LAST DON STANDING: THE SECRET LIFE OF MOB BOSS RALPH NATALE
By Dan Pearson and Larry McShane
Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 272 pages
Ralph Natale, the boss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra organized crime family in the 1990s, was the first mob boss to become a government witness.
He explains why in “Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale.” He agreed to become a witness because he said that the men he left in charge of the crime family after he was arrested in 1998 did not, as they swore to him they would do, provide for his family while he was “inside.”
Natale’s bitterness toward his former criminal associates enabled him to finally, after a lifetime in organized crime, testify about Cosa Nostra crime. That same bitterness also led him to allow Dan Pearson, the executive producer of the Discovery Channel’s “I Married a Mobster,” and Larry McShane, a crime reporter and author of “The Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante,” to write this book.
The book covers Natale’s beginnings in South Philadelphia under the tutorship of John “Skinny Razor” DiTullio, a notorious killer. Working as a bartender in the mobster’s bar, he also committed a wide variety of criminal acts. His mentor introduced him to Angelo Bruno, the then-boss of the crime family.
Bruno, who foresaw the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City and believed control of the unions was key to controlling the city, ordered Natale to kill union leader George Feeney in 1970. The murder led to the mob takeover of Local 170 of the Bartenders, Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Workers Union in New Jersey. Natale was later re-elected to the president of the union, even though he was under indictment for arson and would serve 12 years in prison for the crime
Natale was sentenced to 15 additional years for selling drugs in 1980. In his long stretches in prison Natale befriended a good number of other mobsters, one of which, Natale says, was Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, the leader of a group of young South Philly gangsters who were the sons and relatives of the previous mob leadership. Natale says that Merlino told him of the internecine war between the young guys and the older, Sicilian-born boss of the family, John Stanfa.
Natale was paroled in 1994 just as Stanfa was on his way to prison for life. With Merlino named as underboss, Natale became the boss. In the book, Natale tells how he and Merlino went back to making real money with illegal gambling, loansharking, extortion and drugs.
Natale states he saved the life of Ron Previte, a former corrupt cop and crime captain that the other mobsters wanted to kill due to his previous alignment with Stanfa. But Previte regularly brought envelops of cash to Natale. What Natale didn’t know was that Previte secretly recorded his dealings with him and the other mobsters for the FBI. Natale and the other mobsters were indicted based on Previte’s recordings and other evidence.
Facing life in prison this time, Natale admitted to racketeering and eight murders. He also gave evidence that put away the Camden, N.J. mayor for bribery and he testified against his fellow mobsters. Although the mobsters were acquitted of murder charges, they were convicted on a range of other charges.
Due to his testimony, Natale expected to receive only five years in prison, like other gangsters received when they “flipped,” but the judge slammed him with a 13-year sentence.
The book offers a primer on Philadelphia and New Jersey organized crime history. Although Natale was in prison at the time, he says he heard all about the 1980 murder of Bruno and the good number of other murders that led to Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo becoming the boss. Scarfo’s murderous reign ended when he went to prison, which led to Stanfa becoming the boss until he too went to prison.
I grew up in South Philly, not far from where Natale was raised a generation earlier. I contacted him and we talked about his life and the book. I noted that he didn’t appear to be particularly remorseful or repentant in the book. Did he have any regrets about his past criminal life?
“I have regrets about one thing, I broke my marriage vows,” Natale replied. “That’s the only thing I regret in my life. When I was 12 years old, I was a hoodlum. I was a born killer, that’s what I did and why I rose to the top so easily. But I never touched an innocent man or a woman or a child. I just clipped the guys who were supposed to get clipped. And they went. It was a simple thing for me.”
In the book Natale debunks the myth of the mob being against drugs and I asked him about it.
“Listen to me. Let me break that fable. Every mob in New York, Chicago and Philly always had a man who sells drugs,” Natale explained. “You get the bosses money and that’s it.”
Natale also spoke of plans to make the book into a film and said that Dan Pearson was now talking to people in Hollywood.
“The Last Don” offers a frank and brutal look from the top down of a Cosa Nostra crime family.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.