In a Boston courtroom, a trial is underway that is currently reminding America of the time when gangsters – not terrorists – were the popular boogiemen. The one thing we know is that the famous gangster Whitey Bulger is on the stand. It gets murkier from there. RICHARD POPLAK peeks into the gloom.
South Africa has its share of bad guys. There are days when the entire ruling party seems like a Hollywood shoot ’em up, with Jacob Zuma standing in for James Cagney, and Malema playing Joel Pesci’s Goodfellas role. Sure, we have Glenn Agliotti, who currently stars in a new “tell-all” book I have not found the time to read. And we have our share of second-rate Central European tough guys.
Then a trial comes along where are reminded that those Hollywood films were barely exaggerations – in fact, they were shockingly naïve when it came to portraying just how absurdly vicious America’s homegrown mob was in its heyday. Let’s take the now 72-year-old John Martorano by way of example. Mr. Martorano was on the witness stand yesterday, giving a brief précis of a career that included the 20 hits he’s confessed to, and probably double the number that he’s failed to mention, or has forgotten. He spent 12 years in jail, but is now a free man – a relic of a Boston underworld that has all but been replaced by Starbucks and Swedish baby strollers.
Martorano is singing because John “Whitey” Bulger has – his words – “broken my heart”. Whitey, so named for the shock of light hair that adorned his head as a boy, was one of Boston’s toughest hoodlums. He, too, is on the stand for 19 known hits. The Winter Hill Gang that he ran for most of the 80s and 90s were hardly Boy Scouts. They were cold-as-ice Irish American gangbangers, mostly involved in the horserace fixing game in America’s northeast. The White Hill Gang were the last men standing following a brutal internecine Irish gang war that kicked off in 1961, and finally came to an end in 1967. They made the New England mafia – the Godfather types – seem like nursery school sing-a-long leaders, so brutally did they deal with their rivals.
James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger Jr. rose through the ranks fast, and by the mid-70s, he was a legend in organised crime circles. He grew up rough and poor in South Boston, the son of a longshoreman who had lost an arm in an industrial mishap. As a member of the youthful Shamrock gang, he was first arrested at 14. He did time on and off for just about everything, and even participated in the LSD trials for the hyper-secret MK-ULTRA program the CIA conducted in an Atlanta penitentiary.
His career was the stuff of a Sopranos episode, with a lot more Guinness and less time on the couch with shrinks. It’s worth excerpting in full, courtesy of fellow gangster Kevin Weeks’s autobiography Brutal, the circumstances of Whitey’s first hit:
“Killing Paulie McGonaugh however, took Jimmy longer than he originally expected. Paulie talked a big game, but he wasn’t a shooter. Although he never did anything, he kept on stirring everything up with his mouth. So Jimmy decided to kill him. One day while the gang war was still going on, Jimmy was driving down Seventh Street in South Boston when he saw Paulie driving toward him. Jimmy pulled up beside him, window to window, nose to nose, and called his name. As Paulie looked over, Jimmy shot him right between the eyes. Only at that moment, just as he pulled the trigger, Jimmy realized it wasn’t Paulie. It was Donald, the most likable of the McGonagle brothers, the only one who wasn’t involved in anything. Jimmy drove straight to his mentor Billy O’Sullivan’s house on Savin Hill Avenue and told O’Sullivan, who was at the stove cooking, ‘I shot the wrong one. I shot Donald.’ Billy looked up from the stove and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. He wasn’t healthy anyway. He smoked. He would have gotten lung cancer. How do you want your pork chops?’”
Whitey career was famously complicated in 1975, when he started informing for the FBI. No one, we are told, is lower in the underworld than a rat, and Whitey was, if the reports are to be believed, a rodent of no small ability. His squealing to the Feds largely concerned the Italian American Patriarca family, and in turn he and his Winter Hill associates were left alone to make mayhem. The FBI could lean on him because, it was claimed, they had the straight dope regarding his alleged activity as a teen gigolo in Boston’s gay bars.
Then, just as famously, Whitey disappeared. He was busted last year in Santa Monica, California, after 16 years on the run. He was basically a staple on America’s Most Wanted, and one of the more established fugitives in American history. Turns out he was ratted out by a former Miss Iceland, who bonded with his girlfriend, Catherine E. Greig over cats. (The ex-beauty queen collected a $2 million reward.) Now, an 83-year-old Whitey is on trial in a Boston courtroom – not fighting for his freedom, but for his reputation.
How does a mass-murdering probably one-time teen prostitute ex-bookie fugitive multi-millionaire mobster honcho fight for his reputation? Whitey wants the world to know that while he may have made most serial killers seem like amateurs, he never killed a woman or a child. Also, he was no rat. The evidence is stacked against him on both counts, but the trial itself promises to be fascinating, most of all because it recalls an America that was run in no small part by racketeering mafiosa. That is no longer the case. Whitey belongs to another era – a time when the underworld wasn’t populated by Chechnyan teenagers and nutcases who buy the day’s equivalent of a Tommy gun at a state’s fair, and then shoot up a pre-school. If there was honour in Whitey’s world, it’s lost on me.
But there was certainly a lot of blood, and most of the bad guys ended up dead, or worse – dying of lung cancer. Whitey’s still around, though. I wonder how he likes his pork chops. DM
Photo: Former mob boss and fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger, who was arrested in Santa Monica, California on June 22, 2011 along with his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. Bulger fled Boston in late 1994 after receiving a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that federal charges were pending. Greig joined him a short time later and has been charged with harboring Bulger as a fugitive. REUTERS/U.S. Marshals Service/U.S. Department of Justice/Handout
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