Maurice Lerner grew up in Brookline, Mass. and as a young man he was astute, polite and athletic. His baseball prowess landed him a baseball career that spanned ten years playing second and third base and outfield. But it peaked at double-A ball, played out in tiny stadiums across the country.
Lerner had earned the nickname “Pro” – supposedly short for little professor – because as a kid he was studious. And in baseball he was remembered for being an early advocate of diet and fitness training in an era when most ballplayers relied purely on talent and genetics to keep them in the game.
But by the time his career was winding down in 1962 and 1963, Lerner was moving into a life of crime. He was proficient at inducing fear in people, first with a baseball bat and later with a gun.
Lerner built a “shooting gallery” in his basement to practice his marksmanship and his demeanor and efficiency soon brought him to the attention of the New England Mafia, led by Providence, R.I.’s Raymond Patriarca. In 1962, Lerner got his first taste of big-time crime.
The Plymouth Postal Robbery
As of August, 14 1962, when it happened, the Great Plymouth Mail Robbery was the largest robbery ever. Though all the details aren’t known (nor will they ever be), it played out roughly as follows: George “Aggie” Agisotelis got the idea of robbing a mail truck. One specific mail truck.
Aggie had watched the truck perform its routine run from Cape Cod up to Boston. On certain days it was loaded with cash traveling from the banks on the Massachusetts South Shore to the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. He knew just the spot to hijack the truck (which had no security) and just the guys to help him do it.
He reached out to John “Red” Kelley, a bank robber known for his precision bank jobs. They assembled a team that totaled at least six men. Knocking off the mail truck was a breeze. One gangster, posing as a cop, flagged down the truck. It was then surrounded by other cars. Two postal employees were held at bay with machine guns, and the crew scooped the bags of cash – more than $1.5 million – into the waiting cars.
Maurice “Pro” Lerner was probably a member of the gang, though he was never charged. Aggie and Red were, and they got off, but only after one member of the gang disappeared – Thomas Richards. The gang didn’t think he would stand up under questioning and Lerner shot him.
For several years Pro Lerner and Red Kelley were a formidable team. Red was a precise and disciplined. Pro was calm and smart. Police suspected that Red Kelley took part in planning for the Brink’s Job, but backed out when he didn’t like the way the plan was shaping up.
Pro was getting more work and attention from the Patriarca crime family as his reputation for violence grew. Vincent Teresa became his contact with the family. Lerner was asked to kill two men – Rudolph Marfeo and Anthony Melei – who were interfering with Patriarca gambling operations.
Lerner recruited Red Kelley to help with the getaway planning. Raymond Patriarca was growing frustrated at the pace all of Kelley’s careful planning was requiring. “I don't want to hear any stories, I just want him [Marfeo] killed," Patriarca said, ignoring his usual dislike for public spectacle.
So on April 20, 1968 Lerner and another gunman murdered the two bookmakers in the middle of the afternoon in Pannone’s supermarket on Pocassett Avenue in Providence. The public nature of the shooting put intense pressure on police to make arrests, and luckily they now had an edge.
Red Kelley, at age 55 and with a long criminal history, had been implicated in another robbery. Facing the prospect of a long prison term, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. And at the top of his list of people to give up was Pro Lerner.
Kelley was frightened by Lerner. The younger Lerner, 34, was too violent. Kelley laid out exactly what happened in the shooting, right down to the route they planned for their getaway, and he was convincing. His testimony not only put away Lerner and the rest of those directly involved, it also put Raymond Patriarca behind bars.
Patriarca would be out of prison after serving a few scant years for his conspiracy conviction. But Lerner faced two life sentences for the murders. He would serve 20 years before he was even eligible for parole.
Vincent Teresa Turns
About the same time that Red Kelley was putting Pro Lerner in prison, another member of the Patriarca crime family was leaving the fold. Vincent Teresa, 325-pound “Fat Vinnie,” was a lieutenant in the organization. The Revere, Mass. boy rose up in the ranks of the Mafia and ran a number of operations for the mob, though he claimed he never killed anyone.
