Westies articles from New York Daily News - 1980s and 1990s
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THE JAVITS MOLE COP UNDERCOVER WITH MOB 3 YRS.
By TOM ROBBINS
Wednesday, March 15th 1995, 3:60AM
A daring undercover cop who penetrated the mob's top echelon at the Javits Convention Center is telling his story for the first time providing an explosive look at how crime and corruption fills every corner of the glass palace on the Hudson.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily News, Detective James Mullan Jr., a decorated 15-year veteran of the police force who spent three years on this secret operation, said the Javits Center "was where all the big money was being made."
The mob, he said, "was running scams on everything."
How mob-tied union officials put membership in the union up for sale.
To earn the privilege of working in Local 829 of the Exposition Employes, the allegedly mobbed-up union that controls 500 high-paying jobs at the center, a worker would have to purchase a "membership book" at rates ranging from $13,000 to $22,000 from top officials of Local 829.
Once in the union, they could make up to $100,000 a year working at the center.
How union bosses placed ghost employes on the payroll forcing exhibition companies to pay up to 20 workers who don't show up for the job.
The massive featherbedding of Javits work rosters orchestrated by Expo union officials adds up to more than $1 million annually and ends in the pockets of union leaders and Genovese crime family bosses.
And it helps make Javits the most expensive exhibition hall in the nation, driving business from the city.
How Javits employes devised bogus slip-and-fall cases, using corrupt lawyers to sue the center.
How mob associates who directed corrupt operations at the center also sold guns and drugs, including Uzis and 9-mm. weapons, at West Side bars. And how they ran loan-sharking operations that preyed on Javits employes.
The Javits Center is under fire from every direction. Gov. Pataki has demanded that the board of directors step down, the state Senate tomorrow will begin hearings on corruption, and the center's unions are being probed by federal and local authorities.
Mullan's undercover exploits are expected to result in up to 40 indictments by the Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's office.
Now 38, Mullan was a veteran of mob undercover operations when he began his mission in November 1991.
His original target was the New Westies, the remnants of a murderous gang believed to have been crippled by convictions of virtually all its leaders in the 1980s.
Calling himself "J.C." and posing as a drug-using hustler, Mullan used his Queens-Irish accent, boyish looks and knowledge of underworld scams to charm the crooks who fell into his path.
"I walked into a bar in Hell's Kitchen looking to buy grass. I scored a nickel bag off a little guy, he introduced me to someone else, and it kept going," Mullan said.
"The big break came when I met James McCann Jr.," he said. McCann, along with his father, James Sr., had risen to the top of the New Westies, according to Mullan, and ran loansharking out of another West Side bar.
When Mullan expressed an interest in buying guns, the McCanns helped him find sellers. Among them was Jimmy McElroy Jr., the son of a former Westies enforcer serving 60 years for racketeering, murder and kidnaping.
"Jimmy was a main source for guns," Mullan said."I bought tons of guns. Nine millimeters, Uzis .38s."
Starting in 1993, McCann Sr. asked Mullan to serve as his driver a coveted mob position.
It was then that McCann first told Mullan about the Javits Center scams that union officials tied to the Westies and the Genovese crime family routinely salted payrolls of center exhibitors with phantom workers.
Membership in the Expos union is so prized that mobsters put a price on it. Although the cost can range up to $22,000 per union "book," Mullan was allowed to buy one for a bargain $13,000.
"James McCann Sr. brought me to the Javits Center and introduced me to [Expos shop steward Steven] (Beansie) Dellacava," Mullan said. "He said, 'Put this guy to work.' "
"Everybody at Javits thought I was a big shot because I was chauffeuring McCann around," Mullan said.
Mullan also got special treatment on the job because of his association with the hoods who ran the daily shape when workers are given assignments according to seniority. Mullan was allowed to leap over others with far more seniority.
Besides the featherbedding, he said, Dellacava and union official Paul Coscia took bonuses from exhibition companies and a cut from Christmas and vacation checks.
Mullan said the two union officials regularly placed up to half-dozen no-show names on the payroll of small jobs, and up to 20 for big exhibitions such as auto or boat shows.
"It was hundreds of thousands of dollars. Paulie [Coscia] was good for about $150,000 a year, Beansie got double that," Mullan said. But the biggest portion of every deal was raked off for the mob bosses in the Westies and the Genovese crime family.
According to Mullan, Coscia served as the liaison to Genovese "street boss" Liborio (Barney) Bellomo. "Beansie was out on parole, so he couldn't risk being seen talking to anyone, so Paulie does the communicating," said Mullan.
Javits also offered ripe pickings for mob thieves.
"An Expo worker named Ned, a relative of McCann's, was in charge of security, said Mullan. "The exhibitors' merchandise is all supposed to be locked up, but the same guys had access to it."
Mullan said that when a well-connected worker was once caught stealing motorboat engines a boat show, he was kicked out of the center only to be sneaked back in under another worker's name.
Mullan encountered another scam when he injured his hand in a nonwork-related incident. McCann directed him to Coscia, who told him to see an Expo workers foreman named Frank on the loading dock.
"Frank set up a piece of lumber on the stairs and got some people around as witnesses. Everybody was laughing, including a Javits security guard," Mullan said.
He was then instructed to seek out a corrupt Brooklyn lawyer. "They told me about a bunch of cases they had done, all phonies," Mullan said.
