March 22–29, 2001
city beat| mob trials
Who’s the Boss?
Was Ralph Natale the head of the local mob or a henpecked, know-nothing straw man? Depends on which gangsters you talk to.
When Ralph Natale and Ruthann Seccio finished their dinner at Striped Bass on a warm Thursday night in the spring of 1998, they were not finished for the evening.
It was still early, and the reputed boss of the Philadelphia Mafia, then 67, and his girlfriend, 29, wanted to have a few more drinks.
So they stopped in at Gino’s Café — a supposed mob haunt in South Philadelphia — to hobnob with his alleged underboss Joey Merlino, some of Merlino’s friends, including Georgie Borgesi and Marty Angelina, and an assortment of Pagan motorcycle gangsters who happened to be in the bar that night.
What happened next is a matter of debate in the underworld and speaks volumes about the relationship between Natale and Merlino — a relationship now under scrutiny in a federal murder and racketeering trial, with Merlino, Borgesi and Angelina among the defendants and Natale as star witness.
Ralph Natale is the first alleged mob boss in the history of the American Mafia to become a government witness. But was he really the boss?
A number of Merlino’s underworld allies claim Natale was a straw man who really didn’t know much about the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra’s day-to-day activities — including murders. A key part of Merlino’s defense will hinge on painting Natale as a liar; according to that scenario, Natale is trying to save himself by making up stories about his and others’ role in the mob, and is using the federal government to exact revenge on fellow gangsters he believes betrayed him.
It wasn’t always this way between Natale and Merlino, who met as cellmates in a federal pen in McKean, PA.
That night at Gino’s Café may have been the beginning of the end.
Everyone who was at Gino’s that night agrees that Natale got into some kind of beef with Seccio.
But the stories differ beyond that, with Seccio painting a portrait of a minor lovers’ spat, while sources close to Merlino say that she was bossing Natale around — in their eyes, a horrifying sign of weakness.
Seccio, interviewed over lunch recently at The Plough & The Stars, says she was jealous that Natale was paying attention to other women that night at Gino’s.
"Ralph was talking to these two women who were flirting with him and sticking their chests out in his face," she says. "Real sluts. So I told Ralph to come over here, away from those two. Of course he didn’t. So when he finally came over to sit down, he shoved me off my chair. I shoved him back. That was it. End of story. The next week he sent me a dozen roses every single day to apologize."
Seccio says she was in love with Natale and that they spent almost every night together, including trips to Florida, New York City and summer love nests in Brigantine and Margate.
"Ralph loved to take me to very good restaurants. He was a total gentleman," she says in between bites of a hamburger. "Ralph was very loving and protective of me. He was a wonderful lover.
"By that I mean he taught me everything about love and how to make love. I used to think that sex was just laying there and moaning and groaning until I met him."
She smiles for a moment.
"He was very well-endowed," she says. "I was a very happy woman."
Friends and associates of Joey Merlino who were there that night tell a different story.
Speaking on condition of anonymity in a recent interview in a South Street nightclub, these sources say that Natale was attacked by his girlfriend.
"Ruthann scratched Ralph," says one source. "She was yelling at him that she didn’t want him talking to Joey Merlino. She attacked him and started scratching his face and head. Blood was running down over his eyes. Then they started fist-fighting. Punching each other. We were mad. How could this man, Ralph, allow anyone to disrespect him like that? If Ruth had tried that with [imprisoned former mob boss] Little Nicky Scarfo she would have been dead in two minutes."
"Scarfo was a real gangster," the second source at the nightclub says. "This Natale, he was a fraud. After that night in Gino’s we all wondered, What was wrong with this guy? How could he let a broad treat him that way?’"
In a separate interview, another crime soldier who was an eyewitness to the Gino’s incident says that "we all wanted to get up and just pound Ruthie. But Joey [Merlino] had to calm us down. He even had to calm some of the Pagans because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They wanted to beat Ruthie up and Joey told them to leave it alone. We were foaming at the mouth, we were so mad."
In the Philadelphia crime family, there was smoldering resentment over the place Ruthann Seccio occupied in the mob boss’ life. One mob associate charges that "Ralph turned to selling drugs just to have enough money to keep Ruthann. Of course he didn’t tell us anything about it."
At the South Street nightclub, Merlino’s allies claim Natale was obsessed with Seccio and was jealous of any man who came near her. "After a while that’s all he thought about. We’d all be having dinner with Ralph and all of the sudden Ruth would show up and he’d pretend it was an accident. Look who’s here. Ruthie, what are you doing here?’ Ralph would pretend and then she’d sit down with us and we all had to go along with it. It happened over and over and over again."
Seccio says Natale wasn’t obsessive. He was protective. He was from that generation that believed in treating a woman well and watching out for her.
