Chapter 1: Divine Providence
November 20, 2016
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Welcome to Providence, Rhode Island, a city where organized crime corrupted every aspect of public life. In the first episode of Crimetown, a young prosecutor named Buddy Cianci takes on a gruesome murder case. As the investigation heats up, Buddy goes head to head with the most notorious mob boss in the country—and launches a career that will change Providence forever. For credits and more information about this episode, visit crimetownshow.com.
MARC SMERLING: Question: Did he kick you? Answer: Yes. Question: Where did he kick you? Answer: On my right chin. Question: Did he try to burn you with a cigarette? Answer: Yes. Question: Did you have a cigarette burn on your face after the incident? Answer: Yes. In my left eye. Question: At some point did the mayor swing a fireplace log at you?
This is a transcript of grand jury testimony from a victim of a brutal assault. An assault committed by the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. Yeah, that’s right, the mayor. A mayor in his ninth year in office. A mayor named Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.
ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: Good evening. A statewide grand jury has indicted Providence mayor Vincent Cianci on charges including extortion, kidnapping and assault.
MARC: The mayor of a major American city, kidnapping and torturing a guy. Weirder still is what happened next: Buddy ran again. And he won.
VOX: You know, he was a gentleman. Besides his faults. You know, everybody has faults.
MARC: Buddy Cianci died earlier this year. His body was laid out in city hall. And people here lined up to pay their respects.
VOX: He did so much for this city and we all love him and we’re all gonna miss him.
VOX: There was nothing wrong with what this guy did. I just believe that he just loved Providence too much. So he fell into this hole that usually politicians fall into when they love something too much.
MARC: Buddy did love the city, in his own way. But his shortcomings went well beyond one little incident of torture and kidnapping. There were criminal investigations, accusations of corruption, drug scandals. Even a five-year prison sentence. But we’ll get to that later.
The question now is: why so much love for such a flawed man? Well, for people here, Buddy’s faults weren’t all that shocking. Because the thing you gotta know about Providence, the city that Buddy ruled for more than 20 years: it was a mob town.
ALBERT BERARDUCCI: There was New York, there was Chicago, and then there was this little city in the smallest state in the union—the third largest Cosa Nostra in the country.
MARC: This is Albert Berarducci. He grew up in Providence at a time when organized crime was a daily part of life.
ALBERT: You could see someone getting shaken down. I mean you knew. You got someone by the car, banging. Two guys looking the other way. But that was the way life was back then, there were no two ways about it. I mean, it was accepted.
VOX: No one, not a politician or a priest, not a bishop or a bus driver, should ever be defined solely by their faults.
MARC: At Buddy’s funeral, the church is packed with people from his past. Cops, politicians and judges sit shoulder to shoulder with crooks and ex-cons. They all grew up together, attended school together, went to each others’ weddings—and funerals.
VOX: That those in public office may promote justice and peace while continuing the work of our brother, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. Let us pray. Lord in your divine providence, hear our prayer.
MARC: I’m Marc Smerling.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: And I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier. You're listening to Crimetown, a new series in partnership with Gimlet Media. Every season, we'll investigate the culture of crime in a different American city. First up? The story of Buddy Cianci and the city that made him: Providence, Rhode Island.
MARC: It’s a story of alliances and betrayals, of heists and stings, of crooked cops and honest mobsters. A story about how organized crime corrupted an entire city. A story where you can never quite tell the good guys from the bad guys.
ZAC: Welcome to Crimetown.
BUDDY CIANCI: Well, first of all, let me thank you for inviting me. This is one of the few free speeches I’ve given in that past few years.
INTERVIEWER: We appreciate it.
BUDDY: They call me and they ask me, “Do you believe in free speech?” I said of course. They said, “Well, you’re giving one…”
MARC: This is a recording of Buddy Cianci at the end of his career, at an event to promote his autobiography, just a few years before he died. He’s bald, stocky, with bags under his eyes. Life has worn him down a bit. But he's still the same old Buddy. He laughs at himself, cracks jokes, works the crowd, and tells funny stories about starting out as a young prosecutor.
