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Oct. 4, 2021

The Bobbsey Twins - Santo Diaferio & Carmello Merlino - The Early Days


In Episode 5 we will be discussing Sonny Diaferio and Mello Merlino, childhood friends and lifelong partners in crime. Nina and Lara will be telling the story of their early days.

If you'd like to email Lara you can reach her at lara@doubledealpodcast.comand Nina can be contacted at nina@doubledealpodcast.com

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Thank you for listening!

All the best,

Lara & Nina

Transcript

Lara:

Welcome back everyone! Today we’re discussing the early days of Sonny Diaferio and Mello Merlino. You might be asking why we’re combining these two men in one episode. Well, Sonny and Mello were childhood friends and later coworkers of sorts. Richie always referred to them as the Bobbsey Twins! Sonny and Mello went to the can shortly after I was born. But Mello I knew well later in life. He was released when I was 19. I was working in Copley Place then, and dad brought Mello to meet me. The first words out of his mouth were “Jesus Richie, she looks just like Ann.” Ann was my mom. Like all of my other not blood related uncles I found Mello kind and amusing. Recently, I was reading a reddit post about Mello, and someone commented “imagine eating lunch with that guy.” I don’t even know what that's supposed to mean. This idea or notion that people have about wiseguys, gangsters, mobsters or whatever label you want to slap on them that they’re uncouth or frightening is ridiculous. Not to say that some weren’t pure psychos out there, like Joe Barboza for instance. But the men I knew throughout my life always seemed normal to me. Granted my idea of normal, probably doesn’t quite align with the majority. We’ll get more into my world in season 2. Ok Nina, tell us about Sonny.

 

Nina:

 

Sonny was born Santo Diaferio on November 31, 1931 in Boston, MA to Francisco and Grace Diaferio.. He was one of 7 kids.The family lived in Roxbury in the 1940s. On November 20, 1943 Sonny’s brother, Michael, was shot in the stomach by a man wielding a shotgun outside of a poolroom in the South End. The shooting was never cleared up. A story was going around that Michael was supposedly selling the shotgun to someone who then shot him in the stomach because he thought the gun wasn’t loaded.

 

Lara:

 

Wait a minute! Who in their right mind would let someone point a shotgun at them and who in their right mind would pull the trigger. I don’t buy that. It makes no sense. Two days later, their brother-in-law, Michael Rendini, was arrested in front of Michael’s house. He was in possession of two gasoline ration cards without a name in the ID space and two cases of liquor. Two years later he was arrested for selling alcohol in the streets. He moved on from illegal alcohol sales to selling stolen TVs.

 

Nina:

 

Well it gets weirder. On February 25, 1949 Sonny’s brother Nicholas was found shot in the chest less than a mile from where Michael was found dead. Sonny claimed to have met with Nicholas on Harrison Ave about an hour before the shooting. There were two shotgun shells in his pocket. Nicholas stated he was accosted by a man on Reed St. who robbed him. A witness said she heard noises and looked out the window to find 4 men arguing. In the ambulance, Nicholas was mumbling something about an address in Quincy. Some reports said he was thrown from a vehicle where the commotion was heard. The police believed he was shot somewhere else as there were no reports of anyone saying they heard a gunshot in the area where he was found. The robbery excuse made no sense as he had $20 still in his pocket. 



Lara:

 

There was a tip called in that the shooter was a 23 year old from the West End. But no one was ever charged in the shooting.

 

Nina:

 

All seemed quiet in Nicholas’ world until 1955 when all of his homing pigeons disappeared. I guess they flew the coop!

 

Lara:

 

Now you’re a comedian! But that’s not the end of Nicholas’ story. In November of 1976 Michael Butler was shot in the stomach and killed in a bar brawl. Nicholas was arrested and tried for illegal gun possession, but he went on the lam during the trial. His excuse for fleeing was so his common law wife could collect welfare in another state!

 

Nina:

 

Stop! Why do you say these things?

 

Lara:

 

Hey, I’m just telling you what he said! In 1984, he’s picked up again and the trial resumed. He was convicted of the gun charge, but a mistrial was declared on the murder charges. Nicholas dropped off the radar and passed away in April of 1997. Before we move onto Sonny, let's have a dose of normalcy, Sonny’s  brother Vincent went on to  become a priest.



Nina:

 

Every family seems to have a criminal, a priest and a politician!



Lara:

 

That’s a Boston thing for sure!

