Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Mob War in Beantown
By Allan May
Boston’s Italian underworld has never approached the organizational level of its contemporaries in other cities in the United States. When it did have its heyday it was actually ruled from Providence, Rhode Island and became known as the New England Crime Family. By the time the leadership switched back to Boston, the underworld members there not only rejected their new mob boss, but also showed their ineptness while trying to expunge him.
Raymond Salvatore Loreda Patriarca ran the New England Crime Family with an iron fist for nearly thirty years. From 1954 to 1984, operating out of the Federal Hill section of Providence, Rhode Island, Patriarca became one of the most respected Mafia bosses in the United States. His death in July 1984 would cause turmoil to a family that had once run like a well-oiled machine and bring it to its knees.
When Patriarca died, Jerry Angiulo, the underboss, was under indictment for racketeering with three of his brothers. Angiulo, who hoped to succeed to the top spot, was not respected within the family. When Larry Zannino, a top lieutenant, threw his support behind Patriarca’s son, Raymond J. “Junior” Patriarca, Angiulo found himself demoted to a mere soldier. Francesco “Paul” Intiso took over the underboss position after Angiulo was reduced in rank. His reign was short-lived as he passed away in 1985. In February 1986, Angiulo was convicted of the racketeering charges and sentenced to forty-five years in prison completely severing him from the picture.
“Junior” Patriarca proved to be an ineffective leader. Zannino, who had been promoted to consigliere, was under federal investigation himself. In 1987 he was sentenced to thirty years. He would die there in March 1996.
After Intiso died, the underboss role was then filled by William P. “The Wild Man” Grasso. The fifty-eight year old Grasso of New Haven, Connecticut was said to have had a close working relationship with the New York crime families. Law enforcement agencies considered him to be the real power in New England. On June 16, 1989, Grasso was found along the banks of the Connecticut River with a bullet in the back of his head. Five hours after Grasso’s body was found, Frances P. “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was shot and seriously wounded after arriving at a Saugus, Massachusetts pancake house. A rising star in the Boston faction of the New England Crime Family, Patriarca was planning on appointing Salemme to oversee the Beantown operations.
Police initially called the murder of Grasso and the wounding of Salemme on the same day a coincidence. Organized crime experts acknowledged that the New York families were “less than impressed” with “Junior” Patriarca’s leadership. However, they also believed that the Grasso murder was sanctioned by New York after “The Wild Man” had angered the Genovese Crime Family by trying to muscle in on rackets they controlled in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is located in the south-central part of the state near the Connecticut border.
While the murder of Grasso was considered a carefully planned mob hit, the opinion was not the same on the attempt to kill Salemme. One investigator said, “The general consensus is that it wasn’t the North End (Boston) crowd. The hit on Frankie was too sloppy, and it endangered too many innocent lives to be LCN La Cosa Nostra.” Salemme had driven to the International House of Pancakes restaurant in a black BMW with a brief case packed with $12,000. As Salemme got out of the car he was wounded in the chest and leg by gunmen blasting away from a car that pulled up from behind. Salemme was said to have entered the lobby of the restaurant and then run out to keep innocent people from getting hit. In doing so he was wounded again. He was taken to the AtlantiCare Medical Hospital in Lynn, where he was protected by Massachusetts State Police officers while he recovered.
What authorities did not realize was that the murder of Grasso and the shooting of Salemme was an orchestrated attack by members of what would come to be known as the “renegade faction” of the Boston underworld. The leadership of this Boston group consisted of new family consigliere Joseph “J. R.” Russo, his stepbrother Robert F. “Bobby Russo” Carrozza, and Vincent “Vinnie the Animal” Ferrara, both capos. Russo had gained respect in the New England mob by killing government informant, and former feared hitman, Joseph Barboza in San Francisco in 1976. By seizing the leadership of the New England family the group sought to control gambling and the extortion of bookmakers, drug dealers and restaurant owners in the area. The war that resulted from this takeover attempt lasted until 1994 and claimed more than a dozen lives.
Patriarca realized that the actions of the Boston members were about to split the family in two, causing an internecine war. He tried to appease the men by making four new members from the Boston area. The initiation rite held on October 29, 1989, turned out to be a disaster for La Cosa Nostra nationwide, and for the New England family specifically, when it was soon revealed that the FBI had secretly recorded the ceremony.
Around this time Nicholas L. Bianco reputedly replaced “Junior” Patriarca as boss of the family. Authorities found out in May 1991, that Patriarca was forced out. John F. “Sonny” Castagna, a family-member-turned-government-informant, revealed that a weeping Patriarca was warned during a late 1989 meeting in Boston that he would be killed if he didn’t step down. Presiding over that meeting was Joseph Russo with Carrozza also in attendance.
