BOSTON – Francis Salemme leaned forward in his chair and craned his neck to get a better look at the photo shown to jurors. On the screen was Salemme with brown curly hair, at the time that the New England Mafia boss known as “Cadillac Frank,” holding court outside a hotel, under the watchful eye of the FBI.
Nearly three decades later, the 84-year-old Salemme, on trial in the strangling of a nightclub owner in 1993, would fit in better in a nursing home than at the helm of a Mafia meeting.
For prosecutors, Salemme is perhaps the last man standing from an era in which organised crime flourishes in Boston and the surrounding area. The geriatric gangster who was shot in the courtroom on the trial of the first day is a shell of its former self — just like the New England Mafia he once led.
“It is the end of an era — at least in this chapter of the organized crime in the Boston area,” said Brian Kelly, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Salemme in previous 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 is not as powerful or violent as it was decades ago, said Scott Burnstein, who has written books about the mafia. When the upper echelons, such as Salemme, began to cooperate with the authorities, it opened the door for members to turn on one another, Burnstein said.
And if the oath of omerta — the code of silence, went out of the window, the men left on the street stopped to take 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 about the pursuit of Bulger.
“The last part of the golden age of American organized crime went with people such as Cadillac Frank,” Burnstein said. “The city will never be a mob trial, this again.”
Salemme the baggy suits hang on his frail frame and a gray wisps that are smooth back over his balding head and replaced his brown curls. For the leave of the court on a day in May, his lawyer had to remind him not to forget the inhaler that he had left on the table.
Salemme, who is head of the New England family of La Cosa Nostra, shakes in and out of the courtroom, bent over, only occasionally lifting his head to wave and wink at a reporter who covered him for decades. Salemme looks so different that his former partner in crime, the 84-year-old Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, in the first instance, could not even see him sitting just a few meters in front of him in the 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 loyalty, there are not as they used to be; the discipline is not there as it used to be,” Foley said. “Now all you have to do is threaten them with a substantial penalty … and they are almost ready to run,” Foley said.
Salemme and his co-defendant, Paul Weadick, are accused of killing Steven DiSarro because Salemme was afraid that he would cooperate with the authorities. Salemme, who is admitted to a number of other murders, and Weadick insisted that she is innocent.
DiSarro’s remains were excavated in 2016 after authorities got a tip they were buried in the vicinity of a mill in Providence, Rhode Island.
For more than a month, members of the jury have heard of and about gangsters with nicknames like “The Cigar” and “Fatso.” They have seen as the us Marshals Service officials disguised by make-up and wigs to protect their identity explains 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 the remains were found.
And they have heard hours of colorful testimony, such as when a mob associate pronounced “bada bing, bada boom”, as he described how Salemme once took him by the throat.
Closing arguments in the case are set for Monday.
Salemme, a survivor of the gang wars that plagued Boston in the 1960s, decided to work together with the authorities in 1999 and agreed to serve 11 years in prison on extortion charges after he learned Flemmi and Bulger was 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 the protection of the government — to DiSarro the remains were found.
Salemme the scheme was the last of the most feared and powerful in New England, said Stephen Johnson, who investigated organized crime for the police state, before retiring last year.
Decades of persecution, and stricter penalties that gave the government more leverage gangsters to convince their friends have left with a broken organization of “Soprano wannabees” that are still in loansharking, illegal gambling and drugs, Johnson said.
One of the men to help prosecutors who hope to Salemme way for the rest of his life is his ex-partner Flemmi, who claims that he ran on a DiSarro kill. After Flemmi took the stand this month, the prosecutor asked Flemmi about dozens of murders he’s been involved in, including one of his own criminal colleagues.
“I don’t feel that he would be able to stand up” to the authorities, Flemmi explained when asked why he shot the man.
He continued to testify against his former best friend.
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