June 27, 2020 – Resting at the center of New England mafia don Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme’s mandate as a freshly-minted Godfather was expansion. Salemme took power in the Patriarca crime family 30 years ago and sent his son, wildcard mob aspirant Francis (Frankie Boy) Salemme, Jr. and several other lieutenants to the west coast on racket-scouting expeditions before finally deciding on the best approach to securing a foothold in the region was by extorting Hollywood film companies in need of labor help and trying to fill a void in the Las Vegas underworld.

The Patriarca’s exploits in LaLaLand ended in a federal extortion bust and was the inspiration for the 2004 movie The Last Shot, starring Alex Baldwin, Matthew Broderick and Ray Liotta. The feds titled the case Operation DramEx.

Swashbuckling Cadillac Frank Salemme came out of prison in late 1987 after 15 years away on an attempted murder conviction and took the New England mob by storm. He buddied up to Raymond Patriarca, Jr., the then boss of his father’s Patriarca crime family empire, and politicked his way to backing from legitimate businessmen and mafia loyalists alike in multiple states and mob fiefdoms. But it was Patriarca, Jr.’s job that Salemme really wanted and he went about consolidating interests to do just that.  

Salemme was from Boston, but had roots in Rhode Island from his early days in the mob doing personal enforcement jobs for legendary crime lord Raymond Patriarca, who lived in Providence. Patriarca died of a heart attack in 1984. Salemme, shrewd and magnetic, also had ties to the Irish mob being that he was half-Irish on his mother’s side and used an alliance with ruthless South Boston Irish mob boss James (Whitey) Bulger to his advantage in establishing a powerbase.

When he returned to Beantown in the late 1980s, Cadillac Frank wasn’t welcomed back with open arms. Boston mob capos Joe (J.R.) Russo and Vinnie (The Animal) Ferrara opposed Salemme’s fast rise and tried to have him killed in June 1989. Salemme survived being shot eight times in the parking lot of a suburban Boston International House of Pancakes. Russo ran East Boston. Ferrara had the North End.

As resilient as he was ambitious, Cadillac Frank retreated to California after the headline-grabbing attempt on his life before coming back to Massachusetts in 1990 upon Russo, Ferrara and Patriarca, Jr. being put behind bars for racketeering and taking the reins of the Patriarca clan for himself. Salemme used support from capo Anthony (The Saint) St. Laurent in Providence and mob soldier Dennis (Champaign Denny) LePore in Boston to tamp down the rampant dissent that had been simmering within the organization since “old man Patriarca” passed.

St. Laurent went to Las Vegas to plant a flag for the Patriarcas at Cadillac Frank’s urging in an effort to replace the group of mob families from around the country that had been booted from Nevada for skimming casinos in the 1980s. He lasted three years and was kicked out of town, listed in the infamous Nevada Gaming Commission Black Book in 1993.

The tough, yet sophisticated LePore, nicknamed for his pricey tastes and love of expensive bubbly, had acted as Ferrara’s bodyguard during Vinnie the Animal’s climb up the ranks of the Family and brought the remaining Russo-Ferrara faction in line under Salemme in Boston. Glitz and glamour served as currency for both Cadillac Frank and Champaign Denny during their gangland careers and they were attracted to the idea of getting their hooks into Hollywood like moths to a flame.

The entry point came from an old lackey of LePore’s from his days on the come-up in the North End with Vinnie the Animal. One-time North Ender Robert (Fat Ralphie) Franchi, had moved west years earlier and owned a restaurant in Hermosa Beach. Franchi owed LePore a past juice-loan debt and LePore told him he could square it by doing leg work for him on the west coast.

By 1989, the bearded and burly Franchi had become Salemme and LePore’s man on the scene in Cali.

There was only one major problem: Fat Ralphie Franchi was a confidential informant for the FBI.  

First, Salemme and LePore dispatched Tommy Hillary to prime the ground in L.A. and meet with Franchi to get the lay of the land. Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. would follow, his father eager for the chance to get him out of Boston for his own safety until he had a firmer grip on the crime family.

Soon, Frankie Boy and Hillary were making the rounds in LA., palling around with actors James Caan, Robert Davi, Alex Rocco and Tony Darrow, among others. Caan famously played Sonny Corleone and Rocco portrayed Moe Green in The Godfather. Davi was a James Bond movie (License To Kill) and Darrow appeared in Goodfellas and would go on to play a recurring role on The Sopranos. Darrow and Rocco were from Boston and had affiliations with the Patriarcas.

Tommy Hillary was a real-life version of The Godfather’s Tom Hagen character, a half-Italian, half-Irish hoodlum taken in and adopted as a teenager by Raymond Patriarca. Salemme put him in charge of gambling territory in Framingham and Milford, a pair of suburbs outside Boston.

