CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) â€” Almost a year after he began turning over mob compatriots to prosecutors, Philadelphia crime boss Ralph Natale pleaded guilty today to a career of murder, extortion, gambling and drug distribution.
The plea came a day after U.S. Attorney Michael R. Stiles filed federal court papers implicating Natale, 65, in two murders in the 1970s and five more in the 1990s.
Natale also pleaded guilty to bribing the mayor of Camden â€” himself under indictment â€” conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, and murder in aid of racketeering.
Natale's attorney, Marc Neff, said his client â€” said to be the highest-ranking mob boss ever to cooperate with prosecutors â€” decided on his own to plead guilty.
``It's a complex decision he had to make. He made it for a lot of reasons and they were his reasons. Nobody's in a position to tell him what to do,'' Neff said.
Attorneys went over the charges for an hour, as Natale calmly pleaded guilty to each count after it was read aloud.
Court documents accused Natale of orchestrating a racketeering conspiracy that included murder, extortion, illegal gambling, drug trafficking, stolen cars, loan sharking and other crimes.
Natale is believed to be the highest-ranking American Mafia figure ever to help prosecutors. A taped conversation once recorded Natale boasting: ``There's only one boss in Philadelphia .... That's Ralph Natale, and that's where the (expletive) it's at.''
He has been cooperating with organized crime investigators in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey since he was arrested on drug charges last summer.
His help led to the indictment of reputed mob boss Joseph ``Skinny Joey'' Merlino and 10 others in March on charges of murder, attempted murder, racketeering, extortion, and illegal gambling. Natale, who ran the mob between 1994 and 1998, allegedly appointed Merlino boss in 1998.
There was no immediate indication of whether Natale's plea meant he would testify against Mayor Milton Milan, who was recently charged with accepting money, vacations, automobiles and home improvement work from Natale and mob associates.
Natale admitted using an associate to bribe Milan in return for favors to mob-influenced businesses and contractors, once referring to the mayor as ``our guy.''
Natale's plea shows how far the Philadelphia mob has declined since its glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, when ``Docile Don'' Angelo Bruno ruled with a firm hand and kept the violence largely out of public view.
Since Bruno was gunned down in a car in front of his home in 1980, violence and racketeering prosecutions have chipped away at the mob. Authorities say 24 members have been imprisoned and at least 15 killed over the past two decades.
In 1988, a federal jury convicted boss Nicodemo ``Little Nicky'' Scarfo and 16 associates on racketeering charges. John Stanfa took over in 1990 and ruled over years of fighting between his organization and a faction headed by Merlino.
Natale, who had spent 24 years in the organization, took over following his release from prison on racketeering and drug charges in 1994, a year before Stanfa and seven others were convicted of racketeering.
He was arrested by federal marshals in 1998 and charged with parole violations. While still in prison, Natale was indicted in June 1999 with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamines in Philadelphia and New Jersey.