One night in 1982, a 20-year-old man is senselessly murdered at an abandoned gas station. A mobster is taken into witness protection after he pins the murder on his boss. This brutal crime will push three wiseguys out of the mafia in very different ways.
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BOBBY WALASON: I owned a gold store. I sold jewelry and precious metals and stuff like that.
MARC SMERLING: This is Bobby Walason. You’ll remember him from episode two; the guy with the tough childhood, who went to prison at sixteen, and wound up an enforcer in the Patriarca crime family.
By the 1980s, Bobby had opened a side business…. a jewelry store.
One day, a mob associate of his, a guy named Billy Ferle, came through the door.
BOBBY: Billy came walking in, says, hey Bobby how you doing. Hey, don’t worry about nothing. Everything is cool, nothing is going to happen to you.” I said, ”What?”
He said yeah, yeah, everything’s cool, I’m just trying to let you know, everything’s all right. And he was wearing a big down jacket in October. Very very suspicious.
So I said, “Come in here Billy I gotta finish this piece of jewelry.” So I turn my blower system on, and my buffer.
Now we could barely hear each other, you know what I mean?
I knew he was bugged. I knew he was wired for sound.
I say, “What are you talking about?” Zzzt zzt, as I polish the ring. He said, “I’m just telling you, don’t worry about nothing. Don’t worry”
MARC: In the mob, when someone tells you not to worry… it’s time to worry.
Especially if that someone is Billy.
BOBBY: I hated him. Piece of shit. Nobody liked Billy Ferle… except Bobo. He was Bobo’s guy.
MARC: “Bobo” is Frank Marrapese—a powerful mob captain, just two spots below Raymond Patriarca on the mob chart. And …he was Bobby’s boss.
BOBBY: Bobo looked like Pavarotti. Same height, same build. Mildly spoken man, you know. He just – like some of these guys, they get raspy voices. Hey, how you doin’? He wasn’t like that. He had a nice personality. He really did.
MARC: After that visit at the jewelry store, Bobby suspected Billy Ferle had flipped. So Bobby went to warn Bobo.
BOBBY: I told him, I said listen, this guy, he’s going to turn. I mean, I think he’s already turned.
I’ll tell you the truth. I wanted to take him out. Bobo got really upset with me. He says, are you fucking kidding me. He grabs me by the shirt and pulls me over to the table. Don’t you ever fucking say you’re going to take that kid out. You got it? Don’t ever say it. Ever again.
And I was like, yeah, ok. But mark my words, you’re going to see. You’re going to see what’s going on.
It was like I knew it was coming.
MARC: What was coming? Betrayal.
Back in the seventies, Bobby thought being in the mob was glamorous. But now it’s the eighties, and things have changed.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: Today’s episode: a chance encounter leads to a senseless murder and puts Bobby Walason on a path out of the mob. But… getting out is a lot harder than getting in.
I’m Zac Stuart Pontier.
MARC: I’m Marc Smerling.
Welcome to Crimetown.
ANTHONY PESARE: I remember when I first started investigating organized crime, you picked up a mobster, they wouldn’t say a word to you.
MARC: Anthony Pesare is a former state police investigator.
And he says by the 1980s, law enforcement had become more aggressive in protecting mobsters who flipped… offering to change their identities and relocate them.
PESARE: We learned how to infiltrate them. We learned how to use witness protection. Mobsters had more incentive to speak against other mobsters.
MARC: And Pesare thought that Billy Ferle was a perfect candidate for the program.
PESARE: Ferle was trying to live two lives, so he had this legitimate life, so to speak. He had a young daughter, his wife worked for the city, I think and then he wanted to be a mobster and I think he looked up to Bobo as a father figure. And I think Bobo kind of adopted him as his son, and so he tried to be the tough guy and that sort of thing, tried to be a wiseguy but really wasn’t a wiseguy.
MARC: In Billy Ferle, the state police had found a weak link in Bobo Marrapese’s crew. Someone who might testify against Bobo.. in exchange for a new life.
And bringing down a high-ranking mobster like Bobo Marrapese — a suspect in more than one murder — would be a major win for the police in their battle against the Patriarca crime family.
