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?

By Beverly Ford | Boston Magazine |
eddie mackenzie

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN RITTER

THE CHURCH MEMBERS DIDN’T QUITE know what to make of the stranger who walked through their doors one chilly autumn day in 2002. Dressed in a black silk shirt and black pants, he looked like he was straight from the street, with stark blue eyes, jet-black hair, and a nose flattened by too many fights. But there was something about Eddie MacKenzie that drew people in, a certain sort of charm. “He was as nice as could be,” remembers one church member. He complimented older female congregants on how beautiful they looked. He often snapped to attention when a veteran passed in the hallways, delivering a quick salute. He volunteered to help with the weekly Sunday luncheons. Soon the convert was winning converts of his own. It helped that MacKenzie was seen as someone who could bring new life to an aging place. At the time, only about 100 worshipers, most of them elderly, filled the pews of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem, more commonly called the Church on the Hill because of its location across from the Massachusetts State House. Built in the shadow of the Golden Dome, the red-brick building sits largely unnoticed among the tangle of government buildings and sandwich joints that line the crest of Beacon Hill. The church was founded in 1818 by followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, theologian, and mystic who believed that he had witnessed holy apparitions. Among other things, Swedenborg believed that the path to salvation lay in adhering to Jesus’s teachings and doing good deeds, and his writings influenced everyone from Balzac to Whitman. Starting in the latter half of the 19th century, the Boston church would attract some of city’s most prominent citizens: writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; financier Clarence Barron; Harvard Law School dean Theophilus Parsons; and Boston Mayor Malcolm Nichols. Thanks to those notable — and often wealthy — members, the church eventually found itself in an enviable financial position: It had accumulated a cache of rare books and collectibles, and its building sat on prime real estate. In 2004 its real estate holdings alone — a blockwide complex that includes apartments and the church — would attract a bid worth $30 million. In the months following his 2002 arrival at the church, MacKenzie eagerly attended Bible study classes, a precursor to membership. “He presented himself as a Christian looking for redemption,” Reverend Steve Ellis recalled in a 2008 interview with Boston. By mid-summer of 2003, MacKenzie had officially become a member. But a belief in Swedenborgianism may not have been MacKenzie’s only motivation for joining the Church on the Hill. According to one former member, he only became interested after hearing that the church paid college tuition for congregants’ children. “His eyes just lit up,” says Thomas Kennedy. “He said, ‘Where do I sign up?’” It would not be the last time someone would have cause to question the convert’s intentions. As fellow congregants would come to find out, Eddie MacKenzie knew an opportunity when he saw one. IN THE PROCESS OF JOINING the church, MacKenzie had filled out a standard application, in which he revealed that he had done some very bad things in his past. It didn’t take long before everyone knew exactly what those things were. In the spring of 2003 a small New Hampshire publisher, Steerforth Press, published MacKenzie’s autobiography: Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob. The book won a favorable review from the New York Times and became a local bestseller, but it also revealed MacKenzie to have been a man with an unspeakably awful history. “I was as vicious as they come, a monster,” he writes of his past. “Violence was my drug.” The story MacKenzie tells in Street Soldier is a classic rise-from-the-gutter tale — absent the rise. Born in 1958 to a 21-year-old unwed mother and her 16-year-old boyfriend, MacKenzie was one of seven children. His parents abandoned their lot when MacKenzie was four, and he grew up in a series of Massachusetts foster homes. Some foster parents neglected him. Others beat him, once so bad that he suffered a broken arm. A tutor sexually molested him at age nine. At age 12, police caught him driving a car stolen by his 13-year-old brother, Ronald. A year later, he and Ronald were runaways, bedding down on the couches or floors of friends, or surreptitiously sleeping on the porches of neighborhood homes. The pair supported themselves by shoplifting, burglary, and selling their stolen merchandise. MacKenzie dropped out of Jamaica Plain High School in the 10th grade. At 17, he torched a Cadillac that belonged to a dance club owner and served a stint in the Charles Street Jail. Three years later, in 1978, he faced more jail time for robbing and assaulting a pair of drug dealers with a 12-gauge shotgun. MacKenzie managed to avoid a prison sentence by enlisting in the Army Reserve. He made it through boot camp but was discharged soon afterward, he says for medical reasons. He then joined the Marines, but left a short time later. What MacKenzie lacked in education he made up for in ambition. After his stint in the service, he moved to South Boston, launched a kickboxing career, and opened a martial arts gym. Still, MacKenzie had a hard time scraping by. Now married with an infant daughter — the first of six children he fathered with three different women — he got by on a string of odd jobs: construction worker, bar manager, bouncer. But they didn’t pay enough, so he supplemented