Joseph Merlino steps out onto the iron-railed balcony of his $400,000 Boca Raton townhouse. Bare-chested, ripped and clad in nothing but grey skivvies, he looks more like a former Calvin Klein underwear model than one of the most ruthless mobsters of his time.
A year out of prison, Joseph Salvatore Skinny Joey Merlino isnt so skinny anymore. But he looks almost as boyish at 50 as at 39, when he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for racketeering. Back then, he was a five-foot-three, 100-pound dapper young don who masterminded the bloody takeover of the Philadelphia mob. Today, he is a two-hour plane ride from the Southwest Philadelphia row house where he grew up to become an underworld icon, both feared and eerily revered in the City of Brotherly Love.
Howd ya find me? he asks, his Philadelphia accent unmistakable.
Surely Merlino, who has survived at least a dozen attempts on his life and has been accused and acquitted of ordering the grisly murders of plenty of wise guys, knows the answer to his question: If you really want to, you can find just about anyone.
He grins and says he doesnt want to talk. This is something of a surprise, because Merlino is a mob star who, at least at one time, loved seeing himself in the spotlight so much that he used to ask friends to tape the TV news if there was a chance he would appear.
Once dubbed the John Gotti of Passyunk Avenue, an Italian district considered the heart of South Philadelphia, Merlino is now the ex-Mafioso, supposedly, of Bocas Broken Sound Boulevard, where he lives in a cookie-cutter development still partly under construction off Interstate 95 and Yamato Road.
I mean no disrespect, he says in a cliché as fitting as the Frank Sinatra tunes neighbors say he blares in the middle of the night.
Dont believe everything you read, he counters when asked about a possible movie deal about his gangster life, or to address evidence suggesting he is back at the helm of the Philly-South Jersey La Cosa Nostra from his suburban South Florida outpost.
Mobsters have flocked to Florida since the first trees were planted on Palm Island, where Al Capone moved into a mansion in 1928. The state has always been open territory for organized crime, a wise-guy retreat where legends like Meyer Lansky and underlings from just about every crime family have angled for turf from gambling to extortion to prostitution to money-laundering to running drugs.
Merlino says he is in the carpet-installing business. The owner of his posh townhouse, Bruce DeLuca, is CEO of U.S. Installation Group, a primary flooring and carpeting subcontractor for Home Depot. Through a spokesperson, DeLuca said he didnt lease the place to Merlino, doesnt know him and would never have rented the house had he known who would be living there.
The 2,900-square-foot, two-story, Mediterranean-style townhouse sits at the end of a cul-de-sac of former model homes in a community occupied by upper-middle class, educated people who mostly work day jobs. It has an ornamental cross atop its tower-like roof.
But if Merlino has joined the work force, he isnt installing carpets 9 to 5, according to neighbors. They say he has thrown loud parties, with beefy men and scantily clad women coming and going at all hours. Last Christmas season, somebody threw his fully decorated tree tinsel, balls and all, from his balcony onto the street.