Whitey's Payback: and Other True Stories: Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revengeby T. J. English
Sixteen stories of true crime from America’s foremost authority on the underworld
James “Whitey” Bulger is the last of the old-fashioned gangsters. As a polished, sophisticated psychopath—who also happened to be a secret FBI informant—his reign of power in Boston lasted for more than twenty years. When he went on the lam in/b>
Sixteen stories of true crime from America’s foremost authority on the underworld
James “Whitey” Bulger is the last of the old-fashioned gangsters. As a polished, sophisticated psychopath—who also happened to be a secret FBI informant—his reign of power in Boston lasted for more than twenty years. When he went on the lam in 1995, the kingpin’s legend grew to rival that of Al Capone. Captured after sixteen years in hiding, he now sits in a maximum security prison awaiting trial on racketeering charges and nineteen counts of murder.
T. J. English has been writing about men like Bulger for more than two decades. And this collection, culled from his career in journalism and supported by new material, shows English at his best. In addition to the numerous pieces about Whitey, he reports stories about gangsters and organized crime from New York City to Jamaica to Hong Kong and Mexico. Be they about old school mobsters, corrupt federal agents, or modern-day narcotraficantes wreaking havoc on the US–Mexico border, English tells these stories with depth and insight. Combining first-rate reporting and the storytelling technique of a novelist, English takes his readers on a bloody but fascinating journey to the dark side of the American Dream.
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and Other True Stories of Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revenge
By T. J. English
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 T. J. English
All rights reserved.
The Wiseguy Next Door
Playboy, April 1991
The Witness Protection Program has a remarkable purpose: To hide hardened criminals among the general public. What could possibly go wrong?
It was nearly twenty-one years ago that Michael Raymond, a beefy, Brooklyn-bred con man and stock swindler, got into a tight spot with the law. After a lengthy trial in Illinois state court, he received a four-year prison term for trying to use stolen Treasury notes to buy two small midwestern banks. A silver-tongued grifter with a robust appetite for the good life, Raymond had no intention of serving his sentence. Instead, he cut a deal with the feds.
What Raymond received, however, was far from your average, run-of-the-mill government deal. In exchange for testifying before a Senate subcommittee on stolen securities and the Mob, he was placed in what was then a new, top-secret federal program called WITSEC, short for Witness Security Program, now commonly referred to as the Witness Protection Program.
At the time, fewer than a hundred people had entered this experimental program, thought to be the government's most potent new tool against organized crime. Despite its controversial nature, the program had never actually been debated, or even proposed, on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Justice Department simply requested funds for "witness relocation" and the various appropriations committees gave it the rubber stamp. Over the next twenty-one years, the program would attract a vast following, not the least of which were more than 13,000 criminals and their family members coerced into its ranks. Back in 1970, though, WITSEC was a theory to be tested. And like any new theory, it had bugs to be worked out—bugs like Michael Raymond.
As part of this agreement with the overseers of WITSEC, Raymond was given a new identity and relocated to sunny Southern Florida. The government also immediately began paying him $1,500 a month, plus $50,000 for "job assistance." Over the next several years, Michael "Burnett," as Raymond officially became known, would learn to use WITSEC to underwrite one scam after another. During one deadly three-year period, three business associates of his disappeared under nefarious circumstances. One of them was a sixty-seven-year-old socialite and widow whom Raymond had been romancing. The woman was last seen getting into a car with him just hours after she cleared out her bank accounts. Raymond later became a prime suspect in her disappearance when an informant told local cops that he had bragged of killing her. "They're never going to find the stone she's under," he reportedly told the informant.
When Florida authorities began looking into the past of Michael Burnett, they were amazed to find that he had no personal history whatsoever. His life of crime as Michael Raymond had been effectively expunged, courtesy of WITSEC. Furthermore, the federal government helped Raymond disappear while the investigation was under way. He had intentionally violated his security, so the Justice Department—unaware that its prize witness was also a primary suspect —relocated him to another region of the country and covered his tracks after he left.
In the years that followed, Raymond often caught the attention of federal crime fighters. Although the U.S. Marshals Service—the branch of the Justice Department that administers the Witness Security Program—believed that his life was in danger, he moved around like a man without worries. He drove Cadillacs and wore mink coats, and his fingers sparkled with diamond rings. A gourmet chef with a taste for fine wines, he allowed his waist to grow in proportion to his criminal deeds, until he topped the scales near 300 pounds.
Now sixty-one years old, Raymond/Burnett is no longer in WITSEC. His long, notorious life of crime finally caught up with him when, after he resurfaced in Chicago a few years ago as an informant in an FBI sting operation, the feds caught on to his act. In 1987, he went off to prison on weapons possession; there were no deals left to be struck. For more than twenty years, Raymond had feasted on the federal government's naïveté and largess, turning the Witness Security Program into a criminal hideout.
The stupefying result of all this is that little has changed since the days when Raymond first made chumps out of the U.S. Justice Department. Although few inductees have abused WITSEC with the same panache as Michael Raymond, the twenty-one-year history of the program reveals a virtual catalog of failures, from recidivism through bureaucratic ineptitude to government callousness and neglect.
