A lot of us think the notorious but legendary days of the Mafia are over. After all, the mafia is seldom in the news, and it’s been decades since the U.S. Senate held the televised hearings that made some Mafia figures household names. But law enforcement authorities say the indictment in August of 46 alleged mob bosses, members, and associates, including seven from Palm Beach and Broward counties, proves that organized crime is still is thriving in South Florida and along the east coast.
Joe Cicini, a retired FBI agent and former supervisor in charge of South Florida’s organized crime task force, told the Sun Sentinel, “The Mafia has never gone away. It’s just the American public’s attention was refocused on terrorism after 9/11. Italian organized crime families have always had their tentacles in South Florida. It’s kind of a playground for them. It’s still a lucrative territory. The great weather, the tourism, every kind of scam goes on here – there’s a lot of money to be made.” Of course, anyone accused of a “scam” in South Florida should consult with an experienced West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney.
The August federal indictment against the 46 suspects was issued in Manhattan. Prosecutors allege that the 46 are part of an organized crime network that involves the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, and Bonanno crime families. The investigation spanned five years, using undercover FBI agents and at least one secret informant to expose a crime network that reaches from Massachusetts to South Florida.
WHO ARE THE TARGETS OF THE FEDERAL INDICTMENT?
One of the investigation’s targets, Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, is said by investigators to be a “boss” of organized crime in Philadelphia. He’s also considered a flamboyant personality who enjoys media attention. Merlino was released from jail on $5 million bond and ordered to remain in his home – with an electronic monitor – in Boca Raton. Merlino told the court that he owns no property, but his wife and two friends came up with more than $700,000 worth of real estate holdings to guarantee the bond, according to the Sun Sentinel.
Prosecutors claim that in 2014, Merlino “began working in earnest to rebuild the Philadelphia crime family.” He faces a single count of racketeering conspiracy tied to gambling and fraud allegations. Many of suspected crime bosses named in the federal indictment face racketeering conspiracy (RICO) charges that could put them in federal prison for as long as 20 years if they’re convicted. The suspects are also looking at potentially $250,000 in fines and the seizure of their assets.
The racketeering conspiracy allegedly involves crime activities historically associated with organized crime – extortion, illegal gambling, arson, and black market gun sales. The suspects are also charged with running profitable healthcare fraud and credit card fraud operations, and several of the Florida defendants are accused of billing health insurance providers for unnecessary prescriptions written by unscrupulous doctors. Those charges are evidence that organized crime is not only active in South Florida, but diversifying and possibly flourishing.
WHAT ARE FLORIDA’S HISTORIC TIES TO ORGANIZED CRIME?
Of course, famous and flamboyant crime figures have been a part of the modern South Florida scene since its beginning. Al Capone purchased a mansion on Palm Island in Miami in 1928, and Tampa became an important port for illegal liquor shipments in the Prohibition era. Meyer Lansky ran several fashionable gambling parlors in South Florida in the 1930s. According to Richard Mangan, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University and retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, organized crime has always considered South Florida “open territory,” with no single mob or family claiming control.
In fact, various families “worked together and coordinated” their activities along the east coast, Mangan told the Sun Sentinel. Prosecutors reportedly have hundreds of incriminating audio recordings and videos. “Factions often worked with each other to facilitate gambling and coordinated the settling of debts through sit-downs and conspiracies to commit extortion,” according to the prosecutors’ allegations in the court records.
Also according to prosecutors, another South Floridian – Pasquale “Patsy” Capolongo, 67, of West Palm Beach – is an associate of the Lucchese family and a veteran bookmaker with a lengthy record of arrests and convictions and a bundle “unexplained” wealth. Capolongo’s attorneys say that he’s a modest retiree who lives on Social Security and enjoys afternoons with his grandchildren. Capolongo’s ex-wife pays the mortgage on the home, according to his defense lawyers.
Federal law enforcement investigators paint a somewhat different picture. A raid on Capolongo’s home last year, part of a separate investigation by Florida law enforcement authorities, turned up more than $500,000 in cash. Capolongo pleaded not guilty to charges and was released on bond until the federal indictment was issued. Federal prosecutors want him held behind bars until he goes on trial for the new federal charge, but U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman said prosecutors did not prove that Capolongo is a flight risk or a danger to the public.
In the indictment, the government says that Capolongo was involved in extortion and gambling in Florida, New York, and New Jersey as an agent for the Costa Rican International Sportsbook. Capolongo placed bets for professional gamblers, investigators said, and recruited an associate to place a tracking device on the vehicle of a man he held responsible for a $30,000 debt. Other South Florida figures in the indictment include Frank “Harpo” Trapani, 63, Craig Bagon, 56, and Bradley Sirkin, 54, all of Boca Raton, along with Carmine Gallo, 38, of Delray Beach.
DO RACKETEERING LAWS HELP AUTHORITIES FIGHT THE MAFIA?
Mangan says the tough federal racketeering conspiracy laws help the authorities fight the mob, but they have not eradicated organized crime. “There wouldn’t be an indictment like this if there wasn’t significant crime,” he says. And in September, federal prosecutors announced that they’d found even more evidence of significant crime in South Florida. They charged about a dozen residents of Palm Beach and Broward counties in a massive $175 million fraud involving specialty prescription creams used to treat pain and other ailments.
While members of the Mafia usually have their own attorneys, anyone who’s arrested and charged in one of these law enforcement “sweeps” in South Florida will need the counsel of an experienced West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney. Everyone charged with a crime in the United States has the right to an attorney, and apparently, a lot of alleged members of the mafia will be speaking to theirs. “It may be twilight,” for the mob, says Richard Mangan, “but it’s not nighttime.”