his income with the occasional break-in. Then one day in January 1980, MacKenzie received two visitors: Whitey Bulger and Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi. The notorious mobsters had tracked MacKenzie down after learning he’d stolen a batch of collectible Hummel figurines from another gangster’s home. The figurines were worth $10,000, and Whitey wanted them back. By the time he got to MacKenzie, however, the ceramics had already been sold. Bulger asked MacKenzie for the name of his accomplice. When MacKenzie refused to give up his pal, Bulger smiled, apparently pleased that the 22-year-old was no snitch. “Down the road, I may need a favor,” the mobster said, according to MacKenzie’s autobiography. Soon MacKenzie was doing small jobs for Bulger, working as a collector, which basically meant he assaulted drug dealers and others at Bulger’s request. MacKenzie was good at the work. “When I beat someone it was better than the high any druggie pulled from a speedball,” he writes. “First, I’d probe with my feet, kicking each rib, feeling a high every time I heard one snap beneath my sneaker. Then, with one or two swift heel kicks, I’d attack the leg bones. Then I’d lift up the arms, one at a time, and smash, there went the ribs underneath, broken as easily as sticks underfoot. I worked methodically, until the body had been pummeled to my satisfaction. Sometimes I even used my teeth, biting off an ear and spitting it back at the body: a farewell present for my victim when he opened his bloodied, swollen eyes.” His work as an enforcer eventually evolved into a more lucrative enterprise: drug dealing. “Let’s just say that the drug sales financed an extremely comfortable lifestyle, providing me with the cash to buy whatever I wanted,” MacKenzie writes. By 1990, ten years after meeting Bulger, MacKenzie claims he was set to make $100,000 a week by importing cocaine from Colombia. In exchange for Bulger’s blessing, MacKenzie says he planned to give the mob boss “a fat envelope” as tribute. (Since the book’s publication, Flemmi and other Bulger associates have called MacKenzie’s account of his personal and professional ties to Bulger “exaggerations.”) The deal with the Colombian drug cartel was short-lived, however. Soon after the enterprise began, MacKenzie was indicted on drug-trafficking charges. In a bid to spare himself a 15-year prison term, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI. For eight months, he helped federal agents gather crucial information against his contacts, members of the Medellín drug cartel, by wearing a mini recorder under a hairpiece topped by a baseball cap. Federal officials would not confirm MacKenzie’s cooperation in the probe, but it seems clear that some sort of deal was struck. Once facing the prospect of more than a decade in prison, MacKenzie served just four years of probation. But the threat of federal prison apparently did little to change MacKenzie’s criminal activities. In 1997 he fell and injured his back at a West Roxbury Bertucci’s, where he was training to become a manager; he alleged that the injury left him disabled. Over the next four years, MacKenzie reportedly collected roughly $32,000 in disability payments, even while he allegedly worked other jobs, including as an assistant manager at the Fury, an Abington bar. In 2001 a grand jury in Suffolk County indicted him on charges of fraud. The key piece of evidence: a video showing MacKenzie bench-pressing about 200 pounds at a Boston Athletic Club in 1998, a few months after his supposedly debilitating injury. “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. She rejected the proposals, but MacKenzie soon made another offer: to find her son. Charles “Chip” McCain had mysteriously disappeared in 1991 while boating in the Caribbean. Though most people suspected he had fallen victim to an accident, von Bober harbored suspicions that McCain had been abducted. MacKenzie, she said, claimed he’d been a special-forces commando while in the Army, and offered to help. All he needed was roughly $150,000 to fund a search-and-rescue mission. Von Bober gave him the money, but soon after, MacKenzie was back, empty-handed. Von Bober said he told her that the mission had failed, and that two of his fellow rescuers had been killed. A short time after that, von Bober’s 4.5-carat diamond ring disappeared from her apartment, she told the Globe. After von Bober informed MacKenzie about the missing ring, he promised to use his contacts to find it. He did. When von Bober went to a jewelry appraiser, however, she was told that the diamond had been replaced. The ring, once valued at more than $200,000, was now worthless. She went to the police. As the case neared its 2004 trial date, MacKenzie hashed out a plea agreement with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office that once again allowed him to avoid jail time, though he did agree to pay von Bober $82,000 (she died in 2007). When Church on the Hill members asked MacKenzie about the incident, he reportedly shrugged off their concerns, saying the allegations were merely the sexual fantasies of an aging woman. DESPITE HIS LEGAL TROUBLES, MacKenzie proved himself to be a capable recruiter of new congregants. Within mere months of joining, he had persuaded roughly 20 other people to become members, a huge boost to a church that had been in decline for decades. Some of those newcomers were MacKenzie’s own family members. His brother Ronald, an ex-con, later became the church’s janitor — a job for which he was given use of one of several church-owned vehicles. Ronald’s wife also joined, and became church president as well as a member of its board of trustees. But the influx