A lawsuit seeking $1 million damages was filed. But the mobsters hoped for a $100,000 settlement, Mullan said. "They said the money would go one third to Beansie, one third to Paulie and one third to me," Mullan said.
Mullan later was forced to drop the suit because the DA's office didn't want him to perjure himself, he said. "They started getting suspicious of me then," the detective said.
Their suspicions were further aroused, Mullan said, when the DA's insisted he target a corrupt cop seeking to buy guns. Finally, Mullan said, he ran into friends while hanging with gangster pals. Inadvertently, the friends gave him up, Mullan said. He was pulled from the operation.
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James Mullan's high-wire act at the Javits Center ended in November, when, he said, the mob learned his real mission and his real name.
Pulled from the operation, Mullan said he was "left hanging out to dry."
"The mob is looking for me," he said. "They know where I was living. I'm in debt and I can't get help from the DA."
Yesterday, an emotionally wrought Mullan told the Daily News he was willing to risk his job to tell the truth.
Hours later, after learning that Mullan had gone public about an ongoing investigation, Police Commissioner William Bratton ordered him suspended pending a hearing. A prosecutor's spokesman denied the cop's life was unnecessarily jeopardized.
The son of legendary New York detective James Mullan Sr. a top expert on organized crime Mullan joined the force in 1980 and made detective in 1987. Cops and prosecutors this week described his undercover work as "spectacular."
But the Javits job wasn't the first time he felt let down.
In a 1988 mob drug and gambling probe, Mullan recorded a state commissioner purchasing drugs and reported it.
"I was told by my sergeant, 'Leave her off your reports,' " he said. The commissioner was later fired, but no charges were filed.
A year later, while, working against the Genovese mob, a speeding Cadillac struck Mullan. "A warning," he said.
He later learned that a member of his backup team, a rogue cop with ties to John Gotti, was leaking information.
In May 1990, worried he could be a threat to himself or others, Mullan gave his gun to a friend for safekeeping, and he was placed on restricted duty for a year.
Despite being unarmed, he laid the groundwork for the bust of two mob-tied gun runners.
In 1991, a bitter Mullan sued the city, charging he had been denied promotion and disclosing his fears he might use his gun on himself. Prosecutors still sent him undercover.
"I'm not sorry about doing this," Mullan said yesterday. "All I've done is give, give, give, and all they did was take, take, take.
"I always wanted to be just like my father," he said. "It's too bad they wouldn't let me."
BRASS KNUCKLES HIT JAVITS COP
By TOM ROBBINS
Friday, April 14th 1995, 2:35AM
An undercover cop who went public with the story of his three-year mission against the mob at the Jacob Javits Convention Center was hit with formal charges yesterday by department brass.
Detective James Mullan Jr. was charged with "wrongfully divulging confidential information" about the Javits investigation.
He was also charged with jeopardizing the inquiry by the Manhattan district attorney's office and forcing search warrants to be executed "sooner than anticipated."
Agents raided at least three Javits sites on March 12, the day before Mullan's story appeared in the Daily News.
The charges could result in Mullan's firing. He's been on the force 15 years.
Mullan, who was ordered suspended last month by Police Commissioner William Bratton, was told yesterday he was being reinstated and placed on restricted duty a normal procedure for cops facing charges.
But he said he was re-suspended in the afternoon without explanation. Police officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Mullan said he decided to break his silence because he had been left unprotected by the district attorney's office after mobsters learned his real name and mission. Spokesmen for District Attorney Robert Morgenthau have denied Mullan was in danger.
During the undercover mission, Mullan talked his way into the top ranks of gangsters operating on the West Side, including allegedly mob-connected union officials at the Javits Center.
Mullan said that targets of the probe threatened him after learning who he was.
"All I was asking for [from authorities] was moving expenses to relocate," he said yesterday. "The only reason I spoke out was because of fear for my life."
Mullan said that on several occasions during the probe department superiors brushed off information that his cover had been blown.
DOIN' HARD TIME GANGSTER STYLE
BY JERRY CAPECI
Sunday, September 29th 1996, 2:00AM
The Goodfellas are having a good time.
Carmine Persico, one-time boss of the Colombo family and one of the most feared mobsters in New York crime lore, appears to have adjusted well to the sun-dappled hills of central California, 50 miles north of Santa Barbara.
Persico, imprisoned for life in the Lompoc federal penitentiary, looks fit and tan and smiling in a series of photographs obtained exclusively by the Daily News.
At a time when the national trend in prisons is toward punishment and deprivation, these are startling images of Persico's lifestyle.
As in the days when he ruthlessly ruled one of the city's five organized crime families, he is surrounded by loyal wiseguys.
When he left Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois after two years, Persico formed an Italian Cultural Club at Lompoc.
The club like six others meets irregularly in the penitentiary's Group Activity Center, a room directly above the area where inmates visit with friends and relatives, according to all accounts.
And through Persico, who arrived at Lompoc in 1990 soon after it was converted from a minimum security prison that housed inmates like Ivan Boesky and H.R. Haldeman, the club has thrived and flourished.
The members, mostly Italian-Americans and mostly certified mobsters, have arranged "banquets" and birthday parties and gathered for group shots that they've used as Christmas cards.
"Prisoners are pretty resourceful," said one former Lompoc inmate. "For the parties we manage to get a nice spread out ... there's no alcohol but it's something, a little thing to keep from going crazy."
