Between 1975 and 1992, the small Boston community of Charlestown experienced 49 murders, 33 of them unsolved. Police were frustrated by the unspoken “Code of Silence” that the citizens of Charlestown adopted. Whether fear of retaliation by the criminals, anti-police sentiment, or vigilante justice motivated the town’s citizens, no one would talk to police.
Charlestown was a main distribution center for PCP and cocaine, with several career criminals, known as the “Irish Mob,” in charge of the drug trade. Because drugs were a large part of Charlestown’s crime problem, DEA got involved, joining forces with the Massachusetts State Police, Boston Police Department, and Boston Housing Police Department. A task force was formed to tackle Charlestown’s crime.
DEA agents and local officers worked together to establish a comprehensive case against the criminals. By bringing federal drug laws to bear, the task force was able to develop solid cases. Information was developed that would lead to prosecution on charges of murder to further the drug trade. In addition, special agents of the Department of Housing and Urban Development were able to take action against tenants living illegally in Charlestown housing.
As a result, 40 defendants were indicted on charges that included racketeering, murder, attempted murder, murder for hire, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, armed robberies, and carrying firearms during the commission of crime of violence. Several of the defendants were subsequently convicted of murder.
Once the violent criminals were taken from the community, the threat of retaliation was removed, and the code of silence was broken. A hot line set up by DEA yielded hundreds of calls from community residents that developed into valuable leads and significant arrests. The seriousness of the federal charges reassured the residents that they no longer had to live in fear.
Published: March 26, 1995
BOSTON, March 25— For decades in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, witnesses to crimes never breathed a word, either out of loyalty or out of fear.
But on Wednesday, two leaders of a drug ring and their enforcer were convicted in Federal District Court on charges of racketeering, cocaine trafficking, murder and attempted murder, with the help of testimony from about a dozen witnesses.
The two leaders, Michael Fitzgerald and John Houlihan, were charged with running a drug ring, using Joseph Nardone as their enforcer, out of Kerrigan’s Flower Shop in Charlestown, a one-mile-square neighborhood on Boston Harbor that is also the home of Old Ironsides, the frigate Constitution.
The three are to be sentenced on May 18. Prosecutors are recommending that they get life in prison without parole.
Before the convictions, the Irish, working-class neighborhood of 15,000 was well known for its residents’ habit of not talking to the police, its code of silence. The situation left many police officers frustrated.
“Most of the crime committed over there, we know who did it,” said Capt. Edward McNelley of the police homicide unit. “But our knowing doesn’t mean anything. We need a person to come forward and say, ‘I was there and I will testify.’ ”
The authorities managed to crack the code of silence with a three-year investigation in which the Government spent more than $1 million to protect witnesses, including a half-dozen residents who asked to be moved out of the neighborhood for fear of retribution.
About a dozen thieves and drug dealers were granted immunity from prosecution and received new identities under the Federal witness protection program.
“This has been a long time coming, and it has given families some belief in the system again, that the system can work and we don’t have to accept the way things were in the past,” said Sandy King, whose two sons were shot in front of witnesses who would not talk.
Five years ago, she helped found the Charlestown After Murder Program, an organization of women who meet every Sunday in a Catholic church to talk about unsolved homicides that have affected their lives. The police say that of the 50 homicides the group has tracked since 1975, arrests have been made in only about half.
Ms. King said the code of silence was started long ago by Irish immigrants who distrusted authority. A longshoreman, for example, might steal a case of tuna from the docks but give a little of the fish to his neighbors so that when the police inquired about the theft, no one knew anything.
Over time, the silence allowed criminals to thrive.
Charlestown became known by law-enforcement officials nationwide for its small-time hoodlums, thieves, drug dealers and murderers. Crime became so commonplace that arguments normally settled in a fistfight often ended in murder.
Today, the Bunker Hill Monument divides a small group of young professionals who live in renovated brownstones from a far greater number of “townies,” longtime residents who live in row houses and a sprawling housing project. Ninety-six percent of Charlestown is white.
During the trial, one witness told of driving the getaway car for Mr. Nardone and hearing the squat, bull-necked hit man laugh about killing an informer. The witness said he and Mr. Nardone had split a $5,000 fee.
But not everyone is sure that things have changed.
“I got nothing to say about nothing,” said a clerk in a coin-operated laundry who would give her name only as Patty.
The owner of the laundry, who refused to give his name, said he doubted that the code of silence had really been broken.
“You talk about things you’re not supposed to talk about, you get killed,” he said.
Posted Dec. 23, 1997 at 12:01 AM
Updated Jan 11, 2011 at 1:34 AM
CONCORD, N.H. — Before yesterday, ratting to police on your neighbors was a good way to get killed in the tough, blue-collar section of Boston known as Charlestown.
But the testimony of their neighbors helped convict five members of a Charlestown-based bank robbery gang yesterday, and the lead prosecutor said the town’s “silent majority” was all for it.
“I don’t think Charlestown is going to be the same. If the code of silence isn’t dead, it’s definitely moribund,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Vicinanzo.
