The Chicago Syndicate: The Executioner, John Martorano
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Executioner, John Martorano

There are few men alive today with the underworld credentials of John Martorano, and even fewer who are out of prison and walking the streets. For more than a decade, Martorano was the chief executioner for Boston's Winter Hill Gang, a loose confederation of Irish and Italian-American gangsters run by James "Whitey" Bulger.

Martorano, a former Catholic altar boy and high school football star, became a cool and calculating killer. But as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, he is perhaps best known as the government witness who helped expose a web of corruption and collusion involving the mob and the Boston office of the FBI.

For years, he was one of the most feared men in Boston, and this is why: Martorano says he never kept count of how many people he killed. "Until in the end, I never realized it was that many," he tells Kroft.

Asked how many, Martorano says, "A lot. Too many."

"Do you have a number?" Kroft asks.

"I confessed to 20 in court," Martorano replies.

"You sure you remembered 'em all?" Kroft asks.

"I hope so," Martorano says,

Martorano had to remember them all. It was part of a deal he cut with the federal government that put him back on the streets of Boston after only 12 years in prison -- a little more than seven months served for each of the 20 people he killed, many of them fellow gangsters, and many of them at close range after looking into their eyes.

Asked if he always killed people by shooting them, Martorano tells Kroft, "I think I stabbed one guy."

"But you like guns," Kroft remarks.

"Well, it's the easiest way I think," Martorano says.

Martorano says he did not get any satisfaction out of the fact that people were afraid of him. "But everybody likes to be respected for one thing or another," he admits.

His manner is unemotional and detached, and he speaks with the brevity of a professional witness, which he has become. His testimony helped wipe out one of the largest criminal enterprises in New England, for which he served as chief executioner. But Martorano is no psychopath, and he doesn't much like the term "hit man."

"The hit man is…that sounds to me like somebody that's getting paid to a paid contract. I mean, you could never pay me to kill anybody," he says.

"A lot of people would say you're a serial killer," Kroft remarks.

"I might be a vigilante, but not a serial killer," Martorano says. "Serial killers, you have to stop them. They'll never stop. And they enjoy it. I never enjoyed it. I don't enjoy risking my life but if the cause was right I would."

Martorano says he "always" felt like he was doing the right thing. "Even if it was wrong, I always tried to do the right thing."

If you believe Martorano -- and the Justice Department does -- he killed out of a sense of loyalty and duty. He sees himself as a stand-up guy, a man of his word, which is why he decided to talk to 60 Minutes.

It goes back 50 years, when Martorano was a star running back on the Mount St. Charles Academy football team in Rhode Island. One of his blockers was the late 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley. He promised Bradley he would sit down with him and tell his story, but Ed died unexpectedly before Martorano got out of prison.

"I never thought I'd be sitting here with you, I thought I'd be here with Ed. But I'm sitting here because Ed wanted me to sit here and I'm honoring that," Martorano explains.

"I know one of the questions that Ed wanted to ask you. In sort of the way that Ed asked those questions, I think he wanted to be sitting here and say, 'What happened Johnny?' Why was it do you think that you went in different directions?" Kroft asks.

"Well, I think it was mainly the influence of my father and his principles and his values that he pushed onto me," Martorano explains.

His father owned an after hour's club called Luigi's in a rough Boston neighborhood known as the "Combat Zone." It was a hangout for hoodlums who would become Martorano's role models, and many of them shared his father’s simple Sicilian values.

"He was the oldest son, and he taught me 'You're the oldest son and this is your heritage. You've got to take care of your family and be a man. I don't care what else you are, you’ve got to be a man,'" Martorano says.

It was the code he lived by and killed for. The first time it was an ex con, Robert Palladino, he thought was going to implicate his brother Jimmy in a murder. Palladino was found under an expressway with a bullet in his head.

Martorano says he didn't see anything wrong with it. "I saved my brother’s life, somebody got hurt, that had to be," he says.

Asked if it felt like a duty, Martorano says, "An obligation."

"Was the next time easier?" Kroft asks.

"Well, it's sort of like a lawyer trying his first case. It's difficult but the next case is easier. Then it gets easier, I guess, as you go. 'Cause it's you know, doing this is harder than that," Martorano says.


"'Cause it's hard for me to do. I never did it before," he says.

By the 1970s, his circle of friends and family had expanded to include the Winter Hill Gang, led by the notorious Irish mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger and Stevie "The Rifleman" Flemmi. Martorano was their partner in a business that included gambling, loan sharking, extortion and murder. Martorano's specialty was conflict resolution.

"We had a lot of problems with people. And you know, you just killed them before they kill you. It's kill or get killed at times," Martorano explains.

"I mean, on one occasion, you walked into a crowded bar…and shot somebody. In broad daylight…with the policeman across the street," Kroft says.

"Correct," Martorano admits.

"That's pretty confident," Kroft remarks.

"Well, I felt confident," Martorano says. "You put a disguise on and you just get to feel invisible.

Martorano remembers what the disguise was. "I had a yellow hard hat, a white meat cutter's coat, full length and a beard and mustaches and sunglasses," he recalls.

Asked what he did afterwards, Martorano says, "I went home and changed, back to work."

They operated out of an old body shop, long since abandoned, but Whitey Bulger's chair is still there, and so is his old office.

"I think that's the trapdoor for the cellar. Used to leave that open all the time. Just to intimidate people. Try to get the truth out of them," Martorano remembers. "People would look down there and just wonder."

"Anybody go down there and never come up?" Kroft asks.

