Buried by the Mob
One family's brush with Whitey Bulger
By Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Globe Staff
This article is excerpted from the book, "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil's Deal," published by PublicAffairs.
Julie Miskel Rakes and her husband, Stephen, were like a lot of other
couples from the old neighborhood - family-oriented, hard-working, and
determined to make their own modest way in life. They'd grown up in Southie.
Julie was from the projects, just like crime boss Whitey Bulger and FBI agent
John Connolly, and her family belonged to the same parish as the Bulgers, St.
Monica's, situated at the outer boundary of the Old Harbor housing project and
across a rotary from another, the Old Colony housing project.
Though only two years apart, Julie and Stephen did not really know each
other at South Boston High School. They met later, when Julie was 20 years old
and Stephen was 22 and he was operating the first of his many business
ventures, Stippo's Sub and Deli. Stippo was Stephen's nickname, and the
popular corner store sold coffee, doughnuts, and groceries. It was open from
dawn to midnight, with Stephen's brother, sister, mother, and father all
Julie began working at the store in 1977. Stephen was the owner and
manager; he was in charge of ordering the stock, handling the banking, pricing
and shelving the inventory. Soon enough, the couple began dating, and then, in
1978, the Rakeses and the Miskels gathered with friends to celebrate the
marriage of Julie and Stephen Rakes. It was a South Boston family affair.
Stephen was no stranger to trouble; in the past, he and his brothers had
tangled with police. But with Julie, he was going to make a go of it. Two
years after they married, their first daughter, Nicole, was born; a second
daughter, Meredith, was born in November 1982. During this time, Stephen sold
the deli, became a partner in a liquor store, and then, by 1983, he and Julie
decided they were ready to go it alone again. Stephen preferred owning his
own business. The work pace might be punishing, but the rewards would be
theirs alone. Julie suggested a video rental store, but Stephen convinced her
that a liquor store would be more profitable.
Hunting around, Stephen spotted an abandoned Texaco gas station right at
the rotary near St. Monica's Church. It was a prime site on a Main Street,
Old Colony Avenue. Traffic was always flowing down Old Colony and around the
rotary out front, and the property had a rare commodity in the compact
business districts of South Boston - a parking lot. Together, they researched
Boston property records to identify the owner.
"We were going to make it big," Julie recalls. "This was going to be our
source of income that was going to give us the lifestyle that we wanted - for
the rest of our lives."
But for all their hopes and hard work, there was a problem.
Whitey Bulger had been chased out of the Lancaster Street Garage, harassed
by state troopers, and, most recently, hounded as a murder suspect. The time
had come for him and longtime cohort Stevie Flemmi to quit all their running
around and find a new home office. The way Bulger saw it, why not the cozy
confines of the old neighborhood? There was no substitute for the familiar and
insulated feel of South Boston. The Rakeses, unfortunately, knew none of this,
and their modest ambition was about to collide with Bulger's plan in a town
where whatever Whitey wanted, Whitey got.
The fall of 1983 was a mad scramble for the couple, trying to accomplish
all that was necessary to open in time for the holiday season. In a relatively
short period of time, things had gone pretty smoothly, beginning with their
successful bid for a liquor license at an auction during the summer. In the
newspaper, Stephen had spotted a notice for the auction of a license from a
liquor store that was closing, displaced by construction. Eager, the couple
dressed up one Saturday and went downtown to the law firm overseeing the sale.
The couple decided that Julie should do the bidding. "He was saying, `Go
ahead. You can do it,' " says Julie. "And I was saying, `What do you do? What
do you do?' It was fun. Exciting. He said, `Go ahead. Raise your hand. Raise
your hand!' " Julie did. The bidding opened at $1,000. There was other
interest, but Julie kept going. Suddenly, the bidding ended, and the Rakeses
walked away with a liquor license for just $3,000.
It was a great start. They created a business corporation, Stippo's Inc.,
that consisted of a family lineup of corporate officers. "I was president,"
says Julie, "and we made jokes about it." Stephen took the titles of treasurer
and clerk and of director. Then came some other good news: Julie was pregnant
with their third child. At the end of September, the couple got in touch with
a contractor, a friend from the neighborhood, Brian Burke. Burke started on
the toughest part of the project - converting a gas station into a liquor
store. The ground had to be dug up and the huge gasoline tanks removed, all
in accordance with state environmental codes. Burke cleaned up the lot,
replaced the roof, and applied a new look to the building's exterior. The
Rakeses were not out to break new ground in design or aesthetics. Their
pockets were not deep. The goal was a basic renovation that achieved
functionalism: a clean, well-lighted, concrete-block building with glass
windows. The couple felt a rush of excitement after the sign was hoisted into
place on the front: Stippo's Liquor Mart.