“We have received a tremendous outpouring of support from the citizens,” he said. “The silent majority was rooting for us to get rid of these thugs who have been intimidating their town for some time.”
A U.S. District Court jury delivered guilty verdicts on 54 of 55 counts, including ones charging the five in the Aug. 25, 1994, robbery in Hudson in which two armored car guards were shot to death. One defendant, Patrick McGonagle, was found innocent of a carjacking count.
The jury deliberated for 32 hours over seven days. The trial began in September.
Convicted with McGonagle, 58, were Michael O’Halloran, 40, Anthony Shea, 34, Stephen Burke, 41, and Matthew McDonald, 35.
None was indicted for murder because witnesses could not clearly identify the masked robbers in the holdups, which began in 1990 and lasted into 1995.
When the five were charged last year, Charlestown was notorious for its code of silence. But the intensive investigation and a change of heart in the community broke the code, prosecutors said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Connolly said Charlestown residents and criminals alike decided to come forward following the Hudson deaths.
“Numerous career bank robbers threw in the towel and testified in this trial,” Connolly said at a news conference following the verdict. “So many broke the code, shattered the code. Many of them testified that they had grown tired of a life of stealing, of drugs, of broken relationships.”
In one sign that fear of retribution remained, Judge Steven McAuliffe sealed the list of jurors’ names.
Connolly called the verdict a victory for the armored car guards’ families and “a total victory for justice.”
“These men were highly professional, violent and ruthless criminals who took every step not to be identified. Today they were identified,” he said.
Vicinanzo described the men as part of a close group of career criminals, many of whom grew up together.
“There has been a culture in Charlestown that fostered that,” he said. “(But now) the people are changing. I don’t think they’re going to let it happen again.”
Most of the holdups were in Massachusetts, including two in Fall River. The Hudson robbery was one of two in New Hampshire; the others were in Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1991. The indictment also included a 1995 armored car holdup in West Palm Beach, Fla.
A sixth defendant, John Burke, pleaded guilty in October, partway through the trial, and testified against the others, including his brother Stephen. He is to be sentenced next month.
Prosecutors estimated that the gang committed more than 100 armed robberies and made off with millions of dollars during more than 30 years.
Lawyers for the men promised appeals.
“I really thought … there would be more, perhaps different results, rather than just blanket ‘guilties,”‘ said Peter Anderson, Stephen Burke’s lawyer. He said he planned to appeal on the admission of DNA and fingerprint evidence during the trial.
The men will be sentenced April 2. Prosecutors said they will ask for life sentences without parole, prescribed in federal sentencing guidelines, on two of the Hudson robbery counts.
Robberies in the indictment, approximate amount stolen, if known; and the defendants named in each robbery July 28, 1995 Fall River Five-Cent Savings Bank, Fall River, Mass.; Shea, Burke. May 11, 1995 Brinks armored car, West Palm Beach, Fla.; $122,000; Shea, Burke. Aug. 25, 1994 Northeast Armored Transport Inc. armored car, Hudson, N.H.; $500,000; Shea, McDonald, O’Halloran, Burke, McGonagle. March 1994 Wells Fargo armored car, Chestnut Hill, Mass.; Shea, O’Halloran, McDonald, Burke. Jan. 25, 1994 Wells Fargo armored car, Charlestown, Mass.; Shea, O’Halloran, McDonald, Burke. May 4, 1993 Manchester Security Services armored car, Seabrook, N.H.; $280,000; Shea, O’Halloran, Burke. Dec. 22, 1992 Transit Systems Inc. armored car, Lynn, Mass.; $500,000-$600,000; Shea, O’Halloran, Burke. Feb. 27, 1992 Bank of Boston, Newton, Mass.; Shea, McDonald. Late 1991 Banks and armored cars in Fall River, Mass; Shea, McDonald, Burke. Dec. 5, 1991 Pioneer Finance Cooperative Bank, Malden, Mass.; $95,000; Shea, McDonald. 1991 Banks and armored cars in Connecticut and Rhode Island; Shea, McDonald. March 15, 1990 Bank of New England, Charlestown, Mass.; Shea, McDonald.
The gang was headed by the McLaughlin brothers (Bernie, Georgie, and Edward “Punchy” McLaughlin) and their associates, brothers Stevie and Connie Hughes from Charlestown. Some of its notorious associates included Will Delaney, Spike O’Toole, Harry Hannon, William Bennett, Edward Bennett, John Shackelford, Frank Murray, Leo Lowry, Ron Dermody and Joe “Rockball” O’Rourke.
Townieism accepts that criminal activity exists in Charlestown’s past and present, most notably in the form of bank and pharmacy robberies by Townies as well as narcotic sales and use, and does not pass judgement on this behavior. Townies refer to serving a federal prison sentence as “going to college” and the area experiences a rate of drug-related hospitalizations and deaths 50% higher than the rest of Boston.
Throughout the 1960s until the mid-1990s, Charlestown was infamous for its Irish Mob presence. Charlestown’s McLaughlin Brothers were involved in a gang war with neighboring Somerville’s Winter Hill Gang, during the Irish Mob Wars of the 1960s. I
The green square mile : story of the Charlestown Irish