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ARTICLE: Hammonton mob informant misses life left behind
Press of Atlantic City
June 14, 2004
By PETE McALEER Statehouse Bureau
He devoted his life to crime, then risked his life to record conversations with the leaders of the Philadelphia-southern New Jersey organized crime family in exchange for cash.
Then it ended.
Ron Previte, who once ran Hammonton's underworld from the booth of a diner on the White Horse Pike, is not quite sure what to do with himself these days. The hustle is over. The imposing mercenary who could turn any job into a moneymaking scam is out of work.
Seated at a table in the library of attorney Joseph Grimes' Cherry Hill law office, Previte, 60, rubs his shaved head as he describes ordinary civilian life.
There is not much to tell. He reads two to three books a week, always nonfiction. He travels with the FBI every now and then on the lecture circuit. He has tried his hand at writing - strictly fiction - loosely based on his years as a Philadelphia police officer.
"I'm totally bored," says Previte, who relied on both his brains and his 6-foot, 300-pound frame to make millions as a bookie, loan shark and overall scam artist. "This is the biggest down I've ever had. I'm not a guy who can sit in a lounge chair. I can't relax relaxing."
The old life ended in 1999 when authorities arrested mob boss Joey Merlino and his associates on charges ranging from fencing stolen property to murder. Hammonton Police Det. James DeLaurentis also was charged with extorting a local bar owner. Newspapers identified Previte as the government's star witness in both cases.
Five years later, Merlino, DeLaurentis and a host of others Previte helped send to prison no doubt would welcome the chance to be restless in a lounge chair. All were convicted based on the audiotapes Previte secretly recorded for the FBI from 1997 to 1999.
The government compensated Previte handsomely for his undercover work and court testimony, paying him more than $750,000 plus benefits. Previte also pleaded guilty for his role in the DeLaurentis extortion case, but received only probation.
Some saw it as Previte's greatest hustle. Previte calls the record sum he collected from the government "hazardous-duty pay" and challenges critics to do what he did. He is not sure he would do it again himself.
"I don't regret doing the deal," Previte says. "I just regret my life as it once was no longer is."
Previte remains stuck in a past he can no longer visit.
Walk into any bookstore in the area and you're likely to see Previte's picture on display, smiling with an arm around now-imprisoned mob boss Ralph Natale on the cover of George Anastasia's "The Last Gangster." The book uses Previte as a centerpiece to chart the fall of organized crime in the Philadelphia-southern New Jersey area. Previte also told his story to CBS' "60 Minutes" in March and is negotiating with a cable company for a movie deal based on his life story.
Even after "The Godfather," "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos," the public appetite for mob stories lives.
"I simply don't know why people are interested in it," Previte says. "The people who are interested in my story are smart people. They're doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs."
But Previte does understand it. He considers himself unique, not so much a mobster as a professional crook smart enough to stay out of jail.
Unlike the long line of informants before him, Previte did not have a life sentence in prison hanging over him when he made his deal. The three years he spent climbing the La Cosa Nostra family tree with a wire strapped to his groin are unprecedented in organized crime history.
And unlike so many informants who rehabilitated in time to take the witness stand, Previte makes no claims of religious transformation. His life of crime is over, he says, because "it just wouldn't be feasible anymore."
But that doesn't mean he doesn't miss it.
Without a hint of remorse, Previte tells a profanity-laced story about shoving a gun far enough down the throat of an NFL quarterback to induce vomiting. Moments later he philosophizes about how he enjoyed the "subterfuge" of his undercover work for the FBI.
Though he insists he regrets the path he took, Previte clearly takes pride in the way he walked it.
"I always considered myself a general practitioner of crime," Previte says. "I got up in early every day, 7 o'clock, and worked on developing crime."
Mob captain was just one in a string of jobs Previte held while working a scam on the side. He sold government-issued gear out of a supply depot while in the Air Force, extorted bribe money from criminals as a Philadelphia police officer, stole from the Tropicana Casino and Resort as a security guard and figured out how to make money swapping horse urine while working for the New Jersey Racing Commission.
Previte considers his time on the witness stand in the Merlino racketeering trial another job done well. The government's other star witness, former mob boss Ralph Natale, unraveled when defense attorneys questioned his legitimacy.
Previte kept a smile on the corner of his lips when it was his turn to testify, reeling off barbs and one-liners like a man enthralled with the chance to verbally duel high-priced attorneys.
If Previte is concerned about those who might seek revenge against him, he does not show it. He chose not to enter the witness protection program and has not moved far from Hammonton, a place he says he still loves.
"As much as they say everything changes, Hammonton is pretty much the same," Previte says. "I'd prefer Hammonton to Waikiki Beach."
But even Hammonton cannot stay the same for Previte. The guys in his old crew are no longer friends. The days of holding court at the Silver Coin Diner, taking bets from the first booth on the left, are gone.
"It's like the old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for,'" Previte says. "I wasn't smart enough to realize how much my life would change."
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