Gods & Mobsters
Eight years ago, a former Whitey Bulger henchman joined a well-to-do Beacon Hill church, where he quickly ingratiated himself with a group of influential congregants. But as allegations about the ex-con piled up, some members began to wonder: Just how reformed was Eddie MacKenzie?
“Too often, I retreat to scams and doing ‘collections’ for people,” MacKenzie writes in his autobiography. “The money is good and easy, and the accompanying rush of adrenaline is probably close to what one gets in closing a legitimate business deal. But the money is tainted and easily thrown away. In any new situation, I look at my old side and my new side, and decide which to use. My old side will never be gone. Try as I might, I can never change who I was.”
NOT SURPRISINGLY, MacKenzie’s book unnerved some church members, who wondered if he had really changed since his days with Whitey. “There was a whole group that didn’t trust him,” says one congregant. Says another: “They just didn’t want him involved in the church.” Among that group was Robert Buchanan, a former church president and the father-in-law of the congregation’s reverend, Steve Ellis. Buchanan cautioned Ellis to be wary of the ex-con.
But MacKenzie had already gained the trust of Ellis, a verbose North Carolina–born pastor, and he endeared himself to other members of the church as well. He once gave a $1,500 watch to Ellis’s brother, Rex, as a token of affection. (Uncomfortable with such an expensive gift, Rex Ellis returned the timepiece to MacKenzie, who later gave it to another church member.)
Steve Ellis may have been particularly vulnerable to MacKenzie’s influence. In a lawsuit later filed by the Boston church’s national arm, it was alleged that Ellis was manic depressive and that MacKenzie “took actions to obtain control of Reverend Ellis” — that he drove Ellis everywhere, that he and Thomas Kennedy, a former president of the church’s real estate concern, ate three meals a day with the pastor, and that the two men soon helped Ellis “make all of his decisions.” (MacKenzie and Kennedy denied the allegations, and the Church on the Hill denied Ellis was mentally ill.)
After Street Soldier came out, Ellis did little to address members’ concerns about the revelations it contained. So convinced was he of MacKenzie’s good intentions, in fact, that he sided with his new confidant rather than his father-in-law. “He told me he had reformed, and I believed him,” Ellis would later say. Buchanan eventually left the church.
The book was not the only reason some congregants had started to grow suspicious of MacKenzie. Shortly after joining the Church on the Hill, MacKenzie was charged with bilking a wealthy 73-year-old Back Bay socialite out of her life savings. He had met Elizabeth von Bober at a Marina Bay restaurant in the summer of 2001. Von Bober would later tell the Globe that he visited her regularly at her Lenox Hotel apartment, bought her flowers, and escorted her around town. And despite a 30-year age difference, MacKenzie repeatedly asked for her hand in marriage, von Bober said.