From the archives: Key witness? Wiseguy Ron Previte

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Judge Herbert Hutton watches Ron Previte on the witness stand as he’s questioned by Edwin Jacobs (center), attorney for reputed mob boss Joey Merlino (foreground)

This story was originally published on Feb. 20, 2001. It was reposted after Ron Previte died in August 2017.

It is a story more suited for The Sopranos than federal court; a saga of petty corruption and personal betrayal that may be as accurate a depiction of the beleaguered New Jersey mob - plagued by informants, hounded by the FBI, and decimated by a series of successful federal prosecutions - as anything the popular HBO series can offer.

Call it the tale of the cop and the wiseguy.

It opens Monday in U.S. District Court in Camden.

The cop is James "Jimmy" DeLaurentis, 38, who is facing extortion charges that could end his career.

DeLaurentis, suspended without pay since his 1999 indictment, is a 13-year veteran of the Hammonton Police Department who rose to the rank of supervisor of detectives. His father, Michael, was the chief of police; his brother, Joseph, a patrolman.

The wiseguy is Ronald "Ronnie" Previte, 57, who for a time was known as "the Godfather of Hammonton. "

Today, people who claim to know say that's a bit of hyperbole. They say what passes for the underworld in this tightly knit Atlantic County community of 12,500 residents is too unruly and too disorganized for anybody to really be in control.

Previte, they say, was a major player in the local rackets. But he was a kingpin in a world populated by "low-life, low-rent fringe guys playing at being in the Mafia," according to one local resident and businessman who has followed Previte's career.

"They were just a bunch of bums and bullies," said a longtime businessman who has had several clashes with Previte in the past. Both businessmen asked not to be identified.

More to the point, Previte, despite his reputation as a knee-busting wiseguy, was a longtime secret government snitch, first for the New Jersey State Police and later for the FBI. For more than two years, beginning in February 1997, the burly, 6-foot, 280-pound gangster taped hundreds of conversations in a federal investigation that led to more than a dozen arrests.

DeLaurentis ended up on some of those tapes. The conversations, federal prosecutors allege, include discussions in which DeLaurentis asked Previte to shake down a local bar owner for thousands of dollars in cash. Previte and DeLaurentis split the money, investigators say. The bribes, authorities charge, were paid to insure that the bar - the scene of frequent fights and suspected drug dealing and prostitution - did not have its liquor license revoked.

"He's gonna pay heavy," DeLaurentis told Previte in a conversation recorded over breakfast at a diner in nearby Folsom shortly after the wiseguy began wearing a wire. ". . . He's gotta go for at least ten. "

DeLaurentis is charged with using Previte to collect $14,000 from the bar owner during a two-year period. His trial will be the first for any defendant arrested as a result of Previte's undercover work.

Twelve others, accused of either drug trafficking or racketeering, have pleaded guilty. Nine more, including reputed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, are to be tried next month in Philadelphia.

Neither DeLaurentis nor his father, who live across the street from one another in an upscale neighborhood of modern, ranch-style homes just off the White Horse Pike, would comment on the pending case.

But DeLaurentis' lawyer, Louis Barbone, hinted at a defense that would portray Previte as the originator of the extortion plot and DeLaurentis as an entrapped victim of an FBI sting gone awry. Barbone described Previte as a conniving predator who bullied his way to a lucrative lifetime of crime, all the while depending on his law enforcement handlers to protect him from prosecution.

"Ron Previte was and still is an omnipresent figure who exerts fear over everybody in town," Barbone said recently. "He ruled the Police Department and the community. He was a master of fear and intimidation . . . He was and continues to be a criminal. The only difference is that now he is protected by the FBI."

*

He would hold court most nights at the same table - the second on the left as you entered the door - in the Silver Coin Diner, a popular restaurant on the White Horse Pike a few blocks from the center of town.

From that perch, Previte ran his bookmaking and loan-sharking operations, meeting with a small group of local associates and anyone looking to do business.

"If you wanted to see Ronnie, that's where you went," said Joe Bartuccio, a friend for 40 years and a self-described member of Previte's inner circle.

"And if you didn't want to see him," Bartuccio added, "you didn't go there. "

Previte was well-known in town, having graduated from Hammonton High School in the early 1960s. After spending 12 years as a Philadelphia police officer, he returned to the area, working for several years in the security department of an Atlantic City casino. By the late 1980s he was largely "self-employed. "

Divorced, he lived alone in a sprawling ranch-style home outside of town, always drove a Cadillac, and usually dressed in casual sports clothes which he accessorized with thick gold necklaces and a large, diamond pinky ring.