"It's not officially approved, but tolerated," said the former prisoner.
In several interviews, spokesmen for Lompoc stressed that the groups are not officially designated organizations by the institution and meet under strict supervision.
"The GAC is accessible to all inmates, they are not reserved for any particular group of inmates, and the meetings or gatherings are monitored pretty closely," said spokesman Renoard L. McFadden.
But it is within the club that Persico can break bread with killers and made men like Kevin Kelly of the Westies, Joseph (J.R.) Russo of Boston and Anthony Senter of Canarsie, Brooklyn.
Still, said McFadden, Lompoc is "not a country club. There's a perception out there that federal prisons are a country club, but they're not. They are clean and well maintained. The inmates work seven and a half hours every day.... They also have leisure time, they play ball ...They relax at night and on weekends."
Among the ways to relax at Lompoc: Jailhouse rock.
There's the 63-year-old Persico on drums, posing along with Russo, on guitar, and Senter and convicted heroin trafficker Mark Reiter on vocals on a bandstand.
The instruments belong to inmates who play on holidays, and the Mafia Four took advantage of a break to mug for the camera.
There are also venues for Persico's cowboy streak. In one photograph, he dons a woodsman's cap and rides a mechanical bull. Russo, consigliere from Boston, and Nicholas (Nicky Blades) Virgilio of Philly were there (not shown) at the ready.
The bull was a prop that a small traveling rodeo with a few bulls and horses brought along in 1993 when it put on a performance for the 1,600 inmates.
Persico will likely have many more years in which to enjoy himself. His projected release date is 2043.
Convicted in 1985 of racketeering, loansharking, and extortion he was sentenced to 39 years.
On top of that he received 100 years after a 1986 conviction in the historic Commission trial, which detailed a "club" of crime families.
The prosecutor in both cases: then Manhattan U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani.
A CLUB MADE OF BRUTAL KILLERS
1. Kevin Kelly, 41, a member of the Westies, the gang of IrishAmerican hoods based on the West Side on Manhattan, has been imprisoned since August 1988. He is serving 40 years for two murders, loansharking and the shooting of a union official for Gambino crime boss John Gotti. Kelly, whose sentencing judge recommended he never be released, is eligible for parole in 1998. His projected mandatory year of release is 2015. Kelly spent a few years at Lompoc and is now at a federal prison in Minersville, Pa.
2. Anthony Senter, 40, a Luchese mobster, has been in prison since 1989 when he was convicted of 11 mob murders, including many in which the victims were dismembered. Senter was on trial with Mafia boss Paul Castellano when the godfather was slain. He allegedly killed his own crew leader on orders from Castellano. Senter is serving life plus 20 years but is eligible for parole in 1999. His projected year of release is 2032. He is still at Lompoc.
3. Michael (Mickey Boy) Paradiso, 56, a Gambino mobster, has been jailed since November 1986 on heroin trafficking charges. While awaiting trial, Paradiso was tape-recorded admitting 10 killings. "This morning they showed me a piece of paper. There's 10 names there. I killed every one of them," said Paradiso, who was acquitted when his lawyer convinced a jury the admission was an empty boast. Currently at a federal penitentiary in Allenwood Pa., Paradiso is due out in 1998.
4. Nicholas (Nicky Blades) Virgilio, a Philadelphia mobster, died in a prison hospital last year at 67 while serving 40 years for murder and racketeering. Convicted in 1988 along with Philadelphia crime boss Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, Virgilio earned his mob nickname by stabbing his first murder victim to death in 1952. He was at Lompoc from 1990 until 1994, when he was transferred to the federal medical facility in Springfield, Mo.
5. Mark Reiter, 48, a Gotti pal, has been in prison since November 1987. Said by prosecutors to have ordered the executions of several suspected informers, Reiter was described by his sentencing judge as the link between the Gambino crime family and "significant black narcotics traffickers." He is serving two consecutive life terms plus 60 years and is ineligible for parole. He spent four years at Lompoc and is now at a federal prison in Atlanta.
Joseph (J.R.) Russo, 65, consigliere of the New England family, has been jailed since his arrest for racketeering in November 1989, a month after he officiated at a bugged Mafia induction ceremony. Sentenced to 16 years, he is due out in 2003. Russo was in Lompoc about two years. He is now at a federal medical center in Florida.
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10 UNION BIGS ARE CHARGED STOLE BENEFITS, DA SAYS
By TOM ROBBINS
Friday, June 21th 1996, 2:00AM
Top officials of an allegedly mob-linked union that once held sway at the Jacob Javits Convention Center were charged yesterday with steering union benefits to organized crime associates and other crimes.
Indictments of 10 suspects including the president and vice president of Exposition Employees Local 829 were announced by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and Gov. Pataki, who has made Javits Center reform a focus of his administration.
Union leaders John McNamee Sr. and Paul Coscia were accused of helping cronies steal health benefits and unemployment compensation, as well as run a loansharking ring.
Among the alleged crimes was a scheme that probers said enabled reputed Westies gang kingpin John Sullivan to take a union member's identity and health benefits.
Sullivan, an alleged Genovese crime family enforcer, billed for $50,000 in union-paid health benefits before he died of cancer in late 1994, officials said.
The scam made it tough for the real union member to reclaim his benefits.
