Melee at the Manor
A son of the Clair auto empire dies after a fistfight in his new mansion. Was it murder? Or a freak accident? The people of Dover didn’t take long to reach their verdict.
In Dover, everyone drinks in the basement of the American Legion, a wood-paneled space just off the town square where the day’s events—who died, who’s getting married, who’s pregnant—are posted above the Budweiser sign on the wall behind the bar. That the nonveteran (and the veteran for that matter) spend so much time at the Legion is a curiosity to every outsider and not a few locals, but there is an explanation. Despite a per capita income second only to Weston’s, Dover has no bar, in large part because there’s pretty much no people, just 6,000 to hear the locals tell it, and even that a slight exaggeration of the Census Bureau’s figures. It’s basically either the Legion or the deli shop on Center Street. And the Legion has booze.
The Legion also has Craig Rafter. It is dusk in mid-June, and he is holding forth at a table near the bar, a garrulous man in his late fifties with a flat-top haircut and glasses that do not hide the warmth in his eyes any more than his polo shirt hides his gut. Rafter is the co-owner of David Craig Properties in Dover and also co-owns the Sherborn Inn in Sherborn, one town over. He grew up here—”Mr. Dover,” some call him—and loves to talk about Dover’s schools, the friendliness of the people, and the diversity (such as it is in a town 95 percent white) of the Legion’s regulars: everyone from Jay the Pig Farmer to Jack the Bartender, who works at Merrill Lynch by day and tonight brings over drinks and microwave popcorn.
In 2007 Rafter built a home for Mark Clair a couple of miles east of here, on a 7-acre spread off Dedham Street. The 6,500-square-foot faux Colonial, unsheltered by the groves of trees that the neighbors prefer, has imposing Greek columns and sits at the end of a long driveway, the Charles River behind it and a moat out front. It was Clair’s dream house. “Building for Mark was an experience,” Rafter says. “Probably one of my toughest customers. We were friends, but he had a vision of how he wanted it.”
Clair was a principal in the Clair Auto Group, one of the largest auto dealers in New England. One year ago this month, the night before he and his family were to have a holiday party in their new home, he got into a fight in his basement with an Irish-born contractor whom many in town suspected of having ties to the Irish Republican Army. Clair died the next morning. What followed was one of the strangest homicide investigations in Massachusetts history. Whether it produced a just outcome is a question that has ended friendships, but if you believe the Irish contractor, one thing it certainly did was show Dover for what it really is.
Mark Clair was the fourth of five children and the son of Ernie Clair, a World War II hero who took a car dealership in West Roxbury and made out of it an empire. The Clair Auto Group would eventually total 19 dealerships spread throughout New England. They sold everything: Jeep, Ford, Acura, Mercedes, Porsche. The Clairs—Ernie and wife Theresa, oldest son Jimmy, Mary, Joe, Mark, and Michael—lived in Weston, and the three older boys all loved cars, spending their free time as kids in the ’60s at the West Roxbury lot.
Mark was the captain of the football team at Weston High and, briefly, during his senior year in 1974, class president. Back then, the drinking age was 18, and Mark thought he could raise a lot of money for his class if, in exchange for donations, he gave away beer. Weston High administrators did not like this idea, and Mark was impeached. But such were the wholesome hijinks of a seemingly idyllic life.
And yet: “Mark didn’t have that great of a home life,” says Jane Clair, Mark’s widow. Ernie was a drinker. He wasn’t around much during Mark’s childhood, and when he was, he could be abusive. “Mark considered himself the black sheep of the family,” Jane says, “because he stood up to his dad.” On occasion “he’d get into fisticuffs with his father.” Only after decades had passed, and only after Ernie was on his deathbed, did the two make amends, she says. (Joe, the de facto family spokesman, declined to comment for this story.)
