Betrayed by fellow mobsters who secretly worked as FBI informants as they plotted to kill him, New England Mafia boss Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme proclaimed yesterday that he was finished with the mob as he was led away to serve an 11-year prison sentence for racketeering.
"I learned my lesson," said Salemme, 66, who discovered after his January 1995 indictment that two of his codefendants, best pal Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi and fugitive South Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger, were longtime informants who had helped the FBI dismantle the New England mob.
"Shame on me if I didn't know after what happened to me in the last 35 years with my best friend (Flemmi)," said Salemme, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and striped tie as he faced US District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf. "Shame on me if it happens again."
The Mafia don, who will get credit for time spent in jail since his August 1995 arrest, could be free in as little as five years if he earns "good time" by staying out of trouble in prison.
Salemme becomes the third successive New England Mafia boss jailed in the last decade, following Raymond "Junior" Patriarca and the late Nicholas Bianco to prison, as law enforcement systematically targeted generations of local mobsters. They were convicted with the help of rival gangsters like Bulger and Flemmi, whose crimes were ignored by the FBI for years.
"I know what the government has in place," Salemme told Wolf. "I know what they're capable of. I want no part of anything ever again."
Wolf, who accepted a plea agreement between Salemme and federal prosecutors that called for a prison term ranging from 130 to 162 months, said he decided to sentence Salemme to 136 months because his crimes were serious. Still, Wolf said he believed Salemme was "capable of following the rules" once he is freed.
"I know the government will be watching you closely and you'll never know if you can trust anyone who might engage in criminal activity with you," Wolf warned. "It would not be just wrong for you to engage in criminal conduct when you get out, it would be very dumb."
Attorney Anthony Cardinale, who represents Salemme, portrayed his client as a man who became the scapegoat for Flemmi and claimed FBI files are littered with reports from Flemmi blaming Salemme for his own misdeeds.
It was Flemmi, according to Cardinale, who planted dynamite in the car of Everett lawyer John E. Fitzgerald on Jan. 30, 1968. The explosion tore off one of the lawyer's legs. Salemme spent 15 years in prison for the attempted murder.
Flemmi fled, tipped off, he said, by retired FBI Agent Paul Rico about the pending charges. Flemmi testified in 1998 that he returned only after Rico sent word that the witness against him had recanted and the charges would be dropped.
During his stint in prison, Salemme received commendations from then-Governor Michael Dukakis and other state officials after he rescued a wounded guard who had been shot by an inmate. He was also honored for quelling prison disturbances on several occasions.
Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly, who urged Wolf to ignore Salemme's prison heroics when sentencing him, said, "We are not questioning his bravery, we are not questioning his leadership skills. Unfortunately, he put them to illegal use once he got out of prison."
But Cardinale accused the FBI of luring Salemme back into organized crime after his release from state prison in February 1988 by enlisting Flemmi to target him and stay close to him.
And, Cardinale noted, another FBI informant, mobster Angelo "Sonny" Mercurio, lured Salemme to a meeting on June 16, 1989, outside a Saugus pancake house, where the unarmed Salemme was ambushed by gunmen who opened fire as women and children dining inside ducked for cover.
Wounded in the chest, Salemme initially took cover in the restaurant's vestibule, but ran back outside to prevent innocent bystanders from being hurt, suffering a second wound to his leg, Cardinale said.
Although Mercurio and Flemmi warned the FBI more than a week before the shooting that Salemme had been targeted by a renegade mob faction, Cardinale said, "Nobody was warned. Nothing was done."
Cardinale also accused FBI Agent John Connolly, longtime handler of Bulger and Flemmi, of leaking a story to the Boston Herald about Salemme that inflamed the rival mobsters and intensified their effort to kill Salemme.
But Kelly said there was no evidence that the article prompted the shooting and noted that an internal mob war was behind the shooting.
"While it may be fashionable to blame the FBI for everything, there's no evidence they were to blame here," Kelly said. "Mr. Cardinale is becoming the Oliver Stone of the defense bar."
Said Cardinale, "I'm not suggesting there was an FBI plot to kill my client. I'm saying the government's fingerprints are all over the case."
Cardinale said Salemme's health continues to suffer because of the bullet fragments that remain in his body, causing circulation problems, swelling and pain in his leg and abdomen.
US Attorney Donald K. Stern said his office will continue to pursue the case against Flemmi, who remains in custody awaiting trial while prosecutors appeal a decision by Wolf to bar some evidence in the case.
"There are no words that I can think of that can describe what Flemmi did to him over the years," Cardinale said.
Salemme's wife, Donna, said her husband is writing furiously, hoping to publish a book about his life and experiences with Flemmi, Bulger, and the FBI.
"There are many people that are evil out there," she said. "I just want the truth out."