For three decades, Marie Salvati and Olympia Limone essentially lived as widows, struggling to make ends meet as they raised four children on their own. Their husbands grew old behind bars after being convicted of a murder the FBI knew they did not commit.
Now the women hope a judge’s ruling awarding them and two other families nearly $102 million marks the end of their struggle in a long story of love, devotion and survival.
For many years, the two women would see each other about once a month, across the visiting room of a state prison. Their conversations were rarely more than a wave hello or a “how’s the family?” but they didn’t need words to understand each other’s lives.
In the days after the verdict, the two women and their husbands spoke to The Associated Press about living apart for so long, and the bonds that kept them together.
Never any doubt
For Marie Salvati, there was never a moment of doubt, even after her husband, Joe, was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced.
“He told me, ’Marie, I want you to know I had nothing to do with this,’ and you know, from that moment on, I knew I was in this with him for his life sentence,” she said.
“I used to tell him, ’You take care of yourself in there and I’ll take care of the family on the outside’,” she said.
And for 30 years, that’s what she did.
Every week, she traveled up to two hours each way to visit her husband in prison. She and the kids endured humiliating pat-downs and searches. The visits, she said, were to buoy her husband’s spirits and to preserve the bond between a father and his children.
It was hardly the life they had planned.
The first time Joe Salvati saw his future wife, she was 16 and wearing a two-piece white bathing suit decorated with a big red lobster. He tried to edge closer on his beach blanket, but Marie’s mother shooed him away.
Salvati, who was two years older, didn’t give up. Three years later, they were married.
The first years of their marriage were typical of many working-class couples in Boston’s largely Italian North End neighborhood. Salvati worked two or three jobs — truck driver, dock worker, doorman — while his wife stayed home and took care of their kids.
Then came Oct. 25, 1967, when Salvati was fingered as the driver of the getaway car in the 1965 slaying of small-time hoodlum Edward “Teddy” Deegan.
'Daddy, what's an electric chair?'
At first, the couple thought the police would discover the mistake and release Salvati, who insisted mob hitman Joseph “The Animal” Barboza had framed him over a $400 debt. Salvati had been arrested just once before — for petty larceny.
After a two-month trial, Salvati, then 34, was convicted, along with Limone, Louis Greco and Henry Tameleo. Salvati was sentenced to life in prison, while the others were sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Marie Salvati, then 32, tried to reassure their children, then 5, 9, 11 and 13.
“I said, ’You know, Daddy will be OK,”’ she recalled. “But nothing got better. If anything, it got worse.”
From prison, her husband spent years working on appeals, motions for a new trial and commutation requests. When his kids came to visit, he got a glimpse of what life was like for them.
“My kid came up and asked me one time, ’Gee, Daddy, what’s an electric chair?’ I said, ’Where’d you hear that?’ and he said, ’Well, the kids in school said they’re going to give you the electric chair,”’ he said. “They were always getting picked on.”
Raising the kids with a jailed father
It was the day before her 10th wedding anniversary when officers came to Olympia Limones’ home in Medford to arrest her husband, Peter. The plainclothes officers told the kids — two boys, two girls, all under age 9 — that they were delivering a shipment of oil, but the boys knew better.
Olympia Limones, then 31, sank into a deep depression in the days after his conviction. “I felt like my life was over, but that I had to take care of my kids, which I did,” she said.
She visited her husband faithfully twice a week on death row, before his sentence was commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court suspended executions in 1972.
At first, Peter Limone would not allow the children to see him.
“I said, ’My children are not going to walk through this prison,”’ he recalled. But eventually, the superintendent arranged for Limone to see his children in a visiting room that was separated from the prison population.
To get by, his wife made curtains, cleaned houses and relied on the charity of family and friends. When their two daughters celebrated their first communion, she took them to prison so their father could see them in their white silk dresses.
“I just always kept telling them that their father was innocent and that a man who didn’t like him blamed him for something he didn’t do,” she said.
Meanwhile, she went to all the boys’ baseball games and hockey practices, took them to get haircuts and learned to fix things around the house. She hated that her children lost out on having a father.
“Sometimes if they gave me any problems I figured — especially the boys — he would have been able to handle it better than I would,” she said. “Do you know how many times I said, ’If your father was home, you wouldn’t be doing that?”’
Peter Limone, now 73, has been reputed to be a member of the New England Mob, an allegation he denies.
His wife said she never considered ending her marriage.
“Maybe if I thought he was a killer, I might have ended the marriage,” she said. “But I never believed for a minute he was.”
'Till death do we part'
Marie Salvati maintained the same devotion.
She took classes and eventually became a program director at an early childhood center. The rest of her time she spent with her children.
Family friend Mickey Luongo remembers seeing her each week, carrying a big shopping bag full of eggplant parmesan, frittatas and other homemade Italian dishes to bring to her husband in prison.
“She kept her family close all those years,” Luongo said. “She knew what her priorities were for her family, and she just did it somehow.”
Joe Salvati and his wife sometimes lost hope that he would ever get out of prison. Salvati, now 74, said he once told his wife he would understand if she wanted a divorce. But she said no and reminded him of their wedding vows.
“’Til death do we part,” he said. “They broke the mold when they made Marie.”
Free at last
Finally, in 1997, Gov. William Weld commuted Salvati’s sentence, and he was released from prison. It would be another four years before he and Limone were exonerated by a state judge. The judge found two Boston FBI agents had allowed Barboza to frame the men because Barboza and his friend, Vincent “Jimmy” Flemmi, one of Deegan’s killers, were FBI informants who provided evidence in the agency’s highly publicized war against La Cosa Nostra.
Last month, a federal judge excoriated the agency for withholding evidence of the men’s innocence and ordered the government to pay a record $101.7 million to the Salvati and Limone families and those of two other men convicted with them who died in prison.
For Marie Salvati, now 72, the money does not mean much. They plan to use it to send their six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren to college. The Justice Department has not said whether it will appeal the judgment.
“It was so cruel — for my children, for myself, for my husband,” she said. “It should never have happened.”