BOSTON — Francis Salemme leaned forward in his chair and craned his neck to get a better look at the photo being shown to jurors. On the computer screen was Salemme with brown curly hair, at the time the New England Mafia boss known as “Cadillac Frank,” holding court outside a hotel under the watchful eye of the FBI.
Almost three decades later, the 84-year-old Salemme, on trial in the strangling of a nightclub owner in 1993, would fit in better at a nursing home than at the helm of a Mafia meeting.
For prosecutors, Salemme is perhaps the last man standing from an era when organized crime flourished in Boston and its environs. The geriatric mobster who was wheeled into the courtroom on the trial’s first day is a shell of his former self — much like the New England Mafia he once led.
“It’s the end of an era — at least this chapter of organized crime in the Boston area,” said Brian Kelly, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Salemme in prior cases and helped secure a conviction against notorious gangster Whitey Bulger .
The Mafia still has a presence in cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, but it’s not nearly as powerful or violent as it was decades ago, said Scott Burnstein, who has written books about the mob. When the upper echelons, like Salemme, started cooperating with authorities, it opened the floodgates for members to turn on one another, Burnstein said.
And as the oath of omerta — the code of silence — went out the window, the men left on the street stopped taking care of the families of those behind bars, which pushed angry members to make deals with the government, said Thomas Foley, a former Massachusetts State Police colonel who wrote a book on the pursuit of Bulger.
“The last part of the golden age of American organized crime went down with people like Cadillac Frank,” Burnstein said. “The city will never see a mob trial like this again.”
Salemme’s baggy suits hang on his frail frame, and gray wisps that are slicked back over his balding head replace his brown curls. Before leaving court one day in May, his lawyer had to remind him not to forget the inhaler he had left on the table.
Salemme, who headed the New England family of La Cosa Nostra, shuffles in and out of the courtroom, hunched over, only occasionally lifting his head to wave and wink at a reporter who has covered him for decades. Salemme looks so different that his former partner in crime, 84-year-old Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, initially couldn’t even recognize him sitting just a few feet in front of him in court.
Salemme’s trial has transported jurors back to a time when the Mafia was a force to be reckoned with. And the parade of old allies who have marched in to testify against him shows that the oath of omerta is long dead.
“The loyalties aren’t there like they used to be; the discipline isn’t there like it used to be,” Foley said. “Now all you have to do is threaten them with a significant penalty … and they’re pretty much ready to turn over,” Foley said.
Salemme and his co-defendant, Paul Weadick, are accused of killing Steven DiSarro because Salemme feared he would cooperate with authorities. Salemme, who has admitted to several other killings, and Weadick insist they are innocent.
DiSarro’s remains were dug up in 2016 after authorities got a tip they were buried near a mill in Providence, Rhode Island.
For more than a month, jurors have heard from and about gangsters with nicknames like “The Cigar” and “Fatso.” They’ve watched as U.S. Marshals Service officials disguised by makeup and wigs to protect their identities explained how Salemme quietly left Atlanta — where he had been living in the witness protection program under the name “Richard Parker” — with more than $28,000 in cash after DiSarro’s remains were found.
And they’ve heard hours of colorful testimony, like when a mob associate uttered “bada bing bada boom” as he described how Salemme once grabbed him by the throat.
Closing arguments in the case are set for Monday.
Salemme, a survivor of gang wars that plagued Boston in the 1960s, decided to cooperate with authorities in 1999 and agreed to serve 11 years in prison on racketeering charges after he learned Flemmi and Bulger had been informing the FBI. Salemme was kicked out of witness protection in 2004 when he was charged with lying to investigators for suggesting other mobsters killed DiSarro and was later allowed back under government protection — until DiSarro’s remains were found.
Salemme’s regime was the last of the truly feared and powerful ones in New England, said Stephen Johnson, who investigated organized crime for the state police before retiring last year.
Decades of prosecutions and stiffer penalties that gave authorities more leverage to persuade mobsters to give up their friends have left a fractured organization made up of “Soprano wannabees” who dabble in loansharking, illegal gambling and drugs, Johnson said.
One of the men helping prosecutors who hope to put Salemme away for the rest of his life is his ex-partner Flemmi, who claims he walked in on DiSarro’s killing. After Flemmi took the stand this month, prosecutors asked Flemmi about dozens of killings he’s been involved in, including one of his own criminal colleagues.
“I didn’t feel that he would be able to stand up” to authorities, Flemmi explained when asked why he shot the man.
He then continued to testify against his onetime best friend.