Who is Peter Gilbert?
“Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.”
---W. H. Auden
Something that distinguishes Rhode Island from the rest of the world is some of what happens there is difficult for most to believe. The old saw that truth is stranger than fiction is almost always true in Little Rhody.
Let me tell you about one of those “Moe you’re full of bull” stories.
Did you ever hear the name Peter Gilbert?
Wait, this one will cause you to believe I am full of oomgalagala (the Heckowie Indian Tribe word for bull). I promise.
When I was still fill in talk host at WHJJ in Providence from 1984-87, I normally didn’t get too deep into exclusively Rhode Island issues and stories. I was on air in Boston at WRKO Saturday and Sunday as well as twenty to thirty weeks a year of filling in weekdays there. Time constraints didn’t permit in-depth involvement in specific Rhode Island issues. That is until I was exposed to the Peter Gilbert saga.
First some background is order:
The saga of Peter Gilbert began on December 15, 1979 when the body of thirteen-year-old Richard Valente was found on a Narragansett Bay beach. Valente had been badly beaten, but, according to an autopsy, his death was caused by drowning. Also learned from the autopsy was that a plastic plate had been inserted in his head a couple of years earlier. The only information made public was that Valente’s body had been found.
A few weeks earlier the police caught Valente involved in some petty larceny. He blamed Gerald S. Mastracchio (then age seventeen). Armed with this knowledge and knowing Mastracchio had been seen with Valente a few days before the body surfaced, the police launched an investigation. The detectives were unable to tie Mastracchio to the murder so the investigation went on hold.
While this was happening a criminal named Peter Gilbert was in a Florida prison.
Four years later Gilbert, 1983, escaped from prison. He telephoned Gerald Mastracchio’s father, Gelardo, a few weeks later. Gelardo, a made mobster (Mafia), invited Gilbert to return home and get involved in some of his enterprises. Gilbert soon came back to Rhode Island.
Though Gilbert was reckless and a risk he remained one of Gelardo’s crime associates, that is until the police arrested Gilbert in February of 1985. He was arrested with two other hoodlums.
Gilbert sensed that Gelardo had a hand in his capture. Soon after his arrest Gilbert began to sing to the police that he knew about all sorts of crime and stated he knew about the inner workings of organized crime in Rhode Island.
Gilbert’s cooperation proved fruitful, shedding light on numerous unsolved crimes. Of particular interest here, he told the state police that the Gerald Mastracchio had bragged about killing a friend by beating him, transporting him to the Jamestown Bridge, and throwing him over while still alive.
Although Gilbert did not know the victim’s name, he quoted Gerald as saying that he had committed the murder to prevent his victim from talking to the police, and that his victim had never been the same since he had a plastic plate inserted into his skull. The reason for the plate was an earlier automobile accident.
This information filled the gaps in the investigation and a state grand jury soon indicted Gerald for Richard Valente’s murder.
Gilbert was placed in the protective custody of the Providence police department from the time he began to sing.
The attorney general at that time was Arlene Violet, a former Sister of Mercy. She was very involved in pursuit of organized crime in Rhode Island during her tenure. When she learned about Gilbert turning on the mob she became quite interested in him.
At the time her office was also very much involved in the Klaus von Bulow retrial for the attempted murder of his wealthy wife. The case drew national and international attention and was very disruptive to her office. Also drawing national attention was the murder of baby Jerri Ann Richard. Her parents Ralph G. and Donna J. Richard were charged with the grisly crime.
The Richards had regularly gone on television to appeal for the safe return of their child whom they said had been kidnapped from her bedroom. Four days later, Jerri Ann’s lifeless body was found in an alleyway not far from her home. I’ll spare you the grim details of how this small child had been murdered. She had also been brutally raped.
There was talk of the dad’s involvement in the drug trade with some gangs. Some thought the baby’s murder may have been a reprisal for a drug deal gone bad.
Add to all that Republican Violet found herself in a hotly contested race for re-election. James O’Neill, a Democrat in a heavily Democrat state, well financed and with the backing of the state’s leading banker whose institution was under fire from the Violet office and Gilbert was only one of many items on the attorney general’s stove.
During his debriefing, Peter Gilbert implicated James Broccoli and Lawrence Mastrofine in the robbery of a liquor store.
Seems like a reasonable and believable story to this point, no?
The punk was a would be gangster. His ilk ratting out fellow rats is not an unusual scenario. The cops and attorney general played along and later granted him protected witness status and a plea bargain for him.
Nothing very far out of the ordinary up to here, right?
Well, fasten your seatbelt.
On January 1, 1986, James O’Neill, formerly a lawyer in the office of the U.S. Attorney in Boston succeeded Violet as attorney general. He had defeated her in the November 5, 1985 general election.
Gilbert then became O’Neill’s headache as Violet only had him for a brief time. The biggest nuttiness occurred during the new attorney general’s reign.
Gilbert testified against Gerald Mastracchio.
Mastracchio was convicted of the murder of Richard Valente due to Gilbert’s testimony.
During his testimony against Gerald Mastracchio Gilbert denied receiving any compensation from the prosecutors office.
