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South Jersey

Friday, December 22, 2000

After years as mob boss, trial turns the spotlight on Natale

Courier-Post Staff

Philadelphia/South Jersey mob boss Ralph Natale earned the respect of his Mafia peers through a violent criminal past that includes murder and arson. Until recently, Natale managed to keep a low profile, unlike other, more flamboyant mob chieftains.

During his trial in 1982 on drug charges, Natale told a judge: "If I had seen what drugs do to kids, I would not have done what I did, selling drugs out of greed."

He then turned to prosecutors and added the kicker, "But I still ain't going to be an informant."

Natale could not have been more wrong.

The ex-mob boss's testimony was crucial in convicting Camden Mayor Milton Milan.

It was Natale who cultivated the relationship with Milan, hoping to use him as a lever to get lucrative government construction contracts for mob-backed companies.

Like many former Philadelphia mob bosses, Natale got his start in South Jersey, according to old news accounts, his own testimony and court records.

Under the direction of former mob boss Angelo Bruno, Natale killed George Feeney in 1970 to take power of Local 170 of the Bartenders, Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Workers Union, he testified.

Natale was an organizer of Local 170. In 1977, members re-elected him to the top post. The voting members formed a long line in front of the now-defunct Rickshaw Inn in Cherry Hill.

Natale's re-election came even though he had just been indicted for burning down the Mr. Living Room warehouse and showroom in Marlton in an arson-for-insurance scheme. Natale later was convicted of the arson and sentenced to 12 years.

The mob ensured Natale would be elected despite his past because the union was critical to its plans. Bruno and others saw the advent of casino gambling in Atlantic City and knew that controlling thousands of union employees would give them great power.

Indeed, Natale's local soon merged with Local 54 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. Through the merger, the mob gained control of a union with 15,000 workers that stretched from Atlantic City to Camden.

For his part, Natale continued to operate from a jail cell, attempting to build a nest egg by selling two kilograms of cocaine and 10,000 Quaalude pills. Government wiretaps showed Natale's involvement in hijacking and fencing stolen goods, as well as a plan to murder witnesses and rivals he believed had crossed him.

He was convicted of conspiracy to sell drugs in 1980 and sentenced to 15 more years.

But the government wasn't finished with Natale. It charged him in 1982 with another, previously undisclosed drug scheme.

However, Natale never stopped his scheming. His big break in the mob came as he was due to be paroled in 1994 from the Federal Corrections Institute in Allenwood, Pa.

Federal and state agents had just arrested Philadelphia- South Jersey mob boss John Stanfa of Medford.

Natale couldn't resist the chance to step into the vacuum. He moved to his Pennsauken apartment overlooking the Cooper River and teamed with Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, who remained in Philadelphia.

Natale was old school; Merlino a Young Turk. The two had become friends in prison. Natale became boss. Merlino, a " coffee shop" owner, became underboss.

Together, they re-energized the mob's sapped gambling, loansharking and narcotics operations.

A fitness buff, Natale was known to run each morning on the track around the Cooper River.

In 1994, Natale read a newspaper article about Camden's designation as a federal Empowerment Zone. Natale hatched a scheme to infiltrate Camden's city government using an associate, Daniel Daidone, to win Empowerment Zone contracts through front companies.

Natale, meanwhile, was attending to other business, government wiretaps show. He was planning to make and distribute methamphetamine - this time with mob capo Ronald Previte.

Unknown to Natale, Previte was cooperating with the government and secretly recorded the conversations.

Natale, already in an Ohio prison for parole violations, and Merlino were arrested and jailed as the result of separate drug trafficking investigations.

In May, Natale pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges, admitting that he conspired in eight gangland murders, oversaw drug, loansharking and extortion operations, and bribed Milan.

Natale, facing life imprisonment, says he changed when he saw the hurt his most recent charges inflicted on his family.

"I did enough for La Cosa Nostra," Natale said. "No more. If there is any life left for me, any time, I'll give it to that family. No more La Cosa Nostra."

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