Twenty fifth-anniversary of New England mob war finds some players still locked up, others dead, off to greener pastures
Long-simmering tensions in the aftermath of the death of legendary New England mafia don, Raymond Patriarca finally reached a boiling point a half-decade after the Providence-based Godfather breathed his last breath, when rival factions of the crime family bearing his name went to war this summer 25 years ago.
After heading the Family for 32 years, earning the reputation as one of America’s most feared and respected mob bosses of the Twentieth Century, Patriarca, 76, died of a heart attack in July 1984, leaving behind a pair of murder indictments and passing the torch of power to his son, Raymond Patriarca, Jr., known simply as “Junior” or “Ray Rubber Lips.”
The transition on the throne from father to son didn’t go smooth.
Early in Junior Patriarca’s reign, turmoil began surfacing, splitting the organization in half. On one side of the gangland tug-of-war was Patriarca and his ruthless underboss William (Billy the Wild Man) Grasso. On the other side were cagey capo-turned-consigliere Joseph (J.R.) Russo and his protégé, Vincent (Vinnie the Animal) Ferrara.
The one bridge between the two factions was beloved and highly-feared North End mob heavyweight Larry Zannino. When Zannino was imprisoned in 1987, the door for further dissention in the ranks was opened.
All the ill feelings in the Family finally came to a head in 1989, shortly following the release from prison of Patriarca-loyalist Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme, a savvy and heavily-connected mobster jailed since the 1970s for his role in past Boston gangland wars. His return to town was the spark that ignited the body-strewn conflict.
Cadillac Frank, intelligent and charismatic and a favorite lieutenant of Raymond Patriarca, Sr, was sprung from behind bars in the fall of 1988 and immediately started politicking around East Coast mob circles, angling for quick advancement and hoping to leverage the discontent in his own advantage.
It worked. And by the beginning of the summer of 1989, Salemme, who was tightly aligned with notorious Boston Irish mob boss James (Whitey) Bulger, was poised to take control of the entire New England mafia. – he had convinced the increasingly-unpopular Junior Patriarca to step aside as Godfather and name him his replacement.
This didn’t sit well with J.R. Russo, desiring the leadership in the Borgata to reside with him and his followers.
An East Boston gangster known for his regal flair and a penchant for fine European-made suits, Russo had cemented his rising-star status in the mafia over a dozen years earlier by shot-gunning infamous New England mob strong-arm and informant Joseph (Joe the Animal) Barboza to death in February 1976. Barboza, believed to have been a triggerman in more than 20 murders and someone whose testimony helped jail the elder Patriarca, was in hiding in San Francisco, the first person ever to enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Years later, Larry Zannino was caught discussing the hit on an FBI wiretap, calling Russo a “genius with a carbine in his hands.” Memos from Russo’s FBI file state that, per informants, Russo felt strongly that the “piece of work” he did on behalf of Patriarca should have held more weight in the organization and that he resented Junior’s attitude towards him and allegiance to Grasso.
Junior’s decision to side with Salemme pushed Russo over the edge, prompting his power-grab, and in June 1989, just as the weather in Beantown was getting hot and muggy, hostilities bubbled over and a heated shooting war erupted in frenzied fashion.
Russo’s group coordinated an ambitious double-execution plan, trying to whack Salemme and Grasso on the same day. Assassin teams were dispatched to do away with the fierce-tempered Grasso on the morning of June 16, 1989 and then Salemme hours later that afternoon.
The daring murder plot was only partially successful. While Grasso was shot and killed sitting in the passengers’ seat of a van driving on a Hartford expressway by “button man” Gaetano Milano (his body dumped in a shallow riverbed), Salemme survived his attack, which took place at an International House of Pancakes in Saugus, Massachusetts.
Summoned to a meeting at the suburban Boston restaurant by longtime friend and fellow Mafiosi, Angelo (Sonny) Mercurio – soon thereafter revealed to be an FBI informant, but at the time perceived to be a trusted ally –, the moment Cadillac Frank stepped out of his gleaming-new black Mercedes in the parking lot he was met with a fusillade of gunfire.
The hit squad that included East Boston mobsters, Vincent (Gigi) Marino and Rico Ponzo, boxed Salemme’s vehicle in with their own and chased him through the IHOP shooting at him as he fled towards a nearby shopping mall. Wounded in the chest, shoulder, back and leg, the aspiring don took refuge in a pizza parlor and had employees call 911.
