Walidah Imarisha

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES

Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption

 

A few years ago, a friend of mine informed me that a young activist and writer had struck up a relationship with James McElroy, a feared hit man for the Westies. Having devoted a number of years to researching and writing a book about the Westies, I wasangels_with_dirty_faces_new curious.

McElroy was one of the most notorious members of that violent crew. He was not known for his brains; he was the gang’s muscle. Jimmy Mac, as he was known to his friends and criminal associates, probably had administered more beatings and killed more people than he could remember. In the universe of would-be, could-be and wanna-be gangsters, McElroy was OG through and through.

For those who might not know, the Westies were a hyper-violent Irish American gang that existed in Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side of Manhattan, from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s, until they were put out of business in a big federal racketeering trial. While writing the book The Westies, which was published in 1990, I had attempted to interview Jimmy Mac. I knew it was highly unlikely that he or his lawyer would give their consent. McElroy was incarcerated at the time and in the midst of the Westies trial, which lasted six months from September 1988 and into 1989. Eventually, McElroy, along with eight other defendants, was convicted. He was given a sentence of 75 years to life in prison, with no opportunity of parole.

Much of what I knew about Jimmy Mac came from courtroom testimony (gang member Billy Beattie, in particular, had a lot to say about McElroy on the witness stand, as did an old-time neighborhood loanshark turned witness named Tony Lucich). But most of what I knew came from extensive interviews with Mickey Featherstone, the No. 2 man in the gang, who admired Jimmy Mac but also realized that he was a very dangerous and capable killer.

Most of what I knew about McElroy was second hand, which is why I was so intrigued to hear that a writer had spent time visiting him in prison and was planning to write about it. And there were a couple other things that added to the intrigue – the writer in question was a woman, and she was African American.

From what I knew of McElroy, he was likely an old school misogynist and possibly a racist as well.

Walidah Imarisha is the writer’s name, and the project she was working on is now a book called Angels With Dirty Faces, published last month by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies (the title of the book comes from the iconic Jimmy Cagney movie, first released in 1938).

I met Walidah about a year and a half before the book was officially published. In October 2014, we were both invited to speak at the Howard Zinn Book Fair held in San Francisco and organized by the esteemed activist and author James Tracy.

 

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Meeting of the minds: Walidah Imarisha and T.J. English at the Howard Zinn Book Fair 2014, in San Francisco.

When Walidah first walked into the bookstore where the Zinn event organizers were holding an opening-day reception, I did a double take. She had a prodigious Angela Davis-style Afro and a big warm smile, and she was wearing a dress patterned with Star Wars characters. The idea of this woman sitting down with McElroy of the Westies was causing the synapses in the brain to snap, crackle and pop.

That night, Walidah gave me a copy of her collected poems, published as a book entitled Scars/Stars. I read the poems. They were very good, filled with pain, passion and insight.

A few months later, Walidah sent me a rough copy of her unfinished manuscript for Angels With Dirty Faces. I read about her relationship with McElroy, someone I thought I knew a fair amount about. But there was so much more about the man that Walidah was able to get not only by spending time with Jimmy Mac, but also by placing his life of crime in a larger context of incarceration, the street, and the vicious cycle at the heart of criminal justice in the U.S.A.

Over numerous prison visits, Walidah was able to get things out of this hardened criminal that I likely never would have. Her being a woman and African American no doubt cast their encounters in a particular light. I’m not saying this gave Walidah any particular advantage or disadvantage, but it would have altered McElroy’s need to size up his inquisitor according to the dictates of male competitiveness, or male insecurity, and perhaps let down his guard. Walidah was able to get beneath the hitman’s misogyny and racial tribalism. After all, it was Sundiata Acoli, a former member of The Black Liberation Army, who first introduced Walidah to Jimmy Mac in the prison visiting room. While incarcerated, the veteran black liberationist and the Irish American gangster had become close friends.

Anyone who has read The Westies, or taken an interest in the crazy, self-destructive trajectory of the gang’s legend needs to pick up a copy of Angels With Dirty Faces. Walidah’s portrait of McElroy fills in a lot of blanks and fleshes out aspects of the gang’s psychosis in ways that will deepen your general understanding of crime and punishment in America.

