Fast Times at Marina Bay?
The O’Connell family rose from nothing to become one of the state’s most powerful developers, putting up mega-projects like Marina Bay in Quincy and the Seaport World Trade Center. But with one family member charged in the shooting of an off-duty firefighter and another accused of drug trafficking and repeatedly having sex with a 14-year-old girl, their protected world of wealth and privilege has begun to crumble.
The girl, now 15, returned home in October 2010. For a year now, her mother had noticed her daughter’s expensive clothing, the new cell phones, her increasingly troubled mood. But whenever she was confronted, the girl denied that anything was wrong.
She finally shared her secret with a friend, and then, in March of this year, with the police. She told them of the past two years, of the fancy condo and the numerous times she’d been given cash and had sex with William O’Connell and — at his direction — several others. She also told police that William kept a metal safe in the back of a closet at his Marina Bay condo. State police searched the residence on March 31. According to police, the safe turned out to contain 18.49 grams of cocaine — enough for prosecutors to charge William with felony trafficking. The authorities also tracked down and arrested Kookie, who was identified as 21-year-old Phyllis Capuano of Everett.
O’Connell’s lawyer, Stephen Delinsky, lays out a very different story from the one the girl tells. He insists that the whole thing was a setup: Bill — a man who liked to help people — was being extorted. “When the facts are revealed, it will become apparent to everybody that [William] is the victim of malicious lies,” Delinsky says. “Mr. O’Connell was the victim of extortion. He never had any physical relationship with this woman. The allegations are made up.” In Delinsky’s mind, the case has classist undertones. He cites what he calls similar cases in which prominent defendants — including members of the Duke lacrosse team and, more recently, French economist and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn — were wrongly accused of sexual misconduct. Delinsky won’t comment on how his client and the girl were introduced. “The extortion is a very complicated story and I can’t reveal everything, but there are clear motives for this woman to come forward the way she did,” he says. “Mr. O’Connell has helped a lot of people. To help somebody is not a crime.”
Sexual assault cases often come down to one person’s word against another’s, the classic he said, she said. In such cases, guilt or innocence often turns on credibility. “This is not the first case that will go to trial in which one side accuses the other of a shakedown,” says David Frank, a former Suffolk County assistant DA. “Clearly the defendant in this case has a lot of money and so has grounds to make that sort of an argument, but if the defense is going to suggest that this is nothing more than an extortion attempt, they’re certainly going to have to have the evidence to back that up.” If the girl’s motive in coming forward was money, Frank says, that could raise questions about her credibility. But if the prosecution can show beyond reasonable doubt that statutory rape occurred, it may not matter. “At the end of the day,” he says, “the law does not allow an adult to have sex with a minor under any circumstance.”
In the days after the shooting, as he lay in critical condition at Boston Medical Center, news reports painted Milton firefighter Joseph Fasano as a kind of hero. He was a veteran, a public servant, and the victim of a senseless crime.
But then a more complicated picture began to emerge as subsequent stories detailed an alcohol-fueled domestic violence dispute in his past, a baby daughter who’d died accidentally, and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder for which he’d taken medication off and on for years. In 2007, it turned out, police had been called to the Weymouth apartment he shared with an ex. According to the official police report, they found a drunken Fasano “screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs,” with the apartment in shambles: shattered glass, an upended coffee table, parts of the ceiling on the floor. It also came out that while at Boston Medical Center, Fasano admitted that, on the night of the shooting, he’d snorted coke earlier that evening.
Robert O’Connell, meanwhile, showed up in court sporting a baby-blue sweater, khaki pants, and a deer-in-headlights look. He was eventually indicted for assault with intent to murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. After pleading innocent to all charges, he was released on $500,000 bail, but was forced to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and to restrict his travel to his lawyer’s office and his mother’s house. His case is likely to go to trial in the spring. If convicted on all charges, he could face 35 years in prison.
In court, Robert seemed as genuinely mild-mannered as his attorneys had set out to portray him to be. He’d led a moderately ordinary, if privileged, 40 years, graduating from Stonehill College with an economics degree and working at State Street Corporation before joining the family business. Aside from a few speeding tickets in the ’90s, his record was squeaky clean. In 2006, he’d suffered a brain aneurysm that forced him to take a smaller role in O’Connell Management. This was no hard-bodied alpha male. That night in December, he’d been coming home from dinner with friends; he was, in general, described as a homebody who not long ago had lived with his mother. “He’s frail,” Peter, his father, told a judge at one point. “You wouldn’t classify him as a tough guy.”
