PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The reputed boss of the Philadelphia mob walked free Tuesday after beating two racketeering trials in a case the Justice Department began pursuing more than a decade ago.
Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, 74, quietly left the city's federal courthouse Tuesday morning with his brother and nephew and took the front seat in a waiting black car. He said he planned to "relax" Tuesday night after spending 2 1/2 years in prison.
Justice Department officials decided not to take Ligambi to trial a third time.
"It was a non-violent case. They were not looking to put away blood-thirsty criminals," defense lawyer Ed Jacobs told The Associated Press. "These were, at most, economic crimes, if they were crimes."
The indictment, described by one defense attorney as "mob lite," detailed relatively small-scale loansharking and gambling operations, such as efforts to control illegal poker machines inside South Philadelphia bars and collect sports bets in the neighborhood. Defendants could be heard on tape complaining that the mob was broke, and that the spread of legal casinos had taken a toll in their enterprise.
"Reasonable people can disagree on whether this was racketeering conspiracy," Jacobs said. "Ten of 12 jurors said it was not."
Ligambi allegedly took over Philadelphia's La Cosa Nostra after the younger, flashier Joey Merlino went to prison in 1999. Mob observers said he focused on business, not mayhem, unlike the bloody reigns attributed to earlier bosses Merlino and the imprisoned Nicky Scarfo.
Federal prosecutors unsealed a sweeping indictment in 2011, charging more than a dozen people in an investigation begun about a decade before.
Two juries deadlocked on the central racketeering charge against Ligambi while acquitting him of lesser counts. The second trial ended Friday. A judge on Tuesday dismissed the remaining counts, given the Justice Department's decision.
Overall, 11 defendants were convicted in the case, including Ligambi's alleged underboss and enforcer. Reputed underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Italian mob "is not just a rag-tag bunch of guys hanging on a corner in South Philadelphia," Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor argued at his sentencing. "It's a large, well-established, entrenched criminal enterprise" around the world.
Yet Jacobs and other questioned the resources devoted to the 14-year FBI investigation. Jurors, speaking to The Philadelphia Inquirer over the weekend, doubted the reliability of mob turncoats and debtors who testified for the government.
Ligambi's only co-defendant at the second trial, his nephew and alleged consigliere George Borgesi, was acquitted Friday and released. He had been accused of helping Ligambi from prison, where he's spent the last 14 years in the Merlino case.
U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said Friday that the 11 convictions were an "excellent result."
"The government has shown throughout this prosecution that members of the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra family have engaged in substantial criminal activity that warrants serious punishment," he said.