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Kevin Cullen

A trip down memory lane he’ll wait to take

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / October 3, 2010

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Charlie Clifford hasn’t seen Ben Affleck’s new heist film, “The Town.’’

“I’m going to wait until it comes out in DVD,’’ he said, sitting in his office on Main Street in Charlestown.

But he’s seen it all before. Over four decades. If a Townie got caught robbing a bank, he’d call Charles A. Clifford, Esq.

“I had them all,’’ he said, nodding. “I had them all.’’

Some people, especially those who have moved into Charlestown in the last few years, might not recognize the subculture represented on-screen. Charlie Clifford wouldn’t recognize the sophistication of the robbers. In his experience, most of the Charlestown kids who robbed banks were just that — kids. Most weren’t hardened criminals. They robbed banks because, as the saying goes, that’s where the money was.

A 17-year-old bank robber came to see Charlie Clifford one day.

“Hey, Mr. Clifford,’’ the kid said, “look what I bought my girlfriend.’’

Charlie Clifford turned to regard the kid’s 15-year-old girlfriend. She was wearing sneakers and a mink coat.

For some, it was a rite of passage. For many, it was the inevitable result of peer pressure, bravado, and youthful stupidity.

Usually, it was three kids. One drove the car. Another went in and pointed a gun. The third jumped the counter and grabbed the cash.

If they got caught, they usually dummied up.

A bunch of Townies robbed a bank in Cambridge once and went their separate ways in escape. One kid ran into a barbershop but got pinched. They put him in front of a grand jury, and he was asked to identify his accomplices.

“I don’t know,’’ the kid said. “They were all masked.’’

Then there were the Townies who robbed the same bank on Summer Street downtown at 1 p.m. three Thursdays in a row. The third time, the cops were lying in wait. There was gunfire and a bank guard shot one of the kids. The late, great John Ridlon, a Boston police detective from Charlestown, knelt beside the wounded kid, trying to trick him into identifying his accomplice.

“Your partner’s dead,’’ Ridlon said. “Tell me his name so I can tell his family.’’

The wounded kid wasn’t buying it.

“If he’s dead,’’ he told Ridlon, wincing in pain, “you better get him out of here before he starts to stink.’’

Clifford and Ridlon worked opposite ends of the spectrum, but they were great pals. They were Townies and respected each other.

Because he grew up in a house where money wasn’t plentiful, Clifford found it easier to defend his clients in court than judge them in life. The vast majority of them were poor, from the projects, and often not in the best family situations. Clifford’s father was a bookie, which was an honorable profession back then, before the state became the biggest bookie in the state. Charlie Clifford was a longshoreman before he was a lawyer, and he will tell you the most honest people he met were on the docks.

Clifford would always say to the great love of his life, his wife, Ronnie, “Where would I be without you?’’

And Ronnie Clifford would always say back, “Walpole.’’

Some of Charlie Clifford’s clients found their way to the state prison in Walpole, a trip often ensured by their cluelessness. One guy was caught by a bank camera, his bare face filling the screen, just as he was preparing to pull down his ski mask. Another shielded his face from a camera on one side of the bank, not realizing the left side of his face was caught in full profile by a hidden camera.

“A lot of these guys weren’t geniuses,’’ Charlie Clifford said.

Neither were they complainers. All of them knew the rules and the risks. They didn’t expect miracles from their lawyer.

“Try to keep it in single digits,’’ they’d tell Charlie Clifford, when the plea deals were being worked out.

“They didn’t blame anybody else for what they did,’’ Clifford said.

The scores were small, usually three or four grand. The most money Clifford can remember one of his clients getting from a bank was $21,000.

Drugs changed everything. The cool, somewhat professional jobs of the 1960s and part of the 1970s descended into chaos by the 1980s. Kids who were hyped up on angel dust or something else extended their arms to produce shaking hands holding shaking guns. They were more likely to shoot one another in drug-induced paranoia and internecine fighting than get shot by a bank guard.

At 71, Charlie Clifford is still one of the hardest-working, best lawyers in town. Most of the bank robbers he represented have done their time and moved on. A lot of them got clean and sober and that changed everything. One of them has a bit part in “The Town.’’

Charlie Clifford was standing outside his office in the sunshine the other day and saw a guy, a deliveryman, walking down Main Street. In his youth, the guy robbed a bank and a guard shot him in the head. He was lucky to survive, and Clifford did his best so the kid wouldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison.

Last year, when Ronnie Clifford died, the guy showed up at the wake.

“He brought his son,’’ Charlie Clifford said. “He’s doing the right thing now. He’s a solid individual.’’

Charlie Clifford waved to the guy the other day. And the guy waved back.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com

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