The New England mafia broke out into war in the summer of 1989, as factions representing the crime family’s Providence and Boston wings locked horns for the keys to the kingdom. Within hours of each other in June of that year, then fast-rising captain Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme survived an assassination attempt and underboss William (The Wild Man) Grasso was killed. Soon, Salemme rose to the boss’ seat and sought vengeance on those who had sided against him.

Cadillac Frank Salemme, 84, is standing trial this month for the 1993 murder of nightclub mogul Stevie DiSarro, a business partner of his aiding the government in building a case against him that would drop two years later. DiSarro’s remains were exhumed in Rhode Island in March 2016.

Salemme came up in the turbulent New England underworld of the 1960s, introduced into the Patriarca crime family by soldier Anthony Morelli and groomed as a killer by Boston capo Larry Zannino. He went to prison in 1972 for car bombing an attorney on orders from legendary Godfather Raymond Patriarca, the storied mob chief from Providence. Patriarca had taken a liking to Salemme and used him as muscle for syndicate affairs in Beantown.

When Cadillac Frank was released from prison in 1987, Patriarca had been dead for three years and his absence had sent the crime family named after him into chaos, splitting the organization down the middle between its two hubs, Providence and Boston. Although Salemme was a Boston native, he sided with the Providence faction and lined up behind Patriarca’s son and successor Raymond Patriarca, Jr., the man responsible for inducting him into the mafia shortly after walking free and whose ascendency to the throne was blessed by his mentor Zannino before Zannino got locked up in the mid 1980s.

Unlike his father, Patriarca, Jr. was a weak leader and garnered little respect from his men. His power came from those he surrounded himself with, including Zannino, Salemme and Grasso, a heavily-feared Connecticut Goodfella and former prison cellmate of his dad’s. Having taken part in numerous gangland slayings in his younger days, the half-Irish Salemme maintained deep ties to Boston’s Irish mob, known as the Winter Hill Gang, making him even more valuable to Patriarca, Jr., fast losing his grip on the crime family’s rank-and-file with Zannino “off at college.”

Raymond Patriarca, Jr.

Opposing Patriarca, Jr.’s reign were crews from East Boston and the North End (Boston’s Little Italy) headed by veteran hit man Joe (J.R.) Russo and his young, capable, college-educated protégé, Vinnie (The Animal) Ferrara, respectively. They would often hold meetings in the storage room of a downtown Boston restaurant called Vanessa’s, owned by North End soldier Angelo (Sonny) Mercurio, the group’s liaison to the Winter Hill Gang.

Around the time Salemme got sprung from the can, the FBI bugged Vanessa’s storage room and collected a series of incriminating conversations, highlighted by the shake down of a major Jewish bookmaker for $200,000. Upon word of the bug leaking out to the street in the summer of 1988, Sonny Mercurio flipped and began cooperating with the government and the Providence faction began making plans to take over Boston once the Russo and Ferrara contingent was indicted.

However, by the early summer of 1989, the indictment still hadn’t been filed and both sides of the conflict started circling each other, planning to launch attacks.The tipping point pushing things towards violence, according to federal records, was Salemme ripping off an East Boston cocaine dealer for $100,000.

During the first week of June, FBI informants told their handlers that murder contracts were being arranged on both ends and that Salemme was testing fate by continuing to take meetings with Boston wiseguys unaffiliated with Russo and Ferrara around town in an attempt to consolidate his interests in Massachusetts. Russo and Ferrara talked about killing Cadillac Frank at his two favorite hangouts, the Busy Bee Diner in Brookline and Castle Island Pier on the South Boston harbor.

On June 16, 1989, the Boston faction sprung into action and tried taking out Salemme and Grasso in coordinated murder plots. Grasso was picked up in New Haven, Connecticut for what he thought was a meeting with Patriarca, Jr. in Providence and shot to the death in route, his body dumped on the banks of a nearby body of water. Summoned by Mercurio to a lunch at a suburban Boston International House of Pancakes, Salemme was ambushed by gunmen in the parking lot, getting hit six times before taking refuge in a pizza parlor down the street.

