In films and TV shows, organized crime figures are depicted as members of a “family,” loyal to the end whether or not they are actually blood relatives. Nevertheless, an awful lot of actual blood seems to be spilled in attacks among members of the same “family” in the name of honor, revenge, accusations of betrayal, or simple greed. In the real world, racketeering seems to follow similar scenarios. In a case that came to light a year ago (August 2016) the government rounded up 46 alleged wiseguys and charged them with racketeering.
At the time of the arrest, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office claimed that the defendants were members of a number of organized crime families — Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, Bonanno, and a couple of Philadelphia crime families. All of those arrested stand accused of cooperating in a wide-ranging conspiracy that spread from South Florida to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Where Loyalty Ends
The division in the “family” occurred when one of the alleged mobsters, Eugene (“Rooster”) Onofrio requested that he be tried separately from Philadelphia mob boss Joseph Merlino.
Onofrio’s desire to be disassociated from Merlino was apparently an attempt to insulate the himself from successful prosecution since Merlino (“Skinny Joey”) had a well-publicized reputation for being someone for whom murder comes easily. Onofrio clearly feared that being a co-defendant with Merlino loaded the dice against him, so he requested that he be tried separately.
Though Onofrio’s request may make it seem that he was a lightweight, less violent than Merlino or some of the others caught up in the federal sweep, law enforcement did not believe this to be true. They allege that Onofrio is a Genovese capo in charge of crews both on Mulberry Street in Little Italy and in Springfield, Massachusetts. While Onofrio, according to court papers, expresses a fear that Merlino’s reputation for criminal behavior could prejudice the jury against him at trial, federal agents argue in papers recently filed that they have evidence proving that the two men were close and collaborated on many crime schemes.
Taped conversations in the possession of federal law enforcement officials indicate that Merlino, who is 55 years old, and Onofrio, who is 75 years old, had several taped conversations in which they discussed “violence in connection with their illegal activities.” For this reason, the federal agents argue, they should be tried together. As an example of the casual references both men made to murder, federal agents cite a recorded conversation between the two (in the presence of a confidential witness) in which Merlino said, “It’s easy to kill somebody” to which Onofrio replied, “It’s simple.” During the same conversation Merlino explained the process, “You’re my friend, you trust me, I tell you, ‘Listen, drive me home right now,’ get you in the car, I shoot you in the f—-n’ head, and it’s over with.” During another meeting, the two men told Genovese capos “We’re brothers,” which, prosecutors say directly contradicts Onofrio’s claim that the two were in any way distant or estranged.
Merlino, it seems, has a bit of a teflon coating. He has already beaten three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder in previous cases, even though he has twice been convicted on other federal charges. In this case, he does not face a murder charge. Of course Merlino, like anyone accused of federal crimes, requires the services of an attorney who is experienced and skilled in this field of law.
Of the almost four dozen individuals arrested, Merlino and Onofrio are among only six who have pleaded not guilty. According to court papers, the other 40 have plea bargained to lesser counts relating to the alleged scheme. Whether Merlino and Onofrio will be tried separately or together remains undecided. Their lawyers have so far declined to comment on the case.