The indictments also charged union trustee Ned Morgan and foreman Michael Falco with unemployment insurance fraud. Falco allegedly used a bogus identity to get $8,000 in benefits while working at the 1994 Javits boat show.
Officials said some of the schemes were uncovered after former Javits Center Inspector General Sebastian Pipitone barred workers from collecting paychecks unless they appeared in person with photo identification cards.
Pataki said new Javits Center President Robert Boyle and Inspector General Gerald McQueen have ended much of the mob's influence since the union was forced out of the center last year.
Morgenthau said yesterday's indictments did not include evidence gathered by undercover Detective James Mullan, who worked for two years among reputed mobsters at the center. Mullan last year accused police brass and prosecutors of failing to protect him after his undercover role. He was later suspended for speak ing out.
Morgenthau declined to say whether Mullan's evidence would be used in an ongoing grand jury probe of activities at the center.
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I'LL BE BACK, MOLE VOWS BRATTON SUSPENDS COP WHO TOLD STORY
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October 22 2008, 2:27 PM
I'LL BE BACK, MOLE VOWS BRATTON SUSPENDS COP WHO TOLD STORY
Thursday, March 16th 1995, 3:55AM
A hero undercover cop, suspended and threatened with criminal charges for telling the Daily News about his three-year mission against Javits Center mobsters, vowed yesterday to return and put the
bad guys away.
"I'm sure the boys at the Javits Center are laughing now," Detective James Mullan Jr. said. "But I want to tell them that after I take my punishment from the Police Department I will be back to indict every one of them. Then I'll resign, and hopefully someone else will want me to work for them."
Mullan, a decorated 15-year veteran of deep cover operations, went public with a stunning tale of mob-locked unions, featherbedding and scam lawsuits that are still the subject of a probe by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
In the midst of a drive to clean up the corruption-ridden center, Mullan told The News his story because, he said, his superiors "left me hanging out to dry" after his cover was blown in the investigation.
Police Commissioner William Bratton responded swiftly to Mullan's breach of protocol, first suspending a cop long viewed as one of the
NYPD's most daring and effective operatives and then promising to pursue criminal charges against him.
"Detective Mullan had an obligation to maintain confidentiality about the investigation he engaged in," Bratton said at City Hall. "I
have no problem suspending him, and if I find he's in criminal violation, I'll work with the district attorney to also proceed after him criminally."
Mayor Giuliani said he supported Bratton's decision.
"I wish Bratton would meet with me and hear my side," Mullan said from an out-of-town hideaway. "I've been almost killed three times on
the job and no one has been more loyal to the force than me."
Mullan's lawyer, former prosecutor Jeffrey Schlanger, said he would seek a medical disability pension for Mullan. "There is a tremendous psychological effect for deep undercover work, and it is even more stressful when you are not getting the support of your immediate superiors," he said.
But the story of Mullan's mission, which was blown last year when mobsters learned his true identity and threatened to get him, got support from his fellow cops in the street and the people they are sworn to protect.
"He was out there with his life on the line every day," said one cop who said he couldn't give his name. "He deserves help, not punishment."
"It's a shame they're not supporting this guy. He's got the Irish gang, the Italian gang chasing him already," said James Durkin, a retired airlines official who was among dozens of callers to The News.
During Mullan's perilous high-wire operation against gangsters at Javits, he gathered evidence of numerous crimes, including the sale of union memberships, phantom jobs, phony lawsuits, loansharking and gunrunning.
Posing as "J.C." a drug-using hustler Mullan, 38, talked his way into a job as a trusted driver and confidant of a gangster with ties to the Westies, the notorious West Side gang.
Mullan said that even after the mob learned his real identity and residence, his superiors refused to help him relocate. He said a West Side loanshark and gunrunner sought him out and asked him "to take a ride" with him.
It wasn't the first time, Mullan said, he had been let down by his superiors. "When I was working undercover in the Brooklyn South narcotics unit in the '80s, I was doing a major drug buy $250,000 for 5 kilos of cocaine. When I gave the subject the cash, he found a receipt stating 'Police Dept. Narcotics' with the subject's name on it," he said.
"Luckily I was able to think quickly. I told him 'This is in case anyone asks about the money,' " he said.
9 in Former Javits Center Union Held in Fraud
By ADAM NOSSITER
Published: June 21, 1996
Nine members of a union that used to represent workers at the corruption-plagued Jacob K. Javits Convention Center were charged yesterday with illegally obtaining union health benefits, unemployment compensation and Social Security benefits, as well as with loan sharking.
The charges against members of the Exhibition Employees Union Local 829, including the local president and vice president, were the first connected to the Javits Center since Gov. George E. Pataki announced a major reorganization at the center last summer. The union no longer represents workers there, and the crimes the men are accused of occurred before the reorganization.
The Governor's action last year was prompted by longstanding allegations that the center and its unions were rife with corruption and influenced by organized crime. Exhibitors at the huge glass structure on the West Side of Manhattan regularly complained of featherbedding, inefficient workers and exorbitant costs for such simple activities as plugging in extension cords.
The charges announced yesterday by District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau are not directly related to those types of complaints. Indeed, in at least one of them, the loan-sharking charge, the principal victims were union members themselves. Nonetheless, officials depicted the activity as part of a general climate of corruption at the center.
"What we saw at the Javits Center prior to the new administration was an atmosphere of lawlessness on the floor," said Dan Castleman, Mr. Morgenthau's chief of investigations. "It was exactly this type of conduct: loan-sharking and gambling, no-show jobs, manufacturing of false identities to obtain benefits, staged accidents that led to workmen's compensation claims and lawsuits."
The local president, John V. McNamee Sr., and vice president, Paul Coscia, were charged in a scheme to obtain health benefits for a man whom prosecutors said was an associate of the Genovese crime family but not a union member. The two men, along with two rank-and-file members, James McCann Sr. and Thomas Donovan, were accused of submitting false claims totaling almost $50,000 to the health insurance providers, Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Aetna Life and Casualty. Prosecutors said almost $30,000 had been paid.
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Three Manhattan teen-agers were being held for arraignment yesterday on a charge of second-degree murder in the Oct. 14 stabbing of a homeless man who lived in a West Side park, the police said. A fourth youth is still being sought in connection with the incident, the police said.
On Thursday the police arrested Bruce Sachs, 18 years old, of 520 West 56th Street; Kevin Bentley, 14, of 738 10th Avenue, and Kenneth Lynch, 15, of 322 West 57th Street.
The police assert that the three youths, along with the fourth, who was not identified, stabbed Juan Castro, 32, to death with steak knives during an argument at 6:30 P.M. Tuesday in DeWitt Clinton Park, 52d Street between 11th and 12th Avenues. Mr. Castro had lived in the park for several months.
Police Capt. Charles A. Luisi said that at about 4 P.M. Tuesday, Mr. Bentley got into an argument over $15 with one of the five or six homeless men who live in the park. Captain Luisi said that Mr. Bentley then left the park, got his three friends, and returned to confront the homeless man. Mr. Castro interceded in the dispute and was then attacked by the four youths, Captain Luisi said.
THE LORD'S OF HELL'S KITCHEN
By JAMES TRAUB; JAMES TRAUB IS A WRITER LIVING IN NEW YORK.
Published: April 5, 1987
LEAD: ON THE AFTERNOON OF MARCH 26, Robert Colangelo, chief of detectives of the New York City Police Department, was in his office, posing for a celebratory photograph with a detachment of his men. ''Let's put up a sign,'' shouted a jubilant Colangelo. '' 'Westies - R.I.P.' Make it as big as you can!''
ON THE AFTERNOON OF MARCH 26, Robert Colangelo, chief of detectives of the New York City Police Department, was in his office, posing for a celebratory photograph with a detachment of his men. ''Let's put up a sign,'' shouted a jubilant Colangelo. '' 'Westies - R.I.P.' Make it as big as you can!''
Colangelo had just come from a crowded press conference at which Rudolph W. Giuliani, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney, had announced the indictment of 10 members of the Westies, a gang long known to law enforcement officials, if not to the public, as one of the most savage organizations in the long history of New York gangs. The group stands accused of a criminal enterprise involving eight murders and dozens of other cases of attempted murder, kidnapping, loan-sharking, extortion, gambling and drug dealing.
The Westies began to unravel exactly one year ago, when Francis T. (Mickey) Featherstone decided to sing. Federal and state prosecutors had already been investigating the gang - also known to the police as the Irish Mafia - when Featherstone, the Westies' fearsome enforcer, was convicted of the 1985 gangland-style execution of Michael Holly, a construction worker.
Mickey Featherstone, a short, slight 38-year-old with a blond mop and an almost-adolescent expression, had been charged with at least three other murders during the previous 17 years, but he was innocent of this one.
In the spring of 1986, suddenly facing 25 years in prison, he approached the District Attorney's office with an astounding offer: not only would he lead the prosecutors to Michael Holly's real killers, but he would expose the criminal activities of a gang that they had failed again and again to put behind bars.
THERE IS SOMETHING ALMOST QUAINT IN the image of Irish organized crime, something that calls to mind old movies with Jimmy Cagney lording over a troop of saucy wharf rats. That mythic era of Irish street glory appeared to end with the opening of Manhattan's dark, secretive slums to the forces of development and homogenization. But if the Westies seem like ghosts, they are harrowingly real.
New York law enforcement officials hold the Westies responsible for more than 30 murders during the last 15 years. ''This is the most violent gang we've seen,'' says Michael Cherkasky, the head of the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney's office.
Because the gang, until recently, has largely terrorized the insular world of Manhattan's West Side docks, living off extortion from bookmakers and loan sharks, the Westies never gained the notoriety of the Mafia. But in recent years they have attracted increasing scrutiny from law enforcement officials. Over the last decade, the Westies cemented an alliance with the far more sophisticated, far more powerful Gambino family of the Mafia. During that time, officials charge, gang members performed executions at the behest of the Gambinos, and shared in profits from the mob's traditional control over New York's docks.
Suddenly, however, the Westies appear to be collapsing under the weight of a series of fratricides and the bitterness of Mickey Featherstone. Working with information provided by Featherstone, the District Attorney's office has indicted members of the gang on charges of killing Holly. The gang's leader and its principal members were charged with murder or attempted murder.
The Federal indictments, coming on the heels of the state's charges, marshalled a staggering variety of criminal acts under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act - the same law used so successfully earlier this year in the so-called Mafia Commission case. Between the Federal and state charges, law enforcement officials hope to make the Westies the latest casualty of their war on organized crime.