Spending six days in the hospital, Salemme checked himself out and flew to California to recover and wait out the storm. Russo met with Patriarca, Jr. at a sit down later that month and threatened to kill him if he didn’t step down immediately, per informants present.

At some point in August, New York’s Gambino crime family intervened.The Gambinos had backed Patriarca, Jr. for boss following his father’s passing. The Genovese crime family, also out of New York, backed Russo’s faction during the insurgency. Then-Gambino boss John Gotti hosted Russo at a meeting in a luxury hotel in the weeks prior to Labor Day weekend, according to federal documents, and demanded that he halt the violence, offering to negotiate a peace treaty on his behalf. In a sit down a week later, Patriarca, Jr. ceded control of the family to Providence capo Nicky Bianco and Russo accepted a promotion to consigliere and was promised the chance to “make” a dozen of his men. A party was thrown by Russo at Lombardo’s Italian Restaurant in East Boston over Labor Day weekend for the two sides of the feud to break bread and officially make amends.

Joe Russo

There would be epic consequences related to the pending induction ceremony: Sonny Mercurio tipped the feds off to its time and place (on October 29 in a small house in Medford, Massachusetts belonging to a wiseguy’s sister and brother-in-law). As three Russo loyalists (Vinnie Federico, Carmen Tortora and Richie Floramo) and one Providence mob figure (Bobby DeLuca) took the oath of Omerta that day, tape was rolling. Less than a month later, Russo and his Boston crew and Patriarca, Jr. and Bianco and most of their Rhode Island crew were indicted, setting the stage for Cadillac Frank to return from the west coast and assume command of the New England mafia, which he promptly did.

DeLuca, who helped mediate the dispute, became Salemme’s man on the ground in Providence and his Italian mob allies in Boston, Charles (Q-Ball) Quintina and the Rosseti brothers (Stevie & Mark), formed his primary support base in what had been hostile territory for the eager don and would soon be again. The Rosettis looked after East Boston for him and Quintina became his consigliere. He recruited a pair of tough Irish hoodlums from Winter Hill’s South Boston turf, Richard (Richie the Hatchet) Devlin and Richard (Richie Nine Lives) Gillis, to be his main collectors and made the muscle-bound, square-jawed Darin (Nino) Bufalino, his driver and bodyguard.

Refusing to honor old agreements, Salemme began systematically trying to eliminate anybody he perceived was involved in trying to take him out of the picture the previous summer. Vinnie Ferarra’s best friend and driver Robert (Bobby D) Donati, was the first to go — found dead, stuffed in the trunk of his car in 1991. Several more murders of his rivals would follow in the coming years. Devlin was killed in 1994 by remnants of Russo’s East Boston regime, headquartering out of the Breed Hill Social Club on Bennington Street and taking marching orders from Russo’s half-brother, Bobby Carrozza, behind bars.

The bloodshed didn’t cease until Salemme was finally locked up in 1995. He’d enter the Witness Protection Program without admitting to any murders on his watch as boss, causing him trouble with the government when they came to the belief he was the one responsible for the Stevie DiSarro slaying from 1993. Four months after DiSarro’s skeletal remains were unearthed in the Spring of 2016, buried at the site of a converted textile mill in Providence owned by a soldier belonging to DeLuca’s former crew, Cadillac Frank was arrested and charged in the hit. DeLuca, 72, joined the Witness Protection Program in 2011 and will be the star witness against Cadillac Frank at trial.

Joe Russo and Nicky Bianco died in prison of natural causes. Patriarca, Jr. walked free in 1999 and retired from mob affairs. Vinnie Ferrara allegedly did the same in 2005, however, him and Bobby Carrozza are said to act in a strictly advisory role for modern day syndicate leaders when they seek counsel.

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