back of the head, killing him.
During the chase, Mrs. Riccobene had grabbed Iannarella and screamed at him to stop. "Faffy" responded by hitting the terrified mother in the face with the butt of the shotgun. It was the second murder in a row where the victim was killed in front of his mother, an infringement of so-called mob murder etiquette.
Four days after Robert Riccobene’s killing, Testa, Milano, and Pungitore were ambushed as they were driving in South Philadelphia. No one was injured in what would prove to be the last effort on the part of the Riccobene forces in the war. Scarfo gang member Chuckie Merlino would soon announce that the war was over.
A sad side note to the war was the death of Enrico Riccobene, Mario’s 27-year-old son. Enrico had no real connection to the hostilities that were going on other than being a blood relative. While working at his jewelry store on Dec. 14, 1983, he was notified that Testa, Phil Leonetti, and Lawrence Merlino were looking for him. Enrico went to the safe, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
Testa would later tell Caramandi, "Now we can kill guys without bullets. They use their own guns. That’s how afraid they are of us."
Harry and Mario Riccobene were still in jail when the war ended. Mario, despondent over the deaths of his brother and son, pleaded guilty to a third-degree murder charge involving Frank Monte and became a government witness. Whereas before he had refused to set up his brother for the Scarfo forces he now served up Harry to the U.S. government. Also set to testify were former Riccobene gunmen Victor DeLuca and Joseph Pedulla. Harry Riccobene, who didn’t stand a chance against the trio, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Riccobene/Scarfo War was over, but the killings that marked "Little Nicky’s" rise would continue throughout the 1980s, eventually leading to his fall. On April 5, 1989, Scarfo was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder of mobster Frank D’Alfonso.
Allan May’s e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net