April 24, 2012 Special to Crime Magazine
An excerpt from Rogue Mobster: The Untold Story of Mark Silverman and the New England Mafia by Mark Silverman and Scott Deitche. (Published March 17, 2012 by Strategic Media Books, paperback, 298 pages, $24.95.)
The New England underworld had a rough year in 2011. On January 20, 2011 the FBI coordinated the largest ever sweep of Mafia suspects in the country. Over 120 alleged mobsters and associates were taken in, encompassing a dozen different cases involving Mafia families in the Northeast. One of the coups was the arrest of the now-retired boss of the New England Mafia, Louis “Baby Shacks” Manocchio. Shacks led the New England Mafia from his headquarters in Providence, since the Boston faction of the family had faced numerous takedowns from state and federal police. Manocchio’s retirement brought the power base back to Boston, but the North End mob was still battling ghosts from a decade before.
Just under a month after the historic sweep, federal authorities closed in on a Boston mobster that had been on the run from the law since 1994, Enrico Ponzo. Back then, Ponzo was facing a drug indictment. He skipped town and headed west. He changed his name to Jeffrey John Shaw and was living on a small ranch in Marsing, Idaho, worlds away from the streets of Boston. On February 7, 2011, federal agents, acting on a tip, arrested Ponzo as he drove up to his home.
But the biggest catch for law enforcement came on June 22, 2011, when federal authorities, acting on a tip, finally nabbed James “Whitey” Bulger, in Santa Monica, California. Bulger had been there for over a decade with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. He was No. 1 on the FBI’s Top Ten Wanted list. Sightings of the elusive Irish mob boss had taken agents around the world. Some speculated that he was dead. Others thought that because Bulger had knowledge of the pervasive corruption in the FBI's Boston office that the feds simply didn’t want to find him. And when they did arrest him and Greig they found an arsenal of guns, and $800,000 in cash. Bulger may have been long removed from the criminal underworld in New England but he obviously had the street smarts and connections to live a comfortable life on the run.
The Bulger and Ponzo arrests were parts of the final chapter of an underworld saga that had played out on the streets of Boston and Rhode Island since the late 1980s. Those events also helped Louis Manocchio ascend to the top spot in Rhode Island. The saga was a war for control of the New England Mafia, with the backdrop of Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang, a corrupt FBI department, and the shifting allegiances of mobsters looking to stay ahead of the law.
Mark Silverman was coming up in the New England underworld during these days. Mark got to see the Boston mob wars of the '90s from both sides. He was with a renegade faction that was challenging the traditional Mafia, which he terms LCN (La Cosa Nostra) and he was with the renegade faction. His ties to the Winter Hill gang, starting from childhood, also brought an element to the story that’s so typical of the New England underworld.
|Marshall St. in Somerville, headquarters of the Winter Hill gang's Somerville faction|
December 1998 - Somerville, Massachusetts
“It’s a trap. They’ll kill you.”
Maria* panicked. I could feel her small frame shaking through the phone. My instinct was to be with her, to hold her. I imagined the horrified look that I had seen on her face a hundred times before. It erased her beauty and unnerved me like no other threat.
“It's business,” I said as calmly as I could. “We expected this.”
“This is your choice. You don’t have to go!” She screamed into the phone.
Maria’s voice made my skin crawl. My head throbbed. She was right. I hated second-guessing my own decisions. I never second-guessed myself. Something was very wrong.
“We knew Bobby was getting out of jail. He’s out and now I have to take care of it,” I argued.
“Please don’t go. If you love us, if you ever cared anything about me you won’t go.” Maria’s anger turned to tears. “You know I’m through with Bobby. I want to be with you.”
It was tearing me up inside. She had every right to feel desperate. I was walking into a death trap and I was gonna lose the one true love of my life. Years of pent up rage and guilt shot through my mind. I was determined to protect myself at any cost, for Maria. All the loyalty I had pledged to the mob I now wanted to give to Maria.
“Are you there?” Maria’s voice shocked me back to the moment.
“It’s not about you. I’m the only one who can make this right. I love you and if I don’t come back you have to know this was the best time of my life.”
“You are my entire life and I love you.” She was sobbing uncontrollably.