Throughout it all, WITSEC continues to grow, amassing a rogues' gallery of inductees. "Almost everything that could go wrong [with WITSEC] has, at one time or another," says Donald Bierman, a former Justice Department official who is now a criminal defense attorney in Miami. Bierman has had several clients enter WITSEC, often against his recommendation. "If you absorb enough scandal, eventually you become immune," he says. "Ironically, because of the program's long history of failure, it has now become virtually scandal-proof."
When forty-seven-year-old Max Mermelstein entered the Witness Security Program in 1986, it must have seemed like the last possible option. As the man who had run U.S. trafficking operations for a Colombian cocaine cartel for several years, he had a criminal career that had escalated to a point beyond his wildest dreams. From 1978 to the time of his arrest, Mermelstein is believed to have smuggled some fifty-six tons of cocaine into Florida. In a five-year period, he ran $300 million in laundered currency through Colombia and Panama.
Mermelstein never planned on a career in crime. After marrying a Colombian woman he met in Puerto Rico, he was introduced to Rafael "Rafa" Cardona Salazar, a major underboss for the Ochoa family, leaders of the Medellín cartel. On Christmas Day, 1978, Rafa inexplicably murdered one of his fellow drug runners after a long afternoon of free-basing cocaine. He and another smuggler then called on Mermelstein, whom he knew only casually at the time. They wanted Max to drive them around until they came down from their high. During the drive, Rafa, eyes ablaze, emptied five bullets into his roommate, who had been taunting him from the backseat of their rented van. "Just keep driving, Max. Don't say a fucking word," Mermelstein remembered Rafa saying.
Having witnessed, but not reported, a brutal murder, Mermelstein was an accessory to the crime, which effectively put him under the thumb of the cartel. His criminal associations with Rafa, Pablo Escobar, and others flourished until June 1985, when he was jumped by a bevy of agents from the FBI, DEA, Customs, and assorted other branches of American law enforcement. After searching Mermelstein's home, the feds had enough on his drug operations to put him away for many lifetimes.
Faced with a life behind bars, Mermelstein remembered the words he'd heard many times from the murderous Rafa: "There are only two ways you get out of trafficking coke, in a box or in a cell." Mermelstein proved him wrong; he agreed to cooperate with the government and go into the Witness Security Program.
"The day I got arrested was the best day of my life," says Mermelstein, now living under an assumed name somewhere in the United States. "If it hadn't happened, I'd be dead right now."
To initiate Mermelstein into WITSEC required extraordinary measures. Sixteen members of his family, mostly relatives of his Colombian wife, had to be relocated into the United States. It presented the Marshals Service with a problem it has been forced to deal with more and more, as the so-called drug war escalates. According to the Justice Department's own statistics, nearly 80 percent of those now in the program are there because they or a family member testified in a drug-related case. More than one quarter of those are foreign nationals.
One might guess that with the Colombians, Mexicans, and Asians now entering the Witness Security Program, the Marshals Service would have devised a strategy for handling foreign refugees from our criminal-justice system.
Take the case of Arturo Jaramillo, Mermelstein's brother-in-law. Born and raised in Cali, Colombia, Jaramillo is described by his brother-in-law as "a quiet man who never wanted to be involved in drugs or violence." Still, he had been forced by Rafa to help dispose of his dead associate back in 1978, and he lived in fear of the Colombian drug merchants. When news of Mermelstein's "flip" reached him, he had no choice but to accept Uncle Sam's offer of a new identity in the United States. Although Jaramillo, his wife, and his young son spoke no English, they were inexplicably relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, a city not known for its racial tolerance.
The last time Mermelstein talked with his brother-in-law was November 13, 1986. "He was in a thoroughly morose mood," he says. "We tried to get an official assigned to his case to get him a Spanish-speaking psychiatrist—fast. What did the official do? He went on vacation."
One day later—on the day before his forty-ninth birthday—Arturo Jaramillo was found hanged in a closet of the small apartment WITSEC had provided for him and his family. He had looped a rope over the hanger rod, tied it around his neck, then pulled on the rope with both hands until he strangled himself.
"I'll always blame myself, in a way, for what happened," says Mermelstein. "But I blame the program, too. Nobody involved [with WITSEC] understands the Latin mentality or the Latin people. They take my brother-in-law, his wife and kid, and stick them in a place like Memphis. Aside from the fact that it is one of the most bigoted places in the United States, nobody there speaks Spanish. They couldn't get a driver's license, because the tests weren't given in Spanish. They were just dumped in an apartment and left to fend for themselves." Echoing the sentiments of many currently in the program, Mermelstein adds, "Nobody cared. Those asshole inspectors out there just didn't give a flying fuck."
Back in the early 1960s, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy first made the pursuit of organized crime figures a top government priority, a program for protecting high-profile informants and their families must have seemed like a dandy idea. As early as 1963, Kennedy hinted to the Senate subcommittee on organized crime that a program already existed on an informant level. Although official procedures had not been worked out, the means for protecting important witnesses were established that year when Mob hit man Joseph Valachi spoke before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime. His testimony was a revelation, and the fact that he dared give it at all was proof of the program's power.