Robert’s attorneys have been busy characterizing Fasano as a short-tempered monster with considerable mental health issues exacerbated by consistent drug use. “Robert acted legally in self-defense when he was confronted on the street that night,” says his high-powered Quincy lawyer, William Sullivan, who is also representing Nathaniel Fujita, the Wayland teen accused of murdering his former high school girlfriend this summer. In June, Sullivan filed a motion to subpoena phone records from the night of the incident, hoping to prove that Fasano bought, or sought to buy, drugs at least once in the hours before the shooting. At 3:23 p.m. that day, according to an affidavit Sullivan filed in court, Fasano texted a pal named “Jimmy,” asking if he had any “boxos,” a street name for Suboxone, a prescription drug that can produce a heroinlike high. Texts exchanged later that evening between Fasano and a guy named “Tweeze” suggest that Fasano may have scored drugs as late as 11:39 p.m., approximately 10 minutes before he was shot — though Fasano’s hospital records show he admitted only to using alcohol and cocaine the night of the incident.
Still, plenty of questions remain: What prompted Robert to allegedly jam his brakes in front of a Jeep and then stop the Porsche in the middle of the street in the first place? And if he fired in self-defense, why did he flee the scene so quickly, without reporting the confrontation?
“The fact is that an unarmed man on a Quincy street was shot by a man who left the scene and was not found for several days — so the self-defense claim would not appear to be very viable,” says Ben Zimmerman, Fasano’s attorney in a civil suit that will be filed following the outcome of the criminal case. “The question is, Can someone, no matter how influential or whatever their station in life may be, shoot someone in the street, and leave, and get away with it?” Zimmerman went on to say that “Not only did [Fasano] get shot with a .45-caliber handgun and lose half his liver, but he’s also had to endure having his private life exposed and his name brought out in ways that it probably shouldn’t have been. His life is very different than it was.”
Indeed, Fasano has had a swift undoing. In May 2010, just months after Milton’s fire chief, John Grant, had described him to the Patriot Ledger as “A very good firefighter, a very well-liked kid,” Fasano was fired for failure to cooperate with an internal investigation and conduct unbecoming a firefighter. He appealed his dismissal to the state Civil Service Commission, but was denied. He’s currently unemployed.
There’s been plenty of speculation about whether the two O’Connell cases are in any way linked.
Consider first the woman who was in the Jeep with Fasano, his girlfriend Jennifer Bynarowicz. Both she and Robert have said that they do not know each other. On the night Fasano was shot, in fact, Bynarowicz told police she had never before seen the shooter, and couldn’t identify him even if she were shown photos. Perhaps that’s so, but it seems odd considering that William O’Connell was Bynarowicz’s landlord — and that, according to some media reports, she and William had dated for as long as 10 years.
As for the cocaine found inside the Jeep, police say Bynarowicz told them that the drugs were hers — “I’ve been drinking, I’ve been partying,” she said. When police asked her where she’d gotten the coke, she began to cry and said, “That has nothing to do with it…. You don’t believe me.” (Bynarowicz, who has not been charged in connection with the incident, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Sullivan, Robert’s attorney, wouldn’t comment on whether there could be a connection between Robert’s and William’s cases, but does say there’s no indication that there was any relationship between Robert and Fasano specifically. Zimmerman maintains that the two men barely even had a chance to exchange words during the altercation, which could create doubt about whether Robert acted in self-defense, and could raise questions about the nature of their dispute. Prosecutor Andrew DiCarlo Berman — a private-practice attorney who was assigned to prosecute both cases because the O’Connell family has made past campaign donations to Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey — sees the cases of the wayward O’Connells as clear-cut and entirely separate: One man’s up for statutory rape, another for attempted murder. “I honestly have no idea if the two cases are connected; for my purposes they are not,” he says. “But am I curious? You bet.”
In September, William was arraigned in Norfolk Superior Court on charges including four counts of statutory rape, one count of cocaine trafficking, and two counts of committing an unnatural and lascivious act with a child under 16. Statutory rape convictions carry a minimum sentence of 10 years per charge. (William pleaded not guilty to all charges.) He retains a prominent role in three other development corporations — O’Connell Denver Properties Inc., Seaport Aviation Inc., and Seaview Real Estate Inc. — and, pending trial, is allowed to travel to Florida, Colorado, and New York for business, though he must submit to regular drug screenings and cannot have unsupervised contact with children under 16, with the exception of his grandchildren. Capuano, meanwhile, was arraigned for rape of a child, among other charges, and pleaded not guilty. Both cases are pending.
At the same time, Peter O’Connell has tried to keep the family business from being dragged through the muck along with the reputations of his brother and his son. In a letter that went out in May to members and shareholders of the Granite Links Golf Club, Peter announced that William had resigned from his position as president, treasurer, and director of Quarry Hills Associates, the parent company of the golf club. “We wanted you to hear this first from us,” wrote Peter, “because that’s how families treat each other.”