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Twilight of the wiseguys
Although public fascination endures, organized crime in Rhode Island is a shadow of its former self

THE LAST MAFIA "hit" in Rhode Island came in 1994, when bookmaker Ronnie Coppola and his associate, Peter Scarpellino, were gunned down in a Cranston social club. Last year, when a "made" member of the Patriarca crime family was busted, it was for selling hot sneakers — not engaging in racketeering or extortion. Even in old strongholds like New York City, ruthless Russian gangsters have supplanted the traditional Italian Mafiosi as the mob to watch.

In New England, the new boss is nothing like the old boss, the late Raymond L.S. Patriarca, who was one of the most feared organized crime leaders in the country. Now, 76-year-old Louie "Baby Shacks" Manocchio presides over a scaled-down version of the Patriarca crime family. He’s paranoid about being ratted out by some of his fellow mobsters and keeps in his inner circle only a select few Rhode Island Mafiosi. The New England family of lore has lost the tentacles that once reached into the pockets of judges, politicians, and cops, according to a longtime Patriarca family associate, as well as state and local law enforcement sources. "It’s a shell of what it used to be," says Captain Steven O’Donnell of the Rhode Island State Police, who infiltrated the Patriarca family for six years by posing as one of its associates.

A decades-long crackdown by aggressive US attorneys, the FBI, and state and local police has decimated the mob in every part of the country. As a result, there’s a curious disparity between the ongoing presence of organized crime in our popular culture — as evidenced by the success of the HBO mega-hit The Sopranos, Hollywood riffs on mobsters, and even a Cranston restaurant called Eat With the Fishes (a nod to a famous line from The Godfather) — and the sclerotic state of the real thing. As put by South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia, who spent years tracking and busting wiseguys as a state police detective, "Because of inroads in from law enforcement, the LCN [La Cosa Nostra] has been reduced to something like a street gang."

As a result, local mobsters, just like their counterparts in the major crime families, have lost their punch. And when a mobster can’t throw his weight around, there’s a direct correlation to a decrease in illegal business. "People are not as easily intimidated today," says state police Major Brendan Doherty. "If they feel they’re being extorted, they’ll call the police." During Patriarca’s heyday — from the late 1950s until his death in 1984 — his capos and soldiers were feared not only by other mobsters and mob associates, but influential people from all walks of life, especially politicians, judges, and even some unscrupulous cops who were all too willing to curry favor with the "don" by doing his bidding. Still, even with the greatly diminished state of organized crime, Doherty points out that the Patriarca clan should not be dismissed outright. "Make no mistake about it — there is still a presence of organized crime in New England," he says.

The scope of the illegal enterprise, and the millions of dollars generated in the past from mob staples like bookmaking, loan-sharking, and extortion, is nonetheless far less than what it once was, in part because of the "management style" of the family’s current boss. "No way is the family as active as it used to be," says a Patriarca associate who requested anonymity. "This guy here, this Louie, has money. He doesn’t want anybody to do nothin’. This guy here rules very tough." The mob associate says the late Patriarca would claim money from any family member as "tribute," but that "Baby Shacks" is much more discriminating.

"He only takes money off his inner circle," the mob associate says. "He tells everyone else, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, because he’s afraid they’ll rat on him." The inner circle, according to this mobster, includes reputed "made" members Alfred "Chippy" Scivola, Eddie Lato, who’s been serving time in Fort Dix, the same federal prison where former Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. currently resides, and is scheduled for release next year, and another "made" guy.

Lieutenant Thomas Verdi of Providence police agrees with others in law enforcement that the Patriarca family has lost much of its influence. With Manocchio at the helm, however, the remnants of the family are well-organized and still making money the easy way — illegally. "Louie, compared to the others, is the most intellectual," Verdi says. "His nickname is ‘The Professor.’ "

Bookmaking remains the mainstay for today’s crime family. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, millions of dollars were handled by Mafia bookies in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Almost all of the illegal operators had to pay a percentage of their take to the late Patriarca and his under-bosses. Now, although there are more "independent" bookies who don’t necessarily pay off the current boss, the take is still "in the millions," says one law enforcement source.

Making a bet with a Mafia bookie comes only by introduction. This way, if the new better doesn’t pay when he loses, the bookie holds the "sponsor" responsible, says the source. Betting on college and professional sports bring some of the heaviest action for mob bookies. On a big sports weekend — the Super Bowl, for example — hundreds of thousands of dollars in bets are placed during the days leading up to the big event. Another benefit with a bookie is betting on credit. The problem, though, is that if a bet-maker misses a payment on a loss, the Mafia’s "debt collectors" are large, very impatient men with almost no sense of humor.

Manocchio, a fit 76-year-old who enjoys skiing and still runs several times a week near the Triggs Golf Course in Providence, is an old-school mobster. He prides himself on living a healthy lifestyle. (Manocchio, who, as a rule, has declined to answer my questions about organized crime, couldn’t be reached for comment.) Law enforcement sources say the local boss is well-respected by the five major families in New York, has connections in Vegas, and now controls the Boston faction of the Patriarca family. But every law enforcement official that knows anything about the local mob agrees that the late boss, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, was in a class by himself, and that no local gangster will ever be as powerful — and feared — as he was.

PATRIARCA WAS BORN on St. Patrick’s Day in 1908 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and his immigrant family moved to Providence when he was three. By the time Patriarca reached his 13th birthday, he had been convicted of at least five crimes. His racketeering grabbed the attention of Phil Buccola, the reigning New England Mafia boss at the time. Patriarca was a good "earner" for Buccola and soon gained a reputation as a ruthless and shrewd mobster. When Buccola retired in 1954, Patriarca took over as boss and began running rackets from his vending machine office on Atwells Avenue.

New York’s five families came to respect the new boss so well, recalls Vespia, "[that] he was often called to the city to settle disputes among warring factions." In the early ’60s, Patriarca sent an emissary, Nicholas "Nicky" Bianco to New York to help end a bloody war between the Profacci and Gallo families. It was there that Bianco became a "made" member, later returning to Rhode Island to serve as Patriarca’s underboss. Vespia, who arrested Patriarca on conspiracy to murder charges, feels the infamous family was long on image, and short on substance. "The mob in Rhode Island was completely overrated," says the square-jawed law enforcement veteran. "They were and are nothing but a bunch of parasitical maggots," he says, referring to the "made" members who comprised Patriarca’s ranks.

But Patriarca did have influence with politicians, judges, and police. When logs were released of the FBI’s secret taping of Patriarca’s Federal Hill office in the early ’60s, numerous entries indicated how the mob boss had the ability to learn who was testifying before a grand jury or placing a call to the governor to get a course changed at the University of Rhode Island for his son, Raymond "Junior" Patriarca. And the boss had a stable of defense lawyers who were more than willing to help in a pinch. A prime example comes from a police statement made in 1970, and obtained by the Phoenix, of a debriefing of mobster Dennis Raimondi, Patriarca’s one-time right-hand man: "Dennis Raimondi advised that Attorney Joseph Bevilacqua [Sr.], who is also speaker of the House of Rhode Island, is very close to Judge Edward Plunkett, who’s assigned to the district courts, and that Bevilacqua can have cases fixed through judge Plunkett," wrote the debriefing officer. [Bevilacqua is deceased. In 1986, while the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, he resigned while facing impeachment hearings; Bevilacqua had been sanctioned a year earlier, in part for socializing with reputed mobsters. Plunkett is deceased.]

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Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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