PESARE: Frank Bobo Marrapese was a made member of organized crime in the Patriarca crime family. And probably one of the most genuine gangsters, I would say, a real gangster. Someone to be feared, someone that helped people but on the other hand, had the ability to in a moment’s notice to snap and become extremely violent.
MARC: So, the state police offered Ferle a deal… and he took it.
PESARE: While we had Billy Ferle in protective custody, just like any other witness who is in protective custody, you’re gonna try to make as many cases as possible and find out as much about that person as possible, and in the course of these debriefings, he talked about the McElroy homicide.
KEN CARLSON: That’s his high school yearbook picture, yup. Hard to believe this was 36 years ago. Ronald McElroy. That’s how I remember him, last time I saw him.
MARC: On August 23 of 1982, 20-year-old Ronald McElroy… was killed at an abandoned gas station. This is Ken Carlson, McElroy’s best friend.
KEN: Where I grew up and when I grew up, your friends didn’t get murdered. That was something on TV or someplace else. And when it happened to Ronnie…a friend of mine called me and said that Ronnie had died and it wasn’t until a few days that went by that we realized what the circumstances were.
I heard they were, you know, Saturday night, they were driving around. Going to clubs, just you know, what kids do. They weren’t bad kids. They ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time, cutting off I guess, the wrong person. It was just that random.
MARC: And the wrong person Ronald McElroy cut off? It was Bobo Marrapese. At least, that’s was what Billy Ferle was telling the cops…
MARC: Do you remember what he said?
PESARE: It was my understanding that he was out with Bobo. This car came up behind them, started cutting them off. McElroy, his brother and another individual.
MARC: Again, state police investigator Anthony Pesare.
PESARE: And they exchanged words. It was nothing serious. Eventually the car stopped, and Bobo was gonna drive on with his crew, but unfortunately McElroy got out of the car, with the baseball bat and tried to call them on to fight.
And according to Ferle, Bobo snapped, went up to McElroy, took the baseball bat away from him, and beat him to death.
MARC: That was the story from Billy Ferle?
PESARE: That was the story from Billy Ferle, that was the case we developed.
MARC: The state police finally had a case against Bobo Marrapese.
And Ferle also told the them there was someone else there that night: Bobby Walason.
BOBBY: In the state police. Tell me to roll up the carpets, let’s go, you’re coming with us. And they tell me, we got a lot to offer you. Just listen to what we got to say. Billy’s already with us. Billy’s in the witness protection program.
They tried to get me to join Billy in ratting on Bobo and they they would have had him. Because when you get two rats, it’s very convincing.
MARC: Bobby didn’t deny being there the night Ronald McElroy was killed. But he wouldn’t cooperate with the police.
BOBBY: You know, I was taught never to rat. Always be honorable, be loyal. Always be stand up. In Rhode Island, to be a stool pigeon, that was the worst.
MARC: On November 14, 1988, Billy Ferle took the stand… in the State of Rhode Island.. vs. Frank “Bobo” Marrapese.
He told the jury what he had told the cops. That McElroy came at Bobo with a bat… Bobo grabbed the bat away … and killed McElroy with it.
Then, it was the defense’s turn. Their star witness? Bobby Walason.
BOBBY: When it was time for me to talk, I was ready. I’m like, you motherfuckers are going to hear the truth. So I get on the stand. Of course they did, are you the same Bobby Walason charged with this, charged with that, back in this year. Making me look bad. I said, yup, yes. Oh yes, that’s me. Oh baby, that’s me. Yeah. Okay, ask me about this fucking murder.
MARC: And they did ask. Bobby told the courtroom his version of what happened that night.
BOBBY: Me and Bobo were in the car. This Volkswagen came by and cut us off. I said what the fuck are you kids doing. We went down Knight Street chasing them because they sped away. Get to the end of Knight Street. Me and Bobo pull in. They had pulled in. Their car had stalled. We get out of the car, they attacked me and Bobo.
We weren’t out to kill anybody. The two kids come at me and Bobo. One of them hits Bobo in the side of the head. The other one comes at me, misses me, I back up.
And all of a sudden, you know, I heard the beating going on. Bang bang bang bang. And it didn’t sound right. It was that metal bat on skull. At night, no cars around, you can hear an echo. I’m about, I don’t know, 500 feet away, but I can’t really see. The kids run that were trying to get me. Bobo pulls up. I get in the car and he goes, fucking Billy beat that kid to death. He goes Bobby, I’ve never seen anything fucking like it.