One of the criticisms of Patriarca by family members was that it was his ineptitude that led to the FBI’s bugging of the now infamous induction ceremony. It was later revealed that family member Angelo Mercurio, Patriarca’s driver, was an FBI informant. This helped vindicate Patriarca to some degree, as defense lawyers would call for new trials in the wake of this revelation claiming government agents lied to the judge in order to bug the premises. Federal laws specify that electronic surveillance is only available when there is no other means to obtain information. Since Mercurio was an informant, they had their other means.
In 1990, Patriarca, Bianco, Russo, Carrozza and Ferrara were among twenty family members indicted on RICO charges. Two trials would take place, one in Hartford, the other in Boston. In the Hartford trial, Bianco and seven others were found guilty. Bianco was sentenced to eleven years in prison and died there in November 1994.
Before the Boston trial got underway, Patriarca disassociated himself from the other defendants in December 1991 by pleading guilty to racketeering charges and receiving an eight-year sentence. After the trial got underway in late January 1992, the other defendants decided to plead guilty. Part of the plea agreement was that Russo, Carrozza and Ferrara would not be prosecuted for the killing of Grasso or the attack on Salemme. Russo was sentenced to sixteen years and died in prison in June 1998. Carrozza was sentenced to nineteen years.
With the boss, ex-boss, and consigliere all in prison, “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was now the most powerful member of the New England family. For the first time since 1954 the power base of the New England Mafia moved from Providence back to Boston.
Salemme had spent fifteen years in prison for planting a bomb in the car of attorney John E. Fitzgerald on January 30, 1968. Fitzgerald had been representing mob hitman Joseph Barboza. The blast, intended to scare Barboza, who was about to become a government witness, ripped off one of Fitzgerald’s legs. While in prison, Salemme helped rescue a guard who was shot by an inmate and received a commendation from then Governor Michael Dukakis. Salemme also received recognition for helping to quell several prison disturbances. Once released, he came to the forefront of the New England mob with the help of long-time friend Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, a leader in Boston’s Winterhill Gang.
As the new boss of the New England mob, Salemme moved quickly to settle problems and disputes. It is not known for sure if the six killings that took place during 1991 and 1992 were related to the attempt on Salemme’s life or if they were just “regular business” murders. They began when Howard J. Ferrini, a professional gambler, was beaten to death on August 16, 1991 in his Berkley home and tossed in the trunk of his 1988 Cadillac. Five days later, the car was found at Logan Airport dripping blood and emitting a foul odor.
In September 1991, Robert A. Donati was also found in the trunk of his Cadillac. Believed to be tied to the “renegade faction,” Donati was beaten to a pulp and had his throat slashed. Years later it would be revealed that Donato was an informant for the state police. The following month on October 3, Barry Lazzarini, a former restaurant owner, was found tied up and brutally beaten to death in his home in Manomet.
The killings subsided for almost a year until Kevin Hanrahan was shot to death in Providence, Rhode Island in September 1992. The following month, Rocco Scali, owner of a North End restaurant, was shot and killed as he sat in his vehicle in the parking lot of a pancake house in Dedham. Vincent A. Arcieri, another restaurant owner, was murdered in December 1992 in the driveway of his Orient Heights home. In addition to these murders, South Boston nightclub operator Steven DiSarro disappeared and was presumed dead.
After Carrozza’s sentencing in late April 1992, it took nearly two years for the “renegade faction” to strike back. While serving his time in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, Carrozza was visited several times by Anthony Ciampi and Michael P. Romano, Sr. According to the FBI, the two men wanted Carrozza’s permission to carry on the war against Salemme and his supporters. Assistant U. S. Attorney Jeffrey Auerhahn claimed, “Robert Carrozza supplied legitimacy. You can’t take on a mafia member unless you have one with you.” Using Ciampi’s social club on Bennington Street as the group’s headquarters, the “renegade faction” retaliated.
On March 31, 1994, in two unrelated attacks, three Salemme associates were killed and another wounded. On Bennington Street in East Boston, police were called out around 9:30 p.m. to investigate a shooting. When they arrived they found Richard Devlin slumped down behind the wheel of a 1994 Buick Skylark. The car was parked in front of a restaurant formerly owned by Biagio DiGiacomo, who went to prison during the RICO trials in 1991. Devlin, wearing a bullet proof vest, had been shot in the head and was in critical condition. After a few days on life support he died at Massachusetts General Hospital.
While police were attending to Devlin, Richard Gillis approached them and stated that he too had been shot. Wounded in the mouth, left shoulder, and grazed slightly on the head, Gillis foolishly told police he had not been in the car with Devlin. Gillis could not explain why several of his teeth, which had been shot out by the gunman, were found in the vehicle.