I couldn’t take hearing anymore. Another call was coming through. “I gotta go baby”.
I answered the other call but didn’t say anything. I knew who it was.
“Don’t go to the restaurant in Medford. I’m goin’ to Charlestown to meet Johnny. We’ll be on Lower Broadway in Somerville in ten.”
Bobby Rennell’s voice sounded strange to me. It all but confirmed my suspicions: I knew something was wrong. Meeting at a restaurant would have been safe. Meeting on the fly never is.
It’s just business, I thought. I had worked out the peace in worse situations, and I could do it again this time. I’d been laying low for a while, trying to build a normal life with Maria. She was a beautiful woman. She’d captured my heart and made me feel like a father to her daughter. We tried to walk away from everything, but a lifetime in the mob wasn’t something I could just turn my back on. I got made the hard way in ’95 and I was proud of what I’d done. I’d risked my life and played a renegade Boston mob faction out of loyalty to La Cosa Nostra, during a vicious internal mob war that decimated the Patriarca crime family. For awhile, I didn’t know which side I was on. I was a businessman on the street and it was just business for me.
It was all going through my head; my life raced before my eyes.
The Patriarca family, the true New England Mafia, had always found it difficult to swallow my Jewish last name. They had broken tradition and opened the books for my membership. It had never been done before. Lots of what I did had never been done before.
On the way to Somerville, I realized that I wasn’t strapped– I didn’t have a piece. I didn’t really think I’d need one. Bobby and I had been the closest of friends; way back in the day I’d risked my own life to save his ass. I’d stood up for him to the renegade mob boss, Paul DeCologero, even though it wasn’t the right thing to do. We had holidays at each other’s houses and we always looked out for each other. He used to say, “Whether you’re right or wrong, I still got your back.”
Looking back, I don’t know if not having a gun was a mistake. I don’t know what I was thinking then. I’d gotten too cocky to follow my instincts. One of the first things you learn on the street is that changing a meeting spot is the first sign of a set up. I drove on, but I had an uneasy combination of premonition and flashback. Bobby and I had been friends since the beginning; we’d hung together through the worst of the war. It was a friendship that had passed a lot of tests. All I could think was, “What about now?”
I had always been loyal to La Cosa Nostra and the Winter Hill Gang, Boston’s Irish crime clan. I had played a dangerous game with the enemy renegade faction, dealing with them one day, shaking them down the next. I’d tried to bring Bobby into the LCN fold. But my mistake was trying to turn him while he was in prison. When he talked my cover was blown. His loyalty was to DeCologero and the rogue faction of the Patriarca Family, and to prove it he would have to be willing to kill me. Things had come to a head.
Driving down Lower Broadway, I spotted Bobby and Johnny in a car I’d never seen before. I immediately sensed a huge problem. I knew Johnny always drove a green Lincoln Continental. Why show up in a modified LTD? I hesitated before I jumped out of my car and into the backseat of theirs. Johnny was driving and Bobby was in the passenger seat. Nobody said a word. I had a bad feeling in my gut as the doors closed. My heart sunk when I noticed there were no door handles on the inside of the car. My suspicions were right, there was no escaping. Realizing what they had in store for me, I reached inside my pocket and grabbed my knife. I hid it in my right hand. Bobby broke the silence and asked me why I screwed Johnny over such a measly amount of money. I couldn't believe he asked me that. Bobby gave me the impression that he had already straightened out that problem. I didn't know for sure, but I had a feeling where the conversation was headed. After minutes of tense talk, Bobby accused me of betraying Paul.
“You did this to yourself, Mark. You screwed Paul, you’re fucking my girl and you showed your true colors. You’re with them and you always have been. I know about the shake downs. I know everything.” He was breathing hard and red in the face. He was losing it and I was going to let him.
“When you betrayed them you fucked yourself because you fucked me.” Bobby screamed at me showing me his state of panic. It was clear in an instant that this was personal and he was out of control.
I wasn't going to let them use the car as a makeshift coffin. I made a plan. Joey began to plead with Bobby to calm down so we could take a ride and talk. If we left the parking spot, my life would be in their hands. I knew the drill too well. They would lead me to a secluded spot and abandon the car with my body still in it. Another member of the hit squad would follow them and pick them up after they killed me. I was in control now. Bobby couldn't contain his emotions. He was making this personal, not business.
