Scorsese movie, Merlino trial highlight Philadelphia’s Mob past

Scorsese movie, Merlino trial highlight Philadelphia’s Mob past

City’s gritty organized crime history is fuel for writers, filmmakers

The City of Brotherly Love is generating Mob-related headlines again.

The city’s Mob history has popped up in stories about a much-anticipated movie currently in the making and in the high-profile trial of a reputed Philadelphia Mafia boss.

Frank Sheeran claimed on his death bed that he killed labor boss Jimmy Hoffa. Journalists and historians are skeptical. Sheeran’s story is the basis for an upcoming Martin Scorsese movie titled “The Irishman.”

The upcoming Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, about a hit man who claimed to have assassinated labor leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, is in the news a lot lately and has a Philadelphia angle that will open up the city’s Mafia past to a new generation of viewers.

Harvey Keitel has been cast as former Philadelphia Mafia boss Angelo Bruno in an all-star lineup that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. De Niro plays Teamsters organizer and hit man Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was active in Philadelphia during his prime. He died in 2003.

The movie, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, is expected to be released next year. The term “painting houses” is code for the blood that sprays a wall during a killing. These reportedly were the first words Hoffa uttered to Sheeran.

Meanwhile, the racketeering trial of reputed Philly crime boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino ended in a mistrial on February 20 after jurors returning from a long weekend told U.S District Judge Richard Sullivan they were hopelessly deadlocked. There was no immediate word from prosecutors on whether the government would seek a new trial.

The trial in New York City had all the pizzazz of a blockbuster movie with its own star attraction: Merlino. A tanned 55-year-old celebrity gangster with slicked-back dark hair and a mouthful of wiseguy double negatives, Merlino has been called the John Gotti of Philadelphia’s Passyunk Avenue — handsome, self-assured, as dapper as the Teflon Don himself with a ready smile and confident stride.

In a case of life imitating art, the courtroom drama, including stories about Merlino’s heart problems and accusations of his marital infidelity, generated wide interest, especially since it has been a while since the last major Mob trial.

Merlino, who moved to South Florida after leaving prison in 2011 on a racketeering conviction, was accused this time of demanding protection payments from sports bookies and from crime families running health insurance scams. Merlino’s attorneys asserted he was framed by Mob turncoats and has not been involved in crime since getting out of prison more than a half-dozen years ago.

Unlike other defendants in the case who pleaded to lesser charges, Merlino opted to stand trial. He told Philadelphia television reporter Dave Schratwieser while heading into court recently that he had a “good shot” at winning. During the same sidewalk interview, Merlino also correctly predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles, an underdog against the New England Patriots in the February 4 Super Bowl, would win “outright.”

Mob watchers probably wondered whether that football pick indicated Merlino, supposedly a heavy gambler, was on a winning streak that might extend to this trial. He previously was acquitted of three murder raps.

Among the Mob watchers who paid close attention were Schratwieser and Philadelphia author and journalist George Anastasia. The two veteran reporters have produced their own separate content on the trial but also appear together to discuss it in a YouTube walk-and-talk series called “Mob Talk Sitdown.” In a recent episode setting up the trial, the two journalists, wearing heavy, dark overcoats in a rundown part of town, go into detail about the case.

Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, left, leaves federal court in Lower Manhattan after a mistrial was declared in his racketeering case, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, in New York. Merlino, 55, was among nearly four dozen defendants arrested in a 2016 crackdown on the syndicate that prosecutors say committed crimes including extortion, loan-sharking, casino-style gambling, sports gambling, credit card fraud and health care fraud. Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kathy Willens.

Though the feature is called “Sitdown,” the reporters are standing and talking in a forest of wire fencing and concrete walls and pillars. The real-life urban scene even looks like a movie set, with graffiti and a littered brick sidewalk, creating a street vibe consistent with the longtime shoe-leather reporting of these two veteran journalists. In the newest episode, the two discuss the mistrial.

Tough reporters straight from central casting are not new to Philadelphia.

A columnist who made his name in the 1970s and ’80s, Philadelphia Daily News writer Pete Dexter, was beaten nearly to death by several people at a bar in a rough Philly area called Devil’s Pocket. Someone had taken exception to a column he had written. Dexter’s friend, heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb, was injured in the melee.

Dexter went on to win the National Book Award for Paris Trout, a novel set in the South, but he also wrote novels such as God’s Pocket and Brotherly Love about a gritty Philadelphia populated with Mafia goons and hard-luck survivors scrambling to get by. God’s Pocket was made into a 2014 movie of the same name starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of drug intoxication at age 46 shortly after the picture premiered.

Dexter, now in his 70s, moved out West years ago, but his Philadelphia stories still resonate — as do newer stories about underworld figures from there such as Sheeran and Merlino.

In writing about Dexter’s long-ago Philadelphia columns, journalist Pete Hamill said, “He understood that the world was often a savage place. Many human beings were nasty and cruel. They had refined gifts for hurting others, with guns and knives and kicks in the head.”

That description might also serve to summarize the kind of Mob stories, true or otherwise, coming out of Philadelphia these days.

Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. Henry taught journalism at Haas Hall Academy in Bentonville, Arkansas, and now is the headmaster at the school’s campus in Rogers, Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.