BUDDY: Well, I used to be in charge of the organized crime division for the Attorney General. And my entertainment was I would listen to the wiretaps at night. There was a bookmaking operation going on and so I was listening to the tapes and this one woman is saying to the other woman, “You know, my boyfriend said that these phones might be tapped.” And she said, “Don’t worry, my boyfriend told me what to say if the cops come.” The other one said, “What’s that?” And she said, “My boyfriend told me to plead the fifth commandment.”
MARC: The time that Buddy’s reminiscing about, more than 40 years ago? That’s when our story begins.
Buddy is fresh out of law school, younger and thinner, with a lot more hair. He’s just beginning his new job as an assistant attorney general. And a case lands on his desk. A case that will launch his career, and put him head to head with the most notorious mob boss in the country. It’s a murder case.
April 20th, 1968. A car pulls up to Panonne’s Meat Market. Two men, Pro Lerner and Bobby Fairbrothers, sit up front, wearing masks.
ROBERT STEVENSON: Pro Lerner had a double-barrelled 12 Gauge shotgun. And Bobby Fairbrothers had a Springfield rifle.
MARC: That’s former Providence police detective Robert Stevenson. The gunmen get out of the car and cross the street. Inside the market are the targets: two wiseguys, Rudy Marfeo and Anthony Melei.
ROBERT STEVENSON: When Lerner came in with the double barrelled shotgun, he shot Marfeo first. Bobby Fairbrothers got so scared he shot into the floor. Pro Lerner stepped over into the next aisle and shot and killed Melei. And out they went. The mask and the guns and everything, they dumped down on Cumerford Street by the freight yards.
MARC: Marfeo and Melei lay dead on the ground. And their murder case was assigned to a young prosecutor named Buddy Cianci.
Detective Stevenson and Buddy joined forces and started talking to witnesses. But despite there being several other people in the market, no one saw a thing. And the investigation stalled.
Then, a break in the case. Buddy got a call from a prison in Massachusetts. A witness was talking about the murders.
BUDDY: The witness was Red Kelley. He was witness who changed over from being a mafia-type guy over to us.
MARC: Red Kelley was a big-time crook serving a long sentence, and he wanted to make a deal. He told investigators that he’d hired the hit men who killed Marfeo and Melei. And he said one other thing. He hadn’t acted alone. He’d planned the murders on the orders of Raymond L.S. Patriarca.
Who’s Raymond Patriarca? Well, he’s a key part of our story. The crime and corruption that plagues Providence all goes back to him. And he conducted his business from a run-down storefront, filled with dusty cigarette machines and arcade games. It was called the Coin-O-Matic.
ZAC: What was this?
DAN BARRY: This was the Coin-O-Matic. This had been a coin vending store but actually the headquarters of New England organized crime.
MARC: Dan Barry is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who’s written a lot about Providence.
DAN: So, you would see, Raymond would sit here in a lawn chair and he’d have white socks and he just looked like an old man with a cigar and he would wave to people and the cops would wave to him and everyone knew he was watching everything.
MARC: From his lawn chair, Patriarca ruled over a kingdom of crime that extended across the country. He was a silent partner in Las Vegas casinos with Frank Sinatra. Whitey Bulger—maybe you’ve heard of him? Even he had to kick up to Raymond Patriarca.
And if you ran a card game or a prostitution ring or a numbers racket pretty much anywhere in New England, a portion of your profits went to the boss.
ALBERT: I don’t care what you did. You wanted to break somebody’s window, you gotta get permission from Raymond.
MARC: Again, Albert Berarducci, who grew up not that far from the Coin-O-Matic in Providence’s Italian neighborhood, Federal Hill.
ALBERT: Raymond was no chump. He was no chump. That’s his business. The key word: that’s his business, that’s his business. I own the streets. I own all the illicit activities. I’m the one who built it, I’m the one who started it. This is my money, not yours. This just happens to be organized crime, and people don’t get fired. They get fired at.
MARC: And according to Red Kelley, the witness, that’s what happened at Pannone’s Meat Market to Rudy Marfeo and Anthony Melei. Here’s Detective Stevenson.
ROBERT STEVENSON: Rudolph Marfeo had these crap games going and card games going on the weekends up on Federal Hill.
Raymond wanted these guys knocked off because they were interfering with his gambling activities.
MARC: On the basis of Red Kelley’s story, Patriarca was charged as an accessory to murder. And Buddy Cianci couldn’t wait to prosecute the case. It was personal for him. This is Buddy out to dinner with the co-author of his autobiography.