Many years later that denial would become a serious problem which would lead to a Superior Court judge granting Mastracchio a new trial.
That Superior Court judges decision was appealed by the attorney general and reversed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Later an appeal to Federal Court failed as well.
Mastracchio is still in jail as well he should.
Shortly before the Mastracchio trial began, Gilbert testified in a hearing regarding the promises, rewards, and inducements given to him by the prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation. The testimony revealed a variety of Gilbert’s benefits.
The benefits included payment of personal expenses averaging $1,500-$1,800 per month, a thirty-day stay with his family in Florida during the holidays, conjugal visits at a local motel, twenty-five to fifty excursions to restaurants, easy access to alcohol throughout the course of his custody, and unlimited telephone privileges.
At the trial for the Richard Valente murder Gilbert was vigorously cross-examined by Mastracchio’s lawyer about these matters and about the conditions of his confinement. He was less than forthcoming. Actually he lied.
Keep in mind that while he was in the custody of the Providence Police Department his living quarters were on the second floor of the police station.
Here’s a small portion of his testimony on the subject of benefits:
Q. You pay for the food?
A. Yes. Someone goes shopping and gets groceries.
Q. You give them the money?
A. I don’t give them the money, the Attorney General’s Office gives them the money.
Q. You sure that comes out of the fifteen or eighteen hundred?
A. I don't see the money. When I need groceries the money is made available to buy groceries.
. . . .
Q. Have you been provided with any types of rules and regulations, either verbally or in writing, concerning your conditions of confinement while in the custody of the Providence Police, things you can do and things you cannot do?
A. What I can do is pretty much limited. I’m locked up. I got cell bars in the window. I -- two doors -- three doors that are locked. I’m confined to a three-room area. That’s my exercise. I don’t have no exercise yards.
Q. All you do is just live from day to day and week to week and month to month and you get your food and clothing, you get your haircuts and glasses, and then someone tells you that is costing them between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred dollars a month; is that fair to say?
. . . .
Q. Besides the thirty dollars a week that you’re given by welfare do you receive any other cash from either the Providence Police or the Attorney General’s Department for spending money?
. . . .
On the subject of drug use…….
Q. Is that what you told the Attorney General, you don’t have an [sic] drug problem?
A. No. I used cocaine when I was on the street, but I have no drug problem. I took care of it myself within my own mind and body. I'm no longer dependent or need any of that stuff. I haven’t had it for twenty-three months.
. . . .
Q. . . . . Did you take any trips or have you taken any trips while you have been in the custody of the Providence Police?
A. Yeah. . . . I went to Florida. I went to Florida to go to court.
. . . .
Q. In addition, to Florida and Maine has there been any other? (He had legal problems there as well.)
A. No. All I can remember is going to Florida twice and Maine once.
. . . .
Q. Would you explain the circumstances of your custody at this time?
A. My family is kept in a [sic] undisclosed location in protective custody. Myself, I'm in a lockup situation, in the custody of the Providence Police Department. I have a 24-hour guard, seven days a week.
. . . .
Q. And describe the facility that you’re in?
A. I live in what could be described as a cellblock area. Bars on the window, there are three locked doors, successive locked doors, with a [sic] armed guard, and I have no access to the outside world or anything like that.
You need to keep all this in mind because it gets even worse. This is only a small portion of it.
On March 19, 1987, the jury found Gerald Mastracchio guilty of Valente’s murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Contrast that to Gilbert receiving what amounted to a ten-year sentence (i.e., a nominal fifteen-year sentence and forty years suspended) for his many offenses, to be served in the protective custody of the Providence police department.
It was later revealed by WJAR Channel 10 reporter Ted Wayman (now in Boston TV) that on Gilbert’s trips to Florida with police escorts, four of them on one trip, they foolishly made a video tape of themselves frolicking poolside at the motel where they all stayed. On camera Gilbert and a couple of his “guards” joked and mugged for the camera and said “thanks to the taxpayers of Rhode Island”. The police were also in swimsuits and had drinks in hand and certainly seemed to have as good a time as their prisoner.
These events occurred before I was a full time mid-day host on Providence’s WHJJ. The stories only began to leak out bit by bit. I heard off air from many parties concerned with Gilbert, both law enforcement types who were offended by the treatment Gilbert received and those who were peevish because he testified against friends of theirs. My suspicion is some were members of organized crime whom Gilbert had offended. With the old mob types “respect” and “loyalty” are very important.
Other special favors had not been disclosed prior to or at Mastracchio’s trial, including, the receipt of sums of cash, $20,000 over the course of the six months immediately preceding the trial, regular access to marijuana, free passage through the corridors of the police station (including use of the halls for roller-skating and access to the roof), use of a municipal courtroom for exercise, travel to Florida to see his family on two additional occasions, use of the state attorney general’s office as a reference on a loan application, and skydiving lessons.
Not a bad way to serve time for crimes which included murder.
I also received information he sold cocaine on the streets of Central Falls and Pawtucket during unescorted leaves he received from his “prison”.