Under siege, a shaken Junior Patriarca was called to a sit-down with Russo in the aftermath of the June 13 attacks and bluntly told he would be killed if he didn’t retire immediately.
There would be a reprieve from the violence in the coming months, as John Gotti, boss of New York’s Gambino Crime Family, brokered a temporary halt in the rising tensions in the fall of 1989. This led to a conciliatory “making” ceremony held in October that inducted members aligned with Russo and acted as a de-facto peace accord between the two factions, specifically Russo and Patriarca.
Because of Mercurio being a double-agent, the FBI was able to record the ceremony and use it to convict its’ participants, an historical coup for the government.
“We’re all here to bring some new members into our Family and start a new beginning,” Patriarcha is heard addressing the room. “Hopefully, we’ll leave here what happened in years past and let bygones be bygones and there will be a good future for all of us.”
Better for some than others it turned out.
Patriarca was quickly forced out of the boss’ chair in favor of Nicky Bianco, a Russo confidant that like Russo was nailed on a racketeering conviction in the early 1990s, paving the way for the long-awaited ascension of Cadillac Frank Salemme.
Finally at the helm of the crime family he almost died for two years previously, Salemme, according to state police reports and federal documents, reignited the shooting war and used his new role as don to exact revenge on those that had opposed his reign in the late 1980s. Between March 1991 and November 1992, six bodies would turn up.
The Russo faction struck back in 1993, when according to court filings, Bobby Carrozza, Russo’s half-brother and No. 2 in charge, ordered his underlings to take aim at Salemme’s group for his retribution tactics.
One of the main targets was Richard (Richie the Hatchet) Devlin, a convicted murderer and Cadillac Frank’s top muscle. The fiery Irishman was found shot in the back of the head, adorned in a bullet-proof vest behind the wheel of his car on March 31, 1994. Devlin’s brutal demise brought an end to a notorious underworld career that saw him gain his nickname for beheading a man in 1971 and then throwing his headless, hatchet-impaled body into Boston’s Dorchester Bay.
Salemme was busted on racketeering offenses in 1995, concluding a carnage-stacked era for the New England mafia where authorities tie more than a dozen homicides to the multi-year power struggle. Cadillac Frank eventually became a cooperating witness for the government and although he had to serve additional time for lying in his FBI debriefing about Bianco ordering the murder of nightclub owner and mob associate, Steve Disarro in May 1993, Salemme, 80, is currently living in Boston as a free man and is “out of the life” (Disarro’s murder is officially unsolved, however, authorities are convinced that Frank Salemme, Jr, strangled him in front of his father and then the pair disposed of the body, which has never been found, in tandem).
Cadillac Frank is one of three major players from the last New England mob war to have successfully transitioned into a life of legitimacy. Far removed from his days as a don, Junior Patriarca, 68, is a real estate salesman in Rhode Island. Vinnie the Animal Ferrera, once tabbed by mafia insiders an almost-certain future boss of the Family, left his gangland interests by the wayside upon his release from prison in 2005 and the 64-year old former capo once renowned for his ferocity, is now a mild-mannered businessman in his one-time mob stomping grounds of the North End.
Nicky Bianco and J.R. Russo would die behind bars. Gaetano Milano and his accomplices in clipping Grasso, brothers, Frank (Frankie Pug) Pugliano and Louis (Louie Pug) Pugliano and childhood friend, Frank (Frankie C) Colatoni, Jr., have all been released from prison.
Gigi Marino and Rico Ponzo, the shooters in the failed Salemme hit back in 1989, remain incarcerated, Marino having been there since the mid-1990s on a racketeering pinch and Ponzo, for the past three years after hiding in Idaho the prior decade and a half ducking arrest in the same case.
“It was a treacherous period for the Family,” said one high-ranking Patriarca clan associate. “The atmosphere was very unstable for a long time. You had to have three eyes in the back of your head. Cadillac Frank always elicited passionate support and passionate hatred. Junior was a weak leader and Billy Grasso and J.R. Russo were crazy power hungry. Just like Saleeme, they wanted to use the situation to their advantage and fill the void themselves. Once Cadillac Frank got the reins, instead of things settling down, like some thought, they only ramped up.”