They were once legends on Boston’s streets, considered by the federal government the most menacing criminals of their time. But now in court, they look like harmless old men.
Eighty-four-year-old Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme walks slowly to his seat at the defense table, his shoulders hunched. On the witness stand, a 78-year-old former mobster recounts the day he helped Salemme bury a body in 1993. Another old man, with slicked back gray hair, concedes to jurors he used to be a “bad guy” but says he is now just a retiree who occasionally watches old mob movies.
The flashback to this bygone era of the 1990s and earlier is unfolding this month in US District Court in Boston, where Salemme, the former New England Mafia boss, is on trial for murder.
It was a time when Al Qaeda and MS-13 were distant threats, and the Italian La Cosa Nostra and James “Whitey” Bulger’s Irish mob had a stranglehold on the region. Tough guys in bellbottoms met in restaurants and made deals in used-car lots, and wiseguys chomped cigars on strolls along Boston’s gritty waterfront.
Robert “Bobby” DeLuca, who is one of those guys who used to chomp cigars back in the day, took the stand Tuesday to testify as a witness for the prosecution against Salemme.
Today, the glimmering Seaport District is no longer the turf of hit men, but home to artisanal coffee shops and swanky condos. The Mafia still has a presence in the North End, but the neighborhood is more populated with young professionals and college students.
The trial of the octogenarian Mafia don is a reminder of how much Boston and its criminal underworld have changed. At front and center in courtroom testimony is the Channel nightclub in South Boston, which was demolished in the late 1990s and is the future site of General Electric’s headquarters.
The club’s owner, Steven DiSarro, was first reported missing in 1993. The remains of the 43-year-old father of five were discovered two years ago and set the stage for the case against Salemme and a former associate, Paul Weadick, a 62-year-old Burlington plumber. Both are accused of killing DiSarro to prevent him from becoming a federal witness.
Since the trial opened earlier this month, DiSarro’s family has sat in court hoping a parade of elderly mobsters will provide answers about how and why he was murdered.
Salemme sits each day just a few steps away, usually dressed in a dark suit, white socks, and black shoes. He listens intently as witnesses recount the old days and he stares at blurry surveillance photos of him and his old crew.
It’s a courtroom drama that this city may never see again. Salemme is one of Boston’s last old-school mobsters, a criminal turned federal witness whose many former associates are now dead or in prison. Most recently, he lived in Atlanta under the guise of the witness protection program.
In opening statements, Salemme’s attorney, Steven Boozang, said the former Mafia don is “no angel” but denies having anything to do with DiSarro’s slaying.
Salemme survived the gang wars of the 1960s — a decade during which he admittedly killed eight people and was convicted of maiming an Everett lawyer by blowing up his car. He spent nearly 16 years in prison for that attempted murder and became a “made man” after his release in 1988.
The following year, a renegade mob faction shot Salemme in the chest and leg outside a Saugus pancake house. His body still carries those bullet fragments.
In 1989, Salemme skipped a now infamous Mafia induction ceremony, where then-boss Raymond “Junior” Patriarca urged warring factions to make peace.
It was the first and only Mafia baptism known to have been recorded by the FBI, and it helped lead to prison stints for most of the participants and a clear path to power for Salemme.
In recent weeks, jurors have received an education in Mafia history, replete with power struggles, fatal double-crosses, and the disintegration of omerta — the code of silence that is supposed to keep members from turning on each other.
Conversations from decades ago come to life in the courtroom.
“I’m the boss,” Salemme told a Las Vegas mobster in a 1991 meeting at a Boston hotel, unaware that FBI agents in the room next door were recording their conversation through the wall.
Salemme confided that he had “some good kids” from South Boston who were close allies: Whitey Bulger, then 62, and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, 57.
In 1992, Salemme and his son, Frank Jr., allegedly took control of The Channel, a once iconic rock ’n’ roll club that had been bought by DiSarro and his stepbrother at a public auction.
Prosecutors allege the Salemmes had a hidden interest in the business and orchestrated DiSarro’s murder because they feared he would cooperate with the FBI against them.
DiSarro’s wife, Pam, told jurors that her husband disappeared on May 10, 1993, after climbing into a Jeep outside their Westwood home.
In January 1995, Salemme fled when he was charged in a sweeping federal racketeering case, along with Bulger, Flemmi, and others.
While Bulger managed to elude capture for 16 years, Salemme was arrested seven months later in West Palm Beach, Fla., where neighbors reported they often saw him feeding ducks.
The Globe reported in 1988 that Bulger was an FBI informant, but his criminal associates didn’t believe it. Later, Salemme testified that he was surprised when the FBI eventually revealed in court in 1997 that both Bulger and Flemmi were longtime informants. Bulger and Flemmi informed on their friends and got away with murder for decades. The betrayal prompted many of their associates to turn on them and cut deals with the government.
In 1999, Salemme himself began cooperating with the government and helped send retired FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. to prison. Connolly had been Flemmi’s and Bulger’s liaison.
In exchange for Salemme’s cooperation, his prison sentence for the racketeering was reduced and he was admitted to the witness protection program in 2003.
At the time, prosecutors said Salemme’s Mafia faction was suspected in at least six unsolved gangland slayings in the 1980s and 1990s, but Salemme wasn’t helpful in solving any of them.
Meanwhile, Flemmi linked Salemme to DiSarro’s murder. He alleged that Salemme watched as his son, Frank Jr., strangled DiSarro as Weadick held his legs off the ground.
“As soon as I seen what was going on, I immediately left,” Flemmi later testified.
Salemme’s son died in 1995. Prosecutors indicted the elder Salemme in 2004 on charges that he misled authorities about DiSarro’s presumed murder. But because DiSarro’s remains had not been found, there was no murder case.
Salemme pleaded guilty to misleading authorities, but he insisted he had nothing to do with the murder. He was allowed back into the witness protection program in 2009 after serving five more years in prison.
In Atlanta, Salemme lived a quiet, anonymous life. He joined a New England Patriots fan club.
Then in March 2016, according to prosecutors, a Rhode Island man “jammed up” on drug charges revealed that a body was buried on his property.
Salemme heard that authorities were digging behind an old Providence mill and fled Atlanta, prosecutors allege. He was arrested days later in Connecticut, with $28,000 in cash.
The murder trial is set to resume Tuesday and is expected to last two more weeks.
In testimony earlier this month, 73-year-old Tom Hillary, a former mob associate, described a 1990 encounter at a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, where he said Salemme grabbed him by the throat and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave town for good.
“It was my life; I was a bad guy,” said Hillary, who joined the witness protection program, became a used car salesman, and is now retired. “I didn’t want to change it, but it happened and it happened for the good. I just wish I kept some of the money I had.”
Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.