State police recording sheds light on infamous RI gangland slaying

RI State Police crime scene photo of 2008 dig for Joseph Scanlon in East Providence.
RI State Police crime scene photo of 2008 dig for Joseph Scanlon in East Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The bullet went right through Nicholas Pari’s finger.

It wasn’t meant for him. In fact, the bullet had hit the intended target first: Joseph “Joey Onions” Scanlon.

Pari had just punched Scanlon to distract him so that his partner-in-crime – Andrew Merola – could come up on the hapless victim quickly. It was an efficient single shot to the head. But Pari’s hand was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the tip of his finger was left dangling.

On a cold November day in 2008, Pari – 71 years old and dying of throat cancer – was giving up details from that 1978 Federal Hill gangland slaying. His gravelly voice was captured forever in never-before-released Rhode Island State Police recordings.

“We’re sitting at a table and we confronted him that, you know, he was talking to the cops and everything else,” Pari said on the recording. “We had a club on Knight Street.”

Nicholas S. Pari, 1979 "Joe Onions" murder Two men, Andrew F. Merola and Nicholas Pari, were convicted of killing Joseph P. "Joe Onions" Scanlon a reputed Providence mobster and police informant believed slain in a Knight Street bar in 1978 marking the state's first such convition without a victim's body. having been found.
Nicholas S. Pari, 1979

The recording was made as Pari was the passenger in a police cruiser driving to where he claimed he and Merola had buried Scanlon 30 years prior. Then-detective Scot Baruti was joined by FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Sallett for the ride.

Baruti said Pari didn’t express remorse, but it was clear he was looking mortality in the face.

“The only thing he expressed was he wanted to go to God in a good conscience,” Baruti said. “That was the way to do it for him.”

For more than a year, Baruti – who is now a corporal with the state police – had cultivated an informant who got close to Pari; the indelicately titled investigation was called “Operation Mobbed Up.” Baruti and a team of investigators had captured hours of audio of the informant and Pari working deals. Pari was at the center of a scheme peddling drugs and stolen goods out of a Providence flea market.

“The person he trusted the most was an informant for us and every conversation he had with that person, we heard it,” Baruti said, recalling the case. “Every exchange he made with that person, we observed it.”

The investigation ended in a pre-dawn raid that scooped up 18 men with ties to organized crime, Pari among them.

It was in the back of Baruti’s mind that investigators might have had enough against the elderly criminal for him to cough up the answers to a lingering underworld mystery: where was Joey Onions?

Baruti said he was “stunned” when Pari offered up the details.

“We were talking to him and he said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’” Baruti said. “He goes, ‘I can tell you where the body of Joey Onions Scanlon is.’”

Cruiser Confessional

Hearing Pari explain on the state police recording how the murder took place makes it sound as if it were an accident.

“Like, it was only to scare the kid, it wasn’t really to kill him,” he says on the recording.

But investigators don’t buy that.

They say Merola and Pari conspired to kill Scanlon and lured him to Merola’s Knight Street social club on Federal Hill. Detectives said Pari distracted Scanlon in violent fashion — with a punch to the face — and Merola pulled the trigger.

“[He] just walked up to him and just… boom,” Pari said.

RI State Police crime scene photo of 2008 dig for Joseph Scanlon in East Providence.
RI State Police crime scene photo of 2008 dig for Joseph Scanlon in East Providence.

On the tape, Pari is asked what they did after the hit and he states simply, “well, we gotta clean up the club.”

He told the investigators they rolled Scanlon up in a rug. Then he took off to see a “short Italian doctor… I forgot his name,” to get stitched up.

“I wanted him to cut it off because it was hanging,” Pari said. “But he stitched it up and I came up and we just cleaned the place up.”

Pari said they put the body in the trunk of Merola’s Cadillac. But there was more to be done: other rugs in the social club were covered with evidence.

“We rolled all the rugs up and threw them down the dump,” Pari said. “There used to be a dump off Atwells Avenue, and they used an incinerator, they used to burn a lot of stuff in those days, and we just threw the rugs in there.”

Baruti said Pari’s recollection of where they buried the body was spot on, even decades later.

“He brought us back there and he pointed out, he said ‘there is less foliage’ but pointed right to the spot and said ‘it’s within this area,” Baruti said. “He gave a pretty decent area of where it could have been.”

The apartment complex behind which Scanlon was buried was under construction at the time, and they knew a backhoe operator who was on site. The hole where they dumped the body was 13 feet deep.

East Providence Exhumation

On a crisp wind-swept November day in 2008, a backhoe returned to the East Providence site, this time under the direction of state investigators.

On the first day a cadaver dog indicated that there might be human remains on the site, but the arm of the backhoe couldn’t go deep enough, so larger equipment had to be brought in.scanlon-crime-scene-3

Former Attorney General Dennis Roberts told The Providence Journal at the time he thought the state police were wasting their time because Pari and Merola had sworn to his prosecutors that they dumped the body in Narragansett Bay.

“All respect to the attorney general but I knew what I was working with at that point,” Baruti said. “I think [Pari] figured he’s either going to be dead in two months or he’s going to jail for the rest of his life so he has no reason to lie.”

And this time, Nicky Pari was telling the truth.

In the early afternoon on the third day of digging, the backhoe unearthed what appeared to be pieces of a carpet. Members of the Office of the Medical Examiner took a more surgical approach and started carefully digging out what would later be identified as the skeletal remains of Scanlon.

“Your heart beats a little faster and you know you’re going to put closure on the case,” Baruti said as he recalled that moment.

DNA extracted from the bones matched that of Scanlon’s daughter – who was just an infant when the murder happened – and sister.

RI State Police crime scene photo of 2008 dig for Joseph Scanlon in East Providence.
RI State Police crime scene photo of 2008 dig for Joseph Scanlon in East Providence.

Providence Police successfully investigated the murder – and after an appeal – the upshot was Pari and Merola had both served time in prison after pleading no contest to manslaughter in 1982. It was the first murder conviction in state history where prosecutors did not have a body.

Merola died of cancer in 2007, so it’s likely Scanlon’s remains would have remained buried behind the East Providence apartment complex had state police not knocked on Pari’s door that day in 2008.

“You can’t have a closed mind; you have to look at it and you’ve just got to see what’s out there for potential,” Baruto said. “A lot of is luck sometimes, and a lot of it is good police work.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook