Friday, August 29, 2008

The New England Mafia is Not What It Used to Be

The New England Mafia just is not what it used to be.

In what would be an unusual move for a man of his rank, the family's reputed underboss, Carmen "The Cheese Man" DiNunzio, is accused of personally delivering a $10,000 bribe to a near stranger, a man who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.

Some of his underlings have supplemented their incomes by shoplifting, and one aging soldier was spotted peddling electric toothbrushes on a street in the North End, State Police said.

The local Mafia, which traditionally denounced drugs, now tolerates addicts in its ranks. And some members of the old guard have turned down promotions or become inactive because they fear going back to prison or have lost faith after seeing Mafiosi around the country break omerta, the code of silence, and turn informant or government witness, police said.

"They don't have the strength and the power they once did because of the line people," said State Police Detective Lieutenant Stephen P. Johnson, who oversees organized crime investigations as head of the Special Service Section. "The crews they have out there is where they are lacking. . . . It's a different generation. They're not as smart about how they involve themselves in supporting the family."

Jeffrey S. Sallet, supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI's Providence office and coordinator of the New England division's organized crime program, agreed, saying that La Cosa Nostra, commonly known as the Mafia, "has less of a talent pool to pull from because of ethnic neighborhoods disappearing."

The New England Mafia does not wield as much power or make as much money as it did in the 1980s, before its ranks were depleted by waves of convictions, law enforcement officials said. There are about 30 made members of the Mafia in Greater Boston, compared with at least double that in the 1980s, Johnson said.

"They are a shell of what the organization was years ago," said Major Steven O'Donnell, deputy superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.

Still, officials said the local Mafia remains a substantial threat and continues to rake in significant profits from illegal gambling and bookmaking. In Greater Boston, the mob has lost its grip on pornography and prostitution, but has been expanding its video poker business, State Police said.

"Are they making money hand over fist? No," said Johnson. "Do they get as much respect? No. But everybody is surviving."

The family's reputed boss of a dozen years is 81-year-old Luigi "Louie" Manocchio, who works out of Addie's Laundromat on Federal Hill in Providence and lives in an apartment upstairs, according to court affidavits.

Manocchio could not be reached for comment for this report. But in 1999, when he was given probation by a Rhode Island judge after admitting he had given his elderly mother a stolen dishwasher and refrigerator, his lawyer, John Cicilline, said he knew nothing about his client's alleged mob ties and said, "The only time I've ever heard that is in the papers," according to the Associated Press.

An FBI affidavit filed in federal court identifies DiNunzio, 51, of East Boston as the family's underboss, or second in command, since 2004. The 400-pound owner of the Fresh Cheese shop on Endicott Street in the North End is under house arrest awaiting two trials, one in Essex County on state extortion and illegal gambling charges and the other in federal court on the bribery charge.

A federal indictment returned in May alleges that DiNunzio paid $10,000 to an undercover FBI agent posing as a state highway inspector in December 2006, part of a conspiracy to secure a $6 million contract to provide loam for the Big Dig.

"I'm the Cheese Man," DiNunzio told the undercover agent on recordings later played in court, as he promised to make the deal go through. "You ask anybody about me. . . . We straighten out a lot of beefs, a lot of things."

DiNunzio's failure to insulate himself by dispatching an underling has raised speculation about a dumbing down in the mob.

"None of them are rocket scientists," said Johnson, noting that many of DiNunzio's predecessors were convicted, partly based on recordings of them saying foolish and incriminating things.

Sallet declined to comment on DiNunzio's motivation, but said: "The mob is all about opportunity. Any chance to make money, they are going to take it."

DiNunzio's lawyer, Anthony Cardinale, described DiNunzio as "a nice, nice guy" who was lured into what he believed was a legitimate deal by a longtime friend who was cooperating with the FBI and introduced him to the agent. "Carmen's downfall is he was a good friend of this guy, and he never suspected this guy would do this to him," Cardinale said.

Despite DiNunzio's legal predicament, law enforcement officials said he has a reputation as a fairly smart, low-key leader. "The leadership isn't stupid," Johnson said. "They don't attract the quality line people."

O'Donnell said the family has suffered from a lack of midlevel managers as some experienced mobsters have refused to take those jobs because they do not want the law enforcement scrutiny or the headaches they bring.

Today, the family is a mix of old soldiers who have recently returned to the streets after years in prison and young members who grew up in middle-class suburban households, law enforcement officials said.

Unlike the old guard, who grew up in poor, ethnic neighborhoods and were groomed by elder mobsters, the new generation tends to be less street-smart and is attracted by the glitz and glamour of shows such as HBO's "The Sopranos," State Police said.

"The guys now want to appear to be Tony Soprano," Johnson said. "They're flashy."

A couple of reputed Boston mobsters were secretly recorded in 2000 complaining that rivals had mimicked the Sopranos crew by leaving dead fish in doorways and on cars in an effort to intimidate them.

The reality is, "it's not a glamorous lifestyle," Sallet said. "You spend your life wondering about whether your friend wants to kill you or hurt you or whether some law enforcement officer wants to put you in jail."

And, he added, for every mobster who is making big money, there are others who are broke. "They call them brokesters," Sallet said. "A lot of them have gambling problems and are low-end scam guys."

But law enforcement officials cautioned that the Mafia is still dangerous, especially because so many of the region's most feared mobsters have recently been freed from prison.

"It has a very big potential to change drastically in New England over the next several years, or it can stay the same course," O'Donnell said.

Thanks to Shelley Murphy

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