In 1979, at age 23, Mark met Jane Darveau. She was a secretary at a brokerage firm in Boston; he was selling used Buicks for his dad after dropping out of Curry College in Milton. He was witty, Jane remembers—a big guy, 6 feet tall, who lived equally large. They married six years later, in 1985.
In 1986, with Jane pregnant, Mark went to his father and asked if he could head up the Acura dealership. After Jonathan was born in December 1986, and Caroline two years later, Mark and Jane needed a bigger place. And so again, Mark turned to his father, who let the young family rent a condo he owned in Needham.
Mark Clair and his family moved to Dover in 1989, living in a home his brother Jimmy owned on Claybrook Road. Public records show that Mark bought the place outright three years later for $300,000. Unlike a lot of small towns at that time, Dover was not in decline. Many well-off small-business owners and Financial District higher-ups called it home. Then, as now, it didn’t have the cachet of Wellesley or Weston, but Dover didn’t have the gawkers, either. There is no easy route to the town: Though it’s only 15 miles southwest of Boston, it takes at least 40 minutes to get there, regardless of traffic, and this protection from major thoroughfares gives the town an other-worldliness: the white picket fences and verdant yards of an Eisenhower-era oasis. It was a place the Clairs, despite their generation’s push for modernity, loved.
Mark had a knack for selling cars. He was a willing negotiator, unlike his brothers, who took a harder line. After Ernie’s retirement, Joe became CEO. But Mark also climbed within the Clair Auto Group—eventually overseeing not only Acura but also the Saturn dealerships—and as he did he became known for his many appetites. He was a legend at the Legion, a big-timing big lug who weighed about 250 pounds and who would often tell the bartender to “sprinkle the infield,” meaning Mark was buying the next round for everyone, which always included Mark, too. He gave zealously to charity. He had box seats for the Patriots, the Sox, and the Bruins, and a reserved spot at Abe & Louie’s on Boylston Street to watch the marathon. His unironic motto was “Living the Dream,” and he passed out umbrellas that said as much to new customers.
In the spring of 2007, Prime Motor Group of Saco, Maine, approached the Clairs about buying them out. Joe and Mark debated the offer and initially refused. But then the deal “kept getting sweeter and sweeter,” Jane Clair says. It went through on November 26, 2007. While the terms were not disclosed, the hot rumor around Dover was that the company had gone for $200 million. Jane Clair doubts it was that high but admits she never heard the actual sale price; Mark just kept telling her, “It’s more money than we’ll ever need.” The following Friday, November 30, Mark headed to the Legion early to celebrate. The next day, he’d have that holiday party on Dedham Street, welcoming guests across the moat and into his new palace.
That night, while Mark was at the Legion, Jane Clair invited her friends Lulu Walter and Tammy Ricker over for drinks. She and Ricker had an uneasy relationship: The men in their lives hated each other. Mark Clair thought Ricker’s longtime boyfriend, Fergal Kenny, was a braggart and an agitator. He often heard Kenny complaining about the “idle rich” of Dover, even while Kenny, a builder and contractor from Northern Ireland, profited from them. The feud between the men went back 10 years, when Mark accused Kenny, a short, wiry man with high cheekbones and strong opinions, of failing to finish work Mark had hired him to do in his home. Some two years later, the Legion kicked out Kenny, then 42, for allegedly picking a fight with
a man in his sixties who, depending on the account, may or may not have had Lyme disease and may or may not have been crippled. What’s undisputed, patrons say, is that Kenny is the only person to have been barred from the Legion for life.
More-serious incidents followed. On June 30, 2005, Dover police responded to a call of domestic violence at Ricker and Kenny’s house. According to police reports, Ricker alleged Kenny had yelled at her, then grabbed her by the hair and thrown her to the ground. She also reported that Kenny had three unregistered guns in the house: two handguns and a shotgun. As word got around—in Dover, it always does—some people were convinced Kenny ran guns for the IRA. Ricker never pressed charges, and Kenny forfeited the guns to the authorities. The complaints were dismissed.