In 1966, one of Patriarca’s hit men, Joseph Barboza, had started cooperating with the federal prosecutors. Federal marshal’s decided to stash Barboza on Thacher Island off the coast of Gloucester. The small island with distinctive twin lighthouses is actually part of Rockport, Mass. With Barboza out of reach, Patriarca ordered Teresa to find a way to get him.
Teresa took Pro Lerner out on his yacht, The Living End, and they circled the island while marshals stood their ground on the shore armed with shotguns. Teresa and Lerner realized they had lost any element of surprise. Outnumbered, there was no chance of successfully getting a shot at Barboza. Lerner and Teresa discussed a sneak attack. Lerner could swim to the island in scuba gear and try to catch Barboza off guard, but that plan was quickly discarded as impractical.
Soon, with Lerner and Patriarcia battling murder charges, Teresa was having his own troubles. By 1969 he was making most of his money by leading gambling trips. Casinos paid him a share of the money lost by the high rollers he brought in. But Teresa also had come in contact with a man who could steal securities. Teresa helped sell the stolen stocks and bonds for a share of the profit.
When the stolen securities racket was broken up, Teresa initially kept quiet and went to prison peacefully. He began living the luxurious life in federal prison afforded to Mafiosi, rubbing shoulders with the likes of future New York Mafia don John Gotti. But soon Teresa learned some news that irritated him.
While he had done his duty and headed off to prison, he learned that other members of the Patriarca family were not playing by the rules. They had taken money (he claimed $4 million) that Teresa had stashed away for his family’s use while he was in prison. With that, Fat Vinnie became a government witness. And what stories he told. Fat Vinnie testified at more than a dozen trials that convicted his fellow mobsters. Fifty-one indictments were tied to him, though he was not always a successful witness and there were occasions to question his testimony. In 1978, he finally told his biggest shocker.
The Castro Contract
Rolling Stone Magazine was tangled up in a libel case in 1978 over an article it had published that identified a casino as being connected to the mafia. Teresa was called on to testify in the case. In a 300-page deposition, Teresa was asked about mafia involvement with the CIA, specifically the idea of assassinating Castro.
"I was there when the information came in for Henry (Tamaleo) and Raymond (Patriarca) and they picked Maurice (Pro) Lerner to do the work. This is the story that was told to Henry and Raymond, to whack out Fidel Castro and the man that was picked was . . . Lerner."
Tamaleo and Patriarca were indeed mafia leaders. But was the story true? Patriarca was blunt in his denial to the Boston Herald American: "If you believe anything Teresa says you have to be crazier than he is. He hustled his mother for $2 and if you believe him, then you are crazy . . . I never knew Pro Lerner until they framed him like they framed me."
Lerner, still serving time in jail, gave a simpler response: "The accusation isn't true."
So where is the truth? It’s well documented that the CIA, in the overheated days of the 60s, did reach out to the Mafia to discuss assassinating Castro. The agency hatched many plans (some of them comically absurd) to go after the Cuban dictator.
As for the CIA negotiations with the Mafia, the discussions were between Robert Maheu – the Waterville, Maine boy who would rise up to be a CIA operative and Howard Hughes’ right hand man – and Sam Giancana, the Chicago mafia boss. And the mafia, which had been ousted from Cuba by Castro’s coup, certainly had no love for the dictator.
Red Kelley told one of his protectors, former U.S. Marshal John Partington, that he knew of the plan to assassinate Castro and had been approached about participating along with Lerner. But did Giancana reach out to Rhode Island and Lerner? Lerner was a significant enough underworld figure that a congressional committee investigating the assassination of President Kennedy subpoenaed and reviewed his CIA files. Still, the trail of evidence grows cold, and there were never many reliable sources in the matter to begin with.
All the parties to the story are long dead. Lerner got out of prison and led a crime-free life, which was detailed in a New York Times profile that portrayed a model prisoner who spent his final days reliving memories of his baseball career. Teresa would write three books about his Mafia life. By the end he was angry at his treatment by the government. Still, much of his insider information was valid and useful.