Both Hillary and the boss’ son, Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. fell in love with Hollywood. They ate and played pool with Caan at his Bel Air mansion. They arranged for a bridge loan for an actor in The Godfather Part III to curry favor with his connections in the movie industry. And with Franchi making the introductions, he taped most of the interactions for the feds. Franchi was paid $5,000 per month for his work as a mole and took home a total payday of $500,000 between 1988 and 1991.

Hillary was blown away at the opportunities available for the crime family in the entertainment field.

“This is fucking crazy…. drugs, gambling are small potatoes, the real money is out here is with producers, actors and shit,” he was recorded telling Franchi.

Frankie Boy and Robert Davi hit it off and decided to make a movie together in a collaboration that quickly fell apart. Davi had a script for a romantic comedy project titled The Shark about a loan shark that falls in love with a teacher and Salemme, Jr. went out and tried to raise a 2.5 million-dollar budget.

The project never gained any real traction in studio interest or financing and Frankie Boy became enraged at Davi for allegedly failing to come through on his promise of delivering Oscar-nominated actor Danny Aiello for a role in the movie, per court records. Davi didn’t take kindly to being hollered at by the young mafia prince and barked back, FBI documents claim.

Salemme, Jr. explained the situation to Franchi.

“I don’t want to get into a fucking pissing contest, whose the toughest guy on the block, that sort of thing …..But if he keeps on, we’ll have a problem……we’ll wait in the back alley there and I’ll fuck him up, you know, put him in the trash dumpster. I’d say, ‘Who the fuck you think you are? You 007?’”

Through Franchi, the government introduced undercover FBI agent Garland Schweickhardt into the picture. Schweikhardt posed as a film producer named David Rudder and drove a Rolls Royce. He even had the rights to the script for Love At Second Bite, a sequel to the 1979 smash-hit Dracula comedy Love At First Bite starring George Hamilton, Susan St. James and Richard Benjamin. The first movie made $43,000,000 against a $3,000,000 budget, so the project, while campy, was enticing.

The feds had Franchi put David Rudder out on a fishing pole for a lure to nab the Patriarca crew and Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr., Tommy Hillary and Champaign Denny Lepore fell for it hook, line and sinker. Salemme, Jr. and Hillary met with the man they knew as David Rudder at a Beverly Hills hotel and Rudder told them he was looking for protection on his forthcoming movie shoot on the east coast where he intended to use non-union labor.

The New England wiseguys had Massachusetts Teamsters union transportation boss Billy Winn, an associate of Whitey Bulger in the Winter Hill Gang, in their pocket. They collected $65,000 in shakedown cash to guarantee Rudder’s Love At Second Bite movie could operate without using Teamster labor.

Winn wined and dined a number of potential investors Rudder brought to Boston to discuss putting money into the movie. LePore and Hillary chartered a yacht for investor trips. Rudder opened-up a production office in Providence, Rhode Island and had artwork advertising the movie made up as marketing materials. He even set a start-date to begin filming.

Things began to unravel though at a meeting in a hotel suite at the Cambridge Marriott between Hillary, Winn and Rudder. Hillary spotted an FBI surveillance unit monitoring their activity.

“White van, long black windows, I’ve had these things tailing me for years,” Hillary was recorded telling Franchi later that night. “I look and I see the guy clicking pictures when I’m walking into the hotel. He’s got the camera in his fucking hand and he’s clicking away. I grabbed David, I say, ‘You wired you motherfucker? They’re over there taking photos of me like I’m John fucking Gotti.”

The Operation DramEx indictment dropped in July 1992. Hillary had been chased from New England by Cadillac Frank for stealing $4,000 and giving it to his girlfriend to invest in a fashion business and was living in Florida. It didn’t take long for Hillary to flip on Cadillac Frank and his kid.

Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. never made it in front of a jury in the case, dying of AIDS-related cancer in 1995 at 38 years old. Champaign Denny Lepore, 73, pleaded guilty to extortion charges (his second extortion bust in 18 months) and did 10 years in prison, getting released in 2002.

Cadillac Frank and Whitey Bulger went down together in a federal racketeering case from the mid-1990s. Bulger was on the run for 16 years before being captured, convicted in 2013 and killed in an attack by another inmate five years later in a West Virginia correctional facility.

Salemme entered the Witness Protection Program when he discovered Bulger had been a confidential informant for the FBI for decades. He was yanked out of the Program — living under an assumed identity in Atlanta — in 2016 and charged with the 1993 murder of his former partner in the nightclub business, Stevie DiSarro. Two years later, Salemme was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Today, he’s 86 and resides in a federal prison hospital in Missouri.

DiSarro was strangled to death by Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. on the morning of May 10, 1993 at the Salemme family home in Sharon, Massachusetts as Cadillac Frank watched on. The Salemmes caught DiSarro stealing from the rock club they had rebranded a strip club in South Boston and believed he was cooperating with authorities because he was facing his own bank fraud case related to some failed real-estate deals in Florida. Hillary, 75, was a star witness at Salemme’s 2018 trial.

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