I challenged Bobby, "Yeah I fucked Maria."
He lost all of his self-control and threw caution to the wind. At that very moment I clenched my jaw, waiting for him to punch me. He turned in a split second and hit me hard. Before I could react he reached over the seat and smashed me again in my ribs.
“After everything I’ve done for you, you treat me like a piece of shit.” Bobby cried as he hit me again. “How could you do this to me? I’m gonna kill you.”
I pulled my knife and swung it hard at Johnny, grazing his neck. Bobby immediately went to his aid and tried to knock the knife away, breaking my pinky finger. This was the opportunity I needed. This wasn’t their original plan. I knew that Bobby had jumped the gun. There were too many people around for them to have planned to kill me right there. As the knife fell to the floor, Johnny reached his hand under the seat and grabbed a piece.
My only exit was through the front seat passenger door, which was blocked by Bobby’s 250 pounds of muscle. I jumped over the seat pushing Bobby down on top of Johnny. As I made a break for the door, I could feel Bobby’s massive hand grabbing at the back of my shirt. I fought him off and opened the passenger door. I fell face first on the sidewalk. As I got up to run I could hear Bobby calling my name, he was pleading with me to come back. His cries sounded like a man who just realized his life was over because he’d fucked up bad. It wasn’t about me anymore. He botched the hit. I just kept running and thinking how could he have been so stupid?
A Little History
By the time of the attempt on my life, it was clear that my career had hit a wall - a pending RICO indictment will do that. For most guys, the “wall” is death, prison, or selling vinyl siding in Florida, but there are other ways out. Looking back, I can say that somehow I climbed the wall. I saw a future on the other side and I took it. But “the life” had been a hell of a ride while it lasted.
Throughout the late ‘80s through the ‘90s (and even into the new century) the New England Mafia was wracked by a civil war. This has happened in all the families across the U.S., ever since the 1800s. Some guys don’t like taking orders from the bosses and they think they can run the operation better so they start a war among the ranks. In the late 1980s in New England it was a strong renegade faction that started a war against the long-standing, powerful Patriarca family. And I was there for a lot of it. I grew up in it, I lived through it and – and so far I’ve beaten it. You have every right to judge me but don’t question me because this is the truth. By the way, because I owe my life to some stand-up guys (on the right and the wrong side of the law), some names have been changed.
First, I need to give you a little history leading up to the war.
When most people think Mob, they think New York. The five New York families still influence mob territories across the country, including New England. The New York mob families are structured in pyramids of power with soldiers at the bottom and bosses at the top. The good guy vs. wise guy, like the Giuliani vs. Gotti relationship, is the norm with law enforcement on one side and Italian mobsters on the other. And then there are the dirty cops and politicians that blur the good guy/bad lines. And while “bad guys parading as good guys” are everywhere, New England is in a unique class of corruption.
Things are less structured here in Boston. Here in the metropolitan center of New England it’s a regular Irish stew of Italian meatballs, dirty politicians, and crooked FBI agents. During the ‘80s, we had the interesting ménage-a-trios of FBI Agent John Connolly, Massachusetts politico Billy Bulger and his brother mob boss Whitey Bulger all working together like our forefathers had planned it that way. The real distinction in New England hasn’t been so much about what side of law you’re on, but who are the "players" and who are the "played?"
The one thing you need to keep in mind is that the New England Mafia, more commonly known as the Patriarca family, has always been in a tug of war between Providence and Boston, the two seats of power. Depending on where the boss was from, all the decisions would flow from there, sometime to the detriment of the other city. It led to some major rivalries, and in some way contributed to the breakdown of the whole operation in the early ‘90s. Western Massachusetts was the territory of the New York-based Genovese family, while Connecticut had Patriarca, Genovese, and Gambinos operating. But Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine were strictly Patriarca family territory.
