BEFORE THE TURNER TRIAL, Wilburn talked a lot about how cooperating with the FBI was a public duty, a means to better the community. He saw himself as a black man of some standing. Over the years, he had owned his own consulting business, been a principal at WHDH, and trained managers for Omni Hotels.
In the early 1990s he befriended a young Dominican man named Manny Soto. Wilburn liked Soto not only because Soto had entrepreneurial drive, but also because Soto allowed him to carry out his duty as a self-styled civil rights leader. “In these times, in this city, when it feels like we’re moving backward as far as affirmative action and everything else,” he told the Boston Globe in 1996, “I think it’s the responsibility of established African-Americans like myself to nurture talent….”
As time passed, Wilburn helped Soto get a line of credit, open a used-car lot in Jamaica Plain, and deal with the licensing and paperwork associated with starting a business. The two remained close, and in 2000 they opened a nightclub together: Mirage at Estelle’s. Soto was listed as the manager, and Wilburn appeared as a low-ranking director. Wilburn preferred this diminished role. “Ron connects people. That’s what he does,” says James Dilday, a liquor-license lawyer who once represented Wilburn. “He’s a behind-the-scenes guy.”
But neither Soto nor Wilburn seemed to have any idea what they were doing running a club. “They mismanaged their fucking money,” says someone close to the men. Some vendors were paid infrequently, and when they were, it was often in cash, this associate says. Wilburn at one point tried raising the club’s profile by saying Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez would soon invest $400,000 to become a co-owner, says another person with knowledge of the situation. Martinez never got involved.
But Dianne Wilkerson did. Wilburn approached the state senator from Roxbury in 2004, just before the Democratic National Convention came to Boston, asking for a favor. He thought the convention could bring in a lot of money for the club. Problem was, the electric company had shut off Mirage’s lights. Soto hadn’t paid the bill in four or five months, Wilburn would later testify, and the club owed between $12,000 and $19,000 in back payments. So Wilburn reached a deal with Wilkerson: For a few hundred dollars, he testified, she would talk to NSTAR and get the electricity back on.