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Cop & robber

Richard Marinick was both of those. Now he's got a new gig: crime novelist.

Richard Marinick doesn't look like a tough guy, as crime writers often do in their publicity pictures. He doesn't sound like a tough guy, either. But unlike Mickey Spillane or Robert B. Parker, Marinick actually committed the kinds of crimes he writes about.

In fact, this guy's life is so full of unexpected turns that you couldn't put him in a novel or a movie. Not even Hollywood would believe it.

He starts out as a bouncer in Combat Zone bars, then earns a black belt in karate in Okinawa. He comes back, enters the State Police Academy, and becomes a trooper. He quits police work and drifts into gangster life in South Boston, develops a drug habit, and works his way up from two-bit crime to enforcement beatings, truck-hijackings, bank robberies, and finally armored-car holdups. His luck runs out after a high-speed police chase, and he's sentenced to prison. He decides to change his life. In prison, he gets religion and two college degrees. He works with a counselor to understand his past and get over it. He works at being a writer. After 10 years, he's released from prison, becomes a legitimate working man, gets married, and finally realizes his dream of publishing a book.

How could all this happen?

"I have no doubt I was guided all the way," Marinick, 53, said at his home on Telegraph Hill in South

Boston. "I got all the people I needed. I would think, `I need this,' and the person would be there." That answer is simple, but the details are not. Growing up in North Quincy, Marinick ran with a wild crowd from the start. "I loved action. We would go to Dorchester and get into gang fights. We were North Quincy kids, so we'd fight the Quincy kids." After graduating from high school in 1969, he took a few courses at Quincy Junior College, but there were other attractions. By age 19 he was working at the old Downtown Lounge, a Combat Zone strip club, hauling ice and cueing the acts, working his way up to bouncer.

His grandfather had been a Boston police detective, and his father owned an auto-body shop. While his grandfather loathed the organized-crime figures of 1940s and '50s, Marinick's late father had a different feeling.

"He liked being around those guys," Marinick said. "The body shop business had dark undertones, hot body parts being sold, gangsters hanging out. My father knew Joe Lombardo [1895-1969], the head of the Cosa Nostra here for years. We used to go to Giro's in the North End, and I'd be sitting on Lombardo's knee at age 5. When I got to the Combat Zone, you'd see the gangsters coming in. They had money and lots of beautiful women. You're rubbing shoulders with them -- letting them in the side door, doing them favors."

But Marinick had always admired state troopers, and in 1972 he took the State Police exam. He did well on the test, but there was a long waiting list, and he didn't expect to be called. In 1976 he got married. A year later, he left for Okinawa and spent six months studying with a grand master in karate.

When he returned, to his surprise, he got a call from the State Police -- he was on the list for the next academy class. He accepted the offer, and the class started in February 1978. "It was the hardest 22 weeks of my life," he said. "We started with 124 and graduated 82. I graduated near the top of my class, and had the highest instructor's rating in the academy."

"He was a tough kid, a quiet guy in the academy," recalls Trooper Edmund Burke, one of his classmates, who worked with Marinick for a time. "I always had respect for him. He was a standup guy who knew his job and did it well. He was always 100 percent honest when I saw him on the job." In July 1978, Marinick started on highway patrol out of the Topsfield barracks, at a salary of $10,700.

From cop to crime
One night he was called out to an accident on I-495 in Haverhill. It was snowing, and a tractor trailer was jackknifed across the highway. In the dark, a car plowed into it. The top was torn off the car, and both occupants were killed.

"I drive up there," Marinick said. "There's mayhem, blood, and gore all over. My training kicks in. I cover the man with a blanket. His son was still alive. I make drawings. Then I go back to the barracks, and I've got blood all over me. I hang up my orange raincoat, hosing the blood off, and I say to myself, `What am I doing? I'm making $150 a week and risking my life. I'm wearing a hand-me-down uniform with holes in it. This is insanity.' "

Meanwhile, his wife was working as a bartender, encountering the wise guys in a different way. "They would flash their money and tell her how beautiful she was, say, `Leave your husband and come to Vegas with me,' " Marinick said. "She would come home and tell me: `They want to take me to Hawaii, Fiji, Denmark to see the mermaid.' " He said his wife wanted to own a home and have children. "I can't afford it, but these guys got the money. It was infuriating."

He quit the force and went to work for his father's auto-body shop, while still bouncing in clubs. He got into cocaine and went into a spiral.

"I'm hanging around in South Boston, going to the Muni, which is next to the South Boston district court, the boxing gym there. There are these up-and-coming gangsters like myself there; we form a tight bond. I'm hiring men to work in the clubs I'm working in, bouncers with me. Next thing you know, we're making little moves." He says he was never a Whitey Bulger soldier; in South Boston, things were loosely organized.

