Heinous Boston mob killer became government informant, was one of first in witness protection: new book



Joe (the Animal) Barboza, who once tallied his violent crimes at 75 stabbings, 500 beatings and around 20 murders and was called ‘crazy’ by fellow mobsters for his love of violence, became a witness for the state and sent several high-ranking mobsters to prison. His story is told in a fascinating new book, ‘Boston Mob: The Rise and Fall of the New England Mob and its Most Notorious Killer,’ by Marc Songini.
BY SHERRYL CONNELLY
Joe (the Animal) Barboza, a mob hit man so vicious he “made Caligula look like a saint,” once tallied his violent crimes at 75 stabbings, 500 beatings and around 20 murders.
Give or take a few gutted corpses.
His psychotic tale is told in the new book “Boston Mob: The Rise and Fall of the New England Mob and Its Most Notorious Killer,” by Marc Songini. It’s not a pretty story, but it is fascinating reading.
Barboza, who grew up dirt poor in New Bedford, Mass., had already spent years in prison when he decided in 1962 it was time to up his game. A small-time loan shark with psychopathic tendencies, he turned down $1,000 to execute a mob hit. Instead, he did it for free.
And with such class. He attacked a Greek baker — who was running for union office against the mob’s wishes — with two 20-pound sash weights, leaving the guy “a bloody heap in the middle of the street.”
The Animal wasn’t looking to become a made man. The son of Portuguese immigrants, he knew that wasn’t an option. His ambition was to become a Mafia associate always on call to kill for cash.
Raymond Patriarca, who had close ties with New York’s Genovese and Colombo crime families, ran the New England Mafia out of what was known as the Office in Providence, R.I. As he once pointed out, it was easier to corrupt a small state.
But Robert Kennedy, then U.S. attorney general, had him in his sights. The FBI was infiltrating his organization with informers, and their reports were going directly to J. Edgar Hoover. One day, Barboza would turn against Patriarca and become the FBI’s biggest asset.
Meanwhile, gangsters with mob ties killed one another in bloody vengeance on the streets of Boston. The Boston Irish Gang War, which lasted until the mid-1960s, was incredibly vicious. Nearly everyone involved ended up dead.
The mob’s stance was to step back and let the Irish fight it out. Barboza allied himself with the Winter Hill Gang, the ultimate victor. Later, the infamous Whitey Bulger — now serving two consecutive life terms — would emerge from Winter Hill’s ranks.
Until he turned, Barboza proved very useful in a terrifying kind of way.
“Joe was a car with one speed — he smashed, maimed or killed at will, and didn’t bother to hide the bodies,” writes Songini. “High on uppers, he became a paranoid megalomaniac . . .
“Indeed, he admitted that killing had a ‘very tranquilizing effect’ on him.”
In one incident, when an underboss forbade him from “putting hands on” an enemy, Barboza settled for ripping skin from his cheek with his teeth. In another, he invited a gangster to take a ride, shot him five times in the chest and then served as a pallbearer at his funeral.
He formed a close bond with Vincent (Jimmy the Bear) Flemmi, another psychotic killer who once boasted that, “All I want to do is kill people.” His full service included a promise to get rid of the corpses, likely in the furnaces of Boston’s South End projects.
Barboza was always good for a straight-on vicious beating or firing through the window of a car, but he started to unnerve even the mob bosses with his escalating viciousness. He told Patriarca that he wanted to take care of one target by pouring gasoline in the basement of the man’s townhouse and setting it on fire.
The man’s mother lived on the first floor. Even Patriarca was appalled. “He’s crazy. Someday we’ll have to whack him,” declared the head of the New England Mafia.
In an era when gangsters dressed up as priests and rabbis to kill, one even borrowing a policemen’s gun — leaving the cop worried the bullets would be traceable — to complete a job, decreeing Barboza “crazy” was saying something.
Barboza was finally nailed after he and his crew dealt with a guy who offended him at a nightclub by slitting him from belly to chest. He was arrested, soon out on bail, then rearrested. He spun through this cycle a number of times until he was facing multiple charges and a double-surety $200,000 bail. That meant he had to post $100,000 to make the street.
Two of his crew went into overdrive, even shaking down mobsters for the cash. The crew members showed up at a mob joint, the Nite Lite Cafe, with $70,000 on the promise from men connected to the Office that $30,000 would come from the Mafia in return for Barboza’s service through the years.
They were shot dead, their bodies stuffed in the back of a Cadillac, where a truck driver found them a few hours later. The $70,000 was with the Mafia.
When the police showed up at the Nite Lite in the early morning, they found the owner and Mafia soldier, Ralphie Chong, laying a new carpet. A search revealed an M-1 rifle and bloodstained pieces of the old rug. On orders, and in return for a payoff, Chong took the fall.
But when he showed up at Walpole prison, he found Barboza already ensconced and enjoying many privileges. In an almost friendly way, Barboza let Chong know that he’d been able to put hands on a “powerful, tasteless poison.”
Barboza also ran the prison kitchen. For days, Chong refused to eat — until the night he awoke to find Barboza in his cell.
“I’m going to kill you, but not now,” the Animal informed him.
Barboza decided to turn state’s witness and give up the Mafia hierarchy.
The U.S. marshal assigned to protect his family, John Partington, had had a conversation with Robert Kennedy on a previous visit about how to get gangsters to turn on their own kind, suggesting the government set up a special program to protect a witness and his family from retribution.
Partington was the first head of the federal witness protection program. He transported Barboza and his family to a small island off of Cape Ann, Mass.
“You got to be s------g me,” said an angry Barboza when he stepped out of the helicopter and saw the house and the terrain.
Sixteen marshals were stationed on the island to protect Barboza. When one brought him a rescue dog to keep the bored killer amused, he trained it to attack the marshals at his hand signal. The dog went back.
Mob killers tried to locate Barboza but failed. He testified repeatedly, sending Patriarca and other high-ranking mobsters to prison. Six were sentenced to death, later reduced to life sentences. In 2000, those charges were dismissed amid accusations of a government frame-up.
After the trials, the FBI first tried to relocate Barboza to Australia, but he refused because he couldn’t take his dogs. He ended up in Santa Rosa, Calif., where he continued to kill. Rumors placed the number as high as 10 men, but he was convicted of only one murder and served five years at Folsom prison.
When he was released in 1975, a government memo advised that “the word on the street in Boston is that the bad guys . . . plan on publicly executing him.”
On Feb. 11, 1976, Barboza, living under the name Joe Donati, left his San Francisco apartment and was hit by four shotgun blasts fired from a Ford van. The Animal was carrying a Colt .38, but never got the chance to use it.
His one-time lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, had the final word.
“With all due respect for my former client,” he said, “I don’t think society has suffered a great loss.”