Already, detectives triumphantly report, the gang has virtually ceased to exist on the streets of the West Side.
''Law enforcement,'' says Joseph Coffey, a former police detective who is now the principal investigator with New York State's Organized Crime Task Force, ''has pretty much taken the heart out of the Westies.''
THERE IS NO HELL'S Kitchen anymore; the area bounded by 42d and 59th Streets, Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River now goes by the genteel name of Clinton. The Irish bars are rapidly being replaced by French bistros; the tenements are going co-op.
Beneath the gentrified surface, however, lie generations of criminal violence. By the early part of the century, when the el spread soot along the rat-infested tenements of Ninth Avenue and the New York Central rattled up and down the median of 11th, Irish gangs were firmly entrenched in Hell's Kitchen.
In those dim days, the neighborhood was in the grip of the Gophers, a misbegotten army of 500 toughs who hid out in basements and emerged to raid freight cars and crack the skulls of an occasional foolhardy policeman and rival gang members. They were broken up by the authorities in 1910.
West Side crime regrouped during Prohibition when, it was said, there were more speakeasies than children on many blocks of the neighborhood. By World War II, when the crime of choice was the theft of weapons from battleships moored on the West Side, the gangsters of Hell's Kitchen were known collectively as the Arsenal Gang.
The Irish gangs never had the formal structure or initiation rites of the Mafia. ''The Italians had rules because they wanted to set up a major business,'' explains Ronald Goldstock, director of the Organized Crime Task Force. ''The Irish never got to that level of organization or sophistication.'' Each generation's leader was the bravest or craftiest member of the gang; a member was simply a young man from the neighborhood who chose to pursue a life of crime.
The gangsters, as neighborhood veterans recall, were a Hell's Kitchen cultural institution: they protected the neighborhood and recognized unspoken rules. They were extortionists and bookies, but they were not, in general, hired killers.
By the mid-1970's, the stable Hell's Kitchen in which the gangs had flourished had ceased to exist. Many of the Irish families had fled to Long Island or New Jersey; Hell's Kitchen was now a polyglot wilderness, a slum. A number of the older gang members had left the fold -moved away or taken legitimate jobs. Those who remained were open to challenge from a younger generation, which, perhaps reflecting the decay of the neighborhood, were an exceptionally unstable and violent group.
FEW MEN COULD have been more vicious and less self-controlled than Mickey Featherstone. Born into a working-class family on West 43d Street immediately after World War II, he looks, oddly enough, like a cherub. ''If you saw this guy, you'd swear that butter wouldn't melt in his mouth,'' says an acquaintance of his. ''But you'd hear the most horrible stories.''
In 1971, for example, a man named Linwood Willis made the mistake of saying to the baby-faced Featherstone, ''You think you're a tough guy.'' The two stepped outside the Leprechaun Bar on 10th Avenue. Featherstone drew a gun and killed Willis. Hours later, the police found him wandering in a stupor, clutching his gun. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.
On the street, Featherstone was known as a ''jungle killer.'' He was a Vietnam veteran with a haunted mien. At age 17, he had lied his way into the Green Berets and was sent off to war. ''It's a very emotional thing for him,'' says Jeffrey Schlanger, an assistant district attorney, who has spent hours interrogating Featherstone since last April. Schlanger says he is not sure Featherstone ever went into battle, although ''he talks about seeing people killed.''
Featherstone left the Army with a medical discharge in 1967, suffering from hallucinations and disorientation. For the next eight years he was in and out of mental hospitals. In between stays, he killed people.
''He'd do wild things,'' says Joe Coffey, a boyhood acquaintance of many of the Westies. ''Like he'd walk into a gin mill on the West Side and spray the place with machine-gun fire.'' Mickey Featherstone was a weapon waiting to be grasped by someone shrewder than himself.
That man turned out to be James Coonan, now 40. Coonan, who was blond, chubby and, like Featherstone, as innocent-looking as a choirboy, was known and feared on the West Side as a murderer and kidnapper, as well as the bodyguard and apprentice of Charles (Ruby) Stein, a powerful loan shark. Coonan wanted to set himself up as the lord of West Side crime. Several neighborhood thugs had already begun to gather around him. Mickey Featherstone, Coonan believed, was just the sort of strong-armed lieutenant who could help him muscle his way to the top.
BY THE MID-1970'S, CONTROL over Hell's Kitchen crime had passed to the mythically named Michael (Mickey) Spillane. A bookmaker, loan shark and murderer, Spillane was one of the last of the old-fashioned gangsters, handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving and paying visits to the elderly.
In 1976, Coonan and his group began killing their way toward Spillane. Three of the gang leader's lieutenants were murdered. On the evening of May 13, 1977, he was summoned to speak with someone in a dark sedan parked outside his home in Woodside, Queens. Stepping out to the street, he was stitched by a string of bullets. The police arrested Featherstone for Spillane's murder. He was acquitted.
At about the same time Spillane was killed, Ruby Stein disappeared. Several weeks later, his torso floated to the surface of Jamaica Bay. Law enforcement officials now say that both the Spillane and Stein murders are the first signs of collaboration between the Westies - as the police came to call Coonan's gang - and the Gambino family.
Near the time of the killings, Paul (Big Paul) Castellano, head of the Gambino faction, let it be known that he wanted to meet with Featherstone and Coonan. A session was set for Tommaso's, a restaurant favored by mobsters in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.
