George Martorano was being transported between two federal prisons when he found himself locked inside a cold cell in East St. Louis. For five days, he lived without light, heat or a bed on which to recline. His toilet was a bucket. Enraged and depressed, he discovered a pencil on the floor. To keep his sanity, Martorano started scribbling on the walls. He couldn't see what he was writing. On the fifth day, the guards opened the metal door and in came some light. He then realized that he'd written on every inch of the floor and walls. In that moment, the South Philadelphia native decided to strengthen his mind rather than devolve into the tedious life of a hopeless convict.
A high-school dropout, Martorano earned his GED behind bars and badgered a fellow inmate who had been a college professor to teach him creative writing. Several times, Martorano was put "in the hole" when guards discovered his handwritten short stories, novels and poems. He claims he was asked to stop writing by a prison guard. When he ignored the order, the guard handcuffed him and held a knife to his right hand.
"Let's cut it off," Martorano recalls the guard saying. "He'll stop writing then."
The threats, however, did little to silence the son of a well-known Philadelphia mafioso who was gunned down during a 2002 ambush in Center City. In fact, it served to make him stronger despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Already, he's likely served more federal time than nearly any other nonviolent offender in the nation. Blaming that on the fact that he refused to rat his father out, his case prompted a Florida man to found a prison-reform group to force officials to set Martorano free through a letter-writing campaign, more than two decades after he was thrown behind bars for life on drug charges.
Today, Martorano awaits word on whether President Bush will take a Justice Department recommendation to reduce his sentence. If so, he could soon return to a world that's changed considerably since he was last free.
"He has served 22 years and has a spotless record in prison," says Martorano's nephew, Robert Barretta. "He's lost a father and his son. His wife died of cancer. His mother is 77 and just wants to spend some time with him while there's still time. He has a daughter who needs him. It would be tremendous if he could come home and finish his life with his family and enjoy the latter part of his life."
To understand Martorano's story, the best place to start is with his bloodline, and how he says it landed him in his current predicament.
Back in 1984, a federal parole board recommended Martorano get 40 months for running a drug-smuggling operation. Instead, a judge unexpectedly sentenced him to life and had him sent to America's supermax prison in Marion, Ill.
There, in what was considered America's new Alcatraz, Martorano was kept in solitary confinement conditions in the lockdown facility. Authorities hoped Martorano would turn on his mobster father Raymond "Long John" Martorano and spill whatever secrets he knew about the Philadelphia mafia. They had every reason to believe Martorano knew some of the sins of his father and the secrets of the local syndicate. After all, Long John ran with La Cosa Nostra dons and Irish-American gangsters. A bookie, businessman and dope dealer, he had ties to the Mafia in Sicily, outlaw motorcycle gangs like the Pagans and the Warlocks, and the Philly "Muslim Mob," aka the Black Mafia. He also had an underworld partnership with local Greek mobsters like Steve Bouras, who would be assassinated in 1981 while dining with Long John in South Philly.
When mob boss Angelo Bruno ruled the Philly/South Jersey underworld in the '60s and '70s, Long John was his driver, confidant and business partner. When Bruno faced an insurgence from mobsters upset that he allowed other families to profit off Atlantic City's new gaming, he tapped Long John to stockpile weapons for a potential mob war.
Long John was married with four children, three daughters and a son, George, who was Bruno's godson. Neighbors recall the Martorano children as well-mannered, good-natured kids.
"They were like any normal family and they had wonderful parties that everybody in the neighborhood went to," says one. "They were a great family."
The Martoranos had homes in Wildwood, Cherry Hill and South Philly, but much of the wealth was dirty cash.
While Bruno didn't allow his "made" men to be directly involved in the drug trade, Long John wasn't made, so he was clear to dabble in the meth business. He was friendly with some South Jersey mobsters who had a nasty habit of shipping heroin to the States inside crates of Sicilian lemons.
Despite all that, Martorano says his father "never wanted this life for me, and he kept me out of it." Although, not completely.
By the late 1970s, George was a married man with two young children making "only two figures" a year working for the vending-machine company that "employed" Bruno.