But family and friends were not the only visitors to the construction site
during the final days before the opening. Taking note, too, of the progress
were Bulger and Flemmi. Late at night, the two gangsters were coming around to
inspect all the remodeling that was going on. There was usually a third man
with them, Kevin Weeks, who had stepped in for the recently slain Nicky Femia
as a new sidekick, driver, and sometime enforcer. Half Bulger's age, Weeks
had the perfect resume. The bushy-haired kid stood a few inches shy of 6
feet, but his upper body was all muscle, and, most important, he had quick
hands. The son of a boxing trainer, he'd grown up in the rings around the
city. And, like John Connolly's, his boyhood was spent in thrall of the Bulger
mystique. He filled up on stories about Southie's very own gangster but only
caught his first glimpse of the man when he happened to spot Whitey marching
through the housing project.
Weeks's first job after graduating from South Boston High School in 1974
was the one he was made for - a bouncer, or "security aide," at his alma
mater, patrolling the hallways and breaking up the fights between white and
black students that were a regular feature of court-ordered busing.
Then, the next winter, a few days before St. Patrick's Day, the 18-year-old
moved up to Whitey's world when he went to work at Triple O's, the bar on West
Broadway where Whitey hung out. He started out behind the bar, lugging ice.
Then one night, the bar's big-bodied enforcers seemed unable to handle a
brawl, and Kevin leaped from behind the bar and leveled the miscreants with
blazing combinations. Whit ey took notice. Weeks was promoted first to a
Triple O's bouncer and then to Bulger's side. By the early 1980s, Bulger was
Weeks's mentor; Weeks was like Bulger's surrogate son. Weeks liked to go
around bragging about his loyalty, telling people he'd rather serve hard
time, even rather see harm come to his own family, than utter a bad word about
For Bulger, it was a good time to be considering a new office. He and
Flemmi were doing well indeed, better than ever. The local Mafia was rocked:
Gennaro Angiulo was now in jail, along with a number of other key mafiosi.
Bulger's own rackets had prospered in the aftermath of the FBI's bugging of
the mob. The amount of rent, or tribute, Bulger charged was increasing
steadily, as was the number of bookmakers and drug dealers making such
payments. More than ever, Bulger and Flemmi were willing to help the FBI
clear out the clutter from the city's underworld. It was great for business.
As they looked for a new office, Bulger and Flemmi's priority was a
location that included a legitimate business. Running a business made it
possible to launder profits from their illegal gambling, loan-sharking, and
drugs. Bulger had often used the rooms above Triple O's. But bars were
crowded, public, and often chaotic places. The fights that broke out at Triple
O's drew police scrutiny. Instead, he and Flemmi wanted a place that might fit
more tidily into the palms of their hands, and this new liquor store at the
rotary had caught Bulger's eye.
By year's end, Julie and Stephen Rakes were in a rush. They'd missed
Christmas and were not going to have time to hold a grand opening. Julie's two
sisters, her mother, and Stephen's father and mother helped set up inside and
stock the shelves. The Rakeses oversaw the installation of a bank of
refrigerators - their biggest investment to date. To capture part of the
holiday season, they opened up just in time for New Year's.
Their families sent over plants with ribbons to display on the counter, but
beyond that, the Rakes es didn't mark the occasion; they simply opened their
doors for business. Stephen took out an ad in the South Boston Tribune
announcing that the store was "Now Open," was located at "The Rotary in South
Boston," and, importantly, had "Parking Available." Listed were the hours:
"Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m." It was pretty basic stuff. Then,
at the bottom of the display ad, Stephen included an enticing item he hoped
would catch a few South Boston readers' eyes. "Win a trip for two to Hawaii or
$1,000 in a cash drawing on Wednesday, February 8, 1984, 5 p.m., at the
Mart." The promotion was Stephen's idea, his brainstorm to draw customers to
the store. "In the area, stores never offered things like trips," says Julie
Rakes, "so we thought it was kind of big. It would attract attention."