 

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Activist, poet, educator and author.

The sections of Walidah’s book that deal with Jimmy Mac are fascinating, but I would be doing the book a disservice if I left it there. Angels With Dirty Faces actually intertwines three separate narratives that all relate to the subject of incarceration and criminal justice. There is the story of Walidah’s own adopted brother, Kakamia, who is serving an extended sentence on murder charges. And then there’s Walidah’s own highly personal story of her experiences with sexual assault by someone she knew and trusted. In various ways, all three of these narratives reflect aspects of compulsive criminality, personal responsibility, societal accountability, and the concept of redemption.

 

 

 

 

BULLSHIT IN BOSTON #1

The Persecution of Robert Fitzpatrick

In Beantown, the indictment and upcoming trial of retired FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick on perjury charges is a vindictive prosecution designed to intimidate potential whistleblowers and rewrite history.

By T.J. English

The case of the notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger is not yet over. It is not over because a federal prosecutor in the District of Massachusetts does not want it to be over.

Earlier this week, Assistant U.S. attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr. filed papers in the case against Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired FBI agent who, in the summer of 2013, testified on behalf of the defense at the trial of Whitey Bulger. In April 2015, nearly two years after the trial was over, the U.S. Attorney’s office arrested Robert Fitzpatrick and charged him with six counts of perjury and six counts of obstruction of justice based on his testimony.

The charges have little to do with Fitzpatrick’s testimony regarding Bulger’s crimes. Rather, prosecutors are claiming that Fitzpatrick committed perjury by exaggerating certain aspects of his career as an FBI agent.

Fitzpatrick is 76 years old and in failing health. If convicted on federal perjury and obstruction charges, he faces fifteen years in prison – which for him would be a virtual life sentence.

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Former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick arriving at the Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston with his wife Jane. To charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, Fitzpatrick pleaded not guilty. (Photo: Elise Amendola/AP)

I know Bob Fitzpatrick. I met and interviewed him numerous times for a book I wrote on the Bulger case entitled Where the Bodies Were Buried. He is a good man. He was raised in the church-run Mount Loretto orphanage in Staten Island, New York. He served with distinction in the U.S. Army. He’s been married for thirty years to a woman who works in hospital administration and has two daughters, recent college graduates, of whom any father would be proud.

Back in 1981, Fitzpatrick, a sixteen-year veteran of the FBI, was transferred to Boston and walked into a hornet’s nest. The corruption Fitzpatrick encountered was astounding, not only within his own FBI division but also within the halls of justice. Among those who would later be exposed as playing a crucial role in the Bulger conspiracy was Jeremiah T. O’Sullivan, chief of the state’s Organized Crime Strike Force and later U.S. Attorney. O’Sullivan protected Bulger and his criminal partner Steve Flemmi, who, unbeknownst to the public, were serving as informants for the Department of Justice (DOJ) at the same time they were killing people with impunity.

At the Bulger trial, prosecutors Wyshak, Brian Kelly and Zachary Hafer – working for the same U.S. Attorney’s office that once had a duplicitous relationship with Bulger and Flemmi – found themselves in a difficult position. Prosecuting Bulger for his voluminous crimes was the easy part; the evidence was overwhelming. Far more challenging was to control the narrative of the Bulger prosecution so that it did not reveal the historical continuity of corruption that helped to make Bulger possible.

Bob Fitzpatrick was not the only retired lawman that took the stand and detailed corruption that spread beyond the FBI into the U.S. Attorney’s office and all the way to DOJ headquarters in Washington D.C. In many ways, the testimony of retired special agents Joe Crawford, Fred Davis and Matt Cronin was even more devastating in its detailing of what happened to agents who smelled a rat in the Boston criminal justice system and attempted to do anything about it. But Fitzpatrick, it seems, is being punished because he had the “audacity” to write a book about it.

In Betrayal (Forge Books: 2011), a book about Fitzpatrick’s FBI career, written by Fitzpatrick and Jon Land, the ex-agent vented his frustrations over his years as Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) of the bureau’s Boston division. The internal law enforcement corruption that Fitzpatrick lays out in his book has been corroborated many times over by others who published books and testified at the Bulger trial. But by testifying at the trial on behalf of the defense, Fitzpatrick – in the eyes of the prosecutors – stepped over to the other side and must now be punished.