Jane Clair didn’t especially like Kenny. But Ricker had stayed with him, and the couple had two children, so Jane tried to be supportive. The families lived only a mile apart, and the women walked their dogs together. They belonged to the same book club. Jane had convinced Mark that Ricker, an artist, should help decorate their new home.
On the night of November 30, Ricker asked Jane whether Kenny could come over with her. Because Mark was expected to be at the Legion for some time, Jane said yes. But Mark got home early, around 9 p.m. At first, things were fine: Ricker and Jane were upstairs talking, according to Jane, while Kenny and Mark and Mark’s 21-year-old son, Jonathan, and his friend Philip Ham hung out in the basement, where Mark and Kenny discussed politics by the bar. But then the two men started in on immigration. Soon, police reports say, Kenny said, “Let’s settle this now.”
Kenny stands roughly 5 foot 8 and weighs 160 pounds. Mark, the much bigger man, scoffed at him and yelled, “Get the hell out of my house!” the Clairs say. More threats followed. As Kenny walked up the stairs, Mark said, “I can’t believe you hit your wife.” Kenny turned around and from the second stair jumped and drove Mark into the wall opposite the staircase, the Clairs say. Mark’s head slammed into a framed photo of the Boston skyline, shattering the glass.
On the floor, Mark used his back to pin Kenny against the wall, and with his elbow took shots at Kenny’s head as Kenny scratched at his face, the Clairs say. They wrestled; they punched; various attempts to break up the fight were unsuccessful. It went on for a good 10 minutes. Finally, Jonathan convinced his father to let Kenny loose. But Kenny, once free, bit Mark on the ankle, so Mark kicked Kenny square in the face, according to police reports. Blood poured from his mouth. When Kenny recovered, he rushed out of the Clairs’ house, leaving Ricker to walk home alone.
Once upstairs, Mark Clair collapsed twice. Jane called 9-1-1 and put him to bed. The police tried questioning Mark but he didn’t want to give a statement. The EMT came and Mark refused medical attention. He said he had his holiday party the next day and just wanted a good night’s sleep.
The next morning Jane tried shaking Mark awake. He was face down, blue streaks across his cheeks. When Tammy Ricker heard that Mark had been rushed to the hospital, she called Jane’s cell phone and asked what had happened. “I can’t talk right now,” Jane said. “I’ll call you later.” It was the last time the two would speak.
Efforts to resuscitate Mark in the ambulance and at Beth Israel Deaconess in Needham were unsuccessful. Mark Clair was pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m. on Saturday, December 1, though in all likelihood he had died in his sleep the night before. The cause of death was a heart attack.
Detective Scott Jennings of the Massachusetts State Police met Jane that morning at the hospital. He said he’d be handling the investigation. Jane was happy to hear that. She thought the Dover Police Department was, in her words, a bunch of “Barney Fifes.”
Kenny retained a lawyer, Howard Lewis of the Framingham firm Lewis Leeper. The state police “were going to investigate no matter what,” Lewis says. “This was a prominent figure. He was dead. How he got that way, ‘we got to figure out.'” But what was Jennings investigating? Yes, Mark Clair had been in a brutal fight the night before he died, but he was also a man who ate too much, drank too much, and on the night of the fight, of his own volition, refused medical attention.
On February 13, 2008, the autopsy report came back. It ruled Mark’s death a homicide. This was validation for the Clairs and, as one might imagine, endless fodder for the Legion regulars. Neither Detective Jennings nor the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office would comment for this story, but Howard Lewis says that in May the case was presented to a grand jury to consider an indictment.
Ken King, an associate professor at Suffolk Law School, says that, while rare, “the heart-attack scenario is not unprecedented.” Combing through state legal databases, King and Boston magazine were able to find seven cases in Massachusetts since 1976 in which a heart attack led to homicide or manslaughter charges. Of those, only one roughly mirrored the scenario surrounding Mark Clair’s demise, with the fatal heart attack coming hours or days after a fight. In that case, a robber beat a woman whose fatal heart attack two months later was ruled a homicide. He was convicted, but the Supreme Judicial Court ordered a new trial on appeal.