Along with its potential as a crime-fighting tool, the concept of witness relocation contained a peculiarly American notion—a chance to correct past mistakes and literally become a new person. There was a kind of implied freedom in the program that suited the Great Society. The idea—that a lifelong criminal might somehow cleanse himself with the help of the federal government and emerge a chastened, productive member of society—was, of course, incredibly simplistic and naive. Yet so appealing was this concept that for years the public accepted the Justice Department's contention that the program was working, even as the horror stories mounted.
"In the beginning," says John Partington, a former U.S. marshal assigned to WITSEC, "we never had any manuals or textbooks to go by. Basically, we were making it up as we went along. Soon the demands became so great we just couldn't keep up. It became like the uninformed talking to the misinformed." The program was devised to handle fewer than thirty or forty elite witnesses a year. But during his fifteen years as a regional inspector, Partington would personally guard, relocate, and help falsify IDs for nearly 260 inductees.
"A big part of the problem," says Partington, now retired, "has always been that the program is run out of Washington. The bureaucrats don't seem to have any understanding of what's happening out there in the real world. They've never had to face up to their decisions."
For a long time, the Justice Department avoided making any written promises to witnesses. Only recently have inductees been required to sign a memorandum of understanding—known as an MOU. In the agreement, the Marshals Service makes it clear that while it will assist a witness in finding employment, it will not falsify credit or work histories. Thus, the witnesses are totally dependent on the government to find them work and are prone to looking for outside income. Says Partington, "You've got people in the program who are being asked to take on a lifestyle that they've never experienced before. We've got guys --lifelong gangsters—capable of making two and three hundred thousand dollars a year through crime, and here we are, asking them to work nine to five, five days a week, for maybe fifteen grand a year."
An even more insurmountable problem than the financial strains faced by those in the program is boredom. It doesn't take a criminal sociologist to figure that people accustomed to an exciting, high-wire lifestyle will have trouble adjusting to working-class sobriety. Such has been the case with thousands of inductees.
Henry Hill, the Mafia wannabe lionized in the book Wiseguy (the basis for last year's hit movie Goodfellas), is just one example. After a long career as a mid-level hustler affiliated with the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn and Queens, Hill cut a sweetheart deal with the government in 1980 and testified against his former pals, Jimmy "the Gent" Burke and the late capo Paul Vario. Relocated to Redmond, a Seattle suburb, Hill found his new life to be interminably dull. As he put it at the end of the book and film, "Today everything is very different. No more action. I have to wait around like everyone else. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook."
The irony of course, is that Hill did not wait around. In May 1987, he was arrested on federal drug charges after an undercover agent bought cocaine from two underlings who fingered him. Like their boss before them, Hill's henchmen turned canary and agreed to testify against him in court. A jury took two hours to deliver a conviction.
Hill had a strong incentive to stay clean, yet his addiction to the excitement and danger of crime—and the notoriety it provided—took precedence, a fact amply illustrated at the time of his arrest. When confronted by Washington state troopers, Hill is said to have asked pleadingly, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Henry Hill—the wiseguy."
It's not hard to fathom the appeal the Witness Security Program might hold for a career criminal facing a long prison sentence. Although inductees are often warned that life in the program will not be easy, the difficulties seem remote relative to getting whacked with a baseball bat or stuffed into a car trunk.
The assumption, of course, is that the government will be able to deliver on most of what it promises. "What the government says it can do and what it has the ability to do are two different things," says Mermelstein, who has been relocated four times in the past four years. "I've known lifelong criminals with more sense of honor than some of the people who run this program."
The prime appeal of WITSEC has always been the manufacture of a viable false identity, supported by all the documents. Although the government continues to insist that it can process records at short notice, the history of the program suggests otherwise.
"Every week I was on the phone," says John Partington, "with some witness shouting in my ear, 'my kid wants to play little-league ball and he needs medical records.' 'My daughter wants to get married and where's the goddamn driver's license?' And what about a birth certificate? You need a birth certificate before you can do anything.
"Most times, these are street-smart people—hustlers. They're not Billy Grahams. They'd say to me, 'Just gimme a week. I'll get my own documentation.' And I'd have to say, 'But that's not legal. You do that and you're back to your old ways.' It was frustrating. Why should it take the government months to do what these people could do in days?"
Excerpted from Whitey's Payback by T. J. English. Copyright © 2013 T. J. English. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
As a journalist and nonfiction author, Thomas Joseph “T. J.” English (b. 1957) is one of America’s foremost authorities on the recent history of crime. Born in Tacoma, Washington, he moved to New York in 1981, where he spent his nights driving a taxi and his days writing for Irish America magazine, producing a series of articles that would lead to his first book, The Westies (1990), an account of the last decades of a once-powerful Irish mob.
Since then English has written about Vietnamese gangs, mafia infiltration of pre-Castro Cuba, and, in Savage City (2011), the history of racial tension between New York City’s police and the Black Power Movement. He has written magazine articles on modern crime for Playboy, Esquire, and New York magazine, and has also written for the screen, producing episodes for the gritty cop shows NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street. He lives in New York City.
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