"We signed checks together. I never did anything illegal," he recalls. "Angelo used to say to me, "No illegal acts. That could bring me down.' So I wasn't allowed to do anything that would hurt the company. I had to be 100 percent legitimate."
In 1980, however, Bruno was assassinated, and a year later, Long John was tapped for membership by homicidal mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo. It was a bloody time as various factions struggled to take control, but Long John managed to form alliances with the winners and prospered. But even though the mob life was good for his father, George was still not welcome, at least not in Philadelphia. Trying to make an honest living, he was soon approached by mobsters from New York and Scranton who wanted him to go into the pot business in Florida and find dealers and customers in Philadelphia. So, George moved to Florida.
"I was greedy," he admits. "They baited me with Lear jets and champagne."
At first, it was difficult.
"I didn't know anybody to sell it to, so I went around to some of the guys I grew up with and said, "Here, help me get rid of this stuff,'" he recalls. "I wasn't an angel. I was a pot dealer for three years. I wasn't a made guy. I didn't kill anybody. I sold pot."
Things soon turned ugly. The drug ring was riddled with informants and an undercover fed. Even one of the pilots who flew the weed from Jamaica to Florida was a turncoat.
George was 32 years old and living the high life when he was arrested in 1982 in a Holiday Inn in North Miami and charged with running an international narcotics smuggling ring with 13 other people. They said he violated the federal drug kingpin statute by running an organization that, in addition to trafficking in thousands of pounds of marijuana, sold 75 kilos of cocaine and quaaludes while manufacturing and distributing meth and heroin.
"It wasn't cocaine, it was sugar. And 2,000 pounds of pot. That's it," says George, who the feds alleged made $3 million dollars a year off his narcotics trafficking. "One million over three years. That's it."
After reviewing the evidence, George's attorney Robert "Bobby" Simone advised him to plead guilty. They expected the most time George could get was 30 years with the possibility that he could walk after five. He pleaded guilty, but federal Judge John Hannun III came back with an unexpected sentence: Life.
"I was stunned," George says. "Until I was arrested, I never even had a traffic ticket. A life sentence for a nonviolent first offense was unheard of."
To this day, George suspects Hannun was still smarting from criticism for appearing as a defense witness for Simone when he was on trial for tax evasion; he thinks there was a secret deal or double cross.
But in his 2001 memoir The Last Mouthpiece, Simone wrote, "I am tired of denying this accusation and all the lies that go with it. ... I hope that George Martorano obtains his release from prison soon. I agree that his sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The sentence far outweighs the magnitude of the crime."
At the time of George's sentencing, dozens of Philadelphia gangsters had been killed or wounded in the ongoing mob wars. There was a great deal of pressure on the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force and the local FBI to curb the violence and crack La Cosa Nostra's code of silence.
"There were lots of bodies in Philly and the U.S. attorney thought I knew things I really didn't know," George maintains. "They thought I would be pressured into doing something. They leaned on me because of who my father was and when I didn't have anything to say, they punished me."
While George languished in maximum security, Long John and another man were found guilty of ordering the murder of roofers union boss John McCullough. (The mob was angry that McCullough was muscling in on Atlantic City by trying to set up a bartenders union in the casinos.) He served 17 years of a life sentence before his conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct.
His son, however, would have no such luck. After spending two years in solitary confinement conditions 23 hours a day, a warden had George transferred to a New York prison because he didn't think George belonged in Marion. John Gotti, with whom George then shared a cell, agreed. Upon learning the particulars of the case, Gotti told him he had never heard of a first-time, nonviolent offender getting a life sentence.
George often found himself facing stiff punishment. Many times, it furthered his newfound passion for writing. He commemorated one stay in isolation with a poem he calls "The Rust of Life":
"The Steel Door eases open, then shut. Though it hardly makes a sound. It has the vibration of some tomb's entrance. Then you are alone, just you and four walls."
Writing became a temporary mental release from the physical realities of prison life. As he felt his own life being transformed by his creativity, George became a teacher and counselor to troubled inmates. He taught illiterate men to read and write and was certified by the Bureau of Prisons as a trained mentor for prisoners preparing to re-enter society. He was even asked to join and run the NAACP chapter of one prison where many of the inmates he tutored were black.