of newcomers caused resentment among some longtime members, who suspected the possibility of college scholarships was the real reason for their interest. “Many of the old-timers just stopped going to church because of what was going on,” said one elderly congregant. But such feelings didn’t dim MacKenzie’s star in the eyes of Ellis, and he quickly moved up the ranks. In 2004, less than two years after coming to the church, MacKenzie became treasurer of Bostonview Corporation, the church’s real estate arm. The position gave him a pivotal role in the church’s financial decisions. Trouble soon followed. According to an affidavit by Thomas Kennedy later filed in court, MacKenzie bragged about forging checks but “that there was nothing else that they could get him on.” (MacKenzie denies the allegation.) MacKenzie says that all actions he took while treasurer were both legitimate and sanctioned by Ellis. “I have never written a check or used the debit card without authorization,” he later said in an affidavit. It was Kennedy, he claimed, who had written church checks to his own family members. Later, in a brief interview with Boston, MacKenzie added, “Anyone who has done anything in this church has had Steve Ellis’s approval.” Ellis told Boston in 2008 that he never approved any improper transactions. Some church members suspect otherwise. “Steve knew Eddie was taking money but he did nothing about it,” one church insider speculates. “Eddie was buying fancy suits, taking people out to eat, and buying jewelry for himself and his girlfriends…. He would take his kids to Disney World with church money and say it was a church trip. He was living the high life all on church money. There was no way Steve didn’t know.” Some churchgoers believe the pastor was either charmed or threatened by his former protégé. MacKenzie was notorious for sitting next to congregants at Sunday service whom he felt had wronged him. “I have seen [MacKenzie] exhibit outbursts of violent behavior…when things have not gone his way,” said church member Louis Partin in an affidavit filed in court. “I have seen him intimidate members into voting his way.” As more of his friends joined the congregation, MacKenzie’s power grew. In fact, by 2004 many trustees on the church’s board were MacKenzie supporters. Around this time, the board made a series of questionable financial decisions, including changing the bylaws to make it easier to sell church property and removing a ban on church members profiting from any sale. Shortly after these changes were made, MacKenzie and Thomas Kennedy allegedly approached Michael Perry, a Wellesley developer, about buying part of the 18-story apartment building that sits atop the church’s chapel.According to a sworn affidavit by Perry, MacKenzie demanded the developer give him $195,000 in cash and checks, including payment for a Mercedes, as a deposit on the $30 million deal. All told, in the months following their April 2004 meeting, Perry’s company would pay more than $500,000 in an effort to purchase the property (according to a sworn affidavit by Perry and a lawsuit his company brought against MacKenzie, Kennedy, and the church). Most of these payments were tagged as “additional deposits” on the complex, the lawsuit claims, even though Perry never secured title to the building. In his own affidavit filed as part of the case, MacKenzie not only denies Perry’s allegations, he denies knowing the man. In a brief interview with Boston, he goes even further: “I’ll deny everything you write.” In any case, the church’s financial situation so alarmed its parent organization, the General Convention of the New Jerusalem, that in March 2004 it filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against MacKenzie and Thomas Kennedy, who was then president of the Bostonview real estate operation. The lawsuit charged both men with utilizing a “pattern of racketeering activity to wrongfully take control of a 185-year-old church to obtain dominion over its $30 million apartment house.” The suit said that MacKenzie and Kennedy attained their positions by coercion — that they “extorted the votes of numerous elderly members” by telling those members they would “lose church benefits if they did not vote as directed.” MacKenzie and Kennedy denied the allegations. The suit asked the court to transfer the church’s assets to the national organization and void the membership of roughly three dozen people who had joined the congregation since 2002, many of whom were allegedly friends or associates of MacKenzie. Because the alleged racketeering operation lasted just 14 months, however — the span of time MacKenzie had been a church member — the case was dismissed. (A racketeering case requires that a pattern of criminal activity last two years.) Still, the allegations attracted the attention of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, which in 2004 obtained a consent judgment giving it oversight of the church’s finances for three years. The judgment did not allege criminal activity, and noted that the settlement was agreed upon “to avoid the risks and expenses associated with further investigation.” Not even the AG’s attention slowed MacKenzie’s rise in the church. Shortly before they agreed to the AG’s terms, church leaders named MacKenzie the director of operations. For a man who had previously worked as a construction worker, gym instructor, and bar manager, the job must have seemed like, well, a godsend. EVEN AS HE MOVED INTO HIS NEW POSITION, MacKenzie continued to face questions about his role in the church. According to an affidavit filed by MacKenzie associate Mark Palluccio, MacKenzie hired a Quincy company to regularly change the carpet