When the Patriarca family tried to take over Springfield, Massachusetts, in the late Eighties, the local Genovese crew struck back.
In the 1960s, Ralph “Whitey” Tropiano and Salvatore Annunziato, both of the Colombo family, ran New Haven together in a grudging alliance. Tropiano, who once killed his whole crew to save his own skin, was in charge of the bookmakers while the diminutive former boxer, who once fought as “Midge Renault,” headed labor.
Tropiano and one of his bookmaking associates, William Grasso, were going to go into the trash hauling business together, when their attempts to create a monopoly were revealed. Grasso was convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. This turned out to be the greatest stroke of luck in his criminal career.
Mafia relations in Massachusetts can be divided into two eras: before Patriarca and after him. For a generation following the end of Prohibition, the various gangs in Boston were run semi-independently and each leader was the equal of any boss of Springfield, in the western part of the state. Joseph Lombardo, regarded by most Mafia historians as a long time underboss in Boston, was said by Vincent Teresa to be the chair of a council of New England bosses. In this formulation, Springfield came under Boston’s jurisdiction. The undisputed boss of Springfield, who was “Big Nose” Sam Cufari in those years, would require, for at least some activities, the permission of “Mr. Lombardo” in Boston.
After Patriarca consolidated Boston and Providence’s operations, he went on to forge strong relationships with the Genovese and Colombo families of New York. His principal rivals in Boston were the Irish gangs, the Winter Hill Gang chief among them.
In the federal pen, Grasso’s cellmate was Ray Patriarca, Sr. When Grasso returned to Connecticut in 1978, he had a new protector. His old mentor, Whitey Tropiano, who had avoided indictment in the conspiracy with Grasso, was the victim of an unsolved murder in 1980. Thomas “The Blond” Vastano, was a Genovese associate who was said to be running the family’s gambling operations in Connecticut, was killed the same year.
Illegal gaming would figure prominently in Grasso’s demise. By 1989, Big Nose Sam had passed away and his successor, “Frankie Skyball” Scibelli, was in prison. His associate, Anthony Delevo, was running the Springfield crew in his absence. Meanwhile, the Scibelli family held a monopoly in the Springfield area on illegally retrofitted video game machines. S&M was a distributor of pool tables, video game machines, and the like to area restaurants, bars, and clubs, owned first by Albert “Baba” Scibelli, brother of Frankie Skyball, and later by Baba’s son-in-law, restaurateur and real estate developer Michael Cimmino.
The game machines in question were fixed in such a way that venue owners were not only complicit but active in the conspiracy. They could adjust how often players won, and split proceeds 50-50 with S&M. It was a lucrative racket: one venue that kept records earned $40,000 over four months through these machines. The existence of the gaming racket was revealed in a massive raid in 2001.
Like Grasso, Frank Salemme’s rise through the ranks of the Patriarca organization began in prison, where he met soldier Anthony Morelli in 1957. Through Morelli, Salemme was introduced to the crime family he would later attempt to take over with support from Whitey Bulger.
Bulger and his close associate, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, were both long time FBI informants by 1989. Bulger became an FBI informant in 1975, and his Somerville based Winter Hill Gang’s activities were largely overlooked by law enforcement as a result. Flemmi, who also moved between the Winter Hill and Patriarca circles, was what Professor Elin Waring calls a connector of co-offending networks.
Ray Patriarca Sr. died in 1984. Three years later, Grasso became underboss to Ray Patriarca, Jr, when the new boss’ first choice went to prison. Meanwhile, by 1986, Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme had become a trusted aide of Whitey Bulger. He fought on the Winter Hill side of the Irish Gang Wars, then went into hiding after participating in a 1968 car bombing targeting the lawyer of an informant on the Patriarca crime family. He was caught and imprisoned in 1972. After his release from prison in 1988, Salemme promptly began working to take over the Patriarca family. By the time of the shooting, in June, 1989, he was the right-hand man of Bill Grasso, underboss of the Patriarca family and the organization’s most powerful member.
Other Patriarca capos resented Grasso and Salemme for their proximity to the Patriarcas, but also for their ruthlessness and lack of loyalty to their fellows. Chief among the disgruntled captains was Vincent “The Animal” Ferrara.
Salemme was injured in what appears to have been an attempted assassination, in a drive-by shooting outside an IHOP, on the morning of the sixteenth of June, 1989. That afternoon, William Grasso’s body was found by fishermen, on the bank of the Connecticut River in Wethersfield, near the Massachusetts border.
While the drive-by attack on Salemme was carried out in public view, and in broad daylight, the men who took down William Grasso used another, time tested Mafia approach to execution. His trusted associates picked him up for a meeting that never was.