In motion papers filed in federal court this week in Boston, prosecutors Wyshak and Hafer cite that in his testimony Fitzpatrick mentioned that early in his career, while stationed in Memphis, he was among the first agents on the scene of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Fitzpatrick noted that he, among other agents, discovered the gun that was used by James Earl Ray to kill King. The prosecutors are seeking to submit as evidence a transcript of an interview Fitzpatrick did for a CNN documentary in which he says, “Then I was transferred back to Memphis. Martin Luther King came to Memphis and I was told that King had just been shot. We found the gun and through the fingerprints we identified James Earl Ray, and we arrested him in London.”

The prosecutors note that nowhere in the official record of the King assassination is Robert Fitzpatrick’s name mentioned as having been among those who found the gun.

And that is it: that is a primary count in the government’s perjury case, that Fitzpatrick may have exaggerated this detail from his 22-year-long law enforcement career about something that occurred nearly a half century ago.

Among other counts in the Fitzpatrick indictment is whether or not he accurately stated his managerial mandate when he was first transferred to the Boston FBI office, and whether or not he was present at the physical arrest of Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo, boss of the Boston mafia, as he alleged in his book and on the witness stand.

Clearly, the reason Bob Fitzpatrick has been indicted has nothing to do with these picayune acts for which he has been charged. His prosecution has to do with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston shoring up its legacy and attempting to rewrite the public record. By seeking to discredit Fitzpatrick, to bury him under the full weight of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, they are attempting to reconfigure the narrative of institutional corruption that helped to make the long-running Bulger fiasco such a depraved and murderous reality.

Wyshak and Hafer got the conviction they wanted in the Bulger case, and they are to be congratulated for that. They helped to put away one of the most vile mob bosses in U.S. history. But the prosecution of Whitey Bulger also involved one of the most egregious whitewashes in the history of the criminal justice system.

The latest act in this ongoing whitewash is the attempt to destroy Bob Fitzpatrick, a man who served the FBI admirably for more than twenty years and now faces a prison sentence on charges that are beneath the dignity of federal prosecutors throughout the United States.

Consider this: the city of Boston is now going to have an expensive federal trial to determine who first found the gun at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, and whether or not an aging, long-ago-retired FBI agent will be made to serve time in prison for allegedly misstating his involvement in that.

Is this for real? Doesn’t the criminal justice system in Boston have better things to do with its time and energy? Haven’t the people of Boston had enough of prosecutors using the system to settle personal beefs, to sometimes convict innocent people, or to exact revenge on those who they feel have defied their wishes?

It’s hard to believe, but the case against Fitzpatrick is actually going to trial on June 17. In the upcoming weeks and months I will be posting dispatches on this case as events develop. Please tune in to this blog page – Skull Fragments – for the latest updates.

 

 

Edgar Awards 2016

Where the Bodies Were Buried nominated in the category of Best Fact Crime 2016

edgarFor the fourth time in his career, author T.J. English has been nominated for an Edgar Award in the category of Best Fact Crime. Where the Bodies Were Buried, the latest of English’s non-fiction books to be nominated, joins previous nods for:

The Savage City — 2011

Havana Nocturne — 2009

Born to Kill – 1996

The Edgar Awards are given out each year by the Mystery Writers of America, an organization first established in 1945. Over the years, through the Edgar Awards, the MWA has honored writers such as Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Mary Higgins Clark, Elmore Leonard, Joseph Wambaugh, and many others. In the field of mystery and crime writing, the Edgar Award is considered the gold standard. The winners for 2016 will be announced at a banquet and award ceremony on the night of April 16th in Manhattan.

CHICAGO: The Ghost of Richard J. Daley

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Boss Richard J. Daley

In the spring of 1987, I was a young reporter in Chicago covering the city’s race for mayor for a national magazine called Irish America. At the time, Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, was running for a second term. Also running that year was Jane Byrne, who had served as mayor before Washington and was now seeking to reclaim her old job. There were a couple other candidates as well. One person who was not running was Richard M. Daley. He had run four years earlier and not performed well, so he was sitting this one out.