 

Nina:

 

Back to Sonny. He was continuously getting picked up for petty crimes, but in November of 1949 he was arrested with three others including 15 year old Mello Merlino..The other two boys were Paul J. Conley and Samuel Gravina.They stole a car from Watertown which they used for the B&E in Roslindale where they stole a safe from the Granville Club. 

 

BPD officers spotted them cruising down the Jamaica Way with something sticking out of the trunk. The officers called in the plate number and were told the vehicle had been reported stolen. A high speed chase ensued. The BPD pursued the boys at 90 miles an hour through the streets of Jamaica Plain before they crashed into a stone wall near the Washington St MBTA station. The 500 lb safe was found in the car with $800 cash, $250 in checks and documents in it. 

 

Sonny and Paul were arrested at the scene. Mello fled on foot, but his mother turned him in. Samuel, who also fled on foot, was picked up a couple of days later. Mello, since he was underaged, was released to his mother. The others were held on $10,000 bail.

 

Lara:

 

On December 7th, Sonny, Paul and Samuel pled guilty. The judge decided to split them up and send them to different Houses of correction. They were each given 18 months, but warned them that their next offense would land them in State prison. Mello was never charged.

 

Nina:

 

How could you expect Sonny to turn out any different? I mean with the brother Michael getting killed, Nicholas being shot. Obviously there were more than a few issues in that household.

 

Lara:

 

No question about that. They were all released in late 1950. Conley and Gravina ended up being arrested for kidnapping a 19 year old girl in Dorchester in September of 1953. The girl luckily escaped from the car. Not to get sidetracked, but Nina, you have to tell us a little more about Samuel Gravina. It’s too bizarre to pass up.





Nina:

 

He went off the radar for a long time, but then in 1970 he’s picked up for armed robbery. A petty $160. Before the guilty verdict in October of 1970, Gravina went missing. In 1973 he was found in Zurich, Switzerland. The Quincy PD and Mass State Police had to fly there to bring him back home. In 1993 he was locked up for stealing $30,000 in a roofing scam on 2 old women in Quincy and Braintree. Then he’s thrown into Federal Prison for welfare fraud and scamming casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City of roughly $60,000. In the end he was found shot once in the head in his home in Hull. The neighbors said they weren’t surprised.



Lara:

 

Think about that! He went on the lam to Switzerland for a lousy $160. Back to Sonny. He got out in early 1951, and married Patricia Freiburg in June of that year. But on October 7th he was arrested once again for a B&E along with two others from his neighborhood, John P. Foley and Edward Gullins. They broke into a house on Moss Hill Rd in JP. The 15 year old girl who lived in the house walked in on them. Once again Sonny found himself behind bars. The judge ordered each of them to be held on $10,000 bail. 

 

Nina:

 

It’s unclear what the outcome of that case was. I was unable to find a dismissal or conviction for the case. But Sonny made headlines again on June 11, 1954. This time it was a payroll robbery that came to be known as the Pepper Theft! He and William Cavanaugh were picked up on the scene after officers heard the screams of the paymaster..

 

Lara:

 

Wait, you said it was a payroll robbery. They robbed peppers?

 

Nina:

 

No, they shook pepper into the paymaster’s eyes! Hence the pepper theft. The headline was great! “Pepper Theft Nets A Hot $4500”! They didn’t have a gun, just a pepper shaker! That’s worse than Billy and the lead pipe!

 

Lara:

 

I can’t! To top it off, when the cops were taking him and his partner in, they both tried to break free. We will put a picture of the struggle up on the website. The robbery took place on June 10th at the Western waterproofing Company on Dedham St in the South End. When they were brought into court DA Garrett Byrne convened a Grand Jury within 5 minutes of the arraignment! Sonny and William were held on $2500 bail. They landed in Charles St. jail. If you listened to episode 3, you might remember that Elmer Trigger Burke was sitting in Charles St jail in the summer of 1954 for his attempted hit on Specs O’keefe. And guess who was charged with helping Elmer escape?

 

Nina:

 

Sonny! In September of ‘54 he was charged with aiding, assisting and conspiracy along with 4 other inmates including Cavanaugh, and 6 guards. At the time of the indictments, Sonny and Cornelius J. Connolly were the only two still in custody. Vincent C. Patierno was released shortly after Burke’s escape and was being sought. 

