You can pretty much set your watch to it.
Anytime I file a report on organized crime, minutes later my phone will ring or an email will appear in my inbox.
“You know,” says the grumpy caller on the other end, “the streets were safer when ‘he’ ran the show.”
“He” can stand for pretty much any accused wiseguy or big-name mob figure (see: James J. “Whitey” Bulger) featured in one of my reports.
I’m also often accused of picking on a certain nationality – Italians if it’s a La Cosa Nostra (LCN) story, the Irish if it’s, say, the Winter Hill Gang. But inevitably, the caller is one of the “Robin Hood” believers: someone who not only felt the reputed mobster protected the neighborhood from outside criminal elements, but blocked drugs from permeating the streets.
Don’t buy it, says Jeffrey Sallet, who runs the FBI’s organized crime unit for the New England region.
“If you look at the rationale, mob guys banned dealing narcotics because of strict sentencing – that was their concern,” Sallet said. “It wasn’t that these guys were ‘Robin Hood’ and trying to be good and had some code of ethics for dealing.”
And history shows that even with the risk of hefty prison terms, the lucrative drug trade was just too alluring for many to pass up.
There’s the famous “Pizza Connection” case: a mafia-driven scheme to distribute heroin using New York pizza parlors. Locally, reputed Patriarca family capo regime Matthew Guiglielmetti sits in a federal prison for protecting a shipment of cocaine. And even the poster child for the so-called Robin Hood bad guys, “Whitey” Bulger, is accused of cashing in on drugs; one of the charges against him is “narcotics distribution,” though it’s overshadowed by the 19 counts of murder.
“Where there is money being made, there are organized criminals,” Sallet said.
In the post-9/11 world, however, wiseguys have moved to the back burner of the federal stovetop, edged out by international terrorists, Mexican drug cartels and other ethnic organized crime factions.
“If you go to mob guys, they ask you why we aren’t getting terrorists,” Sallet said.
But around here, the feds say the traditional mobster still reigns supreme.
In fact, Sallet said the FBI identifies LCN as the number one “threat assessment” for organized crime in New England. In other parts of the country the feds focus on the Russian mob or Asian or African criminal enterprises, but not in New England. Apparently, around here it’s still mobsters and lobsters.
My work voicemail isn’t the only place where you’ll hear vocal detractors of law enforcement’s continued zeal when it comes to investigating and cracking down on defendants who have vowel-heavy surnames.
“They keep chasing old men in diapers,” Rhode Island defense attorney Raymond Mansolillo told The Associated Press’ Laura Crimaldi recently. “I think it’s a waste of taxpayer resources.”
Mansolillo, a former DEA agent who at one time represented reputed former mob boss Luigi “Baby Shacks” Manocchio, has made similar comments before – in 2009, he told me the mob was “defunct” in New England.
Bolstering Mansolillo’s point are recent arrest logs for organized crime busts, which look more like the sign-up sheet at bingo night: Luigi Manocchio, 83; James Bulger, 81; John “Sonny” Franzese, 93; Anthony “The Saint” St. Laurent, 70.
Veteran Rhode Island prosecutor Deputy Attorney General Gerald Coyne says, so what?
“These people have lived their entire lives in contempt of the law and do not deserve to live out their golden years in the same way law abiding citizens do,” Coyne said. “It’s not like you hit a certain age and get a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Organized crime investigators also point out that just because these men could be in a Depends ad doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Young soldiers or “wannabes” might be looking to impress the frail Mafia don by acting on orders to kill, run rackets, move drugs – or all of the above.
“Because somebody is not a young man doesn’t mean they are not dangerous and cannot order acts of violence,” Sallet told the AP.
True. Remember, Whitey had a good chunk of Boston’s FBI office in his back pocket as a man in his mid-60s, when he was also allegedly running a lucrative and ruthless criminal organization that’s accused of committing heinous murders – murders, it should be pointed out, that often happened on the very streets some still believe he kept clean.
Bulger was a high-level criminal informant for the FBI during much of his reign of terror – successfully knocking off his competition by diming them out or killing them, court records have revealed. The FBI has never been the same: In 2003, a congressional committee described the Bulger-FBI affair as “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.”
Personally, I like to think of the feds as being divided up into two eras: Pre-Whitey and Post-Whitey.
The new and improved Post-Whitey G-Men successfully tracked him down in a (rent-controlled) Oceanside waterfront apartment. Inside, according to The Boston Globe, was a false wall concealing more than 30 firearms, $800,000 in cash and enough ammunition to make John Gotti shudder.
Not bad for an old guy.
Over the years I’ve interviewed scores of investigators and prosecutors about organized crime. They all agree that, thanks to the federal RICO Act and an aging Mafioso population, the organized crime families we grew up with in the Northeast are shells of their former selves. But they also point out that the good guys have to stay on top of organized crime. It’s like weeding a garden in order to let the good stuff flourish.
“It’s critical,” Coyne said. “There is no question that organized crime has been and remains very active in the drug trade, but they also remain active in many other criminal activities that have genuine victims.”
Was Whitey on the street corner dealing himself?
But there is strong evidence he cashed in on a drug trade that pumped a serious amount of dope into the very neighborhoods some vehemently claim he protected.
I always welcome your calls and (strongly-worded) emails. But just know up front: I don’t – and won’t – buy into the Robin Hood myth.
Tim White is the Emmy-winning investigative reporter at WPRI 12.
If the girlfriend of captured accused mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger is held without bail as expected, she’ll be brought to the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, officials in Boston tell WPRI’s Tim White.
Catherine Greig, 60, was captured with Bulger on Wednesday night in Santa Monica, Calif.
Bulger’s hearing began a few minutes ago at federal court in Boston. Greig was not in court with Bulger; her hearing is scheduled to take place after his, The Boston Globe reported.
Props to Tim as well for being right about the pronunciation of Catherine Greig’s last name. There had been some debate about whether it’s pronounced “greeg” or “greg,” so a Globe reporter asked her sister at court today; she confirmed it’s pronounced “greg.”
(sketch photo: AP/Bill Robles)
I’ve got nothing profound to say about James “Whitey” Bulger’s capture last night in California beyond the obvious – this is big, big news.
If you want some good background on who the 81-year-old Whitey really is and why his capture matters, Tim White appeared on Fox Providence’s “Rhode Show” this morning for a debriefing. Watch:
The Boston Globe is another great resource on the Bulger story. Here’s “Black Mass” author Dick Lehr in 2007, offering five reasons why finding him is important, and here’s a four-part 1988 investigation of the relationship between James and his powerful brother, William.