BUDDY: See, as an Italian American, I totally, totally, totally, totally, totally resented the fact that organized crime brought upon my people, people of my heritage, people I came from, the stereotype of everybody being a crook and everybody being a murderer and everybody being a criminal.
MARC: On the first day of trial, crowds gathered outside the courthouse, hoping to catch a glimpse of the notorious mob boss Raymond Patriarca. He had ruled the city for almost twenty years, and now Buddy and the prosecution had a chance to put him away for life.
State troopers with shotguns stood guard as Red Kelley was called to the stand. Patriarca sat behind the defense table, glaring at him. Detective Stevenson remembers that day.
ROBERT STEVENSON: John “Red” Kelley told them his whole story. Kelley and Raymond had met in front of the Gaslight Restaurant. And Raymond says, “I want them son of a bitches killed”—Marfeo and Melei.
MARC: Kelley’s testimony against Patriarca was damning. It seemed open and shut. Buddy and the prosecution rested their case.
But then Detective Stevenson stepped out into the hall and ran into Patriarca's son, Raymond Jr.
ROBERT STEVENSON: Young Raymond Patriarca Jr. said to me out in the hallway, “Wait till you see the witness that we’ve got comin’ in.” I says, “What, another one of your lineup of liars?” He said, “You’ll see…”
MARC: That surprise witness after the break.
MARC: Welcome back. Before the break, Buddy Cianci and the prosecution put a witness on the stand named Red Kelley. He testified that he met with Raymond Patriarca at the Gaslight Restaurant to plan the murders of Rudy Marfeo and Anthony Melei.
Things are looking bad for Patriarca. But now it’s the defense’s turn, and they have a witness of their own. Here’s Buddy again, talking at an event for his autobiography.
BUDDY: The defense calls their first witness, and the first witness is a priest, with a collar. His name is Father Raymond Moriarty. He hugs Patriarca, then gets on the stand, “What’s your name?” “Father Raymond Moriarty.” “Where are you from?” “Oxon Hill, Maryland.” “What do you do?” “I’m the pastor of St. Timothy’s Church.” “Where were you on that day, the day Patriarca was supposed to be...” “Oh I was with Mr. Patriarca. Well, his wife had died and I came up to go visit the gravestone at the Gate of Heaven cemetery and I blessed the stone.” Well, 12 Catholics on the jury making the sign of the cross...
MARC: This is not good for Buddy. Providence is heavily Catholic, and now the jury is faced with a simple choice: Believe Father Moriarty, the priest in the collar, that Patriarca was at the cemetery blessing his wife’s grave. Or believe Red Kelley, the convicted felon, that Patriarca was at the Gaslight Restaurant, ordering the hit.
Buddy and Stevenson fly to Maryland to check out Father Moriarty’s story.
ROBERT STEVENSON: Tick-tock on the clock…
MARC: ...and they race to the church..
BUDDY: We went into the church with the monsignor and they gave us the records. And there was the priest, on that day that he was supposed to be with Patriarca, baptizing a baby.
ROBERT STEVENSON: Father Moriarty performed a baptism on a baby by the name of Stacy Lynn Densford on that day. I said to myself, Ah-ha!
MARC: The next step is to talk to Stacy Lynn’s family, to verify the date of her baptism. But when they arrive, Buddy sees two men waiting on the porch. Some familiar faces.
BUDDY: We went from the church right to the house of these people that had their kid baptized on that day. And who’s on the fucking porch but Patriarca’s son and Joey One-Arm, who was a mobster.
MARC: Actually, it wasn’t Joey One-arm. It was another wiseguy, Joe Badway—that’s literally his name. But the point is, Patriarca wanted to send a message to Stacy Lynn’s family: we’ve got an eye on you.
BUDDY: ‘Cause they thought one step ahead. And they knew I was coming down, it was common knowledge I was going to Maryland that afternoon. And they were on the goddamn porch of the house, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. How the fuck are they here at the house?
MARC: Detective Stevenson and couple federal marshals share a few choice words with Raymond Jr.
ROBERT STEVENSON: And the marshals told them in no uncertain terms to screw. They said, “Put your ass in your hand and get the hell out of here.”
MARC: When they go inside, Stacy Lynn’s mother has a present for them.
