When Joey Merlino arrived Friday morning at Philadelphia’s federal courthouse sporting a gray suit over a beefed-up frame that runs counter to his “Skinny” nickname, he knew not whether he’d walk back out with his freedom.
But by the time a 3.5-hour hearing ended, that answer became evident.
The reputed former boss of the Philadelphia mob traveled north from Florida for a supervised-release revocation hearing before U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick.
By afternoon, Surrick would rule that Merlino had 30 days to turn himself in to serve another four months thanks to violations of his supervised release agreement, according to the Inquirer.
The hearing stemmed from government allegations that Merlino, 52, violated the terms of his release by meeting with felons and mobsters in the days before his sentence (14 years and supervised release) ended.
On the stand
That was the focus of the start of testimony in an eighth-floor courtroom filled with Merlino relatives and supporters, and prosecutors just after 10 a.m.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Troyer’s first witness was Richard Olson, a Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office detective assigned to the FBI’s organized-crime task force.
The focus of Olson’s testimony was a surveillance operation involving Merlino on June 18, a date on which he was surveilling Merlino’s home in neighboring Palm Beach County.
According to Olson, Merlino departed around 7 p.m. and went to La Villetta Ristorante in Boca Raton where he was in the company of, among others, convicted felon Brad Sirkin.
When the party arrived, the valet ceased operations and parking-lot lights were turned off as if “the restaurant was closed,” Olson said.
One of five law-enforcement officers monitoring the scene, Olson said lighting was such that they were unable to see activities inside the restaurant.
When Merlino and others left about three hours later, they were tailed about three miles to Havana Nights Cigar Bar & Lounge.
The venue shift enabled Olson and a fellow task-force member to head inside to monitor Merlino’s activities, which federal investigators claim was violating the terms of his supervised release.
Inside, Merlino was seen talking to John Ciancaglini, an alleged former mob capo who was convicted along with Merlino in the 2001 racketeering trial.
According to Olson, Merlino and Ciancaglini interacted in the cigar bar’s VIP area for a matter of minutes throughout the evening. It was so noisy inside, however, that they couldn’t overhear what was discussed, he said.
The investigators only spent about 40 minutes inside, though, spending $53 on two drinks and a tip.
“Neither of us smoked cigars,” he said of feeling as if their cover could be blown, particularly when owner Frank Fiore allegedly asked a server about the undercover investigators. “It was a little unusual to be at a cigar bar and not smoke a cigar.
“It was starting to become uncomfortable, our presence, being inside there. Everybody seemed to know everybody else, but we were outsiders.”
Cross-examining the witness
After Troyer’s questioning, Olson faced cross-examination questions from Merlino’s attorney, Edwin Jacobs.
Jacobs laid the groundwork for the argument that there’s no proof Merlino knew that Sirkin and Fiore were convicted felons (1992 and 1997 convictions, respectively). It was the first time that the organized-crime task force investigator saw Merlino go to Fiore’s cigar bar.
Jacobs also argued that, over the course of “dozens” of surveillance assignments, that night was the first time they’d seen Merlino with Ciancaglini, and that the former left the VIP area quickly after initially seeing the latter.
The defense attorney then maintained that the operation was a concerted effort to get Merlino’s supervised release revoked and send him back into custody, which Olson rebuffed.
After Olson’s testimony, Troyer called Ft. Lauderdale Police Detective Michael Freeley to the stand to testify about that night’s happenings. He was among several witnessed expected to be called by the prosecution.
As for the defense, Ciancaglini’s wife Kathy was also expected to testify on Friday afternoon about how, despite numerous trips to Florida in recent years, the couple did not once run into Merlino, who said he’s about two weeks away from opening a Philadelphia-style Italian restaurant in Boca Raton.