Kevin Cullen

A murder's back story

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 22, 2007

Tuesdays are darts night at Peggy O'Neill's, a tavern on Dorchester Avenue, so Tommy Donahue bounded down the steps of his three-decker on Hecla Street and walked a couple of blocks to the bar.

He ordered a longneck Bud, put his name in for darts, and started talking about his father.

"I was 8 years old, and I had just made my first Holy Communion at St. Mark's, and my dad was going to take me fishing, to celebrate," Donahue said. "That's why he was down the waterfront that day. He was getting stuff so we could go fishing."

It was May 1982, and Michael Donahue had ducked into a bar on Northern Avenue for a quick pop, and when he came out to get into his car he was with Brian Halloran, a guy he knew from the neighborhood in Dorchester. Michael Donahue was a truck driver, a Teamster, with a wife and three kids. Brian Halloran was a criminal who had tried to turn in Whitey Bulger, the South Boston gangster, and as a result was a dead man walking.

Halloran asked Michael Donahue for a ride, figuring that if he had a guy like Donahue beside him, he'd live another day. But the myth that wiseguys kill only each other died with Michael Donahue in a hail of machine-gun fire on Northern Avenue. Halloran's killers, including Whitey Bulger, fired indiscriminately into the car.

Tommy Donahue was just a kid, so nobody had the heart to tell him how his father had died. All he knew was that he missed his dad.

"My father went to all my baseball games," he said. "I'd be standing there in the outfield, looking around for him. Then it would dawn on me that he was gone and he wasn't coming back, and it would just crush me."

They say time heals all wounds, but for the Donahues that wasn't true, especially as the family began learning how much the FBI was responsible for Michael Donahue's murder. Halloran's offer to implicate Bulger in the murder of an Oklahoma businessman was turned down by the FBI because Bulger was an FBI informant. Bulger's handler, FBI agent John Connolly, took it a step further, telling Bulger that Halloran was trying to rat him out.

Like others whose loved ones were murdered by Bulger as the FBI looked the other way, the Donahues sued the government, and on Monday a remarkable thing happened. Bob George, the Donahues' lawyer, has been around the block and sensed something unusual was in the air, so he called Tommy Donahue from federal court.

"You better get down here," George said.

Donahue is an electrician, Local 103, and he was pulling wire in a building in Watertown. He showed up at court in his work clothes, changing into sneakers because his steel-toe boots would have set off the metal detectors. He made it just in time to sit with his brothers Michael and Shaun to hear Judge Reginald Lindsay tell the US Justice Department to drop the pretense that its agents didn't get their father killed. The judge told the government lawyers to settle with the Donahues, the Hallorans, and the other families.

In fact, Judge Lindsay was giving the government a way to, for once in this whole sordid saga, do the right thing. Naturally, the government lawyers said they had to run it by their superiors in Washington.

Tommy Donahue sat in the courtroom, stunned.

"The government has been so bad in all this. Just delay and delay and delay," he said. "When that judge spoke like that, it felt like justice. After all these years, it felt like justice."

The Donahues stand to be paid millions in compensation. Tommy Donahue said the money will help. But there are things money can't buy.

"I would have paid anything to have had my dad growing up," Tommy Donahue said, nodding as if he was never more sure of anything in this world. "Anything."

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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