June 7–14, 2001
Banned in Boston
photo: Ted Ancher/courtesy Boston Herald
Finding a mob safe haven in Philly
This past week an FBI undercover agent who posed as an Irish drug dealer in Boston was on the stand in the Merlino federal racketeering trial.
The agent, Michael McGowan, testified he had purchased nearly $75,000 worth of cocaine from Boston mobster Robert Luisi and several of Luisi’s top associates. At the time, Luisi was a new soldier in the Philadelphia crime family. Earlier in the trial, mobster-turned-government-witness Ron Previte told the jury that Joey Merlino had authorized cocaine transactions between Luisi and McGowan. But Previte also admitted that Merlino had turned down several previous drug deals because he didn’t want anything to do with narcotics. And Merlino’s lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, seemed to suggest that Merlino thought he was authorizing a deal involving stolen goods.
The meetings between McGowan and Luisi took place in McGowan’s business office in downtown Boston, and on the streets of Boston’s North End, the Italian neighborhood where Luisi grew up. Prosecutors said that Luisi was anxious to earn as much money as possible to impress his new boss, Joey Merlino.
But in June 1999, Luisi and three associates were arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. Luisi agreed to become a government witness against Merlino. (Joey Merlino is the only defendant in the racketeering trial charged with drug dealing.) A mob source told City Paper that Luisi claimed he became a government witness after Christ appeared to him in a dream and told him Joey Merlino was the devil. While in jail, Luisi shaved his head and began to carry a Bible. Luisi supposedly told any inmate who would listen that he was writing a book called From Capo To Christ. The mob source said, "can you believe that title? Luisi was never a capo."
So, before he was born again, how did a wise-guy wannabe from Boston get to be a made member of a Philly crime family? And why didn’t he want to join the New England Mafia?
In November 1995, Robert Luisi’s own family made national news when his father, brother and two other men were gunned down inside the 99 Restaurant and Pub in Charlestown. A fifth man eating lunch with them was seriously wounded.
Because this mob-related shooting was particularly bloody and took place in a busy restaurant where patrons had to dive for cover, the national news media jumped on the story as evidence that despite the numerous convictions of mob leaders and members across the country, the Mafia was still alive and extremely violent.
The Luisi family had long been involved in the Boston underworld and was allied with New England crime family boss, Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme.
The men who murdered the Luisis also were associates of the Boston mob and had been involved in a long-running dispute with the Luisis.
Robert Luisi was in prison at the time of the murders. It was in prison that Luisi met and became friendly with Joey Merlino.
When Luisi was released, police sources told City Paper, he headed to South Philadelphia to pledge allegiance to Joey Merlino. Luisi felt the Boston underworld was too unstable, but with the backing of the Philadelphia mob, Luisi believed, he could operate in New England.
The New England crime family had been in flux for almost a decade and its history and problems are similar to those of Philadelphia Mafia.
The New England version of the mob was originally dominated by five brothers from Sicily who had settled in Brooklyn but moved to Rhode Island during World War I. In Providence during Prohibition, a bootlegger allied with the New York Mafia, Raymond Patriarca Sr., became one of the most powerful gangland leaders. In 1938, Patriarca was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in state prison for robbery, but was paroled three months later because of the political connections he had in the Massachusetts governor’s office. By 1952, Patriarca was strong enough to take on his rival, Irish mob boss Carlton O’Brian. O’Brian was shot to death, and the Italian mob became dominant in the Rhode Island underworld.
Boston was a different story. The Italian mob there was often in conflict with Irish and Jewish gangs and was forced to share the rackets. The Godfather of Boston was Filippo "Phil" Buccola, a Sicilian immigrant. Buccola gained the respect of his underworld rivals by assassinating Irish gang leader Frank Wallace and an associate in 1931.
By the mid-1950s, the U.S. Senate was holding hearings across the country to investigate organized crime. Buccola had no interest in being hauled before the government inquisition so he retired to Sicily, eventually leaving the mob to Raymond Patriarca Sr. The New England mob was run from a neighborhood in Providence called Federal Hill, where Patriarca kept an office for his vending machine and pinball business.
Patriarca was a very powerful mob boss. He was friends with the Genovese crime family, which ran western Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut. (The Connecticut River is the considered the border which divides the New York and New England crime family territories.)
He allegedly was partners in an illegal gambling operation with Philadelphia don Angelo Bruno. Patriarca also allegedly had a hidden interest in a race track, Berkshire Downs, whose owners included Frank Sinatra.
Although Patriarca went to prison in the late ’60s — he was paroled in 1975 — he ran his crime family from jail. When he died of a heart attack at his girlfriend’s house in 1984, the Mafia boss was 76 years old.
After that, things went downhill for the New England crime family. Patriarca’s son, Raymond Jr., ran things for a while, but he made a mess of everything; he was arrested and convicted of racketeering and went to jail, but not before he was demoted to soldier. The next boss, Nicky Bianco, was arrested and convicted of racketeering and died in prison. His successor, Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, was charged with racketeering and then the acting boss, Louis "Baby Shanks" Manocchio, pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property.
So how did all of these New England crime leaders end up in jail? It turns out the FBI had two very valuable informants who were ratting out the local Mafia. The two informants just happened to be the leaders of an Irish mob in South Boston known as the Winter Hill Gang. For 30 years they gave information to the Feds. And for 30 years their profitable gangland activities grew and murders committed by the Winter Hill Gang went uninvestigated. One of the Winter Hill leaders also happened to be a crime partner of Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, the boss of the New England Mafia.
A recent government investigation revealed that an FBI agent became so chummy with the Winter Hill mobsters that he warned them about a coming federal indictment back in 1995. That warning prompted one of the mob bosses, James "Whitey" Bulger — brother of the former State Senate president Billy Bulger — to flee. Bulger has been missing since then and is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. There is also $1 million bounty for information leading to Bulger’s capture.