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New podcast explores rise and fall of 'the Springfield crew'

Former federal prosecutor Elie Honig worked on organized crime cases for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. The 2003 murder of Springfield, Massachusetts, mob boss Adolfo "Big Al" Bruno was among the cases handled by that office.

The rise and fall of the Springfield organized crime operation is told in a new season of Honig's podcast Up Against the Mob.

A key character in that case — and the podcast — was a member of the so-called Springfield Crew, Anthony Arillotta. Here's a quote from Arillotta in the podcast:

I got to know Al Bruno from growing up being a young kid. Bruno dressed good. He smoked cigars. You know, he was just a flashy type of a gangster.

Arillotta cooperated with prosecutors to escape a life sentence for the killing of Bruno. The breaking of the mob's famous vow of silence wasn't a problem for Arillotta.

Honig said it was part science, part art, to get Arillotta to be so candid in the podcast about his life — from gambling on sports as a teen, all the way up to the details of a murder.

Elie Honig, attorney and podcast host: This is what I did as a federal prosecutor. I was chief of organized crime in — of the organized crime unit, I should say, not of organized crime itself — in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, the Southern District of New York.

And that's when I first met Anthony, and many others like him, who we flipped. And it was fascinating making this podcast because I hadn't seen or had any contact with Anthony for many years. Last time I really saw him was when he testified on the stand for us. And here he is, years later, and he's out of jail now, and as you'll see, he's sort of returning to civilian life.

And he hasn't changed a bit. He is remarkably forthcoming. I think he's a compelling and fascinating figure. And I'm hearing from my friends who are listening to this podcast, and they basically all say the same things, which is, "I understand Anthony's a horrible guy who did horrible things, but I like him and I root for him." And that's sort of, I guess, some of the duality of this.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Well, obviously in the past, organized crime was thriving and made money in Springfield. What kinds of businesses and rackets were happening in Springfield, and how big was the mob crew needed to keep things running as planned in the city?

There was quite an active criminal underworld there, of the Genovese family crew out there — the Springfield crew. They ran sports gambling, although now it's legal, so they've kind of lost that business. But for a long time, they made a fortune off of sports gambling. They were involved in loan sharking. They were extorting a lot of local businesses up there, including the Mardi Gras strip club, which features prominently in this show. They were dealing drugs.

They were making a fortune. One of the things that I do with Anthony in the podcast is I go through with him and I ask just how much money. I'm just trying to add it all up. I say, "Is it fair to say [you were] bringing in, just revenue wise, $1 million a week?" He says, "Oh, easily, easily $1 million a week."

So, it was big business up there. As the New Yorkers say, in the heyday of the Springfield mob, "It's Shangri-La up there." They were making a fortune and they were sort of under the radar for a while.

Bruno was a well-known guy. He was also friendly with the cops. Let's listen to a clip from the podcast, from former state cop Thomas Murphy:

I remember one day, Bruno pulls up next to me at a traffic light and he, you know — I'm like, "Hey, Al, how's it going?" And he goes, "Oh, Murph." He goes, "You guys, you guys got to leave them, you know, the bookmakers alone." He goes, "You got to get them drug dealers."

Elie, you were a prosecutor. Does that kind of chumminess trouble you when you hear it, or was it always seen as an asset? I mean, couldn't that close friendship go either way?

It does not trouble me. I mean, of course, there's lines you can't cross. But no, that kind of relationship that Murph — of course, by the way, the Massachusetts state trooper is Murph, Tom Murphy. I told him, “I didn't even know your first name.” We all just called him Murph.

But, of course, Murph has a good relationship with these guys because, you know why? They feed him information, selectively. Al Bruno would occasionally drop him a little piece of information here or there. If you cultivate a relationship, you don't tell the mobsters anything you shouldn't be telling them, but they like to talk. And sometimes they like to drop hints and clues and even tips if it might benefit them. Whitey Bulger famously played both sides of the law, and he's not the only one.

In the episodes I've heard, it kind of tells it like it is. I mean, there's gritty language — language that many could find offensive — and it comes directly from the folks who were involved in the dismantling, or participating in, this organized crime in Springfield. So how do you know when reality crosses that line in the sand? When is it just too much for a podcast, or is it all fair game?

We went into this with the approach that it's all fair game. I mean, yes, the language is at times quite graphic. This is how they talk. You can't do a genuine, authentic interview with Anthony Arillotta that's going to be rated PG. That just is not going to happen.

And we didn't hold anything back. There are incidents of violence. There are incidents of betrayal. There are things that, I think, will cause legitimate spit takes, when you hear some of what happened. Some of it's funny. I mean, you can't pull the humor out of some of this, even though we're talking about grave things. Let's look at "The Sopranos," right? I mean, this is real. "The Sopranos" isn't. But there's humorous moments.

We decided we're going to give this straight. We're going to give this unvarnished. I think this show will tell you what it's really like to talk to and from Anthony's perspective, and others' perspective, to be not just a gangster, but also be a prosecutor, a defense lawyer, a cop, a victim in some instances, or a journalist. We take this from all angles and we try to tell it as straight as possible.

I was thinking if Al Bruno, who had extortion rackets running on businesses in Springfield, wasn't killed due to those expansion desires of “Artie” Nigro, who ran part of New York City, do you think today we would even know who Anthony Arillotta is? Or was he just the guy in the right place at the right time to do "a piece of work"?

I do not think we would know who Anthony is. I do not think we would know who many of these gangsters were. The murder of Al Bruno was sort of the original sin that caused the whole world around these guys to collapse.

And I don't want to give too much away, but I'll tell you, Al Bruno is not the only guy who gets shot and/or killed in this series. Anthony is very clear about that. He says once [they] cross that line and killed one of [their] own, all hell broke loose, essentially.

And it's really interesting, one of the things I found when I interviewed Anthony, is when he has committed, or was involved in, a horrible act — in this case, I'm talking about another guy who they shot — every time I would ask Anthony, “Do you have any regret about that? Do you have any remorse?”

He would always respond, “No.” And I would say, “You don't have any feelings of sorrow?” And he would always fall back on something tactical or logistical, “Well, we did it this way, but we should have done it that way. Well, we made a mistake the way we handled the cars or the weapons.” And I'm like, “Anthony, I know, I know. But I mean, emotional remorse.” And he's always like — does not compute. That's just not part of what he is.

Wow. So it's been nearly 20 years since this all happened. Does anyone involved have lingering fears of mob retribution and does it give you pause as you release episodes of this podcast?

It does not give me any pause. I mean, I spent nearly a decade prosecuting the mob, including some really bad guys. They won't come after me because I'm a prosecutor, and one of their rules is, you don't go after prosecutors or judges or cops. They broke [that rule] a couple of times in the 1970s and 80s, but it doesn't do any good for them. It draws heat. They hate heat, or law enforcement attention.

As for Anthony, I mean, one of the shocking things that you learn later in this podcast is, where has everyone landed? And I will tell you, the answers range from dead to in prison to living an open and notorious life to thriving to miserable. There's no real rhyme or reason as to who ends up alive or dead in prison or free, happy, or miserable. And it's fascinating to see how those chips fall.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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