WHAT'S JOEY gonna do?
From the streets of South Philly to the U.S. Attorney's Office overlooking Independence Hall, everyone seems to be chewing over the same question, as former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino prepares to rejoin society for the first time since 1999.
Merlino, who spent two years in jail awaiting his 2001 racketeering trial, has been on an extended "vacation," courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, since being convicted at age 39.
"Ain't bad," was how the celebrity-gangster reacted to his December 2001 sentencing, before embarking on an involuntary tour of the nation's prison system. He spent years in medium- and high-security lockups in Texas, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.
Now 48, Merlino is scheduled to walk out of Indiana's Terre Haute prison within the next couple of weeks.
"He's held up absolutely magnificently," said attorney Edwin Jacobs, who represented Merlino during the four-month racketeering trial. "Like all of us, he's aged a little bit, but he's healthy as an ox. Good spirits, good attitude. He survived a decade in prison."
So, what happens now?
Merlino, who has a tentative release date of March 15, probably isn't going to be roaring down South Street on his Harley-Davidson or bar hopping on Delaware Avenue this summer.
Nor is he likely to make a power play for the Philadelphia faction of La Cosa Nostra, now under the alleged stewardship of reputed boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi.
That could happen. Just not right now.
Staying clean in Fla.?
Merlino is headed straight for sunny Florida, where he'll be required to spend at least six months in a halfway house in the Boca Raton area, sources say.
After that, he's expected to live in Highland Beach, a barrier-island hamlet between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, where the median household income is close to $100,000.
"Going to Florida probably gives him a better chance of being able to live a law-abiding lifestyle, by being out of the environment and away from the associations that he had during his career as a mobster," David Fritchey, chief of the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force in Philadelphia, said of Merlino.
"Time will tell if he takes advantage of that," said Fritchey, who helped put Merlino behind bars. "We hope that he succeeds."
Succeeds at what, though?
While some prosecutors and investigators are willing to give Merlino the ever-so-slightest benefit of the doubt, others simply don't believe that the hard-charging gangster is going legit - let alone in a town like Highland Beach, where eight out of 10 residents are retirees and the median age is 62.
Joey Merlino in the land of snowbirds and condos? Just doesn't add up, they say.
"You're telling me that a hyena is going to become a vegetarian?" said Stephen LaPenta, a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant and organized-crime investigator in New Jersey.
LaPenta, who ran informants and undercover agents against Merlino, isn't surprised that his former nemesis is heading to Florida's East Coast - "traditional wise-guy retreat," he says - but he doubts that Merlino will be able to stay away from the Mafia lifestyle.
"It's very difficult to believe Joey is going to get a 9-to-5 job, Monday to Friday," LaPenta said. "This is a guy that's used to living on the cream of the crop."
If it were up to federal prosecutors, Merlino wouldn't be getting out of jail anytime soon. They had asked the judge for a sentence of 19 to 24 years, calling Merlino a "confirmed career criminal."
"He will never be a decent, law-abiding, legitimately productive citizen," prosecutors wrote in their November 2001 sentencing memo. "He has committed his life to the values of La Cosa Nostra and is the confirmed enemy of a civilized society."
Eye on Ligambi?
Some law-enforcement officials are speculating that Merlino could be working under the radar to set up shop in Florida, perhaps with the help of Philly mobsters who have ties to the Sunshine State.
"I think Joey has a good springboard for organized crime in Boca Raton," LaPenta said.
But let's not jump to conclusions. Regardless of his plans, spending time in Florida is a wise move for a wiseguy like Merlino.
He'll be prohibited from interacting with known felons for three years while on federal supervised release. That includes two former close mob associates of his in Philadelphia, Marty Angelina and Steven Mazzone, who both violated the terms of their own probation. Angelina was thrown back in jail. Mazzone got house arrest.
"They go into the local coffee shop, they're in violation [of their probation]," one law-enforcement source said of mobsters on supervised release who return to close-knit South Philly after jail.
Merlino may be hoping for some breathing room in Florida. His activities will be monitored there, but not by Philadelphia-based cops and federal agents who know him all too well.
"We're assuming that he wants to go there to get away," said another law-enforcement source in Philadelphia. "Less eyes on him there than here. I don't think he wants to violate probation and get thrown back in. I don't blame him for wanting to go to Boca Raton."
Ligambi, 71, a low-profile figure, has quietly run the Philly mob for the past decade with a starkly different management style than his brash predecessor, authorities say. But even the cautious Ligambi, who did 10 years in prison for the murder of Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso before his conviction was overturned, could be going away again if a long-running racketeering probe produces an indictment with his name on it.
Does Merlino then gather the Philly mobsters who remain loyal to him and reclaim control of the organization?
"It's a big question mark," said a law-enforcement source.
LaPenta said Merlino still has allies in the city and could be tempted to return. "But I don't think he's that dumb," he said.
Jacobs, Merlino's attorney in the 2001 trial, said he's exchanged regular letters with Merlino, but declined to reveal his plans.
Attorney Christopher Warren, who also has represented Merlino, said he doesn't believe that Merlino is in any danger of being indicted again.
"The only time I get brought in is when there's a legal problem," Warren said, "and I haven't been brought in for a long, long time."
Merlino's wife, Deborah, believed to be living in North Jersey, couldn't be reached.
And if Merlino's feisty mother, Rita, knows what her son's up to, she's not in the mood to share it. She politely declined to discuss his plans last week outside her brick rowhome on Hartranft Street near Citizens Bank Park.
But she conceded that it's been tough with both her son and husband in jail. Salvatore "Chuckie" Merlino, 71, onetime underboss for Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, was convicted of racketeering in 1988 and is serving a 45-year sentence.
"It's not easy, with the both of them in," Rita Merlino said from her doorstep, a Virgin Mary statue out front and her shih tzu in the hallway.
Lawyer Joseph Santaguida, who has represented Joseph Merlino, would say only that when Merlino gets out of prison he "intends to do the right thing."
"I'm sure he's excited," Santaguida said.
Yeah, but excited for what?