MARC: And this is the one crucial difference between Billy Ferle’s story and Bobby’s: who was holding the bat that killed Ronald McElroy.
BOBBY: Billy comes pulling over in his truck. He comes right next to us, slams the brake on, stops and goes, I squashed his head like a fucking tomato. He lifts up the bat and there’s blood and guts all over the aluminum bat. I’m like, oh my god. Bobo said, Go home, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Just go home.
MARC: The courtroom went silent. And Bobo’s lawyer, Richard Egbert, let the silence linger…
BOBBY: He put his back to me, Richard Egbert. He says are you getting anything for this testimony? Do you benefit at all in any way from this testimony? I said no. Nothing at all. Not at all. So tell the court then, why are you giving this testimony about this? He looked out towards the mother. And I pointed right at her, and I said because I want that woman to know who really killed her son. Whew. Richard Egbert didn’t even turn around. He waited a few seconds. I don’t know what he was going to say and he went, your honor, I rest my case.
MARC: The jury retired… to weigh the testimony of defense witness Bobby Walason against the testimony of protected witness Billy Ferle.
Their verdict…after the break.
MARC: Welcome back. Before the break, protected witness Billy Ferle testified that mob captain Bobo Marrapese beat a young man to death with a baseball bat.
But, Bobby Walason told a different story. He testified that Billy Ferle was the killer.
After just three hours, the verdict was in. Bobby Walason heard the news from Bobo’s lawyers.
BOBBY: I pick up my Jaguar on Elmwood Avenue at Jake’s. I see Jack Cicillini and Richard Egbert walking in the Jaguar. They looked at me. I looked at them. They went, they put their arms out, like, I’m like, what? They said you didn’t hear? I said no. Egbert goes, not guilty. And it was like a big, big, joyous hug from him and Jack.
MARC: Bobo was acquitted. And not everyone felt joyous.
KEN: I went to the funeral. Somebody told me that the undertaker had a pretty tough time making him presentable because they had beat him so badly, you know? It’s tough.
MARC: Ronald McElroy’s best friend, Ken Carlson again.
KEN: I felt bad for his mother after, you know. She lived with Ronnie until he died. And she remained there in that house until she died, a good 30 years. She never really got justice for her kid.
MARC: The case remains officially unsolved.
We may never know whether it was Bobo Marrapese or Billy Ferle who dealt the blow that killed Ronald McElroy. From the start, even McElroy’s mother had doubts about Billy Ferle’s story.
At one point, she organized a press conference. She said, “I believe the attorney general’s department deliberately concealed information.. about the involvement of William Ferle in the brutal killing of my son. And I demand that Ferle now be indicted and brought to justice.”
PESARE: I mean, you always as an investigator believe you’re putting the best case forward and that you believe your witnesses…
MARC: State police investigator Anthony Pesare, again.
PESARE: …But it became so murky and it wasn’t cut and dry.
MARC: Do you think he was, that Bobo was the guy who killed McElroy? At the end of the day going through that trial?
PESARE: I’ll let the jury verdict answer that question. Obviously the jury wasn’t convinced that Bobo did it. And I don’t think that anyone could have been convicted with that fact pattern and with the testimony that was so contradictory.
MARC: If you could live in a perfect world where you know, where you could make up the rules, would you continue the witness protection program? Do you think it was worth it?
PESARE: I mean, did Billy Ferle get a deal of all deals? Absolutely. These are the worst of the worst and so, how do you get those people? Who’s gonna testify against them, who’s gonna – who knows? So you do have to do make a deal with the devil.
MARC: Definitely a deal with the devil there.
PESARE: It’s a deal with the devil, no doubt about it, but the only way to get a devil is with another devil, I guess.
PRISON GUARD: 203244. 25 front entrance. What do you guys have an audio recorder? That’s it? No cameras? No cell phones?
GUARD: Frank Marrapese.
GUARD 2: Okay.
MARC: And eventually, Ferle helped the state police get their devil.
We’re in maximum security at the Adult Correctional Institutions. A guard leads Frank “Bobo” Marrapese into the visiting room. He’s shackled and in a tan jumpsuit.
Even at 74, he’s still a bit scary.