"We had a lot in common," says Seccio, who met Natale in 1994 through his daughter Vanessa after he was paroled from a 17-year term for arson and drug trafficking. "My father was in the bartenders’ union when Ralph ran it before he went to jail for 17 years. Ironic, isn’t it? We used to talk about stuff like that and how great it was that we were together, that we found each other. We were very happy."
The Gino’s incident was the most visible sign of a growing schism between Natale and Merlino.
A friend of Natale’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity at a recent interview at an Old City coffeeshop, says that as early as 1995 Natale began to suspect that Merlino was running his own unauthorized operations.
"They tried to leave Ralph out," says Natale’s friend. "But he knew. People would drop money or other things off for Joey but Joey wouldn’t be there and Ralph was. So Ralph would say, I’ll hold onto it.’ Then he’d check it out and find money or something from a scheme nobody had told him about. This was about 1995, less than a year in his position, that Natale began to suspect Merlino and his friends were very disloyal. They were cutting him out of deals and going behind his back to make money. Natale was letting them get comfortable and bury themselves."
Merlino’s associates paint a different picture.
A key element of the defense strategy in the federal trial, for which jury selection began Tuesday, is that Natale was a know-nothing.
In interviews with City Paper, Merlino’s associates admit that Merlino was acting without Natale’s consent, but they say Natale was merely a straw man propped up by Merlino. Natale only became boss, they claim, after New York gangsters offered the position to Merlino and he turned it down. "Merlino didn’t want the job because he knew that the FBI would target the boss of a crime family more than any other member" they say.
Members of the Merlino faction say they grew increasingly displeased about Natale’s grandiose statements concerning his role in the underworld. "At first Natale had us all fooled. He would huff and puff and walk the walk and say things like, I’m going to get my work clothes. Gonna go to work.’ Work clothes means you’re gonna go kill somebody."
They say that Ralph Natale, who has told the government he was involved in numerous Mafia killings, never murdered a person in his life. One mob source says, "Natale was there when they killed Joey McGreal, the guy who was trying to take over the Bartenders’ Union from Natale. McGreal was shot in the head on Christmas Eve, 1973. Ralph was not the shooter. In fact, he got sick to his stomach and was throwing up all over the place."
And two longtime members of the Philadelphia mob claim that Ralph Natale paid for his membership in the Cosa Nostra. "He bought his bucket [membership] to become a made guy. He paid to get in," they allege.
Natale’s friend disputes all this, saying that not only was Natale aware of what was going on, he was planning on murdering Merlino and his crew. Merlino’s freelancing, according to Natale’s friend, would have given Natale a legit reason to kill him and his associates in the eyes of the New York bosses who were backing Natale. But Natale never got the chance to kill Merlino because he got picked up on a parole violation in June of 1998 and then was charged with dealing crystal meth.
"That’s why Natale became a government witness," says Natale’s friend. "He couldn’t get his revenge any other way. So Ralph had no choice. This was the only way he could get back at them. And notice that it’s only Merlino and his guys that are in jail? There are a lot of people still out on the street that Ralph didn’t give up. They’re all doing illegal things. But Ralph Natale used the government to get Merlino because he couldn’t kill Joey himself. And Ralph left everybody else out there alone."
Not so, say Merlino associates.
"When Ralph got caught dealing drugs he was at the bottom of the well and only one person could throw him a rope. And that person was the government."
Joseph Santaguida, Merlino’s former defense attorney, agrees.
"Ralph Natale is testifying for the government because he doesn’t want to go to jail for the rest of his life," he says. "The government is basing its whole case on Ralph Natale’s testimony and that’s why the defendants will be acquitted."
Marc Neff, Natale’s attorney, said he is "not in a position to get a hold of [Natale] to comment.
"What [Natale] did, or didn’t do on the street, he’ll tell that story on the stand and the jury will decide whether he’s telling the truth or not."
And what about the former girlfriend who found herself at the center of controversy in the Philadelphia crime family? Ruthann Seccio says that while Natale was in prison for parole violation, the two talked on the phone every day. Then, one day in the summer of 1999, he told her that he was being moved to a different prison.
"I love you. I miss you,’" she remembers him saying. "And when I get to the next phone I’ll call.’"
She never heard from him again.
She didn’t know at the time that the reason he was being moved was that he’d decided to turn state’s evidence and needed to be placed in protective custody. In any case, she felt abandoned, left to deal with thousands of dollars in debt and the wrath of Natale’s enemies.
But Seccio believes she’ll talk to Ralph Natale again. And when she does, she’ll ask him a question.
"Ralph was never afraid of anyone. He’ll come back here and when he does, I’ll be the first one knocking on his door to ask him why?"