Friday, December 31, 2010

Philly's Underworld: A Complicated and Fascinating Melting Pot

[Note: This was originally posted in December 2010 and has been updated in September, November, and December 2019, and in January 2020]

Far from the simplistic treatment often afforded organized crime in the media, the underworld commonly consists of various groups operating various rackets and affording various services.  At times these groups compete to monopolize a territory or market, but more often than not they find themselves operating peacefully beside - if not in concert with - each other.  The reasons for harmony in the underworld are numerous and most are fairly obvious, especially the desire to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement.  Importantly, savvy groups also befriend seeming rivals because illicit entrepreneurs are constantly in need of funds, products, and services - often at a moment's notice, and must rely upon fellow criminals for things like moving hot money, street-level financing and credit, easy access to narcotics and other goods to offset product lost or stolen or seized by authorities, etc.

These inter-relationships were exhibited time and again in Philadelphia during organized crime's heyday in the city.   The 1960s, 70s, and early 1980s saw members of Philadelphia's predominant Italian-American crime syndicate, the Bruno Family, work in coordination with the city's loosely-defined Greek and Irish mobs, and especially with the city's more organized and notorious (and self-named) Black Mafia.  It was also during these times that mobsters of various backgrounds allied themselves with union bosses, affording the involved parties with an assortment of benefits.  Such patron-client networks embody the fabric of organized crime.

Though I have spoken and written extensively about this phenomenon, the topic occurred to me recently when I was informed the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt was being made into a film.
The adaptation of the book, which tells the story of the late Wilmington, Delaware Teamster leader Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, involves the unreal combination of Martin Scorcese, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.  Wow.  Regardless of how true to history I Heard is, the film, whose title is now The Irishman, should at least be entertaining.*  Critics have been raving about the picture and the 41 reviews to date on Rotten Tomatoes earn it a perfect 100% score.  It is slated for a November 1, 2019 release. *I have never been a fan of the book as history, and thus appreciated this critical assessment of the film project and especially this critique re concerns over accuracy (having nothing to do with cinematography, etc.).

In real life, one event perfectly captured the odd times and circumstances surrounding Frank Sheeran vis-a-vis Philly racketeers: "Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night" in October 1974.  Held at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the event consisted of the following who's who at the time: Sheeran was joined on the dais by Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, former Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa, Roofer's Union Local 30 head John McCullough, legendary civil rights leader Cecil Moore, and former Philadelphia District Attorney F. Emmett Fitzpatrick; the front table had upstate PA mob boss Russell Bufalino seated with his close friend, Philly mob boss Angelo Bruno; and assorted gangsters populated the surrounding tables. To make this still more surreal, Jerry Vale was the evening's entertainment.  Sheeran, of course, would soon be tied to Hoffa's July 1975 disappearance.  Here is a photo from Sheeran Appreciation Night (Rizzo is shaking Hoffa's hand, with McCullough second from right and Moore at far right):
I wrote briefly about Sheeran's role in Philly's underworld milieu in Black Brothers, Inc., including and especially his close relationship with Roofer's Union boss John McCullough (along with much discussion about those identified above re: Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night because each played a role in Philly Black Mafia history).  Former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter George Anastasia put together a great "Mob Scene" vid clip about a decade ago regarding McCullough, who was murdered in December 1980 as part of an infamous underworld dispute.  Alas, the clip is apparently no longer available online.  According to at least one media account, the McCullough murder is part of the soon-to-be-released film.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Joseph "Joe Vito" Mastronardo

Discussed intermittently throughout my new book on big-time sports betting, Joseph “Joe Vito” Mastronardo has long been one of the most consequential bookmakers and bettors on the East Coast.  Even casual news followers in the Philadelphia area are familiar with the 60 year-old “white-collar” (i.e., not affiliated with organized crime) pro gambler, who most recently made headlines in April 2010 when the FBI confiscated approximately $2 million following his arrest for gambling-related offenses.  Authorities dug up approximately $1 million in his front lawn, where the cash was buried within 18-inch capped sections of PVC piping under shrubs and other landscaping.  Authorities executed 46 related search and seizure warrants in 13 locations in the Philadelphia area and in Boca Raton, Florida, targeting homes, vehicles, bank accounts, and safe deposit boxes.  Officials also seized Mastronardo’s records and, perhaps more importantly, his computers.  [Please note there is commentary below the related pics and vid clips.]

Unfortunately, the superficial media coverage of Joe Vito’s 2010 arrest and seizure almost universally misses the mark, and Gaming the Game: The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made It Happen (Barricade, 2011) contains the first serious context for these events and for the related (and ongoing) federal investigation.  

