According to the police, the underworld once dominated by heavies like Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, "Big Paul" Castellano and "Fat Tony" Salerno has a new big shot: "Skinny" Joey Merlino.
Philadelphia police believe Skinny Joey is as heavy as a crime boss can be these days, reports CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger.
For years, Joey Merlino has been the object of Detective Sgt. Walt Coughlin's attention.
Coughlin has been watching the Mob for 26 years. He remembers when Joey Merlino was born and believes now that Merlino is all grown up, he may be involved in extortion, loan-sharking, and possibly narcotics.
It's not hard to keep track of Merlino. He allowed CBS News into his clubhouse -- not to talk, but to watch. His friends smoked cigars and played cards while Merlino talked softly on the phone. With no visible means of support, he drives a flashy car, dresses in flashy clothes and throws a big Thanksgiving party for disadvantaged kids.
"First they eat, they get Thanksgiving - turkey, everything -- and then after that, Santa Claus. And they open their gifts."
"Joey Merlino makes friends with everybody," Coughlin says. "Except," he adds, "the people that want to kill him."
Organized crime isn't what it used to be. Joey Merlino, according to investigators, is the head of a broken family divorced from it's own grand past when godfathers ruled vast criminal empires.
"I think Joey is the next generation of the American Mob if you will," says George Anastasia, of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He follows the Mob almost as closely as the police do.
Anastasia watched as gunmen, and lawmen crippled the old criminal empires. "They've been able to bring down one family after the other -- one boss after the other -- so maybe in a sense you're better off being kind of a guerilla Mob boss bouncing around a small group of guys," Anastasia says. "And at least in his neighborhood, everybody knows his name."
You could say Merlino is a big fish in a small pond, except it's more like a fishbowl. Almost every move he makes is watched closely by police, who are building their case.
Prosecutors have been attacking the Mob using powerful laws allowing lengthy mandatory sentences and huge fines. Today, the experts say anyone who wants to be a boss is either exceptionally strong or exceptionally stupid. "Nowadays, if you take over control of what remains of a crime family, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, 'Indict me very soon, please,'" says Ernest Volkman, author of Gangbusters: The Destruction of America's Last Mafia Dynasty.
Merlino doesn't talk much about the Mob, but his lawyer, Joe Santaguida says all the talk about Merlino being a boss is just talk. "They've been saying the same things for three, four years and for three, four years he hasn't been arrested, Thank God," Santaguida says.
The police sa Merlino will be arrested, sooner or than later. They've been saying that for years.
Meanwhile, Skinny Joey is living high on the hog while the cops bide their time looking for their next trophy in a game they say has become a lot easier to play.
Reported By Richard Schlesinger
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff