East Boston son’s stunning fall

Facing drug charges, mayor’s liaison submits resignation

John Forbes could face 25 years in jail. John Forbes could face 25 years in jail. (File 2006)
By Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / December 24, 2009

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It was a sparkling Saturday in August, and John M. Forbes pushed his Two Guys Slush cart into Piers Park, hawking watermelon ice to the children gathered for Eastie Pride Day. Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s all-purpose fix-it man in East Boston, the one you called if your street light was blown or the trash wasn’t getting picked up, was in his element.

But just five days later, Forbes allegedly made a far different sale, dealing 125 OxyContin tablets for $5,000, along with a quarter-pound stash of marijuana valued at $1,600, to a witness who was cooperating with federal authorities.

Now, as the 31-year-old father of two sits in Plymouth County jail, facing federal drug-dealing charges that could put him behind bars for 25 years, prosecutors are alleging he lived “two different lives,’’ one as a neighborhood do-gooder who represented Menino at fund-raisers and toy drives and the other as a purveyor of a highly addictive painkiller that has become a scourge of East Boston.

Yesterday, Forbes submitted his resignation as the mayor’s liaison to East Boston, “with deep regret,’’ in a terse two-sentence letter to the city’s assistant supervisor of labor rela tions.

The fall of Forbes, who many knew as the former star pitcher for St. Dominic Savio Preparatory High School and one of five children of a well-known family active in East Boston, has stunned and disturbed those who knew him.

Many said they saw no signs of trouble in Forbes’s life. Previously, his most serious brush with the law appears to have been a speeding ticket that resulted in the brief suspension of his driver’s license 10 years ago.

While the mayor has refused to talk about Forbes other than to release a brief statement saying he was “deeply troubled and disheartened,’’ friends and others from East Boston are sorting through their memories of Forbes, trying to unravel what went wrong.

“I haven’t spoken to anybody who isn’t shocked, and it takes a lot to shock me,’’ said John Kelly, executive director of East Boston Social Centers, who has known Forbes and his family for decades. “I’ve been in social services for 40 years, and this is really a shocker. I think it’s really about the tragedy of drugs that do affect families - even the finest families. And he comes from a great family.’’

Forbes’s grandfather, Jack, was for years the director of East Boston Social Centers, a hub of recreational activities and community events. A brother, Anthony, is the sports and recreation coordinator at Salesian Boys and Girls Club of East Boston, where a sister, Katie, teaches dance classes. His father, John P. Forbes, a vice president at Framingham retailer TJX Cos., coaches basketball. His mother, Cynthia, is “devoted to her children,’’ said state Representative Carlo P. Basile, an East Boston Democrat who has known the family for decades.

Family members declined to be interviewed.

As a boy, Forbes spent summers, as a camper and counselor, at East Boston Camps in Westford, where generations of neighborhood children have bonded, including prominent figures such as former Senate president Robert E. Travaglini.

Forbes’s easygoing confidence - along with his muscular build, sandy brown hair, and brown eyes - drew people to him.

“He was always well liked,’’ said Jeff Drago, who attended Dom Savio with Forbes and partnered with him in their Italian ice business. Drago is now a special assistant to Menino.

Forbes attended the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he studied psychology and became the fourth most-winning pitcher in school history. He left college in 2002, and married Leah Scapicchio, his high school sweetheart, at Spinelli’s, a function hall in East Boston.

“They were the perfect East Boston couple,’’ said Salvatore LaMattina, who represents East Boston on the City Council and has been a mentor to John Forbes.

Forbes took classes sporadically at UMass during the next five years but did not complete his degree, school officials said.

In 2004, LaMattina recommended Forbes, who had been working at the YMCA in East Boston, for the job as Menino’s East Boston liaison, a post LaMattina once held. Forbes made it through four interviews, the last with Menino himself, and landed the job, earning $49,000 last year.

“He was young and he was clean and he was all around a good kid,’’ LaMattina said before trailing off. Then he continued, audibly emotional, “He was like a son.’’

Forbes’s wife worked as a pharmacy technician at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center until 2007. David Ball, a center spokesman, said he had no further information on her employment. Leah Forbes’s pharmacy technician license expired in October. She describes herself on her Facebook page as a “stay at home mom of two daughters. Married to my high school sweetheart, Johnny.’’

As one of two dozen young men and women in the Office of Neighborhood Services, Forbes worked at the heart of the mayor’s operation, handling the mundane street-level problems, which the mayor considers a top priority. His duties included attending countless neighborhood meetings and hearings where constituents were seeking licenses or zoning permits.

“He was part of the program to put barrels out on the street and get street cleaning,’’ Drago said. “He took care of all the basic city service stuff.’’

Forbes helped the Rev. John Nazzaro, the director of the Salesian Boys and Girls Club, get permits for the center. He also attended the club’s spaghetti dinners and would stop by with his daughters to say hello before walking to his grandparents’ house, Nazzaro said.

Anthony Albano, a former high school guidance counselor who is known as the “mayor of East Boston,’’ recalled that when his son suffered an aneurysm and was diagnosed with a terminal disease, Forbes helped raise $20,000 to send the boy to Texas for treatment.

“My son’s life was saved,’’ Albano said. Of Forbes, he said, “You call him at 2 in the morning and he’s at your house, whatever you need.’’

Forbes worked hard on Menino’s reelection campaign this fall, making phone calls to voters and persuading East Boston residents to put up yard signs for the mayor, Drago said. He was often talked about as a potential future officeholder.

“I would ask, ‘Are you going to run for something?’ ’’ Nazzaro said.

But he also attracted the attention of federal authorities, in June 2008, when the cooperating witness told authorities that Forbes, Anthony W. Cristallo, a convicted murderer from Derry, N.H., and another man, Lawrence R. Taylor of Wakefield, were selling drugs in the Boston area.

In a May 5 meeting that federal officials say was secretly tape recorded in Forbes’s City Hall office, Forbes offered to sell the witness OxyContin and marijuana and to help him get a city job, federal officials said.

Forbes allegedly sold the witness OxyContin in August, and earlier this month he refused police access to his home to question Cristallo. He was arrested on Dec. 16 and charged with possession with intent to distribute OxyContin, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison, and possession with intent to distribute marijuana, which carries a maximum of five years in prison.

Forbes’s lawyer, Victoria Kelleher, said in court this week that Forbes is a respected city employee who was addicted to OxyContin, and asked that he be released to a drug treatment center. Kelleher said Leah Forbes was also addicted to drugs and entered treatment after her husband was arrested.

Forbes is due back in court in February.

Michael Levenson can be reached at; Donovan Slack at Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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