In Kenny’s case, following several days of testimony, the grand jury decided not to indict. Lewis believes he knows why. In a risky move, he offered Tammy Ricker to be grilled by the prosecution. What the grand jury heard from her was a quite different account of that night on Dedham Street.
Fergal Kenny and Tammy Ricker live less than a block from the town library in a house Kenny built, a beautiful wood-sided Colonial that from the street looks almost small but from the inside slowly reveals its secrets: room opening into room, a surprising 3,800 square feet in all, with a huge bay-windowed studio on the second floor for Ricker. “Yeah, it’s more a European design,” he says in his brogue. His eyes are blue and his face gaunt, and at 50 his hands are callused from years of work. Still, that work has seen its rewards: In the driveway sits an Acura SUV—that some in town say he purposely did not buy from Mark Clair—and a Jaguar.
Kenny has been a carpenter most of his life. He was one of seven children and by 15 had moved into his own apartment, making concrete blocks to support himself. A year or so later he became a carpenter’s apprentice. In the 1970s, London controlled Northern Ireland, the economy was in ruins, sectarian killings were rampant, bombings an everyday occurrence. “You could be arrested five times a day in Northern Ireland,” he says.
Kenny went fox hunting during the winters, a good source of income in those leaner months. One day while he was out on a shoot he was arrested by British troops. They didn’t like that he was traveling in his car with a pair of binoculars and a balaclava. “Small stuff like that happened all the time,” he says.
Despite the rumors, Kenny insists he was never a member of the IRA—”no, never.” The FBI seemed to think otherwise. When he moved to Boston in 1986, he received word from neighbors in Dorchester that an Agent Brendan Cleary was looking for him. “Fergal,” Cleary said, when they met in his office, “I’ve been informed by the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] that you and another guy are organizing shipments of guns and explosives to Northern Ireland.” Kenny told him it wasn’t true. Then Cleary mentioned a time in Northern Ireland when Kenny was arrested for having a balaclava and a pair of binoculars in his car. Kenny laughed. (Cleary is retired now, but through an FBI spokesman he said Kenny wasn’t involved
with the IRA. His investigation was a “shot in the dark” to see whether Kenny knew anyone or anything. Kenny did show Cleary a home video of him fox hunting, to prove he put his binoculars and balaclava to good use.)
Kenny worked carpentry jobs, and got his green card in 1992. Three years later he and another Irish immigrant bought a dilapidated bar just off South Street in Jamaica Plain. They gutted it, renovated it, and ultimately created a neighborhood institution in the James’s Gate, which they owned together until Kenny had a falling-out with his fellow principals and gave up his stake. It was on the bar job site that he met Ricker, a pretty brunette seven years his junior, then living in J.P.
They moved to Dover in 1997. Kenny didn’t plan on settling there; the real estate market was heating up and he hoped to flip the house. He didn’t like some of the people—”shallow-minded,” he says. The guys at the Legion just wanted to watch the Sox. Kenny went to a bar to socialize, talk politics. But these guys—well, one night shortly after Kenny moved to town, this older man in his sixties, who may have had some physical ailment, kept telling him to “speak English.” And the man had an Irish surname! So Kenny got up and told the whole bar what he thought: “that they were a bunch of rednecks in a small town.” Some of the Legion patrons followed him outside. What happened next was a “skirmish,” Kenny says, though he did throw a punch at a guy who told him to “go back to where you belong.”
Ricker and Kenny would have left Dover, except “plans went astray,” Kenny says. They had a son, then a daughter. Ricker made friends. The mortgage on their home was the same as what they’d pay for some two-bedrooms in Boston. And so they never left.
