One night, in September 1991, FBI agents quietly occupied room 14-8 of Boston's Logan Hilton hotel in order to listen - via wiretap - to a conversation taking place in the room next door. The conversation was between Natale Richichi, a high-ranking member of the New York Mafia, and Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, who had recently cemented his position as boss of the New England mob.
Salemme bragged about his crew and aired various grievances - including with a man named Stephen DiSarro who was a friend of Salemme's son, Frank, Jr. and ran The Channel rock club, in which Frank Jr held an interest. On one portion of the wiretapped conversation, Salemme describes warning his son about this man Disarro, saying: “DiSarro is going to turn on you. He's a snake, he's a sneak. He's no [expletive] good. You can .... I grew up with him, I know his mother, ...
Forget about it, the guy's no good! Last week, twenty-seven years after that recording was made, it was played for members of a jury in Massachusetts federal court, where Salemme is now being tried for murder.
DiSarro disappeared in 1993. Two years ago, authorities acting on a tip, unearthed human remains - identified by DNA tests as DiSarro's - from behind an old mill, on an industrial lot in Providence.
Prosecutors say that Salemme ordered DiSarro killed to prevent him from talking to the FBI. And they charge that Salemme's son, Frank Junior - now deceased - and another man, co-defendant Paul Weadick, carried out that order, strangling DiSarro.
The trial, now in its third week, has featured a string of ex-mobster witnesses - con men, racketeers, and drug dealers whose crimes were allegedly protected by the boss: Frank Salemme.
On the stand, Joseph DeLuca, a former made member of the New England Mafia, now 78 years old, recounted the day, in 1993, that his brother - also in the mob - got a page from Salemme and called him back from a payphone.
DeLuca: "He said Mr. Salemme had a package for us and he was bringing it down the next afternoon or morning."
Prosecutor Fred Wyshak: "What did he mean?"
DeLuca: "That it's a body."
DeLuca then described meeting Salemme, transferring a body from his car and, with the help of two associates, burying it in the construction pit where DiSarro's remains were unearthed.
For all the lurid testimony from DeLuca and the other aging ex-mobsters taking the stand, the story prosecutors are eliciting from them is no comedy - and lawyers for Salemme and co-defendant Weadick say the ex-mobsters testifying in this trial are proven criminals and liars -- and that they have strong motivation to lie.
“The prosecutors in this case are paying the cooperators for their testimony,” said J.W. Carney, Jr., noted Boston defense attorney who defender notorious gangster Whitey Bulger.
“They’re not paying by giving them money but giving them something more valuable than money.”
All of the ex-mobster witnesses testifying in this case are getting something for their cooperation - including, in at least one case, a monetary stipend from the government as part of its witness protection program -- and are in most or all cases avoiding criminal sentences themselves.
That’s something Salemme’s and Weadick’s defense attorneys have elicited in testimony over and over again.
Take this exchange, between Salemme defense attorney Steven Boozang and ex-mobster, drug trafficker and extortionist Thomas Hillary, now in witness protection:
Attorney Boozang: "How do you receive money from the feds?"
Hillary: "They give you cash."
Boozang: "Like, in an envelope?"
Or this exchange, in which Boozang elicited Hillary’s extensive criminal past and his participation as a cooperating witness in another trial:
Hillary: "That’s correct."
Boozang: "And the one time you were in jail you received [payments] from the government for your canteen …"
Hillary: "That’s correct."
And when it comes to anticipated witness Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, prosecutors made a grand bargain indeed.
Flemmi is the only anticipated witness expected to testify that he saw the murder itself take place – and his testimony likely will be crucial to the case against Mr. Weadick, whose name has been absent from much of the testimony so far.
Flemmi, convicted of 10 murders, had been facing the death penalty – until he agreed to cooperate in this trial.
“And they agreed to take it off the table,” Carney noted of the prosecution’s offer (prosecutors acknowledged this in their opening statements).
“And so what they’re paying this witness for in return for his testimony is to allow him to live.”
And that's what makes this trial about more than a twenty-five year-old murder and a bunch of aging mobsters.
Salemme was a cooperating witness for federal prosecutors in their case against disgraced FBI agent John Connolly – and was himself in the federal witness protection program.
Now, prosecutors are asking a jury not to trust him – and instead to believe the testimony of other acknowledged criminals.
The decades-long effort to dismantle the mob has been a messy business -- full of uncomfortable bargains.