Hit man-turned-government informant John Veasey, whose testimony helped bring down mob boss John Stanfa and a dozen of his top associates in the 1990s, says he's on the road to redemption.
And he wants everyone to know it.
"I never respected the Mafia or what it stood for," Veasey said in an interview with Philly.com last week. "My only regret was being dumb enough to join . . . I always said they either rat or kill each other."
Veasey has done both. But now, he says, he's a changed man.
The outspoken and opinionated former South Philadelphia triggerman popped up on several local radio and television shows last week to talk about The Hit Man: A True Story of Murder, Redemption and the Melrose Diner, an e-book written by former Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano and Fox 29's Dave Schratwieser.
The book, available on Amazon.com, expands on a story Veasey first told from the witness stand in U.S. District Court in 1995.
It details his early life growing up in South Philadelphia, his role as an enforcer for the Stanfa organization, the attempt on his life - two Stanfa associates shot him three times in the head, but he survived - and the hits he carried out. Those hits include the murders of Frank Baldino (killed outside the Melrose Diner) and Michael Ciancaglini, and the attempted murder of Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.
It also tracks his decision to cooperate, the murder of his brother Billy, his testimony in the Stanfa trial, and his new life as a highly successful car salesman somewhere in the Midwest.
"I try to just be happy every day," Veasey said in an interview with Marnie Hall of Philly.com. "I go to work every day. I kind of like it."
The story of redemption and Veasey's media blitz have raised more than a few eyebrows on the streets of South Philadelphia, particularly among mob members and associates who targeted him or whom he targeted during the mob war in the 1990s.
"He's never going to change," one former mob rival said. Federal authorities routinely warn Merlino associates whenever Veasey slips back into town, he said.
"He's nothing but trouble," added another.
The interview with Philly.com offers a study in contrasts. Veasey is self-effacing one moment, full of street-corner bravado the next.
He talks about turning his life around, then takes potshots at his old enemies.
Most of his taunts were aimed at Merlino, recently released from prison and now living in Florida.
"When I shot Joey in the ass, he ran screaming," Veasey said of the August 1993 drive-by shooting in which he and Phil Colletti ambushed Merlino and Ciancaglini.
Ciancaglini died on the sidewalk that afternoon. Merlino was wounded. The shooting was a major escalation in the war between the Stanfa and Merlino factions of the mob.
Veasey said he had returned to the city about 20 times since his release from prison in 2005, despite reports that members of the crime family want him dead.
"I'm never going to run," he said. "I ain't never going to hide. . . . I like to consider myself a gladiator."
Returning again to Merlino, he added: "I'm back in Philly. He ain't."
Moments later, Veasey offered a softer side.
"I did a lot of bad things; now I'm doing a lot of good," he said, claiming that he goes out of his way to help others, including his new wife's children, nieces, and nephews.
Asked whether he was sorry for the murders he committed, he said that if he could, he would "take back" the murder of Baldino, who by all accounts had nothing to do with organized crime.
But of the shootings of Ciancaglini and Merlino, Veasey said, "I don't lose sleep over it. They were trying to kill me, too."
A charismatic and highly effective witness during the racketeering trial of Stanfa and seven associates in 1995, Veasey spent nearly 11 years in jail on murder-racketeering charges that were part of his plea agreement.
His life change was first recounted by Schratwieser in a series of television interviews in 2010 and by Cipriano in a cover story in Philadelphia Magazine breathlessly titled "The Greatest Mob Story Ever."
The book expands on those stories, including the report that Veasey blossomed as a car salesman, turning his charm and charisma into a six-figure salary. He said he now lives in a house with a swimming pool, rides horses, hunts, and owns four Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
The rags-to-riches tale started with his cleaning rooms in a motel shortly after his release from prison. He fell in love with a woman who was an administrator at the hotel where he was living. She thought he was a businessman because he carried a laptop computer.
Each had a "secret."
She told Veasey she was in the country illegally.
Veasey told her he was an ex-Mafia hit man.
Theirs is a love story that, in Veasey's version, has a happy Hollywood ending. He said he'd like Robert De Niro or Mark Wahlberg to play him in the film version, adding that he was in "negotiations" with a movie company.
The hype and the self-promotion have ruffled feathers in the Philadelphia underworld, where Veasey is still referred to as a strung-out drug addict (he admits to a previous addiction) whose talk of turning the other cheek and walking away rings hollow.
Underworld and law enforcement sources point out that only a few months ago, Veasey made another trip to Philadelphia during which he boldly sprayed graffiti on the storefront of a legitimate business owned by a former mob rival, and made threatening, obscenity-laden phone calls to the wiseguy's home.
Those who have dealt with Veasey say this, rather than the look-at-me-I've-found-redemption character depicted in the book, is who John Veasey really is.
"He's a complicated guy," said Cipriano, who spent more than a year working on the book. "He's a murderer. He's been convicted. He's done his time. . . . But he has a fascinating story."
Watch George Anastasia's video report at www.philly.com/mobscene.