Grasso, who was sixty-two and a recent widower, was famously cautious as well as dangerously violent, so he clearly trusted the company with whom he traveled. The four who took Grasso for his last ride were Gaetano Milano, a newly made man in the Patriarca family; his childhood friend and business partner, Frank Colantoni Jr.; and the Pugliano brothers, Frank and Louis. Like Flemmi, the Pugliano brothers and Gaetano Milano were connectors linking the internally feuding New England family and the Springfield crew.
All four were long time residents of the Springfield area. Milano, who was born in Naples, came to the area as a teenager: he graduated from Longmeadow High School. The Pugliano family has owned and operated a restaurant in Hampden, just outside Springfield, Massachusetts, since 1934. Frank “Pugs” Pugliano was described in 1990 as an associate of the Patriarca Family but a “made” member of the Genovese Family, of which the Springfield crew is a part.
Milano and Colantoni were in their mid-thirties, and the Pugliano brothers, in their early sixties. The man they were supposedly going to see was another elder in the New England mob scene: Carlo Mastrototaro, who ruled Worcester. Mastrototaro, who died in 2009 at age 89, was supposed to mediate a dispute between Grasso and Springfield interests regarding territories for the illegal vending machines that S&M distributed. Frank Pugliano, according to the indictment, set up the talks that led to Grasso’s shooting.
At the time of the shooting, Grasso and Milano were passengers in a van being driven by Louis Pugliano, along with Louis’ brother and Milano’s friend. Gaetano Milano shot Bill Grasso once in the neck, killing him. Colantoni helped his friend dispose of the body and clean the van. That was on the thirteenth of June. Three days later, coming out of an IHOP in Saugus, Massachusetts, “Cadillac Frank” Salemme was the target of a drive by shooting, which he survived by running into a nearby pizza shop.
Although the killing and dumping of Grasso’s body all happened in Genovese territory, initial suspicion for the two shootings fell on the Patriarca family: captains Vincent Ferrara, Joseph A. Russo, and Robert Carrozza.
At his murder trial in 1990, Milano described the killing as the outcome of a conflict among leadership in the Patriarca family. The shooters in the attack on Salemme, and the Springfield hitmen, all maintained that they were likely to be killed by their victims if they did not strike first. It would be seven more years before Whitey Bulger’s control of the FBI, and his use of agents to spread rumors like these among his enemies, would become public knowledge.
Between the Winter Hill Gang’s false flag and genuine threats from Grasso against the Scibelli family monopoly, and considering the close relationships of Milano and his associates to the warring families, it seems likely that a consortium of Patriarca capos, led by Ferrara, could have obtained the active support and participation of the Springfield crew, in their successful strike against Grasso. The support for Milano in Longmeadow in raising his bail, as I’ve written previously, was notable. This coordinated takedown of the leader, in all but name, of the New England crime family, would likely have been seen as mutually beneficial by both Mafia families. Its orchestration by an Irish gang leader in Boston was not even suspected by the participants, much less by its victims.
It appeared that few people mourned the passing of William Grasso. Although he was considered deeply loyal to the Patriarca bosses, the other capos resented Grasso, and his soldiers hated and feared him. The funeral was highly surveilled, but no mafiosi came to pay their respects to the almost universally despised gangster. He was laid to rest beside his wife, Anna.
Despite the suspicion that fell on the Patriarca capos who had opposed Grasso and Salemme, Ferrara and his presumed allies did not benefit from the shootings. In the immediate aftermath, Patriarca men from Providence were put in charge of Connecticut to replace the slain Grasso. Hartford, which had always been an open city, reportedly came under the control of the Genovese family.
Frank Salemme’s bid for power was successful, at least for a time. The career criminal who was not eligible to become a made man under Patriarca Sr., because of his mixed Italian and Irish heritage, was the family’s de facto leader in 1991. Just two years after he was nearly killed by them, Salemme came to lead the organization whose former boss and namesake wouldn’t have him as a member. His son, Frank Salemme, Jr., was reportedly a made man in his father’s crime family.
After a 1995 federal indictment for racketeering, Salemme learned his associates in the Winter Hill Gang were informants. More details came out in Bulger’s 1997 trial. In 1999, Salemme, still in prison, flipped on Bulger and was rewarded with witness protection.
Salemmi was on release from prison and living under an assumed name in Atlanta when the body of nightclub owner, Steven DiSarro, was discovered in Providence in 2016. Salemme is currently on trial in connection with the 1993 murder, attributed to Frank Jr., who died in 1995 from lymphoma.
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