SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s longest serving police chief is taking off his badge.
“Fifty-seven years is a long time to be a cop,” South Kingstown’s Chief Vincent Vespia, Jr. said. “It’s a young man’s job. I guess I ain’t a young man anymore.”
At 79 years old, Vespia is the only leader the department has known since 1981. He officially retires on Tuesday.
But Vespia hasn’t just been in the business for an astounding six decades. He was a key player in busting organized crime boss, Raymond L.S. Patriarca.
Vespia said the notion of leaving the job behind seemed to sneak up one day.
“I woke up one morning and I said to my wife, ‘You know, I really don’t want to go to work today,’” Vespia said. “She said, ‘That’s a message.’”
In 1959, Vespia was fresh out of the Army. The Federal Hill kid of a city clerk, Vespia and an Army buddy spent their days as “drug store cowboys.” On a whim, they took a drive to the Rhode Island State Police barracks in Scituate. Vespia was there as moral support for a friend looking to apply. A sharply dressed trooper was at the front desk.
“He reaches in the drawer and comes out with an application for him, and he hands me an application,” he said.
A legendary professional career – that began by chance.
It was a time when troopers lived in barracks five days a week. As a young motorcycle trooper out of Wickford, Vespia said he and his colleagues regularly worked 16-plus-hour days.
Vespia’s nights often included breaking up brawls between sailors at bars around Quonset. And the tools available to cops of that era were limited.
“We put the Providence Journal inside our shirts to stay warm,” Vespia said. “There was no radio on the cycles, so we’d have to stop every hour and you’d use your own nickel to call the barracks.”
Troopers would find signs hanging from a network of homes along their routes. A placard meant, ‘phone in ASAP.’
“They were wonderful, wonderful people,” Vespia said. “They’d hand you a cup of coffee, or they’d make some indication, ‘Look, we’re having meatloaf at 6 o’clock tonight. If you’re coming by and you’re free, come on in and have dinner with us.’”
“You talk today about the philosophy of community policing – that was really the beginning of it,” he added.
What would seal Vespia’s place in history was his unrelenting work in the war on organized crime. And the way he tackled it was just as groundbreaking.
In 1978, in an attempt to thaw the ice between competitive Rhode Island police departments, Vespia was paired up with a Providence police lieutenant named Richard Tamburini. Their objective was to bring down the man who epitomized organized crime in New England: mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca.
Vespia and Tamburini would use invaluable sources and undercover intelligence gathering to build two murder cases against the infamous and feared leader of La Cosa Nostra.
“We had each other’s back,” said Tamburini, who has been chief of the Johnston Police Department since 1995. “You can’t be successful unless you have a good partner, and Vinny was the best.”
“He had the tenacity, he had the drive, he had the talent, he had the smarts, and he was a tough guy,” Tamburini continued.
As lore has it, Vespia was so fearless in his work that he once climbed into the basket of a cherry picker decked out in football gear and armed with a shotgun, then crashed through the second-story window of an illegal gambling house on Federal Hill.
Busting the Don
On a day neither forgets – Dec. 4, 1980 – Vespia and Tamburni navigated their squad car to Johnston’s 18 Golini Drive. Patriarca was at the dinner table, in his pajamas. Patriarca’s wife, Rita O’Toole, let them in.
“Smelled good,” Vespia remembered. “He was eating peppers and sausage.”
Vespia said the mob boss offered the pair some food.
“‘Not hungry, Raymond,” Vespia recalled saying to Patriarca.
Then Patriarca barked, “that stool pigeon was talking.”
He knew the law enforcement duo had gleaned information from sources held in protective custody.
Vespia said Patriarca took a few more bites of his dinner, got dressed, and threw on his coat.
“A hooded jacket with fur around it,” Vespia said. “Rita put a handful of cigars in his inside pocket.”
And the now-trio took off for the Scituate barracks. Patriarca’s lawyer and a cardiologist soon joined them.
Patriarca would die of a massive heart attack in 1984 before he could ever be tried.