 

Lara:

 

Trigger Burke wasn’t the first escape that Cavanaugh was charged with. Earlier in the year he was charged with helping Teddy Green escape. How he managed to be free at the time of the Pepper Theft and then make bail for that is a mystery to me. He and Locke were picked up in a raid in Connecticut and transferred back to Charles St.  In October of ‘54 a guy named Keenan was picked up for two break-ins in Roslindale. When Keenan’s house was searched burglar’s tools were found. He claimed that Locke and Cavanaugh brought the tools there the night of Burke’s escape. A neighbor confirmed seeing the three of them that night. DA Byrne specified that none of those indicted were to be released on bail less than $25,000 and without his consent.

 

Nina:

 

How’d that work out? Locke had a lengthy record including armed robbery and assault with intent to kill, but he was allowed to visit Burke’s jail suite. Burke had a special two cell setup that he used to run a tailor shop out of!

 

Lara:

 

Hey he was a renaissance man. Cavanaugh made bail two days before the Burke escape, and then went back to visit. He told the guards he was bringing some of the inmates money.

 

Nina:

 

The trial began on March 7, 1955. Details were given about the 80-minute-long jail break of Trigger Burke on August 28, 1954. Endless theories were given about how it may have occurred including, keys, bolt cutters, and saws. But not even a metal scraping was found. 

 

Lara:

 

The Saturday afternoon that Burke escaped from the yard there wasn’t even an armed guard on duty!

 

Nina:

 

The trial of the inmates continued into April of 1955. There were ten lawyers for 8 defendants. Sonny and William were cellmates before he made bail, and when he was returned to Charles St. William magically found himself Sonny’s cellmate again. The prosecutor complained that Charles St was like a country club!

 

The DA found a witness named Paul Fox who had been released from Charles Street just hours before Burke’s escape. He claimed that he had seen Sonny’s wife, Patricia, meeting with a guard in a tavern on Washington Street. One of the Defense attorneys objected to the witness, saying that he had represented the man in another case and that he had been institutionalized back in 1950.

 

The defense also put Connolly’s 9-year-old son on the stand. The boy told the court that he was the one who had made the scrawlings which the State claimed were escape diagrams and a secret code. He told the court that it was some game he was playing with his brother, and he had made it all up. 

 

Then at one point, the judge had to call a recess because rain was coming through the windows of the courtroom and soaking the jury. Court aides tried to stop the flow by pulling down the cloth shades and stuffing pieces of cloth around the window edges. But it didn’t work.

 

Lara:

 

On April 17th Sonny, Cornelius, and Vincent Patierno were acquitted. A total of 79 witnesses had testified by then. Locke and Cavanuagh were found guilty of aiding and abetting Burke’s escape and sentenced to 7 to 10 year terms in State Prison. Sonny was free by the end of the summer.

 

Nina:

 

It appears that after Billie’s lawnmower escapade, Sonny managed to keep himself out of trouble for a while. Or at least he managed to keep himself from getting arrested. 

 

Lara:

 

Well, he met his life coach while he was in Charles St! Before we get into that, let's talk about Mello. 

 

Nina:

 

He was born Carmello Merlino on June 21,1934 in Boston, MA to Paul and Antonia Merlino. 

 

Lara:

 

Another Gemini in the crew! 

 

Nina:

 

No astrology, please! 

 

Lara:

 

Forgive me! Ok, Mello had one brother, Anthony, who was three years older than him. Unlike Sonny, there’s no record of Anthony ever getting into trouble.  



Nina:

 

As we mentioned a little while ago, the first arrest of Mello’s that we know of was in ‘49 with Sonny, Paul Conley and Sammy Gravina. But the BPD didn’t charge him. By early 1950 Mello, George Yair and Sonny’s neighbor, Anthony Peroni were picked up on a 60 count indictment. Mello wasn’t even 16 yet. They had robbed over 60 homes in the Dedham area. In the meantime, Anthony Peroni was storing all the loot at his home, but he too was robbed!

 

Lara:

 

Oh, I’d bet you anything it was Mello! Sorry, but I wouldn’t put it past him to rob his partner in crime. You’ll see later in the season!

 

Nina:

 

As the great Rudy Giuliani once said, “some people are just born bad.” He and the other two were sentenced on April 25, 1950 to five years and a month at Concord Reformatory The judge said they were “notorious thieves”!

 

Lara:

 

Think about that! Anthony was 20, George 16 and Mello 15, and they were already labeled “notorious thieves.” The judge had no idea how prophetic that statement would be. At least in Mello’s case. George Yair was killed in early 1953. His body was found on the train tracks at the Egleston Sq station. It was deemed an accident. 

