Death Of A Don
The death of a Mafioso last week got major play in the Philadelphia newspapers and even got decent coverage in South Florida. The event deserved it. Nicodemo Scarfo, 87, was one of the most violent men in the long history of organized crime. Although short of stature, Scarfo was long in arrogance and ruthlessness. He turned the Philadelphia mob from what was once described as “the nicest family” where violence was rare, into a gang that prided itself on the number of people it killed.
Between 1980 when Scarfo began his rise to power and 1995, some 25 mob-related figures in Philadelphia and South Jersey were murdered, usually in very public fashion. And, according to informants who eventually brought him down, some of the hits were over trivial matters.
Scarfo died in prison after 30 years behind bars. Although most of the violence occurred in Philadelphia and South Jersey, it was in South Florida that a remarkable piece of police work helped bring Scarfo and key members of his gang to justice. The downfall of Scarfo’s organization may have saved South Florida from the kind of bloodbath that characterized his reign in Philadelphia.
The beginning of the end was in 1985 when local law enforcement was tipped off that Scarfo’s people were coming to Florida, intent on taking over local rackets. Florida had always been considered neutral territory, where none of the northern big city crime families attempted to dominate. Like other people, mobsters enjoyed peaceful vacations here. Going back to Al Capone in the 1920s, some had impressive winter homes. But, if Scarfo lived up to form, that was about to change. A mob civil war could break out.
At the time there existed in Fort Lauderdale the Metropolitan Investigation Unit, whose founder and director was Fort Lauderdale Police Capt. Doug Haas. It consisted of people from various local police departments, coordinating with state police from both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the FBI.
Scarfo had already been in jail three times, and northern authorities were attempting to build a major case against him when he began to frequent Florida.
“They were after him, but nothing stuck,” says Haas, who learned that Scarfo lived in a Coral Ridge waterfront home listed in the name of a local businessman. “Whenever he was here, there was a 24/7 operation. We did aerial surveillance; we followed him in his boat. When he was on I-95 we were the traffic.“
In retrospect, it was obvious his gang was overconfident. They thought that in Florida they were free from the constant surveillance in the north. There was also speculation—never proved—that they had protection from friends in high places down here.
“They might as well have gotten off the plane wearing T-shirts saying ‘Philly Mob,’” one of the detectives said at the time. “They were all well-built young Italian guys. They would go into a bar and tell the barmaid they were the Philly mob and taking over here. They didn’t know they were talking to a policewoman.”
Although his men might have been careless, Scarfo himself was guarded in the extreme—to his own detriment.
“He was afraid of microphones,” Haas says. “He was so paranoid he would come outside to talk. We set up in an apartment across the canal from his house. We photographed him arm in arm with people from the Gambino family in New York and the Bufalinos from Pennsylvania. We could stand there in the shadows of the balcony and hear what he said. Our people did a great job.”
On one occasion, a Fort Lauderdale detective had breakfast at an oceanfront hotel at a table next to Scarfo. He overheard Scarfo complain that his mob hadn’t killed anybody lately. But the most valuable intel was when a policewoman sitting next to Scarfo in a restaurant heard him plan to murder an associate. Haas recalls:
“When we took that to the FBI in Philadelphia, they were able to get a wire and then they told the guy they were planning to whack, and they turned him. He became an informant. “
By January 1987, the FBI had enough to move. When Scarfo got off a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Atlantic City, they arrested him. It was his last day of freedom. The trial, which made extensive use of the information provided in Florida, also led to the conviction of 16 members of his mob family. It effectively shut down organized crime in Philadelphia for several years.
Doug Haas retired in 1992. He worked for the Broward Sheriff's Office for several years before becoming a private detective. He operates mostly in Texas and Florida.
Patti Phipps, whose death from Alzheimer’s disease at a Washington, D.C. nursing home we reported in July 2015, will be interred at a graveside service at Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale at 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27. Her brother-in-law, Ted Drum, reports that the longtime Gold Coast social leader will be buried along with her mother, Zada Phipps, who died recently, at age 100.
Patti was married several times, most recently to the late banker Ed Houston. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, she was among the most prominent figures in charitable work on the Gold Coast. Her mother was a member of the Burdines department store family.The store is now part of the Macy's chain. Patti was a close friend of Gold Coast magazine’s original associate editor, Margaret Walker, and was an influential supporter of the magazine from its earliest days in the 1960s.