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An old murder, an elderly gangster and a 56-year war on organized crime take center stage Wednesday in Boston federal court, as a former head of the New England Mafia, Frank Salemme, goes on trial.
He's charged in connection with the 1993 disappearance of a South Boston nightclub manager, Steven DiSarro, whose remains were found in Rhode Island in 2016.
The government’s star witness is Salemme's erstwhile best friend, Steven Flemmi, better known for his other former partner, James "Whitey" Bulger.
The trial, like the era that’s coming to a close, features bitter enemies, betrayals, a relentless prosecutor, corrupt agents and the crushing defeat of the mob.
David Boeri spoke with Morning Edition host Bob Oakes about the long-running saga. Their lightly edited conversation is below:
Bob Oakes: Remind us who Frank Salemme is.
David Boeri: The rise and fall of Frank P. Salemme takes us back to the 1950s and 1960s, to a Boston that doesn’t exist anymore. It's a Boston that was a city of grifters and loan sharks and enforcers, of crooked cops on the take, an Irish gang war. And all at the time when U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy launched his war on organized crime, which really meant the Mafia. And he did that here in Boston.
Salemme was a gangster from Jamaica Plain at the time who teamed up with Flemmi and they went to work for themselves. They contracted themselves out as hit men for the mob. “They called me the general,” Salemme once told me. “I planned them and I did them.”
One of their career highlights involved a couple sticks of dynamite under a car that blew the leg off the lawyer representing the notorious gangster-turned-cooperating government witness, Joe Barboza. Salemme was later convicted of the crime and went to prison for 16 years, but he kept his mouth shut about Flemmi, who he blames for the bombing.
Flemmi, on the other hand, was protected by the FBI. As for Salemme, he just happened to get arrested in the middle of the day on the streets of New York in 1972 by a young FBI agent named John Connolly, who just happened to recognize him as a fugitive.
Eventually, Salemme would become the boss, the godfather, of the New England Mafia, as it was collapsing under the barrage of federal prosecutors. But he did not have long to enjoy it. In 1995, Salemme was indicted along with Flemmi and Whitey Bulger. Bulger became a fugitive and so did Salemme.
We know it took years to capture Bulger. What about Salemme?
It took less than eight months. And for what’s been the running theme of Salemme’s life, it was the result of a betrayal. When he was getting ready to stand trial for that indictment, Salemme discovered that his old partner Flemmi had been a longtime secret FBI informant, along with Bulger. He was outraged. So he pleaded guilty instead of going to trial next to Flemmi, and in so doing he became the first crime boss in Mafia history to turn government witness.
Salemme was also a witness in the trial here in Boston that led to the conviction of the disgraced retired FBI agent, Connolly.
That's right, and he was a major witness because he testified that Connolly had tipped off Bulger and Flemmi before that secret indictment became public so they could take off.
What did the government do in return for Salemme’s testimony?
It recommended a reduced sentence and they put him in the witness protection program. But here’s the key: The government gave Salemme immunity for all the murders he committed, but only if he admitted to them. And that was what would lead to this latest trial.
Let's talk about the murder victim in this latest case. What’s involved in the current case regarding the murder of Steven DiSarro?
In 1993, DiSarro, of Westwood, was the manager of a nightclub in South Boston, which had once been known as the Channel. But the actual owners of the club were Salemme, Flemmi and Salemme's son, Frank Salemme Jr. And they were hiding their financial interest because they would never get a license if the authorities knew they were owners.
So DiSarro was the straw, according to the government and mobsters alike.
“He was a really nice guy,” one of his family members told me, "but he liked hanging out with the wrong guys.”
FBI agents were investigating the club and one agent actually approached DiSarro on a street in Boston's Combat Zone to try to question him or talk him into being an informant. One of Flemmi’s sons told me that word got back to Salemme and Flemmi. They were concerned DiSarro was talking too much. So they decided he had to go.
He was 43 when he disappeared after getting into a red car in front of his house in Westwood in 1993.
Within a couple days, investigators told me, they learned from an informant that DiSarro had been murdered in Salemme’s house in the town of Sharon, strangled by Salemme's son in the presence of Salemme Sr. and his brother and another associate, who's also charged with and on trial here for murdering a witness.
But in 1993 DiSarro's corpse was missing and so the case went cold for 23 years.
What broke the case open?
Until a couple years ago, Salemme was living low to the ground in Atlanta back in the federal protection program, when some of his mob associates in Providence got into a jam.
And the government was ready to help them out in return for what they had to offer.
Turns out, there was a hole behind an old mill in Providence, and one of Salemme's closest associates in the Mafia is prepared to say that Salemme told him back in May 1993 to get ready to receive a package.
And that mobster’s brother, who Frank initiated into the Mafia, will testify that he took delivery of DiSarro's body and drove it to the hole where the remains were found 23 years later, in 2016.
Does the government have a witness to testify to seeing Salemme and his associates actually murder DiSarro?
Yes, and true to the story of betrayals, that star witness is none other than Flemmi, who will say he walked in on the murder in Frank’s house on that fateful day.
So now we are about to have an octogenarian testifying against another octogenarian, Flemmi and Salemme, in a courtroom that could look like a geriatric ward in what is probably the end of the line for the war on organized crime Bobby Kennedy launched in 1961.
It's a saga 56 years in the making, a war that was sometimes dirty, sometimes involved agents and cops who were as dirty as the mobsters.
And now in what seems like the final act, you have the relentless longtime prosecutor Fred Wyshak, whose zealousness brings comparisons to Ahab. He got Bulger, who you could say is the white whale. Now he's going after the last standing guy, but what does it tell you that they're bringing in the last target in a wheelchair?
This segment aired on May 9, 2018.
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