In November 2010, Mastronardo was sentenced to 8 - 59.5 months for violating the probation stemming from his 2006 guilty plea in a local (Montgomery County, PA) case.  Unlike the 2006 case, Montco officials have deferred to federal officials who have yet to charge Mastronardo in the current investigationThe 2006 case garnered considerable attention because Montco authorities executed 24 related search warrants resulting in a record $2.7 million being seized from Mastronardo’s betting operation.  Prosecutors opted to charge Mastronardo and his brother with misdemeanors rather than with felonies (which were applicable) because the brothers forfeited the $2.7 million.  Though facing 10 years in prison, Joe Vito received 6 months of house arrest followed by more than six years of probation.*
Joseph "Joe Vito" Mastronardo
The primary figure in Gaming the Game is former pro gambler – and longtime Joe Vito associate/partner – Jimmy Battista, who revered Mastronardo for his brilliant mind and no-nonsense business approach.  Much of Joe Vito’s impressive career is presented in GTG, and the 2006 Montco situation is examined in the greatest detail to date (for reasons relating to Jimmy Battista’s activities vis-à-vis Mastronardo, none of which are as yet public knowledge).  

Serious NBA betting scandal followers may recall that it was Joe Vito’s phone records that were first subpoenaed in the FBI probe which led to the successful prosecution of the scandal’s three conspirators (Battista, referee Tim Donaghy, and mutual friend Tommy Martino).  Until now, there has been no explanation offered for this curiosity.  Gaming the Game provides the inside story of the unbelievable and consequential circumstances. 

12/21/20 UPDATE: Joe Vito was released from jail on December 20, 2010, and will serve the remainder of his term under house arrest.  Mastronardo, who must wear an electronic ankle bracelet and request permission to leave his home, is still awaiting the outcome of a federal investigation into his gambling activities.

*Note: I have not linked to related articles that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer or Philadelphia Daily News, even though they were almost always the most substantive, because they are no longer available online without a subscription to their archives.  For those parties who have such access, see the work of George Anastasia (Inquirer) and Kitty Caparella (Daily News).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Philadelphia's Black Mafia on TV and online

I posted a long time ago about the popular Black Entertainment Television (BET) American Gangster program.  The opening episode of AG Season Two was based on my Black Brothers, Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia (Milo, 2005/07), and I have been inundated with correspondence ever since.  This is particularly true now that the program routinely airs on other networks such as Bio and Centric TV.  BET now offers the entire episode ("Philly Black Mafia: 'Do For Self'") online, and it appears below (with a few, brief commercials):

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mob Scene on Tommy Hill

I posted a brief update on Tommy Hill in September 2009.  Here is George Anastasia's summary of things (where Black Brothers, Inc. readers will hear familiar names such as Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, Shamsud-din Ali, and Kaboni Savage):

Mob Scene on William "Big Billy" D'Elia

Black Brothers, Inc. (2007) readers will notice the concluding chapters are preoccupied with corruption and white-collar crimes relating to the former syndicate and/or involving Black Mafia alums.  Included in these narratives is a discussion regarding William "Big Billy" D'Elia, successor to the late Russell Bufalino as reputed Wilkes Barre/Scranton mob boss.  Among other related matters, the FBI tracked D'Elia (who had a reputation as a "waste broker") to a 2001 meeting with onetime Black Mafia heavy Shamsud-din Ali (formerly Clarence Fowler), where the two discussed plans to form a demolition company with the hopes of obtaining contracts from Philadelphia's John Street Administration (with whom Ali was extremely close; Ali was later among 20 others who were convicted or pleaded guilty in a massive FBI corruption probe of the Street Administration, though not relating to the D'Elia matter).  Here is George Anastasia's update on D'Elia:

Mob Scene on Raymond "Long John" Martorano

As discussed in Black Brothers, Inc., Raymond "Long John" Martorano formed a partnership with imprisoned Black Mafia heavyweights Lonnie Dawson and Nudie Mims to run a massive heroin distribution network in the early 1980s.  Martorano was housed in Philadelphia's Detention Center with Dawson, who was the institution's most influential prisoner.  Dawson, who had corrupted guards with various goods and services, met regularly with Afghan heroin smugglers and dictated the drug traffic from inside the prison walls for several of the city's most consequential territories.  Martorano's son, George ("Cowboy"), was an intermediary between Martorano/Dawson and Nudie Mims, who was running a similar network out of Graterford Prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder.  On FBI wiretaps, Mims and Dawson were recorded saying they could sell $400,000 worth of heroin per month.

