Ron Previte, wiseguy informant who brought down mob bosses, dead at 73

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Ron Previte — a onetime cop-turned mob capo-turned FBI informant — whose testimony helped take down three Philadelphia mob bosses and send more than a dozen other members and associates to prison, has died.

Previte suffered a fatal heart attack last week. He was 73.

A longtime South Jersey resident who openly described himself as a “general practitioner of crime,” Previte was not shy about discussing his three-decade criminal career first as a dirty cop on the Philadelphia force where he shook down pimps and drug dealers, later as a top earner for Philadelphia’s crime family, for whom Previte once estimated he earned millions of dollars.

It was his years spent wearing a body wire for federal investigators in the ’90s that ultimately kept him out of prison and earned him a measure of public notoriety.

About the only thing, he never did, his longtime lawyer Joseph P. Grimes said Tuesday, was kill anyone.

“He always used to say, ‘Why would I kill people who owe me money?’” the lawyer said.

The hundreds of conversations Previte secretly recorded in the ‘90s — and his testimony at their trials — helped put towering criminal figures like Philadelphia dons Ralph Natale, Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino and John Stanfa behind bars.

“He was a con man and he was a witness and he never denied any of it. It’s hard to have a larger impact,” Grimes said. “He was absolutely considered by law enforcement to be one of the most pivotal undercover operatives ever.”

Previte’s life — and the outsize role he played in the undoing of the Philadelphia mob — were chronicled in former Inquirer reporter George Anastasia’s 2005 book The Last Gangster.

Born in 1943 in Philadelphia to a first-generation Sicilian-American family, Previte told 60 Minutes in 2004 that some of his earliest memories were of neighborhood gangsters dressed in fedoras and driving Cadillacs while collecting on their bookmaking activities.

Yet it wasn’t until he joined the Philadelphia Police Department after returning from serving in the U.S. Air Force in the Vietnam War that his own criminal career began in earnest.

Testifying in 2004 before the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, Previte admitted to countless criminal acts and incidents of brutality as a police officer.

“I always said that I really became an adept thief when I went in the Philadelphia police Department,” he said. “I was a crook … but most of the people I worked with were crooks.”

He left the force in 1980 and took up work at the Tropicana Casino Hotel at the dawn of Atlantic City’s legalized gambling boom.

There, he quickly gained a foothold stealing trucks of furniture and bar supplies out of the casino warehouse, stole from guests and ran prostitutes and poker games out of unoccupied suits.

“They must not have [done] a very good background check on me, because … I was a bum,” he told New Jersey Committee on Investigation in 2004. “It was like payday when I got to the casino.”

And yet, the modest criminal empire he built out of a diner on the White Horse Pike in Hammonton, N.J. quickly gained the attention of two powerful organizations – the Philadelphia mob, which sought a cut of his action, and the New Jersey State Police, who first cultivated him as a source of information on the criminal underworld.

Previte’s willingness to work with law enforcement – for the right price – ultimately blossomed as he became more and more ingrained in the Philadelphia crime family.

He informed on Stanfa, who at one point trusted Previte so closely that he made him his personal driver and enforcer.

But even after Stanfa and more than two dozen associates were indicted in 1994, Previte managed to insinuate himself into the mob regime, led by Merlino and Natale, that seized power later even as he secretly recorded their conversations, exposing the petty jealousies and rivalries that enabled the FBI to take them down.

And despite the danger he would have faced had he been caught, Previte appeared to relish the job – and the paycheck, his lawyer Grimes said.  The government compensated Previte handsomely for his undercover work and court testimony, paying him $750,000.

“He was truly a fearless person,” said Grimes. “The thrill of being involved undercover, playing the role while always on the edge of being detected was part of the excitement for him.

“He was a con man and he was a witness. He lived those roles and never denied it.”

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