Castellano offered the two a deal they couldn't refuse. The Gambinos ''wanted to have some say in who was killed and who was not killed'' on the West Side, ''and they were willing to pay for this,'' says Jeffrey Schlanger.
The deal they allegedly struck was that the gang would become an appendage of the Gambino family, carrying out approved killings and kicking back a percentage of earnings from their bookmaking and loan sharking. In return, the Westies would enjoy Castellano's protection and some sharing in West Side mob activity. The Westies became, as Schlanger puts it, the Gambino family's ''Coonan crew.''
Every Wednesday, according to Gambino informers, Coonan's group met with Roy DeMeo, a Gambino lieutenant, to parcel out profits from the week. Castellano essentially handed over control of several low-level organized-crime figures to the wild young Irishmen.
For example, Castellano allegedly ''gave'' the Westies Vincent Leone, a loan shark and bookmaker and the secretary-treasurer of Local 1909 of the International Longshoremen's Association, a union with longstanding links to organized crime. Leone's local controlled employment at the U.S.S. Intrepid, an aircraft carrier converted into a museum and moored at West 46th Street. Profits from no-show jobs and skimmings from ticket revenue were allegedly kicked backed to Coonan.
FOR THE MOST PART, the Westies bore little resemblance to their new partners. Unlike the Mafia, they have never had the sophistication or manpower to run legitimate businesses. The core of the gang rarely numbered more than a dozen men. Most gang members and associates hold union cards, either from one of the construction trades unions, or one of the theatrical unions, especially the stagehands or the theatrical truckers, members of Teamsters Local 817. (Thomas O'Donnell, head of the local, says there is no systematic involvement by the gang in 817's affairs, adding that, to his knowledge, only two Westies are members.) The Westies served as a hit squad for the Gambino family. Several of the dozens of murders they allegedly committed were planned executions. As recently as last May, a Westie member, Kevin Kelly, was sent to kill a carpenters union official who had heavily damaged a restaurant frequented by Gambino associates. Kelly was indicted last August for the botched murder attempt.
But at the same time the Westies were cementing their relationship with the Gambinos and tightening their control over the West Side, they were becoming more and more chaotic, brutal and self-destructive. In 1975, Patrick (Paddy) Dugan, a gang member, killed his best friend, Dennis Curley, after a fistfight. Coonan and Edward Cuminsky, a non-Irish member of the gang, killed Dugan out of revenge. Cuminsky, according to police officials, then paraded through the neighborhood holding Dugan's severed head aloft. (While in prison, Cuminsky had learned to be a butcher, a skill he later practiced on human corpses.) A year later, Cuminsky was dead -hit in the back by a volley of bullets while sitting in his favorite bar.
The Westies' savagery permitted them to murder with virtual impunity - no one would testify against them. In 1978, Coonan and Featherstone were accused of killing Harold Whitehead - for calling a friend of theirs ''a fag'' - in the middle of a crowded bar. One witness committed suicide just prior to testifying before a grand jury in the Whitehead case, and another went completely mute on the witness stand.
THE PROSECUTORS' inability to make murder indictments against the Westies stick was a source of tremendous frustration for them. In 1979, Featherstone was charged with the Spillane murder, and then acquitted. Then there was the unsuccessful prosecution for the Whitehead murder. In the bitterest loss of all, Jimmy McElroy, who had publicly boasted about murdering his own best friend, Billy Walker, was found not guilty.
But the United States Attorney succeeded where the District Attorney's office had failed. Featherstone and Coonan had tipped two girls in a massage parlor with counterfeit $100 bills. One of the girls had seen ''Mickey'' tattooed on Featherstone's arm, and the fake money was traced to him. It was also determined that the two men had been together in Coonan's car, which had been impounded as a result of a traffic violation. In the trunk of the car the police found a gun with a silencer, and a bulletproof vest. In 1979, Coonan pleaded guilty to a gun charge, and Featherstone to counterfeiting. Both went to prison.
Coonan continued to run the Westies from his jail cell. According to an indictment handed up last December (based on information provided by Featherstone), Coonan ordered three other Westies to kill Vincent Leone, the gang's Gambino associate; Coonan felt Leone had cheated him out of $30,000 in bookmaking profits. On Feb. 11, 1984, two Westies drove Leone to New Jersey, pulled over to offer him a hit of cocaine, and shot him in the head. Investigators assume the killing had Gambino approval.
When he was paroled, in September 1984, Coonan apparently realized that the Westies' days as a territorial gang were numbered. Coonan, Featherstone and other gang members had already moved to northern New Jersey. The old life was over.
''Gentrification may have more to do with the demise of the Westies than anything law enforcement can do, because it cuts off the base of supply of manpower,'' observes Michael Cherkasky, the head of the District Attorney's Rackets Bureau. ''Without these poor, tough boys from the gutter, with that anger and desire, you don't have these kinds of violent people.''
Taking a page from the book of Mafia tactics, Coonan attempted to expand into legitimate businesses. Prosecutors say that he laundered his sizable income by investing in a construction company called Marine Contractors, in Tarrytown, N.Y., a company that is now the object of a joint Federal-state-city investigation into the Westies. (Repeated calls to company officers were not returned.) Robert Morgenthau says that his office is also investigating Westie links to a real estate concern with holdings in New York and New Jersey. Morgenthau declines to identify the concern.
