WOONSOCKET – He looked like he just walked off the set of the Dead End Kids, but the dark-eyed boy from Boston spoke in a soft voice without a hint of swagger.
Some of Johnny Martorano’s classmates assumed his parents had sent him to Mount St. Charles Academy in 1955 because he needed some straightening out.
“The boarders were a thing of mystery,” says John “Clem” McLaughlin, a Cumberland native who now lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “Maybe they didn’t have a Catholic high school in their area, like me. Many parents sent their kids to Mount because the discipline was good.”
Mystery isn’t a word many would probably associate with Johnny Martorano anymore. The one-time fullback for Mount St. Charles’s junior varsity football squad is famous for spilling the secrets of his life as a hitman for South Boston’s notorious Winter Hill Gang, led by James “Whitey” Bulger.
Martorano admits to carrying out 20 hits on behalf of the Winter Hill crew dating back to the 1970s – murders for which he served just 12 years before he was released from prison in 2007. Now he’s the star witness in the government’s wide-ranging racketeering case against Bulger, including 19 counts of murder.
Bespectacled and jowly, Martorano looks more like a retired accountant today than a reformed hitman, but his testimony in federal court this week recalls the deeds of a cold-hearted, methodical killer.
“It blew us all away to find out what he did later in life,” says Don Papesh of Kensington, Conn., another former classmate of Martorano’s at Mount.
Martorano arrived at Mount when he was 15 years old and was enrolled there for just one year. During that brief time, however, he gained a reputation as stellar football player and a loyal, trustworthy friend.
“I have a clear memory of him because he was what you call a good guy,” said McLaughlin. “He had your back. He took care of his friends, even back then.”
One story from McLaughlin’s dealings with Martorano at Mount is so telling that author Howie Carr included it in his book about Martorano, the succinctly titled, “Hitman.” One day Martorano thought McLaughlin was bullying another classmate named John August. Martorano ran over to protect August, but he backed off when he realized McLaughlin was just fooling around.
McLaughlin, 72, was “a day hopper” back then, or what kids used to call commuter students at Mount. Some of the boarders who got to be friends with Martorano actually got a closer look at some of Martorano’s mob roots.
Papesh remembers a day when Martorano took him and a few other Mounties to his father’s restaurant in the North End of Boston and treated them to “a big spread” that included homemade pasta and meatballs. It was an upstairs restaurant, but what Papesh and his friends didn’t know was that Martorano’s father had a back room in the establishment where he could make more money selling after-hours booze than mid-day macaroni.
Papesh says Martorano was a talented enough football player to be in contention for a couple of college football scholarships. Martorano was an intelligent kid, too, says Papesh, but he struggled in school because he had a then-unidentified learning disability that eventually came to be called dyslexia.
“He was a helluvan athlete, and a really great guy,” says Papesh. “I think he could kick a football 70 yards.”
Martorano, McLaughlin and Papesh all played on the same team together with another famous Mount alumnus, the late Ed Bradley, a longtime correspondent for CBS-TV’s newsmagazine, “60 Minutes.” Papesh was actually Bradley’s roommate at Mount.
In many ways, Bradley was responsible for bringing Martorano’s violent past to the attention of his former classmates, according to McLaughlin.
Bradley kept a file of stories he wanted to do for “60 Minutes” – along with the names of possible sources, including members of 1955 junior varsity football team at Mount. Martorano had become a particularly newsworthy item about a decade ago, when the details of a scandalously corrupt relationship between the Boston office of the FBI and the Winter Hill gang were getting a very public airing in federal court.
The nub of the story was that FBI Special Agent John J. Connolly Jr. had long turned a blind eye to any and all misdeeds of Bulger and his right-hand man, Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi – including murder. Meanwhile, Bulger and Flemmi were secretly ratting out the Italo-American wing of the Boston mob as protected informants for Connolly. Bulger went on the lam in 1994 after being tipped by Connolly that he and Flemmi were about to be indicted – a run that lasted for years and made him No. 2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, after Osama bin Laden.
When Connolly’s indictment brought to light Bulger’s and Flemmi’s role as informants, Martorano was stunned. He knew his criminal companions had lawmen on the payroll, but it unnerved him to learn they were in cahoots with the FBI, in effect informing on him. The news flash prompted him to turn state’s evidence, beating the rats, as he would call them, at their own game.
Thanks in large part to prior testimony from Martorano, Connolly is doing life today after two criminal proceedings, including obstruction and a murder rap for arranging the killing of Boston businessman John Callahan, who had information that could have implicated the Winter Hill crew, and Connolly, in the 1981 murder of a Tulsa, Okla. man. Bulger, meanwhile, who had remained in hiding until he was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011, is now himself facing a round of Martorano’s wrath as a government witness.
“After I heard that they were informants, it sort of broke my heart,” Martorano testified earlier this week. “They were my partners in crime, they were my best friends, they were my children’s godfathers.”
Martorano’s stint on the witness stand stretched into a second day Tuesday as the state continued to build its case against Bulger as a “hands-on killer.”
BRADLEY, THE “60 MINUTES” veteran who fell ill and died in 2006, never got the chance to interview Martorano before he got out of jail the following year. It was fellow “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft, a good friend of Bradley’s, who inherited the job.
Several years ago, Kroft came to Mount to research the story, arriving in a black limousine, recalls Gail Bryson, director of alumni affairs. And Martorano showed up, too.
He didn’t look or act anything like one would expect of a ruthless hitman.
“He was very soft-spoken,” recalls Bryson. “If you didn’t know, you’d just think he was a nice, older man.”
Before the story aired in January 2008, McLaughlin and Papesh remembered Johnny Martorano from their days at Mount, but they didn’t realize it was the same Johnny Martorano who was making headlines as a star witness against the Boston mob. Since then, they’ve all gotten reacquainted and remain on friendly terms. As McLaughlin says, “We’re a tight group, we Mounties are.”
The son of the late John J. McLaughlin Jr., a well-known beer distributor from Cumberland, McLaughlin says he spoke to Martorano on the phone just a few days ago, in fact.
One subject that came up was an accusation made against Martorano by Bulger’s lawyers during open statements in federal court last week. In what has become a familiar pattern of attempting to damage Martorano’s credibility, Bulger's defense lawyers told jurors that Martorano had gone back to his old ways as a hired gun, a trade he swears he’s given up.
McLaughlin told Martorano it would have made him very upset if there were any truth to the allegations, but Martorano assured him they’re just a mundane bit of legal maneuvering by Bulger’s defense lawyers. “They just want to discredit me,” Martorano told him.
One of the things that intrigued Bradley so much about Martorano was how far their paths had strayed since their days at Mount, says Papesh. Bradley saw much of himself in Martorano. Both had come from humble beginnings, yet Bradley had gone on to become a celebrated investigative journalist, Martorano, an unfeeling assassin for the mob.
Around the time Kroft was researching the story, the ex-Mounties – Papesh, McLaughlin and Martorano – gathered for lunch near the Boston waterfront and talked with their old teammate about how things got so out of hand.
Martorano said it was all about stepping into his father’s shoes and doing his duty.
“If you ever met him, you’d never believe what he did,” said Papesh. “I asked him. I said, ‘John, how’d you get into it?’ He said, ‘Don, it was the family business.’”