BOBO MARRAPESE: Who did you speak to about me?
MARC: Everybody talks about you Bobo.
BOBO: It’s that damn nickname, that’s why.
And the ironic thing about the nickname is, on one block on Federal Hill. There was four of us, four of us named Bobo. But I was called little Bobo because I was this big. A skinny little runt. And that’s it.
MARC: Bobo may have been acquitted in the McElroy murder, but Ferle told the cops about another murder — a mob captain, who was shot to death in Bobo’s bar one night. Bobo was convicted on that charge, and sent here…for life. He’s had a lot of time to think about Billy Ferle.
BOBO: He was like the brother I never had. I mean, we really got along really good. It broke my heart when he became an informant. And a liar, that’s the worst part. What he did to that kid, it was a shame, it was a shame. Ferle killed the kid. I mean, he killed him. It was a slaughter.
Whenever I got in trouble, I was the only one who went to jail. But I don’t take nobody with me. I had people inform on me who murdered people, and the state police know they did it, and the FBI know they did it, but what they thought was that, if they put enough charges on me, I’d roll over too. But the buck stops here, like Harry Truman said. The buck stops here.
And they got away with murder.
MARC: Billy Ferle is still alive, in an undisclosed location. We tried to contact him, but our requests were denied.
With Ferle in the Witness Protection Program and Bobo in jail, Bobby Walason had a lot to think about after the McElroy Trial.
BOBBY: I saw myself ending up as a zero. I really did. I had to change everything. I couldn’t keep it up. I couldn’t do that.
MARC: It’s not easy to just walk away from it, right?
BOBBY: Well, if you got any ties, you have to cut your ties.
MARC: Cutting ties to the mob takes time. And for years, Bobby was half in and half out—trying to start legitimate businesses while still loansharking, hustling people for money, and making enemies.
One day, Bobby was unloading a truck when something happened that got him out for good.
BOBBY: I think it was a Monday, and it was just starting to get dark.
And this station wagon pulls in. I mean, old. When do you see old station wagons? You don’t seem them. So it stood right out. And they turned around and left. I said what the hell was that? I say 45 minutes later, the car pulls back in, And this young Spanish kid gets out. Could’ve been 22 years old. He was young. And this other black kid, they got shorts on, and they both have tank tops. And I’m saying to myself, I say what the fuck. I take a sip of the water, and all of a sudden I hear a gun go off and hit the fucking jug. Jug falls out of my hand and I think quick and start running towards the corner of Atlantic Mills and Aleppo Street. As I’m running down that way, he started popping. Boom boom boom. I remember him getting to number 6 hoping that it was all over because he hadn’t hit me. Then 7 came, 8, 9, 10. He got all the way to where I lost count.
I got up and started booking it toward the top of the hill. As soon as I get up to the top, right at the street. Boom. He got me right in the kidney.
When you get shot, it takes every ounce of breath. You have none. There’s none to reach for. You don’t have any. It’s gone.
I stumble into the street. There’s a few girls in a car and they stop and I’m starting to gurgle blood onto their car and they’re screaming.
All of a sudden there’s the kid behind me. I turn around and he puts the gun on my forehead. I don’t have any strength. I have no air. I don’t have any—as soon as he puts the gun on my forehead and pulls the trigger…it clicked.
He didn’t have any more bullets. He wasted them all on me. The whole fucking clip, man. Every one was spent.
MARC: The shooter ran off and Bobby was rushed to the hospital.
BOBBY: The doctor said when he opened me up, usually they have to deal with one organ, sometimes two. He goes, all of yours were shot. You were shot through every organ. In my kidney, up through my colon, into my liver, through my intestines, out my stomach wall. And came out like a half-inch below my heart. And it took about 9 and a half, 10 hours they said. He goes, but we kept going and kept going. Our job is to go until your heart stops. Your heart never skipped a beat. He goes, and here you are.
MARC: Bobby had no idea who was trying to kill him. Or who’d sent them.. But the way he was living, it didn’t really matter.
BOBBY: I was my worst enemy sometimes, you know. Come on, Bobby. Come on. You did this. This was – you can’t even blame anybody for this. This was your fault. So really, that was the turning point. You caused this. It takes a lot for a guy to say you caused something like that. But I caused it. So I was…I was to blame… you know?