ROBERT STEVENSON: She says, “I’ve got a picture of Father Moriarty when he baptised Stacy Lynn.” I said, “Oh really?” She said, “Yeah, it’s a color polaroid picture.” She says, “I’ll show it to you.” And here’s Father Moriarty holding the baby, the mother and father on each side, dated April 6, 1968.
MARC: The same date Father Moriarty told the jury he was with Patriarca, blessing his wife’s grave. Patriarca’s alibi is shredded.
Buddy and Stevenson grab the family, the priest, and the polaroid, and head off to catch a plane back to Providence.
Who should be at the airport but Raymond Jr. and his sidekick? Turns out, they’re all on the same flight home.
ROBERT STEVENSON: The plane levels off at about 35,000 or whatever, and I look back up the aisle and there’s Raymond Patriarca Jr., and they kept looking down, and I kept looking back up, and they kept looking down. So about the third or fourth time I give them the finger and I turn around.
MARC: When they land at Providence airport, the press is waiting.
BUDDY: There had to be I don’t know how many cameras on the runway, waiting for the plane to land. I hadn’t shaved. So I bring him to the attorney general’s office, all kinds of cops around. I bring him there. And court was going to start in like twenty minutes.
MARC: So Father Moriarty goes back on the stand. Turns out he’s not exactly an impartial witness. He and Patriarca go way back. They were childhood friends. And now the priest has to admit that he was not in Providence with Patriarca on the date in question.
ROBERT STEVENSON: And he said, “I don’t know, I must have made a mistake.” And he wouldn’t admit to anything, other than the fact that him and Raymond Patriarca Sr. were childhood sweethearts.
MARC: Father Moriarty steps down, and the jury begins deliberations.
ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: The jury returned to the fifth floor courtroom at 2:42 this afternoon. They had been deliberating since Friday afternoon. Before the verdict, Judge Eugene Gallant cautioned the spectators, most friends of the defendants, against any sporadic outbursts. A contingent of Providence police was brought in to bolster the already heavy security guard. When the foreman announced the not guilty verdict, the gallery burst into brief applause.
ROBERT STEVENSON: Not guilty.
MARC: Not guilty?
ROBERT STEVENSON: Not guilty.
MARC: What happened?
ROBERT STEVENSON: That’s what the hell I’d like to know..
ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: 63-year-old Patriarca drooped in his chair a bit and then briefly cried.
MARC: How did Patriarca get off, when it was so obvious the priest had lied?
One answer is that Patriarca’s lawyers had done a good job poking holes in the testimony of Buddy’s key witness, Red Kelley. Here’s Patriarca’s defense attorney.
RAYMOND DANIELS: The turning point in the trial was Kelley’s testimony. Having cross-examined him at length, he completely changed his testimony, particularly as to the most important dates.
Remember the Gaslight Restaurant, where Kelley claimed to have met with Patriarca to plan the murders? It had been closed at the time, due to a fire.
But there may be another explanation for why Patriarca got off—one that reminds us that Providence is a small city, where everyone is connected. Detective Stevenson.
ROBERT STEVENSON: One of the jurors knew someone that knew Patriarca, okay? And that person, who was a female, swung the jury the other way. At first they were going for a guilty verdict. She swayed them back the other way. And boy, we were devastated. We worked like a bastard on that thing.
MARC: Here’s the thing: a lot of people in Providence didn’t think of Patriarca as such a bad guy. Like the people in the courtroom cheering, and guys from the neighborhood like Albert Berarducci, who were not happy when Patriarca was arrested.
ALBERT: People that I knew? They were outraged. How could you do that to him? He’s a great guy. Raymond is a good man. Don’t piss him off. But he was a good man. He’d walk up and down Atwells Avenue. He would talk to everybody. Anybody needed anything, they would get it. I’m not saying he would go buy ‘em houses or cars or anything else, but if somebody was in need of a few bucks, he would make sure that, hey, you’d get a tank of oil, or a food basket for Thanksgiving. He never hurt...he took care of more people than he hurt.
MARC: But not all Italian-Americans in Providence saw Patriarca as a good man. People like Vinny Vespia. He also grew up on Federal Hill.
