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Officials Backhoe Lawn of Gambler Looking for Money
By George Anastasia, Bonnie L. Cook, and Derrick Nunnally
Inquirer Staff Writers
Sports-betting impresario Joseph Mastronardo got some unwelcome lawn work at his $1.1 million Meadowbrook home Wednesday as local authorities and the FBI executed a series of search warrants tied to what appeared to be a major bookmaking investigation.
Authorities used a backhoe to dig up the lawn of Mastronardo's home, a two-story European-style villa in the 1600 block of Stocton Road, where the gentleman gambler lives with his wife, Joanna, daughter of Frank L. Rizzo, the late mayor and police commissioner.
According to one investigator, authorities were looking for money - lots of money.
Officially, no one would comment about the investigation or the search warrants that were issued in Montgomery County and that targeted at least four locations. Sources familiar with the investigation said large sums of cash were confiscated.
Both Mastronardo and his brother and bookmaking partner, John, were questioned by authorities, according to a source familiar with the investigation. Later, they were held on parole-violation charges stemming from a 2006 gambling arrest. Both were in custody Wednesday night.
The Mastronardos are longtime "professional gamblers" who authorities say have been operating a high-end sports-betting business since at least the 1980s.
Each was convicted of federal gambling charges in 1987 and spent time in jail.
Joseph "Joe Vito" Mastronardo, 60, is an icon in certain gambling circles because of his businesslike approach to taking sports bets, his early use of the Internet and Web sites, and his reliance on offshore-betting operations.
Never affiliated with organized crime and usually, it seemed, one step ahead of law enforcement, "Joe Vito" carved his niche at the upper end of the gambling underworld, dealing with customers who could afford to bet thousands of dollars and who, if they refused to pay, were never threatened or harassed.
The Mastronardos operated a business where your word was your bond. If a gambler reneged on a debt, he was simply told he would no longer be permitted to bet with the Mastronardos, said several sources familiar with their approach.
Their success was measured by their lifestyles. Both men live in well-appointed homes, drive expensive cars, and dine at fine restaurants.
John Mastronardo, 54, a former standout football player at Villanova University, who was drafted by the Eagles but failed to make the team, is also an avid golfer.
"Joe Vito," according to several individuals who know him, has been battling cancer in recent years and for a time appeared to be dropping out of the gambling business.
But his health is said to have stabilized, and the current investigation appears to indicate that, from law enforcement's perspective at least, he has not slowed down.
Four years ago, the brothers were targeted in another Montgomery County gambling probe that was built around wiretaps and informant testimony.
Authorities seized $2.7 million in cash from the Mastronardos after a series of raids and arrests that April.
In a plea deal worked out with then-District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., the Mastronardos agreed to give up any attempt to recover the cash and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor gambling charges that carried no jail time.
In addition, Castor agreed not to bring charges against other family members who might have been linked to the gambling ring.
It could not be determined what sparked the current investigation or on what basis authorities sought court authorization for the search warrants that were executed Wednesday. A spokesman for the FBI referred all questions to Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, whose office is coordinating the investigation. Ferman declined to comment.
Dennis Cogan, the lawyer for Joseph Mastronardo, also declined to comment when contacted at his Philadelphia law office.
The search warrants were executed Wednesday morning, and by late in the afternoon, authorities were still at the Meadowbrook property, at Stocton and Herkness Drive in Abington.
FBI agents, Montgomery County detectives, and Abington Township police were on the scene as a backhoe operator dug up the grounds of the custard-colored, two-story mansion.
During the operation, which lasted several hours, a portion of a hedge was removed from the corner of the property, and periodically, pieces of what appeared to be PVC pipe, about 18 inches long with caps on both ends, were recovered.
About 4 p.m., four tubes, all similar in size and shape, had been placed in a white box truck. Three of the tubes were covered in evidence wrapping before the truck drove away.
Investigators then shifted their attention to the front of the property, particularly around landscaped areas with plantings.
Soltan Ghahramani, a next-door neighbor, described the Mastronardos as "very nice," but she said she had not seen them in "quite a while."
None of the authorities involved in the search would comment.
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 04/01/2010 - 09:37