MARC: And with this realization… Bobby …was finally free.
HOST: You control the pace. And it works every different muscle group you can imagine. And let me introduce the man who brings it to us, Robert Walason. Robert! How are you, my friend? Welcome to the Home Shopping Network.
BOBBY: Thank you.
MARC: This is Bobby Walason on the Home Shopping Network selling a product that he invented.
BOBBY: I‘ve never done anything that can compare to the EZ Jump.
MARC: In the video, Bobby is wearing a tank top and gym shorts, demonstrating the EZ Jump. It’s best described as a jump rope that’s been cut in half: two handles attached to weighted cords, which you spin. The motion is the workout.
HOST: You know what I love about it, Robert, is it’s fun. It’s a fun workout.
BOBBY: That’s the key. All the workouts you do, whether it’s cardio, lifting weights, whatever it is, they’re not really much fun. After a while they get very boring and very stressful. But with EZ Jump, everybody can do it and have a great time doing it, and that’s the key to consistent fitness.
BOBBY: I got known rather than being a gangster, I got known as a good businessman.
MARC: Bobby also started a successful moving and storage business that he runs to this day.
There’s more than one way to get out of the mob.
You can go to prison for life.. like Bobo. You can disappear into witness protection.. like Billy Ferle. Or you can end up dead.. like so many others.
Very few wiseguys get out like Bobby Walason. By just choosing to walk away.
MARC: Yeah, but you got out. Look at you.
BOBBY: Yeah, yeah.
MARC: It’s not so bad.
BOBBY: No, life is good. Life is good. I come home at night, boom. I hit the pillow, I go right to sleep. I have no worries. Get up. Tomorrow’s another day. It’s beautiful.
MARC: Did it ever come back in your life?
BOBBY: Watch if somebody fucks with me in your company. I’m a fucking vicious animal. It’s in there. It’s never going to go away. Where’s it going? There’s nowhere to go, you know. But I keep it at bay. Keep it at bay. I don’t want to say I hope and pray because I’m not big into that. But I do hope I don’t ever have to be that guy again, ever. ‘Cause that sucks.
ZAC: Hey Crimetown listeners, we’re taking two weeks to do some follow-up reporting. We’ll be back on February 26th to continue our 20-episode season about Providence, Rhode Island.
CHARLES KENNEDY: Wall to wall naked girls. Strippers. Beautiful girls. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. But, I do fuck. I do love my girls.
MOON DIORIO: I’m not wearing a robe, sir.
RICHARD EGBERT: Thank god.
DI ORIO: I admit to being a criminal.
EGBERT: Thank god for that.
DI ORIO: I am not wearing a robe. He is.
EGBERT: No, you’re wearing a mask.
DI ORIO: Yeah.
MARC: Crimetown is me, Marc Smerling, and Zac Stuart-Pontier.
We are produced by Drew Nelles, Austin Mitchell, Kaitlin Roberts and Mike Plunkett. With additional production by Laura Sim.
We’re edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Matthew Boll.
Additional sound design by Robin Shore at Silver Sound.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat.
Original music by John Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin and Bienart.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Additional mixing by Martin Peralta, Enoch Kim and Kenny Kusiak.
Our digital editor is Kate Parkinson-Morgan. Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Alex Blumberg is The Podfather. He’s a vicious animal. But he keeps it at bay…keeps it at bay.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Zachary Malinowski. We miss you, Bill.
Check out Anthony Pesare’s book, “They Always Win.” It’s a lightly fictionalized account of his experiences working on these cases.
Thanks to the Providence Journal, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Tim White, Lisa Newby, Mary Murphy, and everyone who shared their stories with us.
For a full list of credits, and for bonus content from this episode, visit our website at crimetownshow.com.
You can find us on Twitter @crimetown, and on Facebook and Instagram @crimetownshow.
And if you’re enjoying Crimetown, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find out about the show. Thanks.
Providence is a special place, and we’re honored to tell a part of its story.
BOBBY: But what happens is, you know, a jump rope – can you hear that?
BOBBY: That’s tension. You don’t get that from a jump rope. Now you can squat, you can lunge, you can do everything with this. You can actually jump if you want, but you don’t have to. But it’s better. And then you can do like your triceps. Oh, it works so good.