As with all Chicago’s mayoral campaigns, this one was rambunctious. Washington was favored to repeat, but Jane Byrne was a fiery, slash-and-burn competitor who seemed to always be in attack mode.

Even though Richard M. Daley was not running, I wanted to interview him – for many reasons, but mostly because of his father. Richard J. Daley had ruled over the city of Chicago for twenty-one years as mayor and twenty-three years as Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, holding both positions until he died in office in 1976. He was a legendary figure, larger than life; his blunt repudiation of anti-Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, at which he unleashed Chicago police to brutalize everyone in sight – all of it captured live on TV – was a seminal event in U.S domestic politics. Daley the senior had presided over incredible economic and physical growth in the city of Chicago and done many positive things, but because of the ’68 convention he would be remembered, nationally, as the epitome of a political thug and would-be dictator.

I arrived to interview Richard M. Daley on the 22nd Floor of the Daley Center, a building named after his father. At the time, “Richie,” as he preferred to be known, was serving as Cook County State’s Attorney. Already, I had interviewed Jane Byrne, who made some dismissive remarks about Richie Daley. I was curious about that. As a young, up and coming political figure, Jane Byrne had been a protégé of daddy Daley. Presumably, Richie Daley and Byrne had known each other for along time. I arrived at the Daley Center determined to get at the root of this bad blood between Byrne and the Daley family.

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Jane Byrne savors her victory in the previous night’s Democratic primary in 1979, when she defeated incumbent Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic. She became the city’s first female mayor.

I was ushered into the office of the state’s attorney, and there he was – Richie Daley. This was two years before Daley would himself be elected mayor in 1989 (in a special election). Daley would go on to serve for twenty-two years, one year longer than his father. He was re-elected five times. In 2011, they wanted him to run for a seventh term, but he decided to retire.

Back in 1987, the attribute Richie Daley exuded most was humility. His challenge to Jane Byrne in 1983 had been something of an embarrassment. Not known as verbally dexterous or as a quick-silver intellect, he floundered during interviews and in televised debates. He crawled away from that campaign with his head between his legs, but it was largely thought that he would regroup, re-strategize and one day make another run.

In Daley’s office, the dominant feature was a massive, framed oil painting portrait of his father, on the wall hovering over the room. It was one of those portraits that, no matter what era in which it was painted, it made it’s subject look like a 17th Century lord of the manor. The father, of course, was a forbidding figure, portly, jowly, and salt-of-the-earth. Throughout the interview, I felt the gaze from that portrait; Richard J. Daley was looking down at us, listening to every word.

The first thing Richie Daley did was offer me a cigar. And so we sat underneath the massive portrait of Chicago’s most notorious potentate, and Daley the son said, “Go ahead, ask me whatever you want.”

He was a very likable guy, down-to-earth, earnest and humble. He did not strike me as the brightest guy in the world; his thought process was slow, and his manner of speaking was round-about, but you could tell he was a man with a good heart, and that his concerns and cares were genuine. He was a good listener and a ‘people person.’ You could tell that he was a doer, not necessarily a thinker, and I was not surprised at all that he would go on to became a highly popular mayor known for getting things done.

Anyway, we sat there and chatted, and I waited till our cigars were nearly down to the nub when I asked Richie about Jane Byrne.

I knew that it was a loaded question: there had always been rumors, never proven, that daddy Daley had became so enamored with his young female protégé that they had an affair. After Daley died in office, and Byrne and Richie Daley sought to run for the office that Boss Daley had held so indelibly for so long, it was seen as though they were vying for control of his legacy.

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Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, who served as mayor one year longer than his father. Together, they ruled Chicago for nearly half a century.

I asked Richie about that, whether the tussle between his family and Byrne had been over who was the rightful heir to the Daley legacy. He paused for a beat, and then said, “No. The media commented a lot about that. But that wasn’t it.”

“So what was it,” I asked.

Daley thought about it for a second, puffed on the stogie, took it out, rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, and said, “She moved the Christmas tree.”