Vespia has never thought much of the crime family. That particular phrase, to him, made the players out to be something greater than a bunch of “unintelligent,” “social misfits” who thrived on fear.
Vespia recalled one hitman’s reward for the dirtiest of work.
“Raymond put a $50 bill in his pocket,” Vespia said. “Fifty dollars to kill a human being.” “What a sport.”
Vespia believes there are fables to this day about Raymond L.S. Patriarca that are heavy on fantasy and light on fact. One of them is that Federal Hill – was a safer place back then.
“People say, ‘Oh, he was a hell of a guy, at Thanksgiving time, he’d give out turkeys.’” Vespia said. “Well so would you, and so would I.”
He said the streets “definitely” were no safer.
“It’s just untrue,” he said.
At the peak of his career, Vespia found himself rounding up “wise guys” in the Federal Hill neighborhood where he had grown up, and where he learned about virtues like friendship.
One of Vespia’s closest friends was the late Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. So close in fact, each man stood alongside the other at the altar, as best man.
In his life, Cianci would court Vespia to be the city’s top cop. Vespia turned down the high-profile job to serve the people of South Kingstown.
In the early 70s, Cianci was mulling a first run for mayor. One day, Cianci and Vespia were at the Old Canteen restaurant. Its late proprietor, Joe Marzilli, was sitting with them. Cianci scribbled on a tablecloth: Would it be public office – or a boat?
“He added up both columns [and] it was cheaper to run for mayor than buy a boat,” Vespia said. “And he ran for mayor. Now I’m not saying he made up his mind that night, but if I only had the presence of mind to roll up that tablecloth and take it with me … it would have been certainly a conversation piece, if not a relic, these days.”
In 1984, Cianci’s first mayoralty fell when he pleaded no contest to assaulting Raymond DeLeo at Cianci’s East Side home. Believing DeLeo was involved with his estranged wife, Cianci beat him with a fireplace log and burned DeLeo with a lit cigarette.
“This is not generally known,” Vespia said. “He called me that night. I said, ‘You did what? You brought him to your home?’”
Vespia recalls being blunt with the young mayor.
“I said, ‘Buddy, Christ – you’re in serious trouble,’” Vespia said.
Decades later, Cianci’s second stint as mayor collapsed under a federal racketeering conviction in Operation Plunder Dome. There they were: A decorated, by-the-book lawman and one of his closest friends – a convicted felon – whose reputation had disintegrated. A stark contradiction, if ever there was one.
“We kind of grew apart,” Vespia said. “I think he felt I didn’t support him enough. I didn’t go to court with him.”
But when it came time to report to Fort Dix, Vespia offered to rent a car and drive Cianci to New Jersey. Cianci said no, wanting to protect the chief from a media firestorm.
Vespia believes Cianci had great promise and national political prospects – that he ultimately squandered.
“The people who worked for him at city hall let him down,” Vespia said. “I don’t believe Buddy was on the take. I believe he just should have known what was happening around him and didn’t know, and that’s what caused his demise.”
But even recounting Buddy’s downfall, there’s an undertone of regret.
“I believe that had I ever gone to work for him, it would never have happened,” Vespia said. “I would never have allowed it to happen.”
As one career took a dive, the other continued to climb.
In 2012, Chief Vespia was the first-ever inductee into the Rhode Island Criminal Justice Hall of Fame, for his extraordinary contributions to law enforcement.
The name Richard Tamburini is there, too.
On November 1, Tamburini will take over his dear friend’s status as the Ocean State’s most senior chief of police.
“I’m just very, very fortunate to be able to call Vinny Vespia a colleague,” Tamburini said. “And I’ll always have his back.”
Vespia said for now, he looks forward to spending time with his family, and working on the “honey do” list from his wife.
“Forget about what I’ve done, what my rank was, where I’ve worked, and the cases I’ve made … forget about all that,” Vespia said. “If somebody would remember me as, ‘There goes a guy who tried to be a good cop,’ I’m happy.”
“That’s all I ever wanted,” he added.