"You start small," Marinick said. "You don't start out robbing armored cars. It happened over a period of years. You pick up the trade, like any other."

Before he got to that level, there were truck hijackings, bank robberies, enforcement assignments where money was owned. "I had a lot of anger," he said. "All the anger channeled in one direction. If somebody needed the [expletive] kicked out of him, we'd go do it. I had no problem with that. That's the way I lived. My insane life was normal. I was a predator out there, a big cat in the jungle. The arrests were coming: assault and battery, assault with a deadly weapon. I had plenty of money and was spending it on lawyers." Though he says he never hurt anyone truly innocent, still he says, "It's an act of God that I never killed anyone."

His marriage broke up in 1982, and the cocaine habit worsened. He says he entered a detox program in 1984 to kick the drugs. "I tried to work. I became a licensed termite exterminator. I worked construction for a while but couldn't get in the union. Then I sold magazines door to door. I was sticking guns in people's faces six months before, and now I'm making 50 cents a day selling Time magazine. I said, `I can't do this,' laid myself off, and within two weeks I had $18,000 in my pocket."

He would occasionally run into police academy classmates. Most of them didn't know what he was involved in. Some did.

"I was sitting in a stolen car in about 1985," Marinick said, "on the corner of Dorchester Avenue and Old Colony Avenue, with a friend. An unmarked State Police cruiser pulls up next to me. I don't know the driver, but the passenger is one of my classmates. I say, `Hey, Mike, what's up?' He says, `Hey, Rick, we know what you're up to.' I say, `What do you mean?' He says, `Nothing personal, brother, but we know what you're up to. We're going to get you. You have a good day.' And they drove off."

In the midst of this, Marinick clung to a childhood dream of being a writer. He even chose a pen name: Richard Suntaug. "I was always writing," he said. "When I was a gangster, I'd go down to the M Street beach and write children's stories. I'd read them to my mum, and she'd say, `Richard, this is incredible. Why don't you do this?' I'd say, `Mum, I can't make a living at this.' "

He became an armored car specialist. "Armored cars are the pinnacle," he said. "You had to learn how to control the situation -- not scare people, but let them know you mean business. How to get cars, how to follow without being spotted, set it up. You rehearse everything; you've got the weapons, the stopwatches. I knew 30-year hard-core bank robbers who would never touch an armored car. They've got armed guards; there are a lot of variables to consider. It was hard to find good help, believe me."

During a daylight armored-car robbery outside a Medford bank in July 1984, Marinick got into a wild shootout with the driver, who was firing from the closed cab through the window into the back, where an accomplice was grabbing bags of cash.

"The bullets are coming in the car," he said. "I'm standing on the sidewalk blasting away for 20 seconds with a pump shotgun, boom-boom-boom, till I run out of shells." The accomplice was killed, but the rest of the gang got away.

In April 1986 his luck ran out. "The way I look at it, it was an act of God -- this was supposed to be the end of it," he said.

Marinick and three others hit an armored car outside a Williamstown bank and hauled away $435,000. "It was a beautiful, professionally planned score," he said, "a huge amount of money." But they were seen by a passing Williamstown policeman. He and another officer chased the gang, and radioed North Adams police, who set up a roadblock. Fifteen minutes later, with two cars hot on their tail, Marinick and company ran into the block.

"I knew it was over," he said. "The guns are all on me, M-16s and shotguns, it's like `The Dukes of Hazzard.' I waved at them over the wheel. The heads came up, and the rifle barrels came down. From that time on, it was over for me."

Prison education
Marinick received an 18- to-20-year prison sentence. While he was in the Berkshire County Jail before trial, he wrote poetry and children's stories. Then he read about the Boston University Prison Education Program. "I said, `I'm going to do that."' And he did.

He spent time in MCI Concord and Cedar Junction, finally ending up in MCI Norfolk, a medium-security prison. He was 35 when he went in, 46 when he got out in 1996 (after time off for good behavior). While in prison, he says, he felt a strong spiritual awakening. He underwent years of therapy, worked on his writing, and earned a bachelor's degree from Boston University, magna cum laude, and a master's in children's literature, summa cum laude. The program is funded by BU.

At Norfolk, Marinick met two Catholic chaplains. "We started meeting on a weekly basis, talking about life, family, and the church, and about his writing," said Sister Kathleen Denevan , who is trained as a psychotherapist. "He had had a teacher who encouraged him. He is a very faithful guy, bright and articulate, determined to make a change in his life. There was something in him that was unfinished. Being a former police officer in prison is dangerous, but he was very respected. He would work with lifetime crooks, try to get them to come to church. Somehow he reconnected with his faith, but I can't pin down how it happened. It's God's grace working in lives."

Marinick said: "I didn't want the old life. The longer I was in prison, the more education I was getting, my mind was being broadened, the less it appealed to me. It was over a period of years. I knew I didn't want to go back."