inside the church. He “would agree to grossly overpay for the carpeting” in exchange for “a kickback from the carpet company. I personally witnessed him getting a cash paymentfrom the company,” Palluccio stated. “MacKenzie hired people to pave the pastor’s driveway. MacKenzie told me that he received a big payoff from the contractor when the driveway was paved.” (In his own affidavit, MacKenzie denied these allegations.) Despite the controversy, MacKenzie continues to have supporters inside the church. “To me, he is living testimony that the spirit of Jesus Christ is a transforming power,” says Reverend Tina Saxon, one of two pastors who minister to the congregation. “In my eyes, as far as character and good works, he makes this church come alive. I can just sing his praises.” Even some of his harshest critics give MacKenzie credit for the community work he’s done. His efforts to expand church programs — organizing blood drives, senior luncheons, kids’ movie nights — have won him numerous citations. He’s been honored by the Boston City Council, the Massachusetts state Senate and House, the U.S. Congress, and former Governor Mitt Romney. Curiously, all of these commendations were awarded over a single 17-day stretch in July 2006. Each is proudly displayed on the wall in MacKenzie’s church office. BY 2008 STEVE ELLIS no longer counted himself among those who supported MacKenzie. That September Ellis and other church members filed another civil racketeering lawsuit, this one containing even more serious allegations than the complaint filed by the church’s parent organization four years earlier. In the complaint, as originally filed, Ellis and his brother Rex alleged that MacKenzie received cash payments from plumbing contractors and shared in commissions from the church’s investment annuities. They also claimed that MacKenzie stole precious church artifacts, books, and artwork, including more than 800 antique books and priceless Bibles, Helen Keller autographs, and letters from John Quincy Adams. Six months after filing the complaint, however, Ellis and his brother Rex would drop the case and issue a remarkably broad retraction. They took back the allegations and “any and all statements we have made concerning purported wrongdoing” in the lawsuit and otherwise. (Six weeks before the retraction, Rex had filed for bankruptcy.) As for MacKenzie, he always denied stealing any of the books, Bibles, or other church artifacts. Instead, he blamed the theft on Mark Palluccio, who MacKenzie alleges was fired from his position as Ellis’s driver. However, in an affidavit filed in connection with a separate lawsuit, Palluccio claims MacKenzie admitted stealing the artifacts and even boasted that he had a $100,000 offer on a marble bust. To back his claim, Palluccio produced photographs of the stolen items he said were taken during a visit to MacKenzie’s house. By late 2008, Ellis and his ilk, fed up with MacKenzie and his, took matters into their own hands. Congregants voted to oust MacKenzie and the leadership that backed him. Locks were changed on the church doors and apartment building, effectively blocking MacKenzie from entering the property. Shortly afterward, Reverend Ellis, accompanied by police, barred the ousted members fromattending a Sunday service. Within days, the exiled congregants asked the court to intervene. While they awaited a decision, the Ellis faction seized a church-owned vehicle, opened a new bank account, and changed corporate records filed with the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, Rex Ellis, the reverend’s brother, sent a letter informing tenants in the church-owned apartments that rent was no longer to be paid to the property management company. Instead, checks were to be dropped off at a box in the building’s lobby. Some $30,000 in checks were eventually collected by Rex and later put into a bank account that could not be accessed by MacKenzie or the ousted trustees. This was done, Rex told Boston in 2008, to keep the money out of MacKenzie’s hands. In response, MacKenzie’s faction asked the Massachusetts Superior Court to intervene to allow them the ability to worship where they wanted, namely back at the Church on the Hill. On September 19, 2008, a judge granted a temporary injunction reinstating MacKenzie and the ousted board members. “People have a right to go to their church for their Sunday church services,” the judge ruled. By that fall, MacKenzie’s faction was back in control of the church, and the board of trustees quickly ousted Ellis from his post as the church’s pastor, a position he’d held for 26 years. Two years later, still jobless, Ellis is trying to pay down the medical debts incurred from his wife’s cancer treatments. He refuses to discuss the church where he spent so much of his life. MacKenzie, though, continues to manage the church’s operations — and continues to draw controversy. The case against MacKenzie, Kennedy, and the church brought by the Wellesley developer who claims $500,000 was paid in deposits on the church’s apartment building is still pending. Barring a resolution, it will go to trial sometime in 2011. If nothing else, the Church on the Hill has become a much different place than the one Eddie MacKenzie entered eight years ago seeking redemption. One day this past spring, a reporter visited the church hoping to talk to the man who has been at the center of so much controversy there. The visit was a short one. Once a sanctuary open to all — a place that embraced an ex-con with open arms — the church has now become the kind of place where people asking uncomfortable questions are escorted from the building.

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