PHILADELPHIA – Just a few years ago, federal authorities thought they had the Philadelphia-area mob close to sleeping with the fishes: One boss had turned government informant, his successor was convicted of racketeering and the underworld organization seemed in disarray.
But a federal grand jury report unsealed Monday, announcing charges against the top two reputed Philadelphia mobsters and 11 others, paints a picture of La Cosa Nostra as alive and well.
Its 70 pages detail an operation that has rebounded and is thriving in some of classic staples of organized crime: sports betting, electronic gambling, coded conversations and violent threats.
"Despite the clear history over the past 30 years, there are people still willing to be involved in this type of activity," said Barry Gross, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped bring down several city crime bosses. "These allegations seem to be in line with what they've always done. ... It continues."
The old-school hallmarks of organized crime are detailed in a report that reads like something straight from the big screen, replete with real-life characters who go by "Uncle Joe," ''Mousie," ''Bent Finger Louie" and "Sheep."
The report outlines a structured world of bosses and underbosses, where members are "made" or "straightened out" in a ceremony where a knife and gun are displayed, and the potential member must agree to be willing to use either of them to help "our friends." The guiding rule of this underworld is "omerta," the code of silence, the grand jurors wrote, and the penalty for violating that code is death.
The indictment alleges that reputed mob leader Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, reputed underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino and 11 others engaged in loan sharking and ran illegal gambling businesses involving video poker machines and sports bookmaking.
There are no murder charges, but authorities allege the men used threats to kill or harm people to recoup business debts.
In April 2002, for example, two of the defendants went to collect "Uncle Joe's money" and one of them told the debtor that he was "capable of cracking" the victim if necessary, the grand jurors allege. In another instance a month later, two defendants allegedly told a victim they had repeatedly assaulted another debtor, once with a bat.
The indictment paints a picture of a classic world of coded talk, where illegal gambling machines — placed in coffee shops, restaurants and other places — are spoken of as espresso or coffee machines. Reputed mobsters and associates engage in and secret "walk and talks," the report alleges, having covert conversations on foot to hinder interception.
"Organized crime still exists in the Philadelphia area," George Venizelos, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia field division, said at a news conference announcing the charges. "It has not disappeared."
That's a different tune than authorities were singing several years back, especially after former mob boss Ralph Natale was sentenced in 2005 to 13 years in prison.
Natale is believed to be the first reigning mob boss ever to testify for federal authorities.
It 1999, Natale admitted he ordered or personally committed a total of eight murders in exchange for a shorter prison term. He later testified in four trials, including that of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, the man investigators say succeeded him as leader. Merlino and six others were convicted of racketeering and other mob-related activities but cleared on murder and attempted murder charges.
"He helped expose it and helped eradicate the La Cosa Nostra in the Philadelphia area," Gross said then.
In announcing the latest arrests, however, federal authorities described a revived and reinvigorated criminal enterprise that, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said, "has shown a remarkable ability to reorganize."
Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., an attorney who has represented Merlino and other alleged mobsters in the past, said prosecutors typically talk in cycles.
"At the conclusion of a racketeering case, the government will announce that they have delivered a fatal blow to organized crime," said Jacobs, who declined to address the latest charges specifically. "But when they indict the next case, they readily acknowledge a healthy and a vibrant and a powerful organization."
Gross said every past prosecution has hurt La Cosa Nostra significantly, but the potential for making money keeps people coming back.
"It's about the money. It's always about the money," he said.
One notable absence from the indictment is actual violence, something noted by a federal magistrate at a detention hearing for Ligambi and another defendant.
A decade ago, the last big mob indictment alleged three slayings, part of a bloody period in which more than 30 people were killed in gangland violence — starting with the March 21, 1980, assassination of former crime boss Angelo Bruno.
The latest incarnation of the city's La Cosa Nostra, authorities allege, rules based on past reputation and fear.
"What they're banking on is fear," federal prosecutor John S. Han said. "They don't need to commit actual violence."