"Fortune favors the bold," was one of his favorite expressions.

"He's generous and above average when it comes to intelligence," Bartuccio said. "But he can be cunning and diabolical . . . Even in high school, he was always trying to stay one step ahead of everybody else. "

Having grown up in town, Previte knew many of the members of the Police Department, including Mike DeLaurentis, who was the chief, and James DeLaurentis, who was moving up the ladder in the department.

"Jimmy was a good cop," says a police officer who worked with him. "Real good. And people liked him. But then he started hanging around Ronnie and you could see how he was being influenced. We used to wonder, what does he want to be, a cop or a wiseguy? "

The question hung over the 28-member police force, causing it to split into two factions and undermining its credibility in law enforcement circles.

"I think other agencies didn't trust us," said Frank Ingemi, a police captain at the time. Ingemi became chief after Michael DeLaurentis retired in the summer of 1998.

By the mid-1990s, with his role as an informant known only to a select few in law enforcement, Previte began showing up on FBI files as a soldier and later a capo, or captain, in the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob.

The notoriety had no discernible effect on his relationship with Jimmy DeLaurentis, said Ingemi and other police sources. In fact, although there was no blood relationship, DeLaurentis sometimes described Previte as his "cousin," they said.

Several also recalled how Previte and DeLaurentis would greet one another. Instead of shaking hands, they would kiss each other on both cheeks, an old world sign of loyalty and affection that is also a common greeting in underworld circles.

"It was like Jimmy idolized him," said one fellow officer. "Ronnie drove a Cadillac. Jimmy went out and got a Cadillac. Ronnie shaved his head. Jimmy shaved his head. Ronnie started going around in loafers without socks. Jimmy would show up in the office in loafers without socks. "

A low point, Ingemi said, was the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel festival in 1996.

The century-old, weeklong ethnic and religious celebration attracts thousands of visitors to Hammonton each July. Built around the July 16 feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the event includes a lavish carnival highlighted by a feast day parade.

"We march in the parade every year," Ingemi said. "We're all in uniform. Afterwards, we stop at the Sons of Italy hall for a sandwich. Usually they sit us in the back room, away from the bar. Because we're in uniform and it wouldn't look right. "

That summer, Ingemi said he was with a group of officers, including Jimmy DeLaurentis.

"They brought us to the back room," he said. "But when we get there Previte's already there with a group of people. I recognized [mob boss] Ralph Natale and some others members of Cosa Nostra. "

"They said, 'Hi, how ya doin'. Sit down. ' "

Ingemi said he and most of the other officers left.

DeLaurentis, he said, stayed.

*

In one taped conversation recorded in 1997, DeLaurentis happily described to Previte a chance encounter he had with Natale and several other known Philadelphia mobsters at Catelli's, a restaurant in Voorhees Township.

DeLaurentis said he tried to send a round of drinks over to Natale's table.

"I says, you know, 'Send them, the whole table there a drink for me,' " DeLaurentis said in a conversation Previte recorded on May 20, 1997. "The waiter came back and says, 'They won't take a drink. Matter of fact, they picked up your bill. ' "

On another tape, DeLaurentis promised Previte that he would try to help a Natale associate who had been arrested in Bridgeton in a domestic dispute.

Prosecutors hope to use those tapes at trial, but thus far a judge has ruled that they are inadmissible because they are not relevant to the charges.

Several other tapes that will be played, however, include discussions in which, authorities allege, DeLaurentis and Previte plan the shakedown of the owner of the problem-plagued Choris Bar, a now-shuttered business located at 122 Railroad Ave.

The trial is expected to last from two to three weeks, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Futcher, who declined to comment about the case.

FBI agents, members of the Hammonton Police Department, including Ingemi, and the bar owner who allegedly paid the bribes are scheduled to testify.

The key to the case, however, is Previte, who has pleaded guilty to an extortion charge and who will be making his debut as a government witness.

In an interview with a television reporter last year, Jimmy DeLaurentis said he was entrapped and intimidated by the hulking wiseguy who, with the FBI's blessing, ran roughshod over the town. In that interview, he called his one-time friend "a criminal with a badge. "

Now federal prosecutors, who in court papers charge that DeLaurentis "used organized crime" to operate his own criminal enterprise, hope to paint that same picture of the suspended police detective.