Devlin, an enforcer for Salemme, had a violent history. In 1971, he was convicted of manslaughter. The victim’s corpse was found floating in Dorchester Bay, minus its head, hands, and right leg. The hatchet used to perform the butchery was left buried in the man’s chest. Devlin was sentenced to Walpole Prison. While there he was considered a prime suspect in the November 1973 stabbing death of Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler.” Two trials in the DeSalvo murder ended in hung juries; the case was never solved.
One law enforcement official, who described Devlin and Gillis as Salemme’s “muscle in Boston,” claimed Devlin was a suspect in the murder of Rocco Scali in October 1992. Gillis, who had once survived being shot six times at close range in Copp’s Hill Cemetery in 1980, was a suspect in the murder of Vincent A. Arcieri.
The same night Devlin and Gillis were shot, two Salemme associates in Cranston, Rhode Island were killed. Antonino “Nino” Cucinotta gunned down Ronald Coppola and Peter Scarpellini as they played cards inside a social club. Police arrested Cucinotta, who confessed to the murders claiming the two men had, “failed to defend his honor when another man insulted him.” Both of the victims worked for Salemme’s Rhode Island lieutenant Robert “Bobby” DeLuca.
Police theorized that while the killings were not directly related, they proved that there was a rift in the family and that many “old guard loyalists, who view him (Salemme) as an upstart boss who demands more tribute from his underlings than his predecessors and offers no protection in return.”
In a tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Michael P. Romano, Jr. was killed on September 2, 1994. The twenty-year-old Romano had been an outstanding hockey player at Wakefield High School. Married to a schoolteacher, Romano had a young daughter and another child on the way. Believed to be in some financial straits, Romano got involved with Enrico M. “Rico” Ponzo, a mob wanna-be and local drug pusher. Ponzo also had a reputation of pushing guns to those in need. He first came to the attention of law enforcement in 1986 when he allegedly supplied the guns that took the lives of two young men in a brutal killing in a park in the North End section of Boston.
In August 1994, Romano was arrested with Ponzo after Boston police watched Ponzo hand a bag of cocaine to someone. In the pursuit that followed, Romano was seen tossing away another bag. Friends and family were shocked by the arrest. Two weeks later, on the night he was murdered, Romano was in Ponzo’s car along with Ralph Puleo when the trio discovered they had a flat tire. Romano volunteered to change it and the other two men walked to the nearby Stadium Café, operated by Robert Cirame, to wait.
As Romano was changing the tire a man walked up to the automobile and began kicking the tires. When Romano inquired as to what he was doing, the man pulled out an automatic, pressed it to Romano’s cheek, and pulled the trigger.
In a tragic twist to the night’s event, six hours after Romano’s murder, State Police Trooper Mark Charbonnier made a routine stop of a van driven by a paroled killer only to get into a deadly shootout. Law enforcement officials believe that David Clark, a mob associate connected to Salemme, was on his way home after shooting Romano. While Charbonnier was speaking with him, Clark pulled a gun and began firing. One slug hit the trooper in the stomach just below his bulletproof vest. Life-flighted to Beth Israel Hospital, Charbonnier died on the operating table. Before he went down, Charbonnier was able to get off a few shots of his own wounding Clark in the left arm and head. Clark was rushed to Massachusetts General in critical condition, but would survive.
On September 16, in a shooting which is yet to be understood, Joseph Cirame, manager of the Stadium Café, where Ponzo and Puleo waited while Romano worked at changing the tire, was shot five times as he was leaving his car in Revere. Cirame survived the near-fatal attack. Five days later, Michael Prochilo was shot at as he sat in his car, which was parked on Gladstone Street. Prochilo, who saw the approaching car with its gunmen, ducked to avoid injury.
Retaliation continued on the afternoon of October 20. Joseph Souza, described as a “fringe player” in organized crime, was shot down in a telephone booth on an East Boston street corner. Souza had a record dating back to 1975, which included assault, battery and armed robbery. He was questioned by police in the murder of State Trooper Charbonnier after being one of the last people seen with David Clark, and was alleged to have been a participant in the Romano murder. Residents of the East Boston neighborhood where Souza was gunned down were angry that it took sixteen minutes for an ambulance to arrive. One local storeowner claimed, “They could have saved that kid.” Souza was pronounced dead at Massachusetts General.
On October 31, 1994 the war spilled over into Worcester, Massachusetts when Matteo Trotto was wounded at the College Square Gym. Trotto, a Worcester drug dealer, was hit with several shots, but was able to drive himself to a hospital in nearby Framingham.
The next victim was Paul Struzella of Revere. During the early morning hours of December 11, members of the Revere Fire Department were called to the scene of an automobile fire in a parking lot on Bennington Street. After extinguishing a burning 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass, firemen found Struzella’s body. A reputed friend of Enrico Ponzo, Struzella had been shot in the head before the car was torched.
To be continued next week
Copyright A. R. May 2000