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Capture ends luckless five years at helm

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 8/13/1995

It has not been a good run for Francis P. Salemme.

His five-year reign as the reputed head of a largely dysfunctional Mafia family has been, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster. His closest confidants have been jailed or assassinated, while he has barely managed to avoid the bullets and accusing fingers of disenfranchised mobsters.

Last winter, he was forced to go on the run when he learned he was about to be indicted. And while he was on the lam, his son and namesake died, leaving him unable to attend the funeral.

And so Salemme's arrest late Friday was merely in keeping with what has been a lousy stretch for one of the last old-school wiseguys in Boston.

Given that the authorities have Salemme implicating himself on tape, and a flock of stool pigeons ready to finger him, it doesn't look good for Cadillac Frank, a moniker he acquired before he allegedly began commandeering such pedestrian vehicles as a Ford Explorer from recalcitrant bookies.

Still, Salemme, who grew up in Jamaica Plain, is the Richard Nixon of the underworld; a survivor who has managed to elude the wrath of scorned rivals who contend Salemme demands more tribute than his predecessors but offers little service in return.

Given his predicament, some say Salemme has no one to blame but himself. After the FBI and State Police made several successful incursions into the local Mafia throughout the 1980s, taking out one layer of leadership after the other, it was considered wise to turn inward, to rebuild the insularity that had melted away as omerta, the Mafia's code of silence, became a joke and the North End and other former Mafia havens became home to more yuppies than black-clad widows from Palermo.

But instead of rebuilding the Mafia's insularity, Salemme embraced a radical approach. He became a suburban Godfather, living in Sharon, the first local Mafia chieftain to eschew the North End almost completely. Instead of surrounding himself with Mafiosi, he regularly employed Irish-American mobsters, forging stronger links with the Winter Hill Gang. And he gained a reputation for promoting gangsters who showed little respect to veteran wiseguys.

Rival mobsters gave their verdict on Salemme's leadership style March 31, 1993. Richard (Richie) Devlin, the bank robber who became Salemme's enforcer, was shot to death outside an East Boston restaurant. Devlin's partner, Richard (Nine Lives) Gillis, lived up to his nickname by surviving the fusillade.

A few hours later, Antonino (Nino) Cucinotta, former driver for New England godfather Raymond L. S. Patriarca, gunned down a pair of Salemme loyalists inside a dingy social club in Cranston, R.I. Cucinotta, who has since agreed to become a government witness, told police he snapped after a young mobster insulted him in front of a group of men playing cards and Salemme's people laughed at him and did not defend his honor.

Although the timing of the shootings was coincidental, mob investigators say it exposed a growing rift within the region's Mafia. That rift has only widened as Salemme loyalists have been unable to keep a lid on violence, especially in and around East Boston, where there have been several gangland murders.

Like most mobsters, Salemme rose to power through the misfortune of his peers. After longtime Boston Mafia leader Gennaro (Jerry) Angiulo and his brothers blabbed themselves into prison in 1986, they were replaced by a younger regime that was no wiser when it came to talking near FBI bugs.

Salemme, meanwhile, emerged from prison with a healthy sense of entitlement after serving 15 years for blowing up the car of John Fitzgerald, a lawyer who had angered the Mafia. After those who replaced Angiulo failed to kill Salemme outside a Saugus pancake house in 1989, but succeeded in getting their voices picked up by an FBI bug, they were out and Salemme was in. Salemme, however, did not learn from the sins of his Godfathers.

"I'm the boss," Salemme allegedly told Las Vegas Mafioso Natale (Big Chris) Richichi during a December 1991 rendezvous in a Logan Hilton room that had been bugged by the FBI.

Salemme didn't stop there, implicating not just himself, but his friends and business partners, James J. (Whitey) Bulger, the South Boston underworld leader, and Stephen (The Rifleman) Flemmi. "I got that crew that's around, some kids from South Boston . . . Bulger and Flemmi," Salemme said, according to FBI transcripts of the conversation.

Even before those transgressions became public, Salemme had been under intense pressure from a rebellious mob faction, which had enlisted the support of New York mobsters, including John Gotti Jr., son of the imprisoned Gambino crime family leader.

Those who know Salemme say he was pained at not being able to attend the June 26 funeral of his son, who escaped in death the racketeering charges that his father now will face.

"Poor Frank," said one lawyer who knows him. "If he was going to get grabbed, he would have rather got grabbed two months ago. At least then he could have buried his boy. Nothing's going right for him."

This story ran on page 19 of the Boston Globe on 8/13/1995.
© Copyright 1995 Globe Newspaper Company.



 KEY FIGURES
Whitey Bulger
Stephen Flemmi
Frank Salemme
Kevin Weeks
John Martorano
John Connolly
John Morris

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The Bulger mystique
A look at Boston's famous brothers, William and Whitey.

1 9 9 5
The story of Whitey's fall
How investigators brought down the elusive criminal.

1 9 9 8
Whitey & the FBI
The relationship between Bulger and Boston's law men.

1 9 9 8
Whitey's life on the run
The fugitive mobster's relentless travels across the country.

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