The Mark Clair that Kenny knew was childish, interrupting people at the parties Kenny and Ricker hosted, demanding to be the center of attention. Clair once yelled at Kenny for not buying his Acura from him. “I said to him, ‘Mark, that’s not the way your father built the company,'” Kenny says.
As Ricker and Kenny remember it, the evening at the Clairs’ was pleasant until Mark came home. Legion regulars say Mark would often have too much to drink and need to be driven home, and November 30, 2007, was another one of those nights. “He was very drunk,” Kenny says. Jane Clair, seeing the state he was in, directed Ricker and Kenny downstairs to shoot pool with her. Mark stayed upstairs and talked with their other guest that evening, Lulu Walter. Ricker and Kenny could hear Mark—it was impossible not to. He seemed to swear every other word. Walter got annoyed and went home, and Mark came down to play pool with the other three.
After a while, he got behind the bar, filled a glass of wine to the brim, and guzzled it. Kenny said, “Mark, you’re going to have a heart attack, you keep drinking like that.” Mark slammed the glass down and said, “Really?” Kenny and Mark moved on to talking about politics and immigration. Mark became more agitated. He said, “Ferg, I have a problem with you.” He said the problem was Kenny had hit his wife. Kenny told him to “let sleeping dogs lie. It’s the holidays, and you have a beautiful home.”
But it became obvious that Mark was not going to let it go. He had walked around the bar, getting closer and closer to Kenny. “Mark, you don’t have to be like this,” Kenny said. The situation was so tense that Ricker, who’d also been at the bar, fled upstairs. The next thing she heard was Mark yelling, “Jon, come over here.”
The diminutive Kenny at this point was inching his way up the stairs, afraid the Clair men might jump him. And that’s when Mark lunged at him. They fell into the wall behind them, shattering the framed photo of the Boston skyline. Kenny ended up on his side, pinned to the wall. He couldn’t move. Mark, all 250 pounds of him, had his feet against the bottom stair and was using it as leverage to push his back harder into Kenny’s rib cage. Kenny could feel his ribs shifting, about to pop. He recalls that Jonathan and his friend were taking shots at him. Jane and Ricker called out for them to stop.
Finally, the fight ended. Mark got up and as Kenny crawled away, Mark kicked him in the mouth, Kenny says. He saw bits of his teeth fly out.
Howard Lewis, Kenny’s attorney, hired a private investigator days later. He returned a file showing Mark Clair to be less than a model citizen. But Lewis believed he wouldn’t need character assaults to win in court. In fact, he says the reason Kenny wasn’t indicted had less to do with Mark Clair’s health, or how much he drank that night, or the medical attention he refused, than with a more elemental argument, which is why he wanted Tammy Ricker to take the stand: Mark Clair started a fight that night that he had easily won.
Clair’s wake lasted two days. Roughly 1,500 people showed on the first, 800 the next. Which is another way of saying: Fergal Kenny may be innocent in the eyes of the law, but not in the eyes of Dover. Jane Clair admits to seeing Kenny while she was in her car one day and gunning it as he was crossing the street in front of her. “The worst that could have happened was he breaks his leg,” she says. “Fergal is the scum of the earth. I wish he’d just leave.”
The sentiment is widespread. Three to four weeks after Mark’s death, Kenny went to the deli shop at the intersection of Springdale and Center. He says the guy working the counter, whom Kenny had known for years, refused to acknowledge him. Months later, when Kenny put a Barack Obama sign in his front yard, he says two men he thought were his friends told him, point-blank, “You’re a fuckin’ nigger lover.” Kenny says, “I heard one guy in town say a couple of guys were thinking about paying people to actually kill me.” As soon as the housing market rebounds, he’s gone, “to somewhere more in touch with reality.”
Two years ago, Ricker and Jane Clair’s book club read Peyton Place. It was the 50th anniversary of the novel, and none of them had read the book before. Ricker says they found similarities right away, though.