VINNY VESPIA: I met Raymond Patriarca as a young boy. My dad knew him. There were times when I’d be walking with my father along Atwells Avenue and he’d stop and chat with Raymond. What amazed me is that people said that he was so generous, that he helped people out at Thanksgiving. Well, you know something, you help people out at Thanksgiving. You do and I do. Anybody would. But just because Raymond bought a turkey, or five turkeys for five families, they put him on a pedestal.
Organized crime is given too much credit, you know? They’re merchants of fear. And if you succumb to their fear, then they know they own you.
MARC: For people in Providence who felt the way Vinny Vespia did, Buddy Cianci was a hero. Maybe he hadn’t put Patriarca behind bars, but still: here was an Italian-American prosecutor unafraid to take on the mob.
The Patriarca trial made Buddy famous. A picture of him and the priest ended up on the front page of the Providence Journal. The case even got its own nickname: they called it Father Alibi. And Buddy liked the attention, too. All that press got him thinking. What if he could be more than just an assistant attorney general?
For advice, he turned to a friend. Vinny Vespia—the guy from Federal Hill who knew Patriarca as a kid. He wound up leaving the old neighborhood and becoming a cop. And he worked closely with Buddy.
VINNY VESPIA: I was a younger detective and he used to grab all my cases.
MARC: One night, after the trial, Buddy and Vespia went out to dinner on Federal Hill at the Old Canteen.
VINNY VESPIA: He says, “You know, I think I want to run for mayor. Either that or I’m gonna buy a boat.” I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you’re either gonna run for mayor or buy a boat? Where did you get this thought?” So I’ll never forget this, ‘cause he took a pen out of his pocket, he cleared a couple dishes and he drew a “T” right on the tablecloth. A white tablecloth. That kind of offended me—what the? What does it cost for a slip, what does it cost for insurance, what does it cost for a captain, what does it cost for the crew—all right, that’s one side of the “T.” The other side of the “T,” let’s talk about running for mayor: you gotta have a manager, you gotta have advertising, you gotta have a campaign, radio time, television time.
So, added it up, both sides: it was cheaper to run for mayor.
ARCHIVAL NEWSREEL: I announce my candidacy for mayor of the city of Providence.
MARC: Providence is essentially two hills, on either side of a river. On one side is Federal Hill, Patriarca’s domain. The other bank is the east side. It’s where Brown University is, where the doctors and lawyers and professionals live.
Between these two hills is City Hall. In running for mayor, Buddy was putting himself right in the middle of the struggle for the soul of the city.
Buddy wanted to clean up the city. But would he change Providence, or would Providence change him?
VINNY VESPIA: Buddy and I were best friends, really, really close. He stood up for me when I got married, I stood up for him when he got married. He was an honest…well, in those days, he was an honest person, and he was a dedicated prosecutor, a very good prosecutor. It’s a shame what happened to him.
VOX: For Buddy, who in baptism was given the pledge of eternal life, that he may now be admitted to the company of the saints, let us pray. Lord in your divine providence, hear our prayer.
ZAC: Next time on Crimetown, we’ll go deep into the Patriarca crime family...and tell you what it takes to become a wiseguy.
BOBBY WALASON: In that day, being a wiseguy was the coolest fucking thing on the planet. There was nothing cooler. Movie stars wanted to be around them.
MARC: Crimetown is me, Marc Smerling, and Zac Stuart-Pontier.
We are produced by Mike Plunkett and Drew Nelles.
Additional producing by Austin Mitchell.
We are edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed by Matthew Boll.
Sound design and scoring by Matthew Boll.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat. Shout-out to David Jacobson for telling us about that song.
Original music by John Kusiak, Kenny Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin, and Bienart.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Additional sound design by Ted Robinson at Silver Sound.
Additional mixing by Enoch Kim.
Ale Lariu is our design director and Kate Parkinson-Morgan is our digital editor
Alex Blumberg is the Podfather. Thanks for your patience and guidance, Alex. Please don’t fire...at us.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Zachary Malinowski. We miss you, Bill.
Thanks to the Providence Journal, the Rhode Island Historical Society, Brad Turchetta and the Cianci Estate, Paul Campbell, Damiano Marchetti, Jesse Rudoy, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Dr. Marian Stuart, Dan Barry, Mike Stanton—check out his book, The Prince of Providence—Wayne Miller, Mary Murphy and everyone who shared their stories with us. Providence is a special place and we are honored to tell part of its story.