I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. Richie let it stew for a few seconds, then added, “The Christmas tree. It was always right here in front of the Daley Center. Every year. It meant a lot to my dad to have it there. And when she got into office, one of the first things she did was move the Christmas tree to another location.”

Daley was seated on the edge of his desk. He looked sad. The pettiness of that action on Jane Byrne’s part had cut deeply. It was an unforgivable slight. In my heart, I wanted to give him a hug, but instead I glanced up at the portrait of his father. When I’d first taken in the painting, the expression on Richard J. Daley’s face struck me as neutral, but now he was glowering. Boss Daley was listening to us, and he was pissed off at what Jane Byrne had done.

And that’s when it hit me: they take their politics very personal here in Chicago. Slights and recriminations are swallowed, digested, and then kept buried deep inside, to be avenged at a later date.

Well, that was nearly thirty years ago, and I’m happy to say that I’m returning to Chi-town on January 22, 2016 for two very special appearances. They are as follows:

  1. The Irish American Heritage Center (4626 N. Knox Ave.): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 6pm.

I’m pleased to be appearing at this great facility to discuss The Irish Mob Trilogy and read from Where the Bodies Were Buried. Please drop by!

  1. City Winery (1200 W. Randolph): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 8 pm.

This is truly going to be a blast. I will be the opening act for the Westies, a Chicago-based folk rock band led by esteemed singer-songwriter Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton. The band was created and partly inspired by the book The Westies, and this event is to celebrate the release of the band’s second CD, entitled Six on the Out. I’ll be reading from the Irish Mob Trilogy, including selections from Paddy Whacked and The Westies.

To all my Chicago homies, I hope you can make it! I’m pretty sure the ghost of Richard J. Daley will be there.

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WHITE COLLAR CRIMINALS

By T.J. ENGLISH

I sometimes get asked why I don’t write about white collar criminals. Implied in the questions is the inference that white collar criminals, financially speaking, are certainly as much a menace to society as the gangsters I write about. I do agree with the premise. In America, white collar criminals are the true scourges of society. But there is a simple reason I don’t often write about them. They are boring.

I read the stories about them in the news – Kozlowski, Madoff, and this recent douche bag, Martin Shkreli, who marked up AIDS medication by five thousand percent and was recently arrested for securities fraud. These are people whose financial crimes are worse than the average organized crime family. They are certainly worse than, say, a street gang; their crimes do more damage to society than most gangsters.

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But here’s the problem: most of them are “true blue Americans,” white men with wives and kids who live in garish mansions inside gated communities. Their version of the American Dream is the most unimaginative and shallow ever conceived. It’s based on acquisitiveness, and nothing more. It is crass and devoid of morality. Disgusting and pernicious? Yes. But also boring. Their daily lives are filled with nothing. The storyteller in me dies a little bit every time I read about their activities.

When I write about the criminal underworld – be it from the POV of my own Irish American culture, or Cuban American culture, or African American, or Mexican – it is from a place of respect and curiosity (curiosity being the highest form of respect) for the culture I’m writing about. I write about an aspect of that culture in which people are shut out from the mainstream, and they are struggling to become a part of that tapestry. In the underworld, violence and crime are the dominant transactional methods available; they always have been. The means by which outcasts and “suspicious characters” navigate this world is endlessly fascinating to me. It is the true American story.

White collar crime has no larger narrative. Sometimes, a storyteller will try to make something of the lives of Wall Street vampires, or hedge fund con men, or corporate predators by focusing on the excess. Perhaps there is drama and entertainment value to be found in the gleeful immorality of their lives (see: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). Doesn’t work for me. Greed as a motive is the most base and least interesting of all the Deadly Sins. It is mundane and lacks heart. It is boring.

So, yes, I will read the accounts in the media of those capitalist pigs who choke on their own gluttony, or those who are still getting away with it. It is important to stay informed, and to know who are the true criminals. Just don’t ask me to engage my imagination in their narratives. If you are so concerned, then you write those stories.

I would much rather spend my creative energy or my time with a street hoodlum than a CEO. I would rather do research in a Kingston tenement yard or a colonia in Ciudad Juarez than in a corporate boardroom. White collar crime may be an important subject, it may be worthy of discussion, but for a storyteller, it is about as nourishing as a speech by Donald Trump.