Editor's note: This story was originally published August 3, 2015
A father had three sons.
The oldest changed his name.
The youngest hanged himself, resulting in his death years later.
And the middle child — who bears his father’s first name, Nicodemo — followed in his footsteps, sentenced last week to 30 years in prison for racketeering.
This is the story of Atlantic City’s most infamous crime family, surname: Scarfo.
“You wonder if you believe in karma,” said George Anastasia, the longtime mob reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of the book “Gotti’s Rules.” “If you look at Nicky Scarfo’s personal family, what happened?”
Nicodemo D. “Little Nicky” Scarfo, the former head of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mafia, is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Atlanta on murder and racketeering charges.
His family members grew up in Atlantic County, played basketball, were altar boys, went surfing.
His wife walked down Atlantic City’s Arctic Avenue to Barbera Fish Market to buy conch for scungilli and crabs to make spaghetti and tall pots of gravy.
“What happened between them was between them, the Scarfos. It was none of our business,” said Dominic Alcaro, the now-owner of the market who had worked there at the time.
Little Nicky owned a white apartment building at 26 N. Georgia Ave. in the city’s Ducktown section — known locally at that time as ‘Little Italy.”
The steep steps that led to the front door were a place of family and food.
The secrets and business that went on within those walls were not things that concerned children.
The former head of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mafia rose to power at a time when Atlantic…
Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica grew up at 2310 Arctic Ave., but spent a good portion of his childhood there as a boyhood friend of Phillip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti, Scarfo Sr.’s nephew.
As children, they were both altar boys at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.
“Crazy Philly, oh, he had the most merits from the nuns. They really favored him. Crazy Philly was the only one of us who could get to 6 a.m. Mass on time,” Formica said.
“They were model children. And Crazy Philly? He was the most clean-cut, mannerly kid. Never in a fist fight, not violent,” Formica said. “I got into more trouble than Philly and Nicky.”
Just up the street from the fish market, Formica said he would see Scarfo Sr. when he came into his father’s bakery to buy loaves of bread.
(Nicodemo D. “Little Nicky” Scarfo is often called Scarfo Sr., although he and his middle son have different middle names.)
“Nicky Scarfo Sr. wasn’t scary to me. He was always well-dressed, had a nice car, soft-spoken and rumor has it he had a sweet tooth,” Formica said.
There was never an indicator that Scarfo Sr.’s son or nephew Leonetti would grow into a life of crime either, Formica said.
Formica and Leonetti were usually too busy surfing. There was always a hot meal on the table when they walked back from the beach, Formica said.
Leonetti now lives under a false identity; he turned informant after receiving a 45-year prison sentence in 1989 and got a reduced sentence.
Brigantine police officers Lt. Jim Bennett and Ralph Spina have very different memories of the Scarfos and Leonetti from their days at Holy Spirit High School.
Everyone knew the Scarfo family was in the mob, but no one really talked about it, the men said.
“We used to always see them down at the underage club in Somers Point and at Soda’s, and then Memories in Margate. They would roll up with their entourage and everyone knew they were there,” Bennett said.
“Yeah, and the Scarfos, they got the girls. They swarmed them. But those were the guys with the cash and the clothes,” Spina said.
Bennett said it was the Miami Vice-era.
The youngest of three brothers, Mark Scarfo, and members of his entourage donned pastel and white clothing, slicked back hair and sunglasses.
“We called Mark, Don Johnson. We called them potato chippers. They were wannabes,” Spina said.
Bennett, 46, was four years younger than Nicodemo S. Scarfo — the middle Scarfo child.
“Nicky flew under the wire. Never fought. He was nothing, a nobody. Mark was the one who took his father’s name and ran with it,” Spina said.
While at Holy Spirit, Spina said he had multiple run-ins with Mark Scarfo that resulted in physical altercations. After one of those fights at school, Mark Scarfo called for backup.
“He called up his uncle, Crazy Phil and he came to school. He was waiting for me after school and he had a gun,” Spina said.
After an exchange in the parking lot, Spina escaped unscathed, but shaken up.
The anger still lingers.
If Spina could speak to Mark Scarfo now, he’d tell him to his face: “You’re a punk. You’re not your father. Your father was crazy and everyone feared him,” Spina said.
Mark Scarfo hanged himself in 1988 when he was 17 and was in a vegetative state before dying in 2014.
Brother Chris Scarfo sought to distance himself from the notoriety of the family name.
His brother Nicodemo S. Scarfo — the quiet one — survived an assassination attempt at a South Philadelphia Italian restaurant on Halloween in 1989, then age 24.
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison last Tuesday for participating in a racketeering conspiracy and related offenses at Irving, Texas-based mortgage company FirstPlus Financial Group.
He had recently lived in a quaint Galloway Township home.
“Scarfo Jr. wasn’t a dumb guy. He could have done other stuff. He was very computer oriented — he could have done that,” Anastasia said. “But he was in his father’s shadow.”
Dick Ross, who headed the FBI’s organized crime operations here at the time, was there when agents arrested Scarfo at Atlantic City Airport in 1987 — the one that put him away for life.
His son Nicodemo was on that plane too, “making a lot of noise, bad mouthing us,” Ross recalled.
“I said to Scarfo, ‘You tell him to behave himself or we’ll take him along with us,’” Ross said.
“Scarfo yelled, ‘Nicky, go home.’”