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Dead 32 years, Barboza still a hit man


Even if you didn't read about the Boston Mafia figures who won $100 million from the federal government, you probably had a hard time missing the picture of Joseph "The Animal" Barboza that ran with the story on Friday's Page A3.

With slicked-back hair, mutton- chop sideburns, big black sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Barboza is shown raising his right hand and taking an oath before a Congressional committee investigating organized crime in 1972.

You can't see his left hand, but it's a good bet its fingers were crossed.

Barboza, known as Joseph Bentley when he lived in Santa Rosa and -- later, when he was on trial for murder -- Joe Baron, was a professional liar. And Mafia enforcer. And government informant.

Mixing his trio of skills, he left a trail of broken bones and broken lives from Boston to Santa Rosa in the late '60s and early '70s. Though he died in 1975 -- the victim, naturally, of a mob execution -- Barboza was able to reach from the grave last week to put the hurt on another 300 million people: America's taxpayers.

A federal judge Thursday ordered us, through our government, to pay $101.8 million to four Boston-area men who were sent to prison for the 1965 slaying of a thug named Edward Deegan. Barboza, who likely was involved in Deegan's killing, was the government's key witness against the four, even though the FBI knew he was lying, the judge ruled.

Two of the men died in prison. The other two spent more than 30 years behind bars based on Barboza's lie.

That lie began to unravel in July 1970, just a couple of weeks after the murder of a 26-year-old Santa Rosa man named Clay Wilson, a few months before Wilson's body was found buried in a shallow grave near Glen Ellen, and about a year before Sonoma County would be introduced to one of the most colorful characters ever to darken our door.

Barboza, from New Bedford, Mass., came to Santa Rosa in 1969 after testifying in the Deegan murder case and another trial that nailed East Coast mob boss Raymond Patriarca. He was the first person ever put into the FBI's witness protection pro- gram, which sent him to Santa Rosa without notifying local authorities.

He soon established a reputation as a smooth-talking tough guy who carried around a small arsenal of guns and wore a bullet-proof vest.

He shot Wilson in a dispute over $300,000 worth of securities stolen in a Petaluma burglary. Two weeks later, Barboza was arrested in New Bedford on a parole violation. While in jail there, he let fellow inmates in on a couple of secrets: One, he was willing to recant his testimony in the Deegan case if the Mafia would give him $500,000, and two, he had killed a man in California.

Authorities soon heard about both secrets. After a visit from a man from the Justice Department, Barboza decided to stick with his original testimony in the Deegan case. Then he was sent back to Sonoma County to stand trial for Wilson's murder.

That 1971 trial was a local sensation, with Barboza mugging for the cameras, threats against witnesses, jailhouse visits from federal agents and talk of sequestering the jury to protect them from Mafia intimidation. Two East Coast witnesses alleged the FBI was secretly helping with Barboza's defense. Three Justice Department officials came here to praise his role in convicting Deegan's "killers" -- the same men who won $101.8 million last week.

Barboza brought his murder trial to a halt when he pleaded to a lesser charge. He was sentenced to five years to life in state prison.

Released after just four years, he was free just four months before he was gunned down in 1975 on a San Francisco street. A former prison pal was convicted of setting up the hit.

During his trial, Barboza gave a letter to a Press Democrat reporter.

"It was a pleasure to live in Santa Rosa," the hit man wrote.

Chris Coursey is at 521-5223 or chris.coursey@ pressdemocrat.com.