LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Last week, two notorious Boston mobsters came face to face for the first time in nearly two decades. Francis Cadillac Frank Salemme is on trial for the 1993 murder of a nightclub manager. His former partner, Stephen The Rifleman Flemmi, testified against him. Both men are now in their 80s. WBUR special correspondent David Boeri was in the courtroom, and he joins us now to talk about it. Good morning.
DAVID BOERI, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I understand you retired from WBUR last month, but you just couldn't...
BOERI: (Laughter) I did.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Stay away from this trial. Tell us about this case.
BOERI: Nominally, it's about this 25-year-old murder of victim Steven DiSarro, who was a nightclub manager. He disappeared in 1993. His remains were found in 2016. And Frank Salemme is accused of killing him, and Stephen Flemmi, the star witness, says he walked in on a scene at Salemme's house where Salemme was involved in that murder. But, really, what this is about is that the war on organized crime that was launched by Bobby Kennedy 56 years ago is finally coming to an end. This is also a story about epic betrayal and corruption involving informants and FBI agents, you know, as made famous by the story of James Whitey Bulger.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, James Whitey Bulger, of course, one of the famous mobsters in Boston. I'd like some backstory on these two guys. They've got great names, Francis Salemme and Stephen Flemmi. And one time, they were literally partners in crime.
BOERI: Absolutely. And they're two men whose lives run parallel both to the war on organized crime over these many years and also parallel to Bulger. One of them, Stephen Flemmi, went into business with Bulger. They became the most powerful mob in Boston because they were both secret FBI informants, and they were enlisted, empowered and emboldened by the FBI agents, so they rose to the top. The other guy is Frank Salemme. He goes into the crime business with Flemmi back in the '60s. He later becomes the head of the mafia in New England. All that time, Salemme had no clue that his partner, Stephen Flemmi, was an FBI informant.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. So when was the last time they saw each other?
BOERI: It was 1999. Both of them were indicted. Both were in a holding cell, and Salemme found out that Flemmi had betrayed him for close to 30 years working as this informer for the FBI. And so in the cell, Salemme pulls Flemmi up by his neck and screams, you've been expletive me all my life, and you're going to die. Well, Flemmi didn't die, and now he's back to, so to speak, expletive Salemme again as a government witness. The only difference now is that they're not in their 60s anymore. They're in their 80s.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this is like a film. So set the scene for us here - two once-notorious mob figures, now octogenarians, meeting in federal court.
BOERI: So Salemme comes into the court. He'd fallen out of his wheelchair already once this week. He was excused for the day. This time, he comes in, and every step to the defense table is an adventure. He's swallowed up by his suit. He's hunched over. His face is skeletal. Then there's Stephen Flemmi. He looks like George Burns. He has these big, thick, black glasses, and he's asked to identify Salemme in the court. He stands up, looks around. The prosecutor says, take your time. He takes his time. He looks around. The clock stops. Everybody waits. He can't pick out Salemme in court even though he's just a few feet away in front of him. So they're frail. They may seem defanged, but they're anything but that. They've committed multiple murders by their own admission. Flemmi estimates he murdered 50 people or so. Bulger once referred to Flemmi as Dr. Mengele.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this the last one of these big mafia trials that we're going to see in Boston? I mean, as you mentioned, this has been decades and decades in the making.
BOERI: Well, you're at the bottom of the gene pool now in terms of organized crime involving the mafia. I mean, the only men standing, so to speak, are a 500-pound man called Cheeseman and another guy, Anthony Spucky Spagnolo, who's nicknamed after a submarine sandwich here. What it says is the war on organized crime has come to a wheezing, and with these two octogenarians, I don't think there's anywhere else to go now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: WBUR special correspondent David Boeri. David, thank you so much.
BOERI: You're welcome, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.