Although George had been divorced from his wife Fran for many years, he started to write her often. They reconciled in the late 1990s. His children, in their 20s now, still visited, as did his sisters and other relatives.
Still, holidays were the hardest time for the Martorano family. Barretta, George's nephew, recalls how the inmate inspired the rest of the clan.
"We'd be having Christmas dinner and everybody would feel a little down and out and George would call on the phone and say, "Hey, Merry Christmas,'" Barretta recalls. "He was not mad. His spirits were always high. He is so strong."
George had a scare in May 1998 when his 23-year-old son was arrested with a truck containing crates of marijuana in Philadelphia, but a judge later dismissed the charges. Then, a year later, things were looking much brighter for the family when Long John, 72, was freed from jail after his murder conviction was overturned.
By 2000, George had grown closer to his ex-wife. He wanted to be as physically close as possible to his family, so he pleaded with the Bureau of Prisons to move him to a federal prison in South Jersey. Instead, the bureau transferred him to Beaumont, Texas. Fran died of cancer while George was in transit. He says he's still too raw to talk about it.
In March 2001, his only son, Raymond, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Cherry Hill, N.J. The father still harbors some guilt.
"If I was home, my son would be alive today," he says. "I [would have] got that motorcycle out of his life."
That wouldn't be the end of the dying. Cut off from the South Philly underworld for more than 20 years, with no desire to have contacts there, George had no idea his father was targeted for assassination because some mobsters thought he wanted to take over.
"If I had known," he says. "I would have begged him to move to Florida."
On Jan. 17, 2002, Long John was shot three times while driving in his Lincoln Town Car to a doctor appointment. He died two weeks later. (Police suspect the gunman was John "Johnny Gons" Casasanto who, a year later, was shot to death inside his South Philly row home while watching a football game.)
"He was killed over a rumor," George says. "My dad was old school. He was in that life but he was retired. I don't care who assassinated him. I'm not in that life and I don't believe in that life anymore."
"All I got is walls and words," George said during a recent phone interview from the Coleman Federal Prison in Florida.
Yes, those words do keep coming. George published a novel in 1997 called Pain Grows a Platinum Rose. He has 17 other manuscripts, including novels, screenplays and poetry, ready for publication and is working on a new novel when he's not doing volunteer work inside the penitentiary walls. Over the last decade, everyone from John Gotti to a prison warden has told George there is no way he should still be behind bars. The warden in Beaumont even requested he be transferred closer to his remaining family.
Three years ago, a businessman from central Florida read George's book and went to visit him. Shortly thereafter, John Flahive founded a prison-reform organization called We Believe Group to help get him out of jail. Today, it has more than 300 members.
"I'm not a bleeding heart. I believe some people need to be punished," Flahive says. "This is a guy who did a mistake 20 years ago but he took the sentence for the whole Martorano family. George has corrected himself and rehabilitated himself. He's a creative writer who teaches other inmates to read and write."
Flahive, who now dates one of George's sisters, says he feels for the whole family.
"George wants a new life and wants to be able to spend time with his mother and sisters and his daughter, now," Flahive continues. "He's didn't kill anybody. He doesn't deserve life without parole."
We Believe Group's letter-writing campaign to the Justice Department has had some success. The department's Office of the Pardon Attorney decided to review George's case in December 2003. When asked whether the sentence should be reduced, Justice Department spokesman John Novosky told City Paper that the pardon attorney reviewed the application for George and sent it to the White House with a recommendation. A Justice Department source says, "It doesn't get to President Bush without a recommendation from the pardon attorney that the sentence should be reduced. The pardon attorney thinks Martorano's sentence should be reduced. Now, it's up to President Bush to sign off on it."
When George Martorano dares to dream he may one day be free, he says he will dedicate time to helping other prisoners who face unjust sentences. He also wants to continue to write and, of course, be with his family. But when pressed about what he would do first if he could walk out of the prison gates tomorrow, he replies in an unsteady voice.
"All the other minor pleasures are gone for me now," he says. "I just want to kneel at my son's grave. I want to go with my daughter to the cemetery and see my son.
© Copyright 19952005 Philadelphia City Paper
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