New England Mafia
Legend says that you have to be Italian to be made in the Mafia. I know different but you’ll have to read on to learn about that. Italians in Boston first settled into the North End, Boston’s oldest residential neighborhood. Before the Italians landed, it was the center of Irish immigration, and then it was a mostly Jewish neighborhood. By the early 1900s Italians started moving in, and it maintains its Italian character to this day. In Providence, the Italian immigrants settled mainly into the neighborhood known as Federal Hill.
There are various names floated about as the head of the New England Mafia in the early part of the 20th century. One name that is often mentioned is Frank Morelli. Morelli was a New York-based gangster who moved to Providence in 1917 and set up operations with his brother Joseph. Morelli was allegedly behind the infamous Slater and Mirill Shoe Company Robbery that led to the hanging of Niccolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were allegedly Morelli soldiers according to mob turncoat Vinnie Teresa. After Boston and Providence merged, Morelli faded from the picture and died in the mid-1950s.
Another early Mafia name in Boston was Gaspar Messina, who came over from Sicily and started some businesses in the North End. He was a low-key guy who avoided the spotlight, like most of the old-timers. According to mob historian Richard Warner, “During his tenure as the New England leader, Messina’s name never received any press coverage. He is mentioned in the accounts of two known Mob leaders, Joseph Bonanno, a New York boss from 1931 to 1968, and Nick Gentile, a sort of Mr. Fix-it, and member at different times of different crime families, before fleeing a drug charge in 1937. However some of his men were mentioned in newspapers during this time period. In 1929, following the killing of Broadway gangster Frankie Marlow, several Boston men were picked up for questioning. One was Michael “Mickey the Wiseguy” Rocco and another was Phil Buccola.”
Fillipo “Phillip” Buccola (or Bruccola as some documents spell it) was Messina’s replacement as the boss in the local Mafia. Buccola was a former fight promoter who immigrated to Boston from Sicily in 1920. Some sources indicate that Buccola became boss as early as 1924, while others say that Lucky Luciano named him boss in 1932. And there was some who thought that Joseph Lombardo was the boss. Richard Warner stated “Willie Fopiano, who was involved with Boston organized crime from the 1960s to the 1980s, claimed that Buccola formed the Boston Mafia around 1930 with the assistance of Lombardo, Cucchiara, and others. He claims that Buccola was the boss, Lombardo the underboss, Cucchiara the consigliere, and for the capos, Henry Selvitella and Tony “the Canadian” Sandrelli. A 1936 report also names the leaders as Buccola and Lombardo, along with Daniel J. Carroll, a former police officer turned fight manager and bootlegger.
Another informer who was a Mafia associate and never a member, Vincent Charles Teresa, claimed that New England was ruled by a council of mob bosses, and that the chairman of the council was Joseph Lombardo. Under his leadership there were several sub-bosses, such as Frank “Butsey” Morelli of Providence, Rhode Island, Phil Buccola of East Boston, “Big Nose” Sam Cufari of Springfield, Massachusetts, Anthony Santonello of South End of Boston, Mickey Rocco, who worked for Lombardo, and Joseph ‘Don Peppino’ Modica.”
Buccola’s Italians were not the only gang around. One of the predominant organized crime groups in the city was the Gustin gang led by Frankie Gustin (Wallace) a former boxer who amassed over 35 arrests in his criminal career. His gang was based out of South Boston and active in bootlegging, which brought them into conflict with the rising Italian syndicate.
On the afternoon of December 22, 1931, Gustin and two of his henchmen, Barney Walsh and Timothy Coffey, were going to a meeting with mobster Joe Lombardo. Lombardo owned an importing company but had extensive interests in speakeasies across Boston. There was reportedly a beef between Gustin and Lombardo about one of the speakeasies. When the Irish gangsters entered Lombardo’s office they were met with gunfire. Gustin stumbled down the hall to a law office where he gave the secretary a sight to remember as he died on the floor in front of her. Walsh tried to run but was killed. Coffey survived. Lombardo was held for probable cause after he reappeared following Gustin’s murder. He fled town to let things cool off. Two of his henchmen, Frank Cucchiara and Salvatore Congemi, were held as well.
Coffey refused to testify against Lombardo and no charges were filed. The Gustin gang was effectively out of the picture. The Italians continued their stranglehold on the North End and East Boston while the Irish kept South Boston and Charlestown. The other neighborhoods and surrounding towns were up for grabs.
