Breaking Legs for Whitey
On a late January afternoon in 1980, Whitey Bulger stepped from the shadows. I was working out in my second-floor apartment on Boston Street in South Boston, preparing for the Eastern United States Kickboxing Championships. I'd been into serious kickboxing for more than a year and was in prime shape. As always when I was working out, the door to my apartment was open so my buddies could walk in.
I was studying my form in a full-length mirror when I saw a reflection of four guys in the doorway. They gave me a look like they owned the place. “What the fuck are you doing here?” I yelled. Two of them walked right in. The other two stayed at the door. I started toward them, ready to separate their heads from their bodies. “Anyone ever teach you to knock, assholes?”
One of those assholes had icy, blue-gray eyes and receding, close-cropped silver hair, brushed straight back. He was maybe 40 or 50. With his barracuda jacket, jeans, and leather sneakers, he had the Boston docks gangster look. This guy's whole being was ice cold. I was 22 and one tough shit myself, but something made me hesitate. I knew the guy in front of me was someone you didn't mess with.
“My name is Jimmy Bulger,” he said. The name didn't register with me. “Most people call me Whitey.”
Whitey Bulger. Now that was a name I knew. Bulger pointed to the other man. “This is my friend Stevie Flemmi.” Stevie “the Rifleman” Flemmi. I knew that name, also. Whitey didn't introduce the other two.
Standing in my apartment was a stone-cold killer, the most feared and notorious gangster in Boston. Next to him was Stevie Flemmi, born and bred in Roxbury, not Southie, but still the most feared man in Boston's underworld after Bulger.
Whitey was an institution unto himself. Brilliant. Ruthless. Murderous. Lucifer personified. If the word on the street was to be believed Â— and what other word could I rely on? Â— Whitey Bulger could kill you and your dog, fuck your wife, burn down your house, and walk away clean. I realized this probably wasn't a visit to say hello.
When Whitey spoke again, his voice was so soft I had to lean closer just to hear him. I learned later that he kept his voice low to avoid being recorded by surveillance devices. The trouble, he explained, was $10,000 worth of Hummel figurines me and a buddy had stolen from some guy's house. What we hadn't known was that this guy was in the mob. Whitey wanted the Hummels returned. Unfortunately, they were long gone. We'd sold them.
“Whitey, we Â—”
“I prefer to be called Jimmy,” he said.
“Jimmy,” I continued, “we did take the Hummels. I don't know how much they were worth. I don't know where they are, and I don't think we can get them back. But I'll do whatever is necessary to make things right. I'm working at the Boston Rose Sub Shop. I can make payments every week or whatever to clear this thing up.”
Whitey thought for a second, then asked, “Who did you do the score with?”
I gave him the only answer I could, even though I knew I might be signing my death certificate. “Jimmy, I can't say who I did it with. I'm in this on my own.”
His eyes hardened. “What the fuck do you mean you can't tell me?” he said, his voice edged, though still barely audible. “This guy is going to kill you. You don't know the rules. No one shits in my backyard without getting my permission.”
“Jimmy, I can't give this guy up.” I was thinking that if this guy is going to kill me, then if I give up my buddy's name, he's going to get whacked, too. It sounded like an insane reason to die, but it was my code. I honored very little in the world, but the code of not ratting on my buddy was on the top of my list.
That appeared to strike a chord with Bulger. “Okay, I respect that. I respect you won't give up your buddy.” Then he leaned back and thought, looking at me all the while. After a few seconds, he said, “I'm going to cut you a favor. You're all set. No one is going to come after you.” A wave of relief swept over me.
Whitey extended his hand, which I gratefully shook. “Down the road,” he said, “I may need a favor, all right?”
“Jimmy, that won't be a problem.” Whitey looked at me for a couple of seconds, always that icy stare, before he turned toward the door. Flemmi and the two other guys stepped aside to let Whitey take the lead. They didn't take their eyes off me until their boss had passed them.
The South Boston I knew so well from the mid '70s through 1990 dripped with Irish pride, love for neighbor, resistance to outsiders, and a desire to run its own show. It was the perfect place for a guy like Whitey Bulger to build a massive criminal enterprise and earn a reputation as a gentleman bandit and legendary street warrior. It was also the perfect place for a politician like Whitey's brother Billy Bulger to build power. I believe that Billy Bulger was, and remains, one of Southie's best assets. I also believe he orchestrated corruption and helped run interference for his brother against law enforcement. Billy had to have known what his brother Whitey was up to.
For a young kid who couldn't imagine winning in life the legitimate way, Southie was its own world with its own rules. Why ever leave? There was always a hustle or deal to make, cheap rent, and a bar on every corner where you had friends to share the booze, the fun, the stories. And if you wanted to go legit, there was always a city councilor who could put you in touch with the right government job. A phone call and a promise of a campaign contribution and, a few Mondays later, you were at the parks and recreation department, housing department, or some other bureaucratic hole in the wall where you could feed at the public trough for as long as you wanted. All most of us needed was Southie, and nothing else.
