Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

This’ll make you view the neighbors in a new light

Here’s the tale of my only near brush with the fame that sometimes comes to people who witness mob violence firsthand: It was a sunny June morning in 1989, and I was the editor of an alternative newspaper serving the North Shore of Boston. My mother had been visiting, and I was driving her from our home in NorthAndover to Logan InternationalAirport to catch her flight back home. We were running early, so we stopped at an IHOP in Saugus for breakfast.
My mother had never eaten in an IHOP before, and was impressed with the pancakes. She would have been more impressed with the whole experience had we known at the time that one of the other customers was a guy named “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, a longtime associate of the Winter Hill Gang run by Massachusetts crime legend James “Whitey” Bulger and Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi.
Minutes after we finished our breakfast and left, a Patriarca crime family button man named Angelo “Sonny” Mercurio lured Salemme out into the parking lot and shot him twice — once in the chest and once in the leg. Cadillac didn’t die. In fact, he ran into a sub shop next door, made them call the police and paramedics, and bled all over the floor until they arrived. The shooting started a mob feud that raged for two years, until John Gotti brokered a truce.
For years afterward, we joked that if we’d only stayed around for another cup of coffee, we might have been on the network news that night, like lots of other regular patrons who’d witnessed the botched assassination attempt that morning. But Mom dined out on the tale for years, regaling folks in Wyoming with accounts of her near miss. The way she told it, we were so close to the action she could actually hear bullets whizzing past the passenger-side window as we drove away. Old Mom was never one to let a fact get in the way of a good story. Her nickname was Pinocchio.
That was the closest I ever came to Whitey Bulger or his mob, but you couldn’t escape his legend if you lived in Massachusetts.
I won’t go into exhaustive detail about his career, because that’s been done in a number of fine books. But in a nutshell, Whitey grew up on the south side of Boston — Southie — and came to crime early. He and “The Rifleman” Flemmi joined, and eventually took over, the infamous Winter Hill Gang, a largely Irish crew that was into gambling and loan sharking, and among other lucrative enterprises they also robbed, tortured and murdered victims for years. He was protected from prosecution, largely because he was also working as an informant for the FBI, providing information against the Italian Mafia, with whom he was in competition.
The feds allowed him to continue his criminal activities as long as no violence was committed, but when it came out that Bulger and Flemmi were involved in a string of killings while they were informing, it all came crashing down and Bulger was slated for arrest. Before he could be nabbed, however, he was tipped off by an FBI buddy and escaped — and stayed missing for 16 years. He spent all of that time on the bureau’s Most Wanted list, with a reward of up to $2 million on his head and 19 murders to account for.
He became America’s Osama bin Laden — the monster nobody could catch — and a huge embarrassment to national law enforcement agencies. And all the while his legend grew. In Massachusetts, he became a folk hero, and tourists gawped at landmarks associated with his career, like the bar he used to own where he tortured people in the basement. There were so many reported sightings that Elvis would have been jealous, had he been keeping track. The cops and feds had so many news conferences and put out so many press releases saying they were this close to catching Whitey, that people stopped paying attention.
Many people, like me, suspected he was charmed, and protected at the highest levels. For one thing, they figured he still had ties to the FBI and friends in the bureau. For another, his brother, WilliamBulger— dubbed “The Corrupt Midget” by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr — was president of the Massachusetts Senate and had tremendous influence over what happened in the state. And although Billy swore he had no idea where his brother was, and there was never any proof to the contrary, many folks assumed he had a role in keeping Whitey out of the slammer.

So when the 81-year-old Whitey Bulger and his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, were finally arrested last week in Santa Monica, Calif., a lot of us who have followed the saga laughed when authorities professed “surprise” that they had been living for most of that time in a modest, rented condominium where neighbors said they were a fairly quiet couple — Charlie and Carol Gasko, they called themselves — although the old dude could get a bit cranky. They weathered the longest-running manhunt in American history and eluded arrest for 16 years by hiding in plain sight.
Sound familiar?
I’ll leave further, in-depth analysis of this business to historians, but here are two quick observations for today’s take-away:
 We can’t be overly critical of the authorities in Pakistan for not finding Osama (12 years on Most Wanted list), who was hiding in the suburbs in plain sight, when Whitey Bulger (16 years on Most Wanted list) was living in the suburbs of Santa Monica, often wearing a Red Sox cap.



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