Lombardo became Buccola’s consigliere but the underboss position was reserved for Raymond Patriarca Sr. who was born on March 17, 1908 in Worcester. His parents moved the family to Providence when he was three years old. He became known as a strong-arm enforcer and guarded liquor shipments during Prohibition. Unfortunately his reckless nature got him into trouble. He had 28 arrests for a variety of crimes: hijacking, gambling, auto theft, armed robbery, adultery (no doubt a relic blue law at the time), white slavery, conspiracy, and violation of the Mann Act which prohibited interstate transporting of women for reasons of prostitution. He pretty much covered it all.
Patriarca gained notoriety when he was sentenced to five years in Charlestown State Prison in September of 1938. By December of that year he walked out with a pardon, courtesy of a Father Fagin, a respected man of the cloth. Only there wasn’t any Father Fagin as all the newspapers were quick to point out. The ensuing uproar caused a political firestorm. A state politician who supported the pardon, Daniel H. Coakley, was impeached and Patriarca had to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
That event gave Raymond the underworld respect that would support him the rest of his life. According to Patriarca he was a legitimate businessman, working as a salesman; a manager of Louie’s Restaurant in Providence; a bellboy; a professional bettor on horses; owner of Sherwood Manufacturing Company, an apparel manufacturer; a mortgage broker; and owner of a vending company.
But to the underworld, Patriarca’s low profile enabled him to guide the New England Mafia out of the shadows of the Irish gangs and into a fairly sizable entity. Patriarca worked his way up to capo, though it’s not known when he was formally “made” into the crime family.
A pivotal event in the history of the New England Mafia family occurred on April 27, 1952. Over 80 crime figures from across New England attended a party in Johnstown, Rhode Island to celebrate the ascension of Raymond Patriarca to boss of the New England family (which would become known in law enforcement and media circles as the Patriarca family). Former boss Phillip Buccola had decided to retire to Italy where he owned a prosperous chicken operation. He would stay there until his death at the age of 101 in 1987.
Patriarca’s desire to remain under the radar failed to stem the tide of publicity that dogged him throughout the 1960s. The McClellan Commission hearings in 1963 gave an unprecedented look into organized crime across the country. And one of the families profiled was the New England Mafia. The Irish groups didn’t seem to generate as much interest, but a nicely presented flowchart listed the Rhode Island and Boston Mafia factions. At the top was Phillip Buccola, who had by then retired to Italy. Below him was the boss, Patriarca and under him was Gennaro J. “Jerry” Angiulo, underboss of the crime family. Other names like Henry Tamelo, Larry Zannino, and even old Joe Lombardo were on the charts. Frank Cucchiara’s name appeared near the top of the heap. Cucchiara was the New England representative at the ill-fated 1957 Apalachin meeting at the estate of upstate New York mobster Joe “the Barber” Barbara. Cucchiara had close ties to prominent New York Mafioso, and reportedly arrived to the meeting with Bonanno family bigwig Natale Evola, and Gambino mobsters Carmine “The Doc” Lombardozzi and Joseph Riccobono. Interestingly many of Cucchiara’s arrests were from upstate New York where he ran stills during Prohibition.
Patriarca’s reign as boss was significant in that it moved the headquarters of the New England Family out of Boston’s North End to the predominantly Italian Federal Hill area of Providence. He held court from his “office” at National Cigarette Service on Atwells Avenue for remainder of his criminal career. Under Patriarca’s leadership, the family’s influence extended throughout New England and into New York State. The Patriarca’s also established businesses in South Florida, where wise guys from across the country set up shop, because it was an “open” territory not controlled by any one family.
The New England Mafia prospered for 30 years under Raymond Patriarca’s rule, even when it was revealed that the FBI had planted a bug inside Patriarca’s cigarette company offices. Patriarca’s partner in the company was Phillip Carozza. He also employed Louis “The Fox” Taglianetti. The cigarette service was adjacent to Patriarca’s other business, the Coin-O-Matic Vending Company. The vending machine business was big in mob circles. It was a cash business and besides being a lucrative source of legitimate income, it served as a useful place to “wash” money from the rackets. Mobsters from St. Louis to New York to Tampa had a hand in candy machines, cigarette machines, jukeboxes, and later, video games.