Sometime in late 1987 or early 1988, Gilbert was placed in a “safe house” in Johnston, Rhode Island where he lived alone with no supervision. He had a log cabin with all the amenities. Remember he was still serving his fifteen year sentence and supposedly in the custody of the Providence police.
Also, on the subject of his “skydiving” trips, Gilbert’s actually skydiving was never documented. He took long excursions with the car he purchased on credit after having used the attorney generals office as a credit reference. On these trips, tipsters told me he purchased large quantities of drugs for resale on the street.
On June 11, 1988, while Gilbert was still serving his sentence, he died of a heart attack in Danielson, Connecticut. He was on his way to a small local airport in the northeast corner of the Nutmeg State.
Gilbert’s death occurred in the parking lot of Zip’s Restaurant on Route 101, the road connecting the west end of Rhode Island with Route 44 heading for Hartford. What is significant is an interstate highway (I-385) intersects only a few hundred yards away. It connects to Boston and New York City, a convenient area to make a drug exchange.
It was later revealed Gilbert had been on these excursions even before the Mastracchio trial. The then chief of the Providence Police Department once inquired about why he was being allowed to travel to Connecticut to sky dive since skydiving could be extra dangerous considering Gilbert’s heart ailment. The response from the Gilbert supervisor, a lieutenant, was he didn’t actually do jumps.
The lieutenant told the chief Peter Gilbert packed chutes for other divers, sort of a hobby Gilbert had. What utter nonsense. No sky diver allows anyone else to pack their parachute, certainly not a character like Gilbert.
I have eaten many times at Zip’s (try the meatloaf). It is a family and salesman oriented diner which is very busy at all times of the day. Parts of the parking lot are ideal in that one can see each way up and down the roadways and the entrance and exit to the interstate.
Prior to his heart attack it was reported Peter Gilbert had been is some form of minor auto accident and had argued with and been in a pushing and shoving match with the other driver. A couple of Zip’s regulars I had known from the past said it was more than a mere shoving match.
A substantial amount of cocaine was discovered in his vehicle in a parachute bag.
To this day I’m amused with all the happenings in the whole Peter Gilbert saga.
Here’s a summary of the more outrageous aspects of his incarceration and death:
On the day he died from a heart attack he was not accompanied by a police escort. Because of the exotic purpose of the sojourn, the absence of any police escort, and the presence of cocaine in the vehicle, this incident touched off a furor concerning the nature of Gilbert’s confinement, and everything else about him.
More stories finally came out when we discussed Peter Gilbert on WHJJ daily in the Spring of 1989. Revelation after revelation was made both on air and off. It was revealed then and confirmed in court eight and ten years later in Gerald Mastracchio’s appeals that Gilbert had actually received previously mentioned $20,000 in cash in the six months leading up to his trial in which Gilbert testified.
Gilbert roller-skated through the halls of the police station, exercised in the district court, had access to the roof (presumably to smoke pot) and many other things we really don’t associate with incarceration. (I also had two different reports he had sex on the judge’s bench on at least one occasion. How’s that for in your face?)
The Federal District court, in responding to an appeal of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s overturning the Superior Court Judges decision to order a new trial for Gerald Mastracchio, made the following observations about Rhode Island law enforcement:
“We need go no further. This case involves an appalling chapter in the history of Rhode Island law enforcement -- a chapter made all the more sordid by the ineptitude with which the prosecution handled its disclosure obligations vis-à-vis the kid-glove treatment that Gilbert received. On habeas review, however, our function is not to punish a state for prosecutorial misconduct unless that misconduct gave rise to a constitutional error that prejudiced the petitioner (Mastracchio).”
As I mentioned above, we did many shows on this single issue. The caller intensity was great and the callers frustrated to believe a capital city police department and the office of the attorney general could act in such a way. I was never able to get anyone from the city, including Mayor Joseph Paolino, to talk to me on or even off air. Attorney General O’Neill and all his staff rejected repeated requests for interviews as well.
During the entire time those shows were done I often asked myself if I was being fed a pack of lies and someday it would come back to haunt me. My fears were unfounded.
Later at least two people I’m aware of, who were involved in the Gilbert affair, committed “suicide”. One was a law enforcement officer seen on the video made in Florida, the other a career prosecutor.
Another oddity is the fact Gilbert was cremated in Connecticut at the direction of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office. Cremation of a person suspected to be involved in a crime without an autopsy to confirm the cause of death is rather unusual, even for this weird saga.
After all, Peter Gilbert was a convict serving time, out of the state which had jurisdiction over him, knowledge of all sorts of crimes (so said Gilbert when he became a protected witness), cocaine in his possession, the slight auto accident and shoving match [fight?] with the other driver. Besides all this there were many people who benefited from his death. Who else could the loose lipped Gilbert have turned on?
This is just one more odd element in a very bizarre chapter in the life and times of Peter Gilbert. Murderer, drug pusher and addict, robber, perjurer, otherwise an OK guy. His ashes, according to Ted Wayman, now reside in an urn on his wife’s mantle piece in her Florida home.
Suicides. Murder. Coincidences?
We’ll never know for certain, will we?