 

Nina:

 

Well, Mello was free by 1953, and by January of 1954, he was up to his old tricks again. In late January he committed a payroll robbery of the Western Coal Company in Dorchester. Then in February, Mello, Paul Conley, yes the same Paul Conley from Sonny’s 1949 arrest, and Robert Skeffington were picked up outside of a Dorchester supermarket waiting to pull off a payroll robbery. The police found a .45 gun, stocking caps, and three silk stockings in his car. Supposedly Mello confessed at the police station, and gave up Conley and Skeffington.




Lara:

 

But they were released on $1500 bail, and were back in action. On March 3rd, Mello was pinched for robbing a Howard Johnson’s in Dorchester and a b&e at a lawyer’s house in Roxbury. He was sloppy and left his fingerprints behind at both locations. But all three of them were also charged with conspiracy.



Nina:

 

Well, Skeffington was scared straight I guess. Never was heard from again. He died in California in the 1990s. Conley seemed to leave crime behind him after the kidnapping. 

 

Lara:

 

Mello managed to rehabilitate them!

 

Nina:

 

I guess! So Mello was locked up in Charles St as of March 1954, Jack Kelley arrived in April, and Sonny in June. Class was in session!

 

Lara:

 

Exactly! And let’s not forget Elmer Trigger Burke arrives later in the summer. Magic! Jack already knew Sonny, but he forms a stronger relationship with him and gets to know Mello. The story goes that Jack tried to keep them on their best behavior including going to church. A lot of good that did them. 

 

Nina:

 

Once again, Mello was free. There was something odd going on, though. In February of 1961, he was charged in Federal court with receiving stolen property. 11 witnesses were being sequestered. Well except one, FBI SA H.Paul Rico!

 

Lara:

 

This was a very strange case. Mello wasn’t named in the newspapers. I did find one article from February about the case. It was a truck hi-jacking. They recovered $5000 in loot. The  transfer was made from one trailer to another in Dorchester then stored in Shrewsbury. Of course Dorchester makes me think of Mello. Francis E. Hogan and Michael V. Husson were arrested. The article stated that a third man was being sought. I know for sure Mello wasn’t convicted, and there is no mention of the other two men until August of 1973 when Hogan was picked for mailing a pipe bomb to a competitor in the jukebox business! The bomb exploded on July 25th at the South Boston Postal Annex. They had previously fire bombed the Worcester Music company in March of the same year. The dispute was over an $80,000 judgement against Hogan and his partner in crime, Joseph Belculfine.



Nina:

 

You know I have my suspicions that Mello may have been informing too back then.

 

Lara:

 

It’s possible, and the timing is suspicious to me. What I can say is that from the time they were in Charles St together, Jack took Sonny and Mello under his wing, they both managed to elude arrest with the exception of this one odd case of Mello’s. Sonny goes on to have a gas station, and Mello a garage. Whenever Mello was on the street, he would have a mechanic shop, the most infamous being TRC in Dorchester. I get it as far as the informant theory goes. Anytime I see Rico’s name, my mind goes straight to “informant.” But considering the amount of time Mello did in the can, I doubt it. That’s not to say that the cops were lying about him giving up his two companions in 1954 or that he didn’t make some strange deal in the ’61 case. A mystery we’ll never solve.

 

Nina:

 

Oh, my mind goes to a much worse place when I see or hear Rico’s name! 

 

Lara:

 

Well you know our next episode we will be discussing Rico’s early career. I'm glad you’re thousands of miles away from me. I might get hit with a stray punch or something if you get wound up!

 

Nina: 

 

Great! Now everyone is going to know how bloodthirsty I am! But I don’t want to give too much away here! 

 

Lara:

 

All 5’ and 90 lbs of you! I have witnessed you muscle your way through crowded metro stations in Tbilisi and Kyiv, so I know you can be dangerous. I always tell people you were my bodyguard on our adventures around the globe. Everyone has a good laugh imaging that ))))

 

Nina:

 

It’s supposed to be the other way around since you’re the Amazon!

 

Lara:

 

But it’s much more interesting that way!

 

Thank you all for listening. I’m going to spare all of you from my usual self promotion. You can find all of that in the show notes. Instead I’d like you to listen to the trailer for the True Crime Files podcast. Nina and I both like it, and think you might too! You can find the link in the show notes also, so don’t hit the pause button quite yet. Here’s the True Crime Files!