The Halloween hit against Nicodemo Scarfo Jr. probably was an escalation in a local crime-family feud instead of an execution ordered by a New York boss, according to federal and state law-enforcement sources Wednesday.

Scarfo, the 24-year-old son of imprisoned mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, survived Tuesday's gangland-style shooting at a South Philadelphia Italian restaurant. A surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital said Scarfo Jr. was conscious and alert Wednesday and might be released within a week.

Scarfo, who has an apartment in Margate, may have been shot over a power struggle or a longtime grudge within the younger generation of the fractious Philadelphia-Atlantic City crime family, law-enforcement sources said.

Although authorities said it is too early to say for sure, most sources were leaning toward the theory that it was someone from the area and not New York who wanted Scarfo Jr. dead.

"What we're doing right now is going on the assumption that it was local people," an investigator said. Sources said they have not received any information that one of the New York crime families sanctioned the shooting.

They said the younger Scarfo had long abused his status as "the crown prince" of the local mob, arrogantly stepping on other younger mob associates who could not retaliate.

"This young man had a lot of enemies," said one federal source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He used to do stuff like go to clubs, beating up on girls, and no one could do anything to him. A lot of people lost face when he was around.

"You have to remember who he was," the source continued. "When his old man walked, the earth would tremble."

Law-enforcement officials say there has been a history of hostility between the younger Scarfo and Joseph "Slim Joey" Merlino, the son of mob underboss Salvatore "Chuckie" Merlino. The elder Scarfo once ordered a hit on one of the Merlinos, authorities said.

"Slim Joey" Merlino has worked to assemble a Philadelphia power base since the federal and state prosecutions that decimated the top leadership of the crime family, law-enforcement sources said.

"(Merlino) envisions himself as a new big mobster," one source said. "He's a headstrong kid."

Police said a gunman wearing a Halloween mask walked into the front dining room of Dante & Luigi's Restaurant just after 7 p.m. Tuesday and shot at least five times, sending Scarfo tumbling to the floor in a pool of blood.

Police recovered a semiautomatic MAC-10 machine pistol from a sidewalk near the restaurant.

Police identified Scarfo's companions as John Parisi of the Atlantic City area, a close friend, and John Palumbo of Philadelphia, who stopped and sat down at the table just before the shooting. Neither Parisi nor Palumbo were wounded, according to police.

Scarfo Jr. was hit in each side of the chest, in the neck and in the left arm. Dr. Jerome Vernick, director of Jefferson's trauma division, said Scarfo had nine separate bullet wounds, although he could not identify how many were entrance wounds.

The worst damage appears to be in the arm, which is badly fractured but probably not enough to cause any permanent disability, Vernick said. Two bullets lodged in the arm.

The bullets passed through Scarfo's neck without hitting any major blood vessels and none of the chest wounds involved any vital organs, Vernick said.

Scarfo did not even require a blood transfusion, Vernick said.

One friend who spoke to him by phone reported that Scarfo was feisty and "mad as hell."

Police say only guests on an approved list - including Scarfo Jr.'s mother, girlfriend, and Parisi's brother-in-law - are being allowed into the hospital room.

Col. Clinton Pagano, New Jersey State Police superintendent, said the gunman "sure as hell bungled everything he tried."

"He had a gun that should have been able to kill half the restaurant but he couldn't kill one guy," Pagano said.

He said that "lack of expertise" could indicate the triggerman was local, but said he still believes a New York family may have had something to do with it.

"Someone might have said, 'Put a lid on this kid, he's dangerous,'" Pagano said.

Scarfo Jr. had been acting as the area family's heir apparent, law-enforcement sources said.

He tried to collect the "street tax" on illegal rackets and carried messages from his father to northern New Jersey and New York crime figures such as John Gotti, head of the Gambino family, sources said.

But Scarfo Jr. was playing the part of the mob boss without support, sources said.

"He was acting like an organized crime overlord when in fact he was a courier for his father," Pagano said. "I knew his arrogance, his abusiveness, and his tactics would get him in trouble. He came out too fast and too heavy."

"He takes after the old man," a federal source said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Friedman of the Philadelphia Strike Force said another theory is that someone shot Scarfo Jr. for the sins of his father, in particular for allowing his associates to break the code of silence.

Five top members of the Scarfo family have become cooperating witnesses, and investigators hope to use the testimony of Scarfo nephew Philip Leonetti to sew up cases against New York mobsters.

The elder Scarfo is now serving a 69-year sentence in a maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Ill., and most of his top associates have been convicted of racketeering, murder and extortion charges.

 

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