The Patriarca bug was in place from 1962 to 1965 and offered up a wealth of information that made headlines across New England. Investigators heard talk about hidden interests in race tracks, illegal gambling, gang wars, and Patriarca’s role in the Bonanno Crime Family war in Brooklyn. It made a lot of newspaper reporters happy. And it gave Patriarca some unwanted attention when national news weeklies like Life started reporting on the New England family. In typical media overkill, stories came out about how this “news” would mean the end of the New England Mafia. They, of course, were wrong.
The Bonanno conversations revealed the influence that Patriarca had in the National Commission, the ruling body of the American Mafia which oversaw operations and made decisions regarding disputes between and within crime families. Patriarca was called to New York on numerous occasions to sit in on meetings with members of the Bonanno family, led by Joe Bonanno. Joe was in the midst of an inter-family war. Patriarca told a Bonanno mobster that Joe Zerilli from Detroit led the charge to expel Bonanno from the Commission. The Commission further stated that any Bonanno soldier who did not come to them and distance themselves from Joe Bonanno would not be considered “with” the rest of the New York families. Patriarca stated that he believed Joe Bonanno’s greed was the cause of the war and that it had led to his downfall with the Commission.
While Patriarca was running his own family from Providence, Patriarca’s number two guy, Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo, who was based out of the North End, was given a free hand to run the Boston faction. It was rumored that Jerry handed a bag full of cash, $50,000, and a promise of at least $100,000 of yearly tribute payments to Raymond Patriarca in exchange for protection from local gangsters who tried to shake him down. In other words he didn’t “make his bones” by killing anyone, which used to be the only way you could be formally inducted into the Mafia. That rule was observed less and less as the talent pool shrunk, because of pressure from law enforcement and demographic shifts.
With Patriarca’s backing, Angiulo expanded the mob’s business in Boston, stepping up gambling operations and loan sharking. Unlike other cities where the mob understood that dead men couldn’t pay, Angiulo’s men thought nothing of taking out the late payers. Angiulo and his brothers ran a close-knit operation, but like so many other mobsters they tended to talk… a lot. The FBI bugged their office at 98 Prince Street in the North End. After a couple years of listening to talk about gambling, murder, and loan sharking, the Feds arrested Jerry and his brothers
The next couple years were tough on the New England Mafia. On July 7, 1984, Raymond Patriarca died of natural causes. Jerry and his two brothers were convicted under federal RICO charges on February 26, 1986. The family was, for lack of a better term, rudderless. Defections, deaths, arrests, and some major bruised egos were building up to a mob war.
The main event that ignited the war was the FBI’s secret recording of a Mafia induction ceremony in Medford, Mass in October of 1989. The mishap was attributed to the ineptitude of Raymond Patriarca’s son who inherited the leadership of the family. Later it was disclosed that one of the mobsters present, Angelo “Sonny” Mercurio (who died in February of 2007), had tipped off the Feds, enabling them to tape the entire ceremony. The tapes unequivocally proved the existence of the secret society known as the Mafia. The Patriarca family had hit an all time low and it was the beginning of the end of the Junior Patriarca’s reign as New England Godfather and the unraveling of the rest of the family that had been held together under absolute leadership for 30 years.
The Irish Mob
The Irish are a whole different story. Boston was one of the major epicenters of the great Irish emigration to America. The Irish and Italians shared a long history in their respective “old” countries of having to protect the working poor and the helpless against corrupt political systems. So called criminals were often the only protection against powerful governments. The good guy/bad guy lines were often blurred in the old countries.
Irish gangs flourished in the city at the beginning of the 20th century. Irish gangs were, in a lot of ways, less organized than the Mafia, but by no means less deadly. The smaller gangs were constantly fighting for turf and respect. The North End of Boston, famous for the Italian influence there, was actually at one time completely Irish. Then the Irish started moving out of the city and into the surrounding towns like Somerville and Charlestown. And when they relocated, the gangs followed.
