In Rhode Island, an Old Mobster Lets Go of a Long-Kept Secret
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I.
They came for the gravely ill racketeer last month, appearing at his North Providence home around dawn. His time was near, but not as near as the police officers at his door. He went peacefully.
Soon he was at state police headquarters, where veteran detectives knew him well: Nicholas Pari, once the smart-dressing mobster whose nickname, “Nicky,” had clearly not taxed the Mafia muse. Now 71, with gauze wrapped around his cancer-ruined neck: Nicky Pari.
The arrest, for running a crime ring from a flea market, put him in a reflective mood, and he said some things he clearly needed to say, including that he was dying. Still, ever-faithful to that perverse code of the streets, he seemed insulted when asked about the deeds of others.
“He wouldn’t cooperate beyond talking about himself and his past actions,” says Col. Brendan Doherty, the state police superintendent, who knew Mr. Pari from long years spent investigating Rhode Island crime, back when it was more organized.
The gaunt man did not weep, though his voice softened as he spoke with regret about a life that had fallen far short of its promised glamour and riches, a life heavy with guilt over one particular act. And in confessing this one act, Nicky Pari gave up a ghost.
“He was making an attempt at an act of contrition,” says Lt. Col. Steven O’Donnell, who also knew Mr. Pari from way back when and had listened to his old adversary’s words of regret.
That same day, detectives took the mobster for a 19-mile ride, following his directions as he zeroed in on the past. To East Providence. To the Lisboa Apartments. To a grassy backyard bordered by a listing stockade fence.
What he indicated next, whether through words or gestures or even a nod, was this: Here. Deep beneath this blanket of dormant grass, you will find him — here. Soon the claws of backhoes were disturbing the earth.
Thirty years ago, organized crime in Rhode Island was still like a rogue public utility. Raymond L. S. Patriarca, the old man with bullet tips for eyes, still ran the New England rackets from a squat building on Federal Hill. And men, from the merely dishonest to the profoundly psychopathic, still followed his rules.
Among them was Nicky Pari, who supposedly declined the honor to join the Mafia because he preferred the freelance life. If not made, he was known, in part because he had done time for helping a Patriarca lieutenant hijack a truck with a $50,000 load of dresses.
In April 1978, he and another freelancer, Andrew Merola, decided to address the delicate matter of a police informant within their ranks, a droopy-eyed young man from Hartford named Joseph Scanlon. The theories behind his nickname, “Joe Onions,” are that he made the girls cry or, more prosaically, that his surname sounded like scallion.
One morning Mr. Pari lured Mr. Scanlon and his girlfriend, who was holding their infant daughter, into Mr. Merola’s social club, in a Federal Hill building now long gone. Mr. Pari struck Mr. Scanlon in the face. Then Mr. Merola fired a bullet that shot through the man’s head and caught the tip of one of Mr. Pari’s fingers.
The girlfriend was ordered to leave the room. When she came back, her child’s father was wrapped in plastic near the door, his jewelry gone, his boots placed beside his body. A package, awaiting delivery.
The girlfriend, once described as a “stand-up girl” who wouldn’t talk, did, and the two men were convicted of murder in a case lacking a central piece of evidence: the body. They successfully appealed their convictions, but in 1982 they pleaded no contest to reduced charges in a deal that required them to say where the body was.
Dumped in Narragansett Bay, they said.
Few believed this story, perhaps because it lacked the panache desired of a Rhode Island-style rubout. For years afterward, people would call the police and The Providence Journal with tips like: Joe Onions is in the trunk of a scrapped Cadillac. Check it out.
Perhaps, too, there was the inexplicable charm of Mafia sobriquets. In a state whose mobster roll call includes nicknames like “The Blind Pig” and “The Moron,” one wonders whether Joe Onions would be remembered had he been known, simply, as Joe Scanlon.
The years passed. The paroled Mr. Merola opened a Federal Hill restaurant called Andino’s, while the paroled Mr. Pari gravitated toward flea markets. They were often seen together, sitting in a lounge in Smithfield, or attending a testimonial for a mob associate in Providence, that damaged finger of Mr. Pari’s, holding a glass or maybe a cigarette, always there.
Mr. Merola died of cancer last year, leaving Mr. Pari to bear their secret alone. He went on as a father, a grandfather and, apparently, the man to see in a grimy flea market in a stretch of Providence where auto-body shops reign.
Last month the police arrested Mr. Pari and a motley mix of others for crimes of the flea market that put the lie to The Life, including the supposed trading of guns and drugs for more fungible items like counterfeit handbags and sneakers. Still, he remained bound to Mr. Merola; in arranging to sell illegal prescription drugs for a measly $320, for example, he chose to meet an undercover officer at his departed friend’s restaurant.
At state police headquarters, before that ride to East Providence, Mr. Pari expressed remorse for helping to kill Joe Onions, remorse that he admitted had deepened as he faced his own mortality. Seeing the anguish his own family was going through, he knew he could ease another family’s 30-year pain by sharing one detail that only he knew.
Don’t misunderstand, Lieutenant Colonel O’Donnell says. Mr. Pari could have shared this detail days before his arrest, months before, decades before — but he lied instead, for reasons known only to him. “It doesn’t make him a good guy,” the police official says. “But he’s a human being.”
Hours after leading the police to the place that had haunted him since 1978, Mr. Pari appeared in District Court in Providence, unshaven, diminished, in a wheelchair. Released on bail, he returned home to his hospice bed and oxygen tank.
Meanwhile, back in East Providence, backhoes mined the sandy past. They dug until dark that Monday afternoon, then returned to dig all day Tuesday, as detectives and spectators shivered and watched, as the November sun offered little warmth, as the smell of fried food wafted from a Chinese restaurant a few yards away.
Finally, late on that Wednesday, the scoop of a backhoe pulled up things of interest from more than a dozen feet below, including a boot that seemed to match a description. The mechanical dig stopped and a human dig began, with investigators using a sifting pan to separate bone from earth.
It isn’t as though you can dig anywhere in Rhode Island and find a body. But Colonel Doherty, the state police superintendent, says he will not confirm this was Joseph Scanlon until a match is made with some DNA provided by one of Mr. Scanlon’s siblings. He adds that even though 30 years have passed, among the Scanlons “there was always a hope that he was not dead.”
On a cold night late last week, an old mobster died at his home in North Providence, freed of one secret he would not have to take to the grave.