Joe Vito Mastronardo, the "Gentleman Gambler" who lived life on his own terms and moved to the beat of a drummer that only he could hear, died in a federal prison this afternoon where he was serving a 20-month sentence for bookmaking.
The cause of death was believed to be complications from pneumonia, although no official word was released from the Federal Medical Center in Devens, MA, where Mastronardo was doing time after entering a guilty plea earlier this year in the high profile case.
Mastronardo was 65.
For years he was considered the premier odds maker in the Philadelphia area and one of the best in the country. His betting line -- the "Joe Vito line" -- was one of the standards in the industry. Mastronardo, who got his start taking bets while working as a teenaged caddy at a suburban country club, made millions over the years and was constantly the focus of law enforcement attention.
This came in part because of his high volume business, but also because he was the son-in-law of former mayor and police commissioner Frank L. Rizzo. Joe Vito married Rizzo's only daughter, Joanne. They had one son, Joseph F.
"He had a beautiful heart," said Dennis Cogan, Mastronardo's friend and former defense attorney. "He would never do anything to hurt anyone and he was generous to a fault."
That applied to customers as well as friends, Cogan noted, pointing out that no one who ever bet with Mastronardo was ever the victim of violence or threats of violence.
"If you couldn't pay, your punishment was you couldn't bet with him anymore," Cogan said.
Mastronardo was jailed after federal authorities took over a gambling case originally developed by the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office. He and more than a dozen other defendants, including his son, Joseph F., his brother, John, and his wife were originally charged in connection with a multi-million dollar sports betting ring.
Charges against Joanne Mastronardo were dropped as guilty plea negotiations were completed for all the other defendants. Joseph F. Mastronardo was sentenced to five months. He completed that sentence and was at home with his mother when they learned of Joe Vito's death.
"My mother spoke to him on the phone this morning," Joe Mastronardo said. "She said his voice was weak. That was a sign. He had gained 15 to 20 pounds. We thought he was doing well, but with those respiratory problems, you have to stay on top of things. They didn't."
Mastronardo's poor health was an issue as his case worked its way through the federal court system. His son said doctor after doctor had testified that his father should be sentenced to house arrest because of his medical problems.
For years, Mastronardo had battled throat cancer. He had serious respiratory problems with frequent bouts of pneumonia. He was a stroke victim and in the year before his incarceration he had a feeding tube in his stomach.
"He absolutely shouldn't have been there," Joe Mastronardo said of his father. "There was absolutely no reason for this to happen. They threw my Dad in jail for no reason and they killed him."
The younger Mastronardo lashed out at federal prosecutors and the federal judge in the case, contending that they were blinded by a desire to punish.
"It's despicable," Joe Mastonardo said. "It's our system at its worst . . . It's selective enforcement of the law . . . My father's life was on the line (at sentencing) and they didn't care."
Federal authorities at the time insisted that the prison system medical facilities were equipped to deal with Mastronardo health issues.
Dennis Cogan, who represented John Mastronardo in the case, questioned authorities who had come into court at sentencing insisting that Mastronardo's health issues could be addressed.
"I'm not saying he had longevity," said Cogan, after ticking off the various respiratory and cancer-related issues that plagued his one-time client. "But he was able to survive all those years because" of the expert medical treatment he received in top-notch Philadelphia area hospitals.
"Everybody tried to tell them (federal authorities and the sentencing judge) that he had serious medical issues," added Christopher Warren, who represented Mastronardo son in the gambling case. "We warned them about what could happen and that is precisely what happened."
Warren called Joe Vito Mastronardo "a Philadelphia icon."
"He was one of a kind and he will be missed," Warren said, noting that Mastronardo "never made any apologies for what he did."
Over lunch one afternoon after he had been indicted, Mastronardo talked about bookmaking as a business. He saw it that way and never denied what he was involved in. He was highly successful at it and developed a high end clientele, businessmen who liked to bet but who did not want to become involved in underworld gambling rackets.
Mastronardo was never associated with organized crime and in fact, his son said, he once told mob boss Nicky Scarfo "to go fuck himself" and refused to be shaken down by the psychopathic mob leader.
That the mob wanted a piece of Mastronardo's action was clear. But gangsters never were able to get their hooks into him. Instead, he advanced his business, becoming one of the first to use the Internet, pass words, on-line betting and a wire rooms in Costa Rica through which bets could be placed.
The latest case was indicative of the kind of cash that flowed through the operation.
Investigators seized more than $1.3 million in cash at the Mastronardo home in the Meadowbrook section of Huntingdon Valley, including $1.1 million stashed in PVC pipes buried in the back yard. Another $1.7 million was found in bank accounts frozen by the feds, part of a seizure action that totaled more than $6.3 million. And there was a money trail of wire transfers in excess of $3.2 million to financial institutions in Sweden, Malta, Antiqua and Portugal.
Wiretap and gambling records showed players betting $20,000 to $50,000 on a single game and one gambler "settling up" his debt by delivering a $250,000 payment to the Mastronardo operation.
(See a profile of the Gentleman Gambler, Bigtrial, October 31, 2013.)
Warren, young Joe Mastronardo's lawyer, called the sentences imposed after the pleas had been entered unwarranted, given the nature of the case. "What purpose, other than getting a pound of flesh, does the punishment in this case serve?" he asked.
In Joe Vito's case, it could be argued, the price was more than a pound of flesh. It was his life.