For 33 years in prison, Peter Limone knew he'd been set up. He knew J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had used him, a low-level mobster, as a handy fall guy in the murder of a small-time thug.
Now, it turns out, the government knew that too.
Documents from FBI files show that in the heat of a crackdown on organized crime, the agency hired snitches who had framed Limone, Joseph Salvati and two others for the murder of Edward "Teddy" Deegan. The evidence that exonerates the men languished for decades, only to be uncovered by a task force probing FBI corruption.
"They knew these people were innocent," said Limone's lawyer, John Cavicchi. "They knew from day one."
For a murder he didn't commit, Limone was sentenced to die in the electric chair. His life was spared only when Massachusetts outlawed the death penalty in 1974. Court after court rejected his appeals for a new trial. And when his sentence was vacated Jan. 5 by a Superior Court judge here, Limone looked so shocked that his wife thought he was having a stroke.
Limone's freedom is expected to be made official today, when prosecutors likely will refuse to retry the 66-year-old former Boston lounge owner and bookie. That same day, the 68-year-old Salvati also is expected to earn a pass from further prosecution.
Not good enough, said Salvati's lawyer, Victor Garo: "The government stole my client's life."
With characters named Joseph "The Animal" Barboza and Vincent "The Bear" Flemmi, the case recalls an era of class and ethnic turf wars in Boston.
The Italians controlled the underworld, or so the legend goes. The Irish owned the courts. In the sphere of criminal justice, Hoover ran the world.
Those involved in this case say the defendants were victims of ineptitude in the courts and corruption in the Boston office of the FBI. Lawyers for Limone and Salvati lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of the late FBI director--a fearsome foe of organized crime.
"It is my opinion," Garo said, "that J. Edgar Hoover and the government of this commonwealth conspired to murder Joe Salvati by letting him rot in prison."
Armed with the new documentation, others who normally praise this country's justice system are voicing similar views.
"It looks like . . . the law enforcement authorities felt they had a license to do whatever they thought was necessary to put away people they thought were bad, even if that meant cutting deals with people who were probably much worse," said Ronald Kass, dean of Boston University's Law School.
"Do I believe the FBI agents said: 'Let's get a thrill by putting away people who are innocent?' No," Kass said. "On the other hand, do I believe they had very strong evidence to believe the people they were prosecuting didn't do what they were prosecuting them for? Absolutely."
Representatives of both the U.S. attorney and the district attorney here declined to discuss the case before today's hearing.
And Garo--who over 24 years put in more than 20,000 unpaid hours on Salvati's behalf--has barred his client from speaking out pending the court action.
But in his first in-depth interview since his conviction was thrown out, Limone minced no words:
Did the FBI set him up?
"Absolutely," Limone said.
The story begins with Deegan's murder the night of March 12, 1965. Crime-scene photos of the alley in Chelsea, across the Mystic River from Boston, show the victim splayed in a pool of blood, like something from "The Godfather."
An unidentified informant--recruited under the program ordered by Hoover--quickly gave the Boston FBI office the names of those responsible. A memo fired off to the FBI chief never mentioned Salvati, Limone or co-defendants Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco.
But two years later, all four were indicted and convicted--along with Ronald Cassesso and Wilfred Roy French, who apparently did take part in the killing.
Cassesso, Tameleo and Greco died in prison; only French remains incarcerated.
The government task force investigating corruption in the Boston FBI office found the papers that appear to exonerate Limone, Salvati, Tameleo and Greco. "They are extraordinary documents," said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for Dist. Atty. Ralph C. Martin II.
The FBI report released just weeks ago suggests that Flemmi planned the Deegan slaying. Flemmi's best friend was mob hit man Barboza, whom the papers show took part in the murder.
Lawyers for Limone and Salvati contend their clients were set up simply to settle old scores.
At the time of the murder, Salvati was working odd jobs in Boston's heavily Italian North End. His police record began and ended with a breaking-and-entering charge in 1954. But he owed $400 to Barboza--the first person recruited in Boston to the FBI's witness protection program. Salvati came to rue the day he blew off Barboza's men when they came to collect.
"Over $400, Joe did 30 years in the can," Garo said.
Cavicchi characterized Limone as "a low-level Mafioso" who owned a card parlor and ran the numbers racket. "I'm not going to glorify" Limone and Salvati, Cavicchi said. "But they weren't killers."
As a small-time gambling czar, Limone had his share of enemies--presumably including the FBI informant. The report shows that at least once, Limone threw Flemmi out of his West End Veterans Club.
Also, according to the FBI report, "Flemmi told informant that he wants to kill Deegan," a onetime boxer and minor-league thug. Flemmi, it continued, "stated that Deegan is an arrogant, nasty sneak and should be killed. . . . Jimmy Flemmi wanted to be considered the 'best hit man' in the area."
Flemmi died of a drug overdose in prison in 1979. Barboza was killed in a mob hit in '76.
Defense lawyers never saw the material that could have exonerated their clients. Even one prosecutor from the original trial said he was unaware the papers existed.
More than 10 years ago, Garo came across evidence suggesting that Barboza had wrongfully implicated his client. His request for a new trial was turned down.
In 1997, Salvati was released when Garo won a commutation from Gov. William F. Weld.
Although they say it is too early to determine whom they will sue, Garo and Cavicchi both expect to file civil actions for their clients.
But beyond the injustice, Limone and Salvati's story is one about family: Two men spent half their lives locked up. Two wives stood by them. Eight children fielded taunts that their fathers were murderers. Yet both men came back to the families and neighborhoods they had left behind.
At home in this working-class city north of Boston, Limone and his wife, Olympia, eagerly talked about their years apart--and how they kept their family together.
"You know what the saddest moments are?" Limone asked. "My kids' birthdays. My kids' hockey games. My kids are making their First Holy Communions, and I'm not there. Three weddings, eight grandchildren."
Sitting at a lace-covered dining table, Olympia Limone shook her head, calling the whole experience "a nightmare."
During his three weeks of freedom, Limone has been trying to learn how to work call-waiting on the push-button phone. Computers confound him, as do price tags. Doughnuts cost 29 cents a dozen when he went away. His last car, a new Bonneville, set him back $3,500.
On Limone's first Sunday visit to church, the same parishioners who slipped envelopes filled with money to his wife over the years stood on the steps to cheer.
Still, the ache of injustice lingers.
"It was there every day in prison," he said. "And it's always there now."
Twice a week, for all those years, Olympia visited her husband. When their four children were young, she told them they were visiting a hospital. That worked until they learned to read the word "prison."
Olympia Limone stood by her husband because "I knew he was innocent." A rueful smile crossed her face as she remembered: "At first, they told me he might be out in 10 years. I thought, 10 years, my God, I'll be 40!" She's now 64.
When Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle told Limone earlier this month that his wait was over, he felt paralyzed. But he has barely stopped smiling since.
It's the same expression he will take to court today--and the same smile, more or less, that got him through 33 years in prison. Limone said it drove the guards nuts when he flashed that resolute grin.