Adrian Walker

Deal with killer dishonors dead

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / September 9, 1999
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Ever since the revelation last year that John Martorano killed three people in cold blood in 1968 in Roxbury, it has been disturbing how completely forgotten his three victims had become.

Herbert Smith. Elizabeth F. Dickson. Douglas Barrett. They were the invisible, murdered during a spree of gangland killings -- as newspapers of the time put it -- but supposedly not part of the spree. Slain in a rash of mob violence -- but not Irish, not Italian, and not important.

Federal prosecutors had a chance to restore their humanity, to say that even after all the years that have passed their lives and deaths mattered. And yesterday they blew it.

Martorano could serve as little as eight more years under a deal in which he confesses to a total of 20 murders during his time as a mob enforcer. That's less than half a year a corpse.

Even worse, he doesn't even suffer the indignity of being charged with murder. He'll plead out instead to racketeering, race fixing, and extortion, occupational hazards of the gangster's trade. He ratted out James J. ``Whitey'' Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, his higher-ranking colleagues in the Winter Hill Gang.

Yet a verdict has been rendered, and that verdict is chilling: You can commit one of the worst massacres in this city's bloody history and pay no price at all. The lives of Smith, Dickson, and Barrett meant virtually nothing.

Smith -- ``Smitty'' to his friends -- was a manager of a popular South End nightspot, Basin Street South. He is presumed to have been the intended target. Dickson was 19. Barrett was even younger, just 17 on the morning Martorano ambushed them in Roxbury on Jan. 6, 1968. A trail of blood flowed for about a block down Normandy Street before it petered out.

The long-forgotten murders resurfaced last summer in the reflections of a retired Boston Police detective, Eddie Walsh, during the public outcry over the FBI's cozy relationship with Bulger and Flemmi, both longtime informants. The reports prompted paralysis among the city's black political leadership, some of whom wanted to make an issue of the killings and resist a deal with Martorano that did not include a full accounting of the mobster's activities in Roxbury, and others who believed it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie.

``John Martorano killed an awful lot of black people,'' Walsh told the Globe's Mike Barnicle last year. ``He practically used black people for target practice in Roxbury.''

Many black people believe that could well be true and vowed yesterday to demand full disclosure, deal or no deal.

``I absolutely believe it,'' said state Senator Dianne Wilkerson of Roxbury, of the target practice comment. ``If there were more Roxbury murders -- and I believe for a fact there were -- those families should be given a chance to put it to rest.

``Until he went south and west and killed white people, no one cared that he used blacks for target practice.''

The families of the three 1968 victims have been silent since the case was resurrected. Unlike the survivors of some of Martorano's other victims, they have asked for no meetings, held no news conferences, taken no public position on the price Martorano should have to pay. But it's hard to believe they could be satisfied with his deal.

The deal is sure to prompt charges that too low a price was put on those lives. Law enforcement officials will likely respond that there was little or no evidence linking Martorano to many of the murders he confessed to. They will say the choice was between attaching a name to the cases and giving grieving families a chance for closure or pointlessly leaving the cases open with little hope of ever solving them. They will say they have valuable new evidence against Bulger and Flemmi, the real masterminds, the people they really want.

The likely truth is that the Boston Police Department of the time didn't much care about the slayings. It was Roxbury, the victims were black, and they weren't prominent. And by the time anyone did care, or might have cared, too many years had passed, with few clues or leads at the end of that 31-year-old trickle of blood.

So John Martorano has his deal. And some families get ``closure.'' But three people are dead, and no matter how anyone tries to spin it, the fact is that Martorano got away with it. There was a chance to say their lives mattered, but in the end all that really counted was the chance to make a deal.

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