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Monday, February 21, 2022

New England mob enforcer and bank robber dead at 75

When Jerry Tillinghast walked into 101 Cranston St. in Providence on a sweltering August day in 1975, he knew his role and the mission before him, but likely had no idea he was about to take part in one of the most daring heists in U.S. history.

Tillinghast, a member of the ruthless Ouimette faction of the Patriarca crime family, died Monday at age 75 of natural causes – an unlikely end for a man who walked a tightrope over a world of violence.

In 1975, Tillinghast was one of the eight robbers who cleared out nearly 200 oversized safe-deposit boxes primarily used by wiseguys and their associates. His muscle and outsized frame helped pop the stainless-steel doors off their hinges and empty the ill-gotten gains into massive duffle bags – designed for hockey players – with cash, raw gems, gold Krugerrands, and silver bars.

In all, Tillinghast and the crew pulled off the haul of a lifetime, an estimated $38 million in spoils. Tillinghast and other members of the gang would get an initial reward of $64,000 in cash, stacked neatly into brown paper bags. The really valuable stuff was stashed away, never to be recovered.

Over the years, other members of the crew admitted their role in the infamous Bonded Vault heist, including the lead gunman who became the state’s star witness in Rhode Island’s longest and most expensive trial. 

But Tillinghast – who was acquitted at trial – never cracked.

He would later be ensnared by another prosecution, serving 29 years in prison for a gangland slaying in 1978. But those who investigated the notorious mob associate say he got away with far more. 

Tillinghast and his brother Harold were convicted of slaying mob loan shark George Basmajian in Warwick. Prosecutors said in November 1978 Tillinghast fired nine rounds into the victim, then reloaded the gun and fired three more. 

Tillinghast later penned a book titled “Choices: You Make ‘em You Own ‘em” in which he said the state had it half wrong: his brother, now dead, wasn’t there. 

Joe Broadmeadow, a retired East Providence police captain who coauthored the book with Tillinghast, called him the “last of the real wiseguys.”

“Jerry Tillinghast was an enigma,” Broadmeadow said. “He could be charming and witty but there was, always, an edge. He is certainly one of the most memorable people I ever met.”

Paul DiMaio was Tillinghast’s attorney for nearly 50 years, including in the Bonded Vault acquittal. He described Tillinghast was his most memorable client, estimating he represented him in 19 cases.

“He had a lot of integrity, he was just misdirected early on,” DiMaio said. “He had an innate intelligence and he had a concern for other people, believe it or not.”

“He was trying to make a citizen of himself and do something worthwhile when he got out of jail, and I think he did,” he added.

Growing up on Broad Street in Providence, Tillinghast enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the Vietnam War. He talked about his service in the podcast “Crimetown.”

Tillinghast was suffering from congestive heart failure and died early Monday morning.



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