NEW YORK – Declaring that the Mafia is not just the stuff of movie scripts, federal prosecutors have charged nearly four dozen people with being part of an East Coast crime syndicate, including an old-school mobster in New York and a reputed mob chieftain in Philadelphia who has been pursued by the government for decades.
The indictment, unsealed Thursday in New York City, accuses the defendants of a litany of classic mafia crimes, including extortion, loansharking, casino-style gambling, sports gambling, credit card fraud and health care fraud. It said the syndicate operated in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Jersey.
Among those charged was Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, the flamboyant alleged head of the Philadelphia mob who has repeatedly beat murder charges in past cases, but served nearly 12 years in prison for racketeering.
Also named in the indictment was Pasquale "Patsy" Parrello, identified as a longtime member of the Genovese organized crime family and the owner of an Italian restaurant in New York City.
Parrello, 72, pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges at his arraignment in federal court in Manhattan.
He was detained without bail after prosecutors argued in court papers that he was a danger because of his "appetite and capacity for vengeance, control, and violence." His attorney declined comment outside court.
Merlino, also was ordered held without bail at a hearing in West Palm Beach, Florida. His longtime lawyer, Ed Jacobs, declined to comment on the allegations, saying he hadn't yet studied the indictment.
Prosecutors said 39 of those charged were arrested on Thursday. Alleged members of four New York crime families were among the defendants. During the arrests, agents seized three handguns, a shotgun, gambling paraphernalia and more than $30,000 in cash.
Diego Rodriguez, head of the FBI's New York office, said the indictment "reads like an old school Mafia novel."
One count accuses Parrello, 72, of ordering a beatdown in 2011 of a panhandler he believed was harassing female customers outside his restaurant, Pasquale Rigoletto, on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
"Break his ... knees," he said, according to prosecutors. Although no one was kneecapped, the panhandler was "assaulted with glass jars, sharp objects and steel-tipped boots, causing bodily harm," the court papers said.
Afterward one of his cohorts was recorded saying, "Remember the old days in the neighborhood when we used to play baseball? ... A ballgame like that was done," the papers said.
Prosecutors also said that in 2013, Parrello ordered retaliation against a man who stabbed a member of his crew outside a Bronx bar.
After an associate agreed to "whack" the attacker, Parrello cautioned him to "keep the pipes handy and pipe him, pipe him, over here (gesturing to the knees), not on his head," court papers said.
Merlino, 54, who became a restaurateur in Boca Raton, Florida, following his release from prison, was implicated in a health care fraud scheme with Parrello and others. Investigators said the conspirators got corrupt doctors to bill insurers for unnecessary and excessive prescriptions for expensive compound creams in exchange for kickbacks.
A magistrate judge in West Palm Beach, Florida, ordered Merlino held without bail pending a detention hearing on Tuesday. In papers arguing against his release, prosecutors said he "been captured on recordings supervising a number of individuals, questioning whether certain associates were 'rats.'"
In Massachusetts, five alleged associates of the New York-based Genovese crime family were arrested on extortion-related charges as part of the sweep. Four men were arrested in New Jersey.
Like Merlino, several other defendants, including Parrello in the case have records of mob-related convictions and prison time. One of the lesser-known defendants, Bradford Wedra, interrupted a hearing Thursday where he pleaded not guilty to complain to the judge that he was broke after completing a 25-year sentence in another case.
"Now, I'm home and I can't afford nothing," he said before he was given a court-appointed lawyer.