Ex-NE mob boss to be sentenced in strip club plot

When Luigi "Baby Shacks" Manocchio, the 84-year-old former leader of the New England Mafia, is led away to prison on Friday, he'll be taking with him the vestiges of the mob's heyday, when businesses bent to the will of crime bosses, mobsters took the code of silence to the grave and their brutality was hidden behind refined public personas.

The mob organization Manocchio leaves behind is on the ropes after nine people described by prosecutors as Mafia leaders, members and associates were ensnared by an investigation into the shakedown of Providence strip clubs and other extortion activities.

The organization also faces a bleak financial future as its gambling operations become marginalized by legalized casino gaming in some New England states and by Internet gambling operations, observers say. Also, the mob no longer has the "fear factor" that once commanded payoffs from businesses, some say.

"It's not an area where there's a lot of money to be made anymore," said attorney Ray Mansolillo, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who represented Manocchio in the past but isn't involved in the strip club case.

The case, Mansolillo said, shows the mob is now chasing scraps wherever it can, rather than collecting payoffs from a range of businesses.

Retired Massachusetts state police Col. Thomas J. Foley, whose book on the hunt for Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger was published this week, said the New England Mafia can still make money but "it's not as easy as it was."

"It was, you walk in, you do a little damage to the business, you threaten them and they fall in line," Foley said. "They don't have the fear factor that was there in the earlier years."

Manocchio is referred to by police as an old school member of La Cosa Nostra, who learned at the knee of the late boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca while developing the reputation of a gentleman in Federal Hill, the Providence neighborhood where he lived alone. La Cosa Nostra, which means "this thing of ours," is a national alliance of criminals organized by families or groups.

In New England, they are known for running illegal gambling operations, loan sharking and moving stolen goods. When Patriarca died in 1984 he was facing charges that he and others took part in a scheme to skim $11 million from a labor union.

To try to root out La Cosa Nostra, the FBI enlisted Bulger, who's also in his 80s, and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi as informants to supply information about their organized crime rivals. Bulger, who was captured with his girlfriend last summer in Santa Monica, Calif., after being on the run since 1995, is awaiting trial on charges he participated in 19 murders. He has pleaded not guilty.

Investigators probing the Rhode Island strip club case found people inside the mob complaining about shoddy leadership from the reputed acting boss, Anthony L. DiNunzio.

While authorities say DiNunzio, 53, talked like a brutal and ruthless leader, evidence revealed by prosecutors shows the captain of his Rhode Island crew, Edward "Eddy" Lato, 65, saw him as a bumbling and sloppy boss who gave away the strip club money "like candy" and ignored signs he was under surveillance by authorities.

DiNunzio, who lives in the East Boston section of Boston, was indicted last month in connection with the strip club plot, leaving the New England branch of La Cosa Nostra without the man authorities say is its acting leader. He has pleaded not guilty to charges and is being held without bail.

The strip club case has revealed that people inside the Mafia acknowledged that its potential targets for extortion had dwindled.

The indictment says Lato complained about the shakedown of the Cadillac Lounge strip club ending after Manocchio was arrested in January 2011.

"We have to get back in there," Lato is quoted as saying in March 2011.

By May, the extortion had resumed, the indictment says.

Lato has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Mansolillo, the attorney and former DEA agent, said it's "not really an organized venture anymore."

"There's no difference from exploiting the elderly. They're crimes of opportunity," he said. "The organization, I think, it has been diminished for years."

State police superintendent Col. Steven G. O'Donnell said the mobsters' appearance is "gentlemanly" — but deceiving.

"And in this particular boss, with Louie, he gave off a persona of a non-violent person when the reality of it was he was involved in homicides either firsthand or in an oversight capacity for decades," O'Donnell said. "I would describe it was being a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Manocchio, who turns 85 next month, faces between five years and three months and 6 1/2 years in prison under a plea agreement when he is sentenced in U.S. District Court in Providence for his role in the strip club plot. Authorities say he stepped down as boss in 2009 and was succeeded by DiNunzio's older brother, Carmen DiNunzio, 54. Carmen DiNunzio is serving a six-year sentence for bribing an undercover FBI agent posing as a state official to try to win a $6 million contract on Boston's Big Dig highway project.

Prosecutors said he was followed by Peter Limone, who spent 33 years in prison after being framed by the FBI for a murder he didn't commit. Limone, who won a $26 million civil award from the government for the wrongful conviction, was placed on probation in Massachusetts in 2010 after being accused of loansharking and running a gambling ring and pleading no contest.

Prosecutors say the younger DiNunzio is Limone's successor.

"You don't have the same kind of individuals who come up through the ranks and paid their dues," said Foley, the retired Massachusetts state police colonel. "There are a lot of lightweights with them who are more concerned with having the attention and the position than anything else."

He added: "I think it's kind of embarrassing for the older guys who are in that business right now who remember the olden days when you kept your mouth shut and did what you were told."

For the most part, Manocchio has stayed out of prison.

He was convicted of a 1968 gangland murder authorities say was ordered by Patriarca. His conviction was overturned by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but he served two years in prison for conspiracy.

Defense attorney Joseph J. Balliro said Manocchio denies claims that he was involved in violence.

"They say that about everybody," he said.

Manocchio, who is also known to prosecutors as The Professor and The Old Man, was successful at disarming his neighbors and leading what appeared to be a quiet life.

John P. Murray, who runs a shop next to where Manocchio lived, said he read the newspaper daily and religiously did crossword puzzles that he usually completed without having to look up answers.

"I don't judge the gentleman. I don't know his business," said Murray, who wrote a letter on Manocchio's behalf last year when he was seeking bail. "As a neighbor and a friend, he's a very nice gentleman."

John P. DePasquale, whose family ran a pharmacy in Federal Hill, knew Manocchio and his mother. He said Manocchio was well-read, frequently bringing DePasquale books, "just loved skiing" and kept in remarkable shape for his age.

Manocchio pleaded guilty in the strip club plot because he believed he should "take responsibility for the charges in the indictment," Balliro said. He added Manocchio has "never threatened anybody or harmed anybody."

"Treat him kindly," Balliro said. "He's a nice, elderly man."