Mob Scene on Black Mafia alum Ricardo McKendrick

I blogged about this in April 2008 (here and here), when Ricardo McKendrick, an influential Black Mafia figure circa 1973, was arrested following the largest seizure of cocaine (600 pounds) in Philadelphia history.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mob Scene on Kaboni Savage

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the cases of Dawud Bey and Kaboni Savage have been in the news since the 2007 update of Black Brothers, Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia (Milo), where they are discussed in considerable detail.  In this regard,'s Mob Scene with George Anastasia has offered the following.  BBI readers will hear familiar names such as Shamsud-din Ali, Gerald Thomas, Eugene Coleman, RAM Squad and more when viewing this vid clip and others on the site (also see, for example, "Two Drug Kingpins: Witness intimidation, murder, and two drug kingpins"):'s Mob Scene videos

I am a big fan of's Mob Scene with George Anastasia, which features concise but substantive interviews of the acclaimed Inquirer reporter.  The vignettes, which are roughly five minutes in length, are produced by area great Jim Barry (formerly at CBS3) and afford viewers with a nice blend of imagery and great reporting.  Now that I have the time, I'll be linking to and/or embedding several pieces from their archives (some of which are more than a year old) that are directly related to my research agenda.  Hopefully, the videos will add context to what I have penned.  Few people know the region's underworld and related criminal justice apparatus as well as George.

Gaming the Game: Some tidbits on what readers can expect to see

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gaming the Game press and tv/film rights inquiries

A quick note for interest parties (press and tv/film entities) in advance of the release of Gaming the Game: The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made It Happen (Barricade, 2011):

I would very much appreciate members of the press contacting me through Chuck Marsh of Penn State's University Relations Office.

Parties interested in the tv/film rights to Gaming the Game should contact Judith Karfiol at (323) 463-4800.

Thanks as always for your understanding.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Black Brothers, Inc. update: Defunct drug-dealing rap group RAM Squad in the news

John Wilson, aka Tommy Hill (his stage name), is back in the news.  Wilson's/Hill's RAM Squad exploits are discussed throughout the concluding chapters of Black Brothers, Inc. (2007 edition), especially on pages 236-7.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Black Brothers, Inc. update: Dawud Bey back in the news

Discussed quite a bit in the latter portion of the updated (2007) version of my Black Brothers, Inc, Dawud Bey is back in the news.  According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Bey, 41, was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison yesterday "for witness-tampering conspiracy, half of which is to be served after he completes a sentence he's serving for a drug-conspiracy conviction...Bey was overheard on jailhouse tapes threatening to kill three witnesses - Paul Daniels, Craig Oliver and Robert Wilks - or their family members, according to court papers."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gaming the Game cover and promo text

The cover and brief promo text for my new book on the NBA betting scandal can be found here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Gaming the Game

Quick update on my forthcoming book on my NBA Scandal blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview and Black Brothers, Inc. mention in March 2010 Playboy issue

I was interviewed some time ago by journalist/author Frank Owen for a piece he was writing on the Philly underworld.  In particular, he was examining the widely-publicized murder of party promoter Rian Thal and the sociology of the area's drug trade.  The lengthy and compelling article appears in the March 2010 issue of Playboy.  Though for obvious reasons I can't link to the article on this quasi-academic blog, the Black Brothers, Inc. mention appears in the following context:

"As one of Philadelphia’s top party promoters, Thal was privy to powerful personalities in the entertainment industry and in the drug underworld. She stood at the nexus of a trickle-up economy, an intermingling of dirty and clean money. 'You see those worlds intertwined all the time in Philadelphia, going back to the 1960s,' says Sean Patrick Griffin, author of Black Brothers, Inc. The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia, about the ruthless gang that ruled the local drug trade in the 1960s and 1970s. The figure from the past most reminiscent of Thal, says Griffin, is Major Benjamin Coxson, an outwardly respectable businessman and mayoral candidate who was even profiled in Time magazine before he was shot execution-style in 1973. Coxson was a financier for the Black Mafia and also rented out luxury apartments, some of which were used as stash houses, others as the site for sex and drug- saturated after-hours parties for music and sporting celebrities. 'It was only the real exclusive people who could get into these parties,' says Griffin. 'Very much like Rian Thal, Coxson brought together high society and low society. Thal was the hip-hop generation’s version of Major Coxson.'”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dawud Bey pleads guilty to witness intimidation

I have been so consumed with putting the finishing touches on my forthcoming book on the NBA betting scandal that I haven't posted about the ongoing cases against Kaboni Savage and Dawud Bey.  The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News cover Bey's guilty plea in today's papers.  Savage and Bey are given considerable attention in my Black Brothers, Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia (Milo, 2007).