"I think so, yeah," Martorano says.

By 1978 Martorano had already killed 18 people, and facing an indictment for fixing horse races, he fled to Florida, where he was living a quiet life under the name "Richard Aucoin." He was only there a few years when Bulger and Flemmi called, asking him to carry out a murder that made headlines across the country, the assassination of a wealthy corporate executive in the parking lot of the exclusive Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa.

The victim was Roger Wheeler, the CEO of Telex Corporation and owner of World Jai Alai, a profitable sports betting business that Bulger was trying to muscle in on. Martorano says the logistical information to carry out the hit was provided by a former Boston FBI agent named Paul Rico.

"How did you manage to get into the Southern Hills Country Club to kill Mr. Wheeler?" Kroft asks.

"There was no gates. We drive in. Waited for him to finish playing golf. I had an update when he was gonna -- his tee time. So, I just waited for him to finish," Martorano remembers.

"You knew what he looked like?" Kroft asks.

"I had his description from Rico," Martorano says.

Martorano says he shot Wheeler once in the head.

Martorano says it wasn't the first or the last time he would get useful information from an FBI man. One of the FBI's top organized crime investigators in Boston, a corrupt agent named John Connolly, helped them out for years. Martorano says it was Connolly who told them that an associate of theirs named John Callahan was about to rat them out on the Wheeler murder. Callahan would become Martorano's 20th and final victim.

"Do you think that John Connolly knew that you were gonna kill Callahan?" Kroft asks.

"Sure," Martorano says. "He said it, 'We're all going to go to jail the rest of our life if this guy doesn't get killed.'"

"And this an FBI agent telling you this?" Kroft asks.

"This is an FBI agent telling it to Whitey, telling it to me," Martorano says.

Martorano has already told this story under oath, and is expected to tell it again to a jury in Florida this spring when Connolly goes on trial for complicity in that murder. He's already serving a ten-year sentence for obstructing justice. In the end, it was a Massachusetts State Police investigation that began to unravel the Winter Hill Gang. In 1995, Martorano, Flemmi and Whitey Bulger were all indicted for racketeering. Bulger, who was tipped off by Connolly about his impending arrest, went underground and is still a fugitive. And in a Boston courtroom, Martorano was about to learn something that would change his life forever.

He knew that Bulger and Flemmi had been getting information from the FBI. But he didn't know they had been also been providing it. For decades, his partners were top-level FBI informants, snitching on the Italian mafia and on Martorano and other gang members. They had violated his code of loyalty, especially Whitey Bulger.

"I'll go along with a lot of things, but not -- no Judas, not no informant," Martorano says. "I never informed or ratted on nobody. And if I could've killed him, I would've killed him. But he wasn't there and that's what I think he deserves."

Martorano decided to strike back the only way he could, using words as his weapon. "I gave him back what he gave everybody else," Martorano says.

"You became an informant?" Kroft asks.

"Nope, I became a government witness," Martorano says. "Not an informant, or a rat. I became a government witness."

Asked what the difference is, Martorano tells Kroft, "One's got the courage to stand on the stand, the other ones' are doin' it behind your back, and droppin' dimes. And how can I be rattin' on a guy who's the rat for 30 years? I'm tryin' to stop him from rattin' anymore."

Bulger, who is still on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, is now facing 19 murder charges as a result largely of Martorano’s testimony, and Flemmi is in prison for life. His cooperation helped solve nearly 40 murders, including the 20 he confessed to -- and it helped uncover secret mob graves -- all in return for a sentence of just 14 years.

"In some ways, he got away with murder," Kroft tells Donald Stern, who was the U.S. attorney who eventually signed off on the agreement.

"In some ways, he did get away with murder," Stern agrees.

"The only thing worse than this deal was not doing this deal. 'Cause if we didn't do this deal, no one would receive any punishment for these murders. Corrupt law enforcement arrangements would not have been uncovered and prosecuted. And the cancer in law enforcement that existed in Boston for a number of years would have remained there," Stern says.

"So you're saying it changed the landscape of organized crime in Boston?" Kroft asks.

"It did," Stern replies.

When Martorano was released from prison last spring, he decided to return to Boston. He says he feels safe here now. Most of his enemies are dead, in jail, or on the lam.

"In some cases, regret can take over a person's life. I don't get the sense that that's the case with you," Kroft remarks.

"Well, maybe that's just not my temperament or my personality. Maybe it is, but you can't see it. Or maybe I can't express it the way you want it, but I have my regrets," Martorano says.

"You seem cold," Kroft says. "You killed 20 people and that’s all you have to say about it?"

"I wish it wasn't that way. I mean, I wish there was none. You know, you can’t change the past. I’m trying to do the best I can with the future and explain it as best I can. I regret it all, I can’t change it," Martorano says.

"You still a Catholic?" Kroft asks.

"Sure," Martorano says.

"I mean, you can burn in hell for killing one person," Kroft points out.

"I don't believe that," Martorano says. "At one point, maybe a couple years ago, I sent for a priest and gave him a confession. It was maybe 30 years since my last confession. But I went through the whole scenario with him, and went through my whole life with him, and confessed. And at the end of it, he says, 'Well, what do you think I should give you for penance?' I says, 'Father, you can justifiably crucify me.' He laughed and says, 'Nope. Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, and don't do it again.' So I listened to him."

"Anything that could get you to kill again?" Kroft asks.

"Not that I can think of," Martorano says.

Not even Whitey Bulger?

Says Martorano, "Well, there’s a bounty out on him."

Thanks to Steve Kroft

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