Customers came. The husband and wife worked as a tag team, moving between
store and home, handing off the business and the kids. Relatives always
pitched in, but they were volunteers. It was exhausting and all-consuming, but
the business was theirs and the cash register was ringing. But before they
could complete even a week's worth of business, the Rakeses would be finished.
They wouldn't even be around long enough to hold the advertised raffle. Whitey
and Stevie had no plans to fly anyone off to Hawaii for free.
Julie threw on her coat and headed out into the winter night, a night that
was beginning like so many other nights: hectic. One spouse coming, the other
going, a pace the couple had maintained throughout the renovation of their new
store and into its opening days. The talk around town was mostly about the
city's new mayor, Ray Flynn, the "people's mayor," an Irish son of Southie
who was starting his new job during these first days of 1984.
Julie drove over to the store from their house on Fourth Street, a short
drive that took her along routes she'd known her entire life, past the homes,
stores, and bars along Old Colony Avenue. It was the only world she knew, and
she was thinking good thoughts - about her family, about the new business,
about Stephen. After she arrived, and chatted with the person they'd hired to
work in the stockroom and make deliveries, the telephone rang.
It was Stephen.
"How am I supposed to know when the lamb is ready?" asked
Stephen. He and Julie were learning to be interchangeable - she in
business, he at home. Julie walked him through the instructions for the roast
and then tended to a few customers. It was midweek and pretty quiet, and Julie
had a chance to catch her breath. Around 9 p.m., the phone rang again.
Stephen? she wondered. What is it this time?
Julie did not recognize the deep and husky voice coming over the line. "I
know you, I like you, and I don't want to see you get hurt."
"Who is this?"
The voice ignored her question. "You should get out."
"Who is this?"
"The store is going to be bombed."
"Why are you doing this?"
Julie's voice was rising in alarm. "If you like me, why don't you say your
name?" She was shouting. "Why don't you say your name?" But the caller had
Julie was frightened. She looked around the mostly empty store, feeling
that someone was watching. She was back on the telephone with her husband,
upset and explaining about the anonymous call she had just taken, and the more
she described it, the more upset she got. Stephen, for his part, tried to
sound comforting. Julie could hear the television in the background, and she
could hear the kids making noise. But hanging up, Julie also thought Stephen's
voice had sounded tense.
Stephen Rakes had a good reason for sounding that way. In his kitchen, at
that precise moment, he was entertaining three uninvited visitors. He had been
cleaning up after dinner, playing around with his two girls, getting them
changed for bed and letting them watch some television, when he heard a knock
at the door. He hadn't been expecting anyone. He went to the door and pulled
it open. In the dark stood three men, and Rakes recognized them all. Rakes
knew Kevin Weeks from growing up, although they were never close. Stephen also
recognized the other men. He sometimes saw them at Triple O's, too. But he
didn't know them personally, never had had anything to do with them, and
they'd never come to his house before. It's just that everyone knew Whitey
Bulger and Stevie Flemmi.
It did not look good. The men walked right in and took Stephen into the
kitchen. Bulger and Flemmi sat down. Weeks stayed on his feet nearby. Bulger
was in charge. "You got a problem," he told Rakes. The competition, Whitey
said, some of the other liquor store owners, wanted him dead. But Bulger had
an option. "Instead of killing you, we'll buy the store."
Rakes fidgeted. "It's not for sale," he said.
It was the only peep of protest Stephen Rakes would make. Bulger exploded,
saying they would kill him and take the store. Bulger stormed out, Flemmi and
Weeks at his heels. In a panic, Rakes called his wife and told her about the
surprise visit. They didn't know what to do. Before Stephen had time to begin
to think clearly, there was another rattle at the door.
Bulger was back. He pushed his way past Rakes, accompanied again by Flemmi
and Weeks and squeezing a brown paper bag. Back in the family's kitchen,
Bulger put the bag down and stood over Rakes at the table. Bulger had a pocket
knife in his hand, which he opened and closed as if to punctuate his words.
One of Stephen's little girls wandered into the kitchen to see what was going
on. Flemmi pulled a handgun from his waistband, put it on the table, and
lifted the girl onto his lap. "Isn't she cute," Flemmi said. The gangster
tousled her blond hair. The gun's hard metal caught the child's attention, and
she reached for it. Flemmi let her touch it, and the girl even put part of the
gun in her mouth. "It would be a sin for her not to see you."