There were groups like the Mullin gang, which eventually merged with the Winter Hill Gang in Somerville. They carried out a lot of street-level crimes in their own neighborhoods. And there wasn’t a clear cut leader. The strict hierarchal system that defined the Italian Mafia couldn’t be applied to the Irish crime groups. They were more fluid, ready to merge with one another at a moment’s notice if it fit their mission to make more money.
By the post-war years, the Irish gangs died out in a lot of cities. It was because of the flight from the urban core to the suburbs. But the Boston ethnic stew stayed relatively unchanged, so Irish organized crime in the Boston area held on for a long time. It was centered in the blue collar working class neighborhoods like South Boston and Charlestown. It was there, among other hard-working Irish that the crime groups were able to operate with minimal police interference and attention from the media. Protected by a code of silence, evident in neighborhoods like Charlestown, the Irish gangsters started to morph into a more organized type of criminal.
Even among criminal elements it is usually violence that tends to steer the ship off course. And one of the biggest mob wars in U.S. organized crime history started between two Irish gangs. In the ‘60s the local Irish mob was in the midst of a street war between the Somerville Winter Hill Gang, led by James (Buddy) Mclean opposed by Charlestown and the McLaughlin crew. The Winter Hill Gang, important to this story as you’ll later read, was based out of the Winter Hill area of Somerville, one of those typical working class neighborhoods with two and three-family row houses squeezed between bars and shops. At the top of the “Hill” is the Winter Hill Bakery, a famous landmark in the area. Buddy McLean, who formed the gang, was a tough-as-nails Irish gangster and union guy. .
The FBI pegged the start of the McLaughlin/McLean war as April 5, 1964, when William Sheridan was killed in Roxbury. But in The Grim Reapers, author Ed Reid took the start of the war back to August of 1961, when Charlestown gangster, Edward “Punchy” McLaughlin inexplicably tried to bite the ear off a girlfriend of James J. “Buddy” McLean. I believe that it was TJ English, Irish mob expert, who got the story right. It was in 1961, over Labor Day weekend when Georgie McLaughlin grabbed the breast of a Winter Hill gang member’s girlfriend. Since everyone had been drinking that day, the usual posturing escalated into a serious beat down of McLaughlin by the Winter Hill gang members.
On October 31, 1961, Bernie “Bones” McLaughlin, brother of Punchy, was walking out of a lunch counter in Charlestown. Bones was known as a bad-ass loan shark who would take a lead pipe to longshoremen who fell behind on their payments. Bones called for a cab. While waiting for the approaching taxi, a man walked up behind him and drove buckshot from an automatic shotgun through the Irish hood’s head. Legend is that while Bones was dying on the street, longshoremen walked over his body and spit on him.
The three-year discrepancy notwithstanding, the resulting gangland war claimed over 60 lives by 1969. Raymond Patriarca Sr. eventually threw his support behind the Winter Hill Gang and although Mclean was killed, they ultimately defeated the Charlestown crew. This cemented a formidable criminal relationship that would seem to have benefited the Mafia as well as the Irish, but in reality, it helped the Winter Hill guys a lot more.
By the time the ‘70s rolled around Howie Winter had taken control of the gang and set up shop at Marshall Street Motors in Somerville. Stevie (The Rifleman) Flemmi and James (Whitey) Bulger, who both supported Winter in the war as soldiers, quickly gained prominence in the Winter Hill gang.
In 1975 Bulger was enticed to sign on as an FBI informant by John Connolly, an up-and-coming young agent in the Boston office. He also happened to be Bulger's childhood acquaintance from the South Boston housing projects. In 1979, Howie Winter and the entire hierarchy were indicted on a massive multi-million dollar horserace fixing scam. The only two guys that weren’t named in the indictment were Bulger and Flemmi. Bulger used the opportunity to seize control of a portion of the gang and move it to South Boston.
The Irish gang had a cozy relationship with the Italian Mafia and underboss Jerry Angiulo. Although they weren’t partners, the gang paid rent to Jerry and they formed a cooperative working relationship. By ’79, Howie Winter was stewing in prison but still owed Jerry $250,000. Bulger stepped in and assumed the debt in exchange for leadership of the gang. Whitey’s day was dawning in the Boston underworld. My life in that scene was still a few years away.