PERHAPS NOTHING would have stopped the Westies had Michael Holly not been murdered. It was yet another Westie revenge killing. The gang held Holly responsible for the 1977 shooting death of one of its members, John Bokun. Fearing for his life, Holly left Manhattan for two years, but returned and found a job as an ironworker at the site of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. On April 25, 1985, as Holly was walking down 35th Street near 11th Avenue, a man stepped out of a brown station wagon, screwed a silencer onto a gun and fired five shots at him.
Witnesses described the killer as short and slight, with light-colored hair. The car was quickly traced to Erie Transfer, the theatrical trucking company where Featherstone, who was making something of an effort to live a normal life, occasionally worked. When the police arrived at Erie several hours later, they found the car, its engine still warm. As they were interviewing employees, Mickey Featherstone sauntered right into their midst - short, slight and light-haired. The evidence seemed overwhelming, and the next day Featherstone was booked.
For once there were witnesses. The driver of a dry-cleaning van described the sequence of events, and identified Featherstone as the killer. In March 1986, Featherstone was found guilty, and faced a sentence of 25 years to life.
He was shocked. His lawyers, Lawrence Hochheiser and his partner Kenneth Aronson, had always brought home either a verdict of not guilty or a comparatively short sentence, even when Featherstone had committed a crime. This time, he was innocent. What's more, he knew the guilty party: the night before the murder, he was told by Kevin Kelly, a gang member, that Holly was going to be killed. So Featherstone fully expected to get off. ''He had this naive belief that the system really works, in a sense,'' says Hochheiser.
Featherstone concluded that he had been framed by the gang and betrayed by his lawyers. He learned that John Bokun's brother Billy had confessed the crime to the attorney, Aronson, who represented both Bokun and Featherstone. Yet Bokun was never called to the stand. Hochheiser and Aronson contend that the attorney-client privilege prevented them from putting Bokun on the stand.
A week after his conviction, Featherstone called the prosecutors to claim that he had been framed, and he fingered Bokun. With his slight build and a light-colored wig supplied to him by Kevin Kelly, a gang member, Bokun could easily have been mistaken for Featherstone. Once prosecutors conceded that Featherstone might be telling the truth about his innocence, his wife, Sissy, in cooperation with the District Attorney's office, devised a plan to exonerate him.
Armed with a concealed tape recorder, Sissy Featherstone drew Bokun and others into conversations, sometimes when they came with regular payments for the family - the traditional organized-crime inducement to loyalty.
On one tape, Bokun can be heard enthusiastically re-enacting the hit: ''Boom! I just shot him. One-two-three-four-five. Back in the car. Ten seconds! No more!''
Mrs. Featherstone also got Bokun to state his belief that Kevin Kelly had provided him with the wig in order to frame Mickey, presumably to clear the field of a powerful rival - one of the last moves, perhaps, in the Westies' never-ending internal warfare.
Last September, in an extraordinary event, Jeffrey Schlanger asked Justice Alvin Schlesinger of the New York State Supreme Court to overturn the conviction that Schlanger had been so gleeful about winning; Judge Schlesinger agreed.
FROM THE POINT OF view of law enforcement agencies, everything changed the moment Mickey Featherstone decided to talk. New York Police detectives had been gathering evidence against the Westies since 1983, and had arrested 14 members on drug charges the following year. But Featherstone provided fresh leads, and helped to tie many investigative threads together. The District Attorney's Rackets Bureau, whose performance in recent years had been disappointing, had just been reorganized under a new chief. The Westies became one of the re-formed bureau's first big cases.
The gang, says Michael Cherkasky, was now ''not just a bunch of thugs killing each other, but an organized group that was self-perpetuating, that had much more impact than we thought; and it was a group that we could break up.'' A Westies task force was organized, bringing together Federal and state prosecutors, as well as New York Police detectives and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Working with information provided by Featherstone, another gang member, Anton Lucich, and others, the task force began to gather the physical evidence needed to make solid charges against members of the gang. Featherstone, for example, described to prosecutors the 1978 murder of a loan shark customer, Ricky Tassiello, in Lucich's 10th Avenue apartment. Investigators discovered bullets embedded in the apartment's walls and found dried blood that had seeped between the floor boards.
By December, the Manhattan District Attorney had enough information to obtain indictments against six Westies and their confederates, including the gang's leader, Jimmy Coonan, who was arrested for the 1975 murder of Paddy Dugan. And last month, the District Attorney obtained indictments against four other gang members and associates. Those few Westies, including Kevin Kelly, who are not in jail, are fugitives from justice. Their contacts on the West Side are said to have vanished.
With the March 26 Federal indictment, the Westies seem poised on the brink of extinction - a supremely satisfying success story for law enforcement officials. But Cherkasky, the head of the Rackets Bureau, for one, is not ready to congratulate himself. In December, he notes, a group of teen-agers, several of them blood relatives of Westie members, were arrested for murdering a homeless man - he was stabbed 19 times - in a Hell's Kitchen park.
Cherkasky worries that the forces that created the Westies have not yet played themselves out; a new generation may take over from the old. West Side Irish crime, he says, ''has been going for the last 60 or 70 years. Hopefully, we'll send a message by putting people in jail for long stretches of time. But we're not naive about it.''
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