Marinick also reconnected with an old friend, Elaine Carter from South Boston, whom he had known since the 1970s. Before he went to prison, she knew about his dark side, but she didn't know the details.

"He had qualities that I admired," said Carter, a clinical research nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "He was extremely loyal. We had a lot in common. I saw something in him he didn't see in himself. I would say to him, `Richard, what are you doing? You're better than this. You don't need to go this route.' He would say, `I know, I know. It's just something I've got to do right now.' When he ended up going to prison, I wrote to him and would visit him. No matter what he did, I was still his friend."

Her marriage broke up around the time he got out of prison, and they began to see each other. He was having a hard time containing his anger at the way he was sometimes treated outside.

"Prison is a very polite society," he explained. "It's always, `Excuse me, please pass the salt.' You don't want to offend anyone, because a simple offense can mean your death." During one of his first jobs after prison, as a bartender, he recalls, "someone would say to me, `Hey you!' I would say, `Who me?' They'd say, `Yeah you, get me a Bud.' I would start toward the guy, `Don't hey-you me,' and I'd have to say to myself, `Whoa, whoa, Rick!' "

And of course the old crowd tried to recruit him. "I had a real good criminal pedigree," he said, "but I had had enough. It's like eating peanuts. You can't eat one. Pretty soon you've got a mouthful and you're choking."

He also had Elaine, and she says she had made one thing clear: "You make a move that way, brother, and there's nothing going on with us. I've had enough pain in my life. I had a friend tell me, `You're crazy. No one will give him a job. He'll end up back in prison.' I guess I had this blind devotion that he was not going to end up that way." They were married last year.

`I've got something here'
After a succession of unskilled jobs, a friend helped him get in the Sandhogs union -- the tunnel workers -- and his life settled down. He worked for six years on the Deer Island outfall tunnel, suffering several injuries. The work was hard and steady, and he made a living, but he still had the old dream of being a writer.

At first, he resisted writing what his prison teachers had suggested: crime fiction. "Ten years as a hood, 10 years in prison -- I didn't want to write about that stuff," he said. "I wanted to write children's stories." A couple of years ago, though, he decided to try a novel.

"I'd work all day, go to the gym after work, then go to the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy and write in a little ring-notebook. After a couple of weeks, I thought, `I've got something here.' I had an idea of where I wanted to go."

"Boyos" is the result.

Set mostly in South Boston, "Boyos" is the story of Jack "Wacko" Curran and his brother Kevin, two South Boston gangsters trying to break away from the control of the Southie crime boss. In an echo of the real-life Whitey Bulger-FBI axis, the story is set against a relationship between kingpin Marty Fallon and an FBI agent described as "the fat man."

The novel is violent and extraordinarily detailed and realistic in dialect, culture, and setting, right down to the color of the upholstery in the L Street Diner. The robbery scenes are written with authority. There are no good guys, though some are less bad than others, and no happy ending.

Marinick brought several chapters to Kate Mattes, owner of Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, who has her own imprint -- Kate's Mystery -- published by Justin, Charles & Co., a new Boston publisher.

"Once I started it," Mattes said, "I couldn't stop. I said, `Give me the rest of it."' She referred Marinick to Justin, Charles publisher Stephen Hull, who read the book and agreed to publish it. "Once in a while," Hull said, "you read someone with a distinctive voice. I thought it had the ring of authenticity. I thought, `I believe this guy knows what he's talking about.' "

The book has had positive early notices, which has Marinick over the moon. He's already 200 pages into a new book, which he hopes will be the start of a detective series. But he doesn't want to be trapped in crime fiction. "I want to go into children's writing -- that's my joy," he said.

In the meantime, there's no tunnel work, and he's unemployed. He recently had surgery on his feet, as a result of a work-related injury, and hopes eventually to get in the Teamsters Union, doing moving jobs -- convention setups and office moving.

His writing dream has come true, but Marinick also dreams of returning to prison -- to counsel inmates. As an ex-con, he's not allowed in. Still he tries, indirectly. Sister Denevan read aloud from an e-mail he recently sent her. It was a message to an inmate: "Send him my regards. I hope he's still searching for God. He won't have to look very far. He lives in my neighborhood, and his, too."

Last year, Marinick was invited to his State Police Academy class's 25th reunion, and says he was welcomed warmly. "They took a group picture," he said, "and I'm in it."

He tries to warn younger men against his mistakes. "I encourage everyone not to get caught up with drugs or gangs -- I'm talking about guys in their late 20s, 30s, not the old-time hoods. It's a constant process. One individual, I begged him for years, and he's back in [prison]. He wrote to me and said, `Rick, I should have listened to you.' "

One thing he's firm about: There's no chance of his turning back. "That's dead," he said. "The old life is the History Channel."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com. 

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