PROVIDENCE — Nearly 23 years after a South Boston nightclub manager vanished, the FBI and Rhode Island State Police called in a backhoe, canines, and the state medical examiner’s office Wednesday during an exhaustive search for his remains behind an old mill building.
Two people familiar with the investigation said authorities received a tip that Steven A. DiSarro, 43, of Westwood, was buried on the property owned by a reputed Mafia associate who pleaded guilty this month to a federal drug charge.
Authorities believe they know how and when DiSarro was killed in 1993 but have never charged anyone with the slaying — in part because they never found his body.
Kristen Setera, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston office, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation and would confirm only that the FBI’s evidence response team was working at the site near Branch Avenue and Woodward Road.
The arrival of a Rhode Island state medical examiner’s truck at the scene at about 6 p.m. fueled speculation that remains had been found, but Setera declined to comment on that development.
“Our investigation is continuing, and we will be back on scene tomorrow,” Setera said Wednesday night.
Investigators had put up three tents near the massive ditch behind the mill, where a backhoe was digging.
A neighbor, Henry Aubin, 49, said he was not surprised by the activity.
“It’s Providence,” he said. “Providence, Rhode Island. The mob was big here once upon a time. . . . It doesn’t bother me. I know I didn’t step on anyone’s toes.”
WPRI-TV in Providence first reported the search, which began early Tuesday morning behind a converted mill building owned by William Ricci, who pleaded guilty to allowing his property to be used for a large-scale marijuana-growing operation. Federal prosecutors dismissed two other charges against him as part of a plea agreement.
Notorious gangster Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi told federal and state authorities in 2003 that he walked in on the murder of DiSarro on May 10, 1993, at the Sharon, Mass., home of former New England Mafia boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, according to a US Drug Enforcement Administration report filed in federal court in Boston.
Flemmi said that Salemme and two other men were watching as Salemme’s son, Frank, strangled DiSarro, the manager of the now defunct Channel nightclub. Flemmi said that he quickly left the house, but that later the elder Salemme confided that he had helped his son dispose of DiSarro’s body at a Rhode Island construction site, according to the report.
Flemmi told authorities that Salemme also told him that Rhode Island mobster Robert DeLuca “was present during the burial” of DiSarro, according to the report. An FBI affidavit filed in support of Ricci’s arrest last year described him as a longstanding Mafia associate who was close to DeLuca.
Salemme’s son died in 1995. By the time Flemmi implicated the elder Salemme in DiSarro’s slaying, the former Mafia don was already in the Federal Witness Protection Program for cooperating with the prosecution of South Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. and his corrupt FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr.
In 2008, Francis Salemme was sentenced to five years in prison for lying and obstruction of justice for denying any knowledge about DiSarro’s murder during plea negotiations in 1999 that resolved a prior racketeering indictment against him.
Salemme denied the allegation that he watched his son strangle DiSarro, then helped dispose of his body.
Steven Boozang, an attorney for Salemme, declined to comment on the search for DiSarro’s remains or whether Salemme, 82, remains in the witness protection program.
Boozang called Flemmi “a pathological liar” and said that Salemme has “moved on with his life and has had no involvement with the criminal justice system for well over 20 years.”
DeLuca and Ricci were close associates, according to an FBI affidavit filed in support of Ricci’s arrest last year in the Rhode Island drug case.
Retired Massachusetts State Police Colonel Thomas Foley — who investigated DiSarro’s disappearance while spearheading the investigation of Bulger, Flemmi, and Salemme — said on Wednesday that authorities didn’t have enough evidence to charge Salemme or DeLuca in connection with DiSarro’s slaying, in part because they had never located DiSarro’s body.
“It was one of the murders we were looking at and trying to solve,” Foley said. “I’m glad to see that people haven’t walked away from it, and that there are still people who are going to be held accountable.”