After I started working for Whitey in 1985, no more than a few days would elapse between jobs; I'd be asked to take care of a situation, to collect some money, or to send someone a message. Most of the time, Kevin Weeks, one of Whitey's top dogs, would call to give me my assignment. When Whitey dealt with me directly, he didn't say much. Sometimes, he wouldn't talk at all. He'd just sit in his car and show me a piece of paper with a name and instructions on it.
Working for Whitey gave me a feeling of ultimate power. With my background as a fighter, selling drugs for Whitey made it inevitable that I would do other things for him as well. Whitey ruled through intimidation and fear. Anyone who assisted him in creating a climate of intimidation and fear became, as the Boston Globe once said of me, a “Bulger favorite.”
My job description was simple: From 1985 to 1990, I worked for Whitey as a street soldier, an enforcer, a leg-breaker, a drug-runner. I was the hired muscle who distributed drugs for my boss and broke the limbs of those who disrespected him. I was often sent on missions that made me feel I was pushing up against the icy shoulder of death.
Whitey was 30 years older than me. I wanted to believe that he could give me back some of what I had lost. My parents neglected the family, and all five of us kids were committed to the Department of Public Welfare on May 13, 1963, when I was four. My innocence died early. I'm not trying to place all the blame for what I became on the shoulders of the biological parents who never gave a shit about me. Thousands who grew up like me did not embrace lives of crime. They don't have blood on their hands. I am who I am. For better or worse, this is the man I became.
Whitey was evil incarnate, but he liked me enough to educate me in the ways of the South Boston streets that, despite my smarts, I hadn't yet learned. And I was a grateful student.
Drug dealing got messy sometimes. This one kid owed me about 3,000 bucks at one point. He was new to the drug trade when he started buying from me. It didn't take long before he was screwed up on drugs, and he ran into a cash problem. He didn't have the money to pay me and was so terrified that he bolted. If I really wanted to find him, I could've, but he was a friend of my brother Ronnie, so I didn't expend too much effort tracking him down.
A few years after that, I was at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire, and I saw the dealer with his family. Quite a hiding place, huh? When he saw me, he started backing away with this look of terror on his face. I'm convinced he would have left his wife and kids right there. But I waved to him and shouted, “Don't worry. I don't have any problem.”
Did he take advantage of the break I gave him? Nah, he came back to Southie and, to make matters worse, was suspected of ratting on the Southie boys. The penalty for treason was death.
One night me and two buddies kidnapped him from his apartment. We duct-taped his arms and legs, threw him into the trunk of a black Ford LTD, and headed out to the Blue Hills in Milton, where we'd put two bullets in the back of his head and bury him. It was the first time I'd had to kill anybody, but I wasn't thinking much about what that meant. It's business. Nothing personal.
We only had a couple turns to make before we were on 93 South, when we saw the blue lights of a cop car flashing. Turned out, our car had a broken taillight. The two cops looked in the car and recognized its occupants. One asked us if we minded if he looked in the trunk. We said, “Yeah, we kind of do.”
The trunk was popped, and the condemned man was discovered. Me and my cohorts were arrested on kidnapping charges. They dragged us all into court, but this dealer wouldn't testify against us. The cops had no choice but to release us. I never saw that drug dealer again.
It all fell apart on a hot August morning. I was outside my apartment on Gold Street in South Boston, heading to Connolly's Corner Café, a bar of which I was the manager of record, when I noticed an undercover car slowly driving by with two cops inside.
I said, “Hey there, are you guys looking for me?”
“Who are you?” a cop yelled back.
“Eddie MacKenzie,” I said. “And if you want me, here I am.”
A few days later, I was standing outside, stretching my legs in the prison yard at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut with four Southie buddies who were in the can with me. Things happen quickly sometimes. We'd been outside 10 minutes when I saw one of Danbury's most notorious guests, a “celebrity” inmate by the name of Raymond J. “Junior” Patriarca, the Providence-based godfather of the New England Mafia.
Patriarca made a motion with his head for us to walk over to him. We did as instructed. He was on the shortish side, five-six, with olive skin, a Roman nose, and a fat belly. There were no hellos, no pleasantries. Smiling, Patriarca asked, “You know why you're here, don't you?” Without waiting for our response, he dropped the bomb. “You're here because you got ratted out by your boy Whitey. We've known for years he was a canary.”
No one spoke. We didn't know what to say to Patriarca, a quintessential Mafia don, no rocket scientist but still a lot wiser to the ways of the street than us.
I didn't believe him right away. We'd all suspected that Whitey had been paying off the feds for years, but this? Suddenly, I felt a deep pain inside that was nothing like fear. Fear I'd learned to deal with years ago. Yeah, I was in jail and I might be going down for 10 years. But that didn't shake me up like this was beginning to do.
Had I been shanked by my boss?