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Updated: Thursday, 08 Nov 2012, 11:55 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 08 Nov 2012, 9:44 PM EST
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - When Jeffrey Sallet walked into a Federal Hill restaurant and approached Luigi "Baby Shacks" Manocchio, the aging mobster – who knew just about everyone in Providence – had never seen the man in his life.
It was 2007, and at the time Sallet had just arrived in Rhode Island to be the supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI's organized crime task force for the northeast. Manocchio too, had an impressive résumé: he was the boss of the New England crime family.
"I explained to him that I was the new supervisor of the FBI and I was in town and that we would be keeping an eye on him," Sallet said.
Manocchio responded with a simple question: "Why?"
Sallet replied with a simple answer: "Because you're the boss and you're on the street."
Manocchio has been described by many as a gentleman, someone who is polite even with investigators looking to lock him up. Sallet is no exception. The two men chatted for a stunning 45 minutes, in a conversation Sallet described as "cordial" but lacking any substance about the underworld.
"I really just wanted to lay eyes on him, have him lay eyes on me," Sallet said, adding that his message for Manocchio was "committing crimes is not acceptable and that we would be coming for him."
And come for him they did.
A year later two different FBI agents – Joseph Degnan and Jeffrey Cady – would walk into the same Federal Hill restaurant, but this time it wasn't for a casual chat.
According to court documents, Manocchio had just received a so-called "protection payment" from the Cadillac Lounge strip club by the club's bookkeeper, a longtime mob associate named Thomas Iafrate. Degnan and Cady seized the money from Manocchio, having learned it was coming from the Cadillac Lounge thanks to a cadre of cameras and microphones planted by investigators in the business office of the strip joint.
In the end, the protection payment scheme was Manocchio's undoing. Soon after that payment was intercepted, investigators say Manocchio stepped down as the head of the New England crime family and passed on the reins to players in Boston.
Initially law enforcement sources say Peter Limone of Boston – who had been identified as a consigliere for the family – took over as acting mob boss. But that was short-lived and investigators soon set their sights on the new reputed acting boss, Anthony DiNunzio of East Boston. They eventually intercepted Rhode Island capo regime Edward "Eddie" Lato delivering a cut of those same protection payments to DiNunzio following Manocchio's January 2011 arrest.
In all nine New England mobsters or mob associates have felt the sting from a national crackdown into organized crime. Most of the defendants – including Manocchio and Lato – have pleaded guilty and are serving time in different federal prisons spread out across the country.
Two defendants, including DiNunzio, have pledged to plead guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
Sallet is eager to point out that the successful investigation and prosecution of the mob was a “team sport.” He was the head of a task force that toiled for years to make it happen. The membership of the FBI-led unit varied over time, but included Degnan (who is now retired) and Cady, as well as Rhode Island State Police Detectives Matthew Moynihan and Kevin Hawkins (also retired). Veteran Providence Police Detective Jack Whalen also worked the investigation on the task force.
The case is being prosecuted by the office of Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha. The team of lawyers involved includes Assistant U.S. Attorney William Ferland and Sam Nazzaro, trial attorney for the Department of Justice, who took over for Scott Lawson.
Impact on La Cosa Nostra
Sallet said the FBI still identifies La Cosa Nostra as the number one "threat assessment" for organized crime in New England despite the damage done to their underworld operations.
"The threat in Rhode Island is substantially minimized to the point of being almost nonexistent," Sallet said. "We set out to put them out of business. We followed through on that."
G-Men don't like to say a crime family is ever dead because they've seen embers turn back into flames before. But the state of the underworld right now could best be described as disorganized crime.
Rhode Island State Police Col. Steven O'Donnell – a veteran mob investigator who assigned troopers to the task force – said the New England mob is on its "last breath."
"When these people get out [of prison] they will continue to do what they do. That is their life mission: power and money," O'Donnell said. "You've got to be vigilant to it but I don't think it's anywhere near what it was 40 years ago."
O’Donnell took over as colonel midway through the investigation after his predecessor Brendan Doherty decided to run for Congress.
A shocking turning point in the case – and a key reason for the crime family's disintegration – was when an unidentified high-ranking member of the mob agreed to cooperate with investigators. Court documents show the informant went so far as to wear a recording device while discussing the mob’s operations with his fellow underworld colleagues. It was a coup by investigators, one that both O'Donnell and Sallet described as "significant" to the case.
"Someone who lives that world, they're trusted, they take that oath of omertà and they have to say, 'We're going to be silent; we're not going to repeat it,'" O'Donnell said. "For them, or anybody that is part of the Mafia that takes that oath, to cooperate with us – it decimates a family."
"As soon as you break the code of silence you are breaking the organization," Sallet said. "We have in fact shattered omertà during the course of this investigation."
Law enforcement has declined to identify the mystery mobster, but a defense attorney referred to him by the initials "RD" in court documents. Prosecutors said the informant was poised to testify if any of the defendants decided to stand trial. None did.
As Target 12 previously reported, Mafia capo regime Robert DeLuca has not been seen on the streets of Providence since the indictments came down. Law enforcement sources say DeLuca was also charged in the case, accused of taking part in a scheme to shake down a used car salesman for protection money. DeLuca's whereabouts are being kept secret.
'Got to die somewhere'
With high-ranking wise guys behind bars and the sweeping investigation essentially at an end, Sallet has moved on from Providence. Roughly a week after Manocchio received a five-and-a-half-year sentence for racketeering conspiracy, Sallet packed up his Providence office and shipped off to Boston. His business card reveals a promotion: assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston division.
Sallet said he hasn’t spoken to Manocchio since 2007.
O'Donnell knew of Sallet's early encounter with the mob boss; such stories spread like wildfire inside law enforcement circles and on the street. The colonel himself has had numerous run-ins with the aging mobster: first in the early 1980s when he was a prison guard at the Adult Correctional Institute and Manocchio was serving time for murder conspiracy, and later on the streets as both O'Donnell’s and Manocchio's stars were on the rise in their opposing organizations.
O’Donnell’s most recent chat with Manocchio – who is now 85 – happened last year when the former boss was being transported from the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls to face a federal judge for the first time in this case.
At the time O'Donnell was the U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island – he would soon return to the state police as colonel – and he decided to tag along in the van that chilly February morning.
O'Donnell said he gave Manocchio the opportunity to come clean and cooperate with investigators. Manocchio declined.
"I said to him, 'You're going to die in prison you know," O'Donnell said.
Manocchio looked at O'Donnell and replied: "You've got to die somewhere."
Copyright WPRI 12