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Comrades' betrayal turned Mob enforcer

By Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff, 9/13/1999

Loyalty meant everything to Johnny Martorano. He would do anything for his friends in Somerville's Winter Hill Gang -- even kill, which by his own admission he did many times.

The confessed hit man now says he murdered 20 people between 1965 and 1982, three of them, he says, with the help of fugitive South Boston crime boss James J. ``Whitey'' Bulger, another half-dozen with the help of Bulger's sidekick, Stephen ``The Rifleman'' Flemmi.

But that loyalty was strained and eventually shattered last year when he learned his onetime partners in crime were longtime FBI informants who fed agents information on foes as well as friends -- including him.

It was that bold affront to Martorano's underworld sense of justice, that turned him from ruthless street soldier to government witness, those close to him say.

``It's certainly not an attempt on John's part to cleanse his soul. He's not saying he's sorry,'' said a longtime Martorano associate, who asked that his name not be used. ``I think the motivation is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.''

Martorano's friends say he was irate when he learned that federal prosecutors purposely exempted Bulger and Flemmi from a 1979 indictment charging him and 20 others with fixing horse races -- a charge that sent Martorano on the run for 16 years.

He also learned that, while he was hiding out in Florida, Flemmi told the FBI he was in the Miami area.

While the magnitude of Martorano's brutality has stunned the public -- his victims include a prominent businessman and two Roxbury teenagers shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- his friends are not so shocked, recalling his coming of age in the shoot-em-up world of 1960s gang wars, in which more than 50 people died.

Born Dec. 13, 1940, John Vincent Martorano was the first child of a father who immigrated from Sicily and a mother of Irish and English descent who grew up in Cambridge.

Angelo and Elizabeth Martorano raised John and his younger brother, James, in Milton, where both boys excelled in school and in sports.

A classmate who attended St. Agatha's grammar school with John Martorano said he was extremely bright, with a world of potential.

``When you sat next to him in school and the nun handed him a test with 10 or 20 problems, if it was a 45-minute test he'd have it done in 10 minutes,'' said a former classmate.

Although Martorano was as tough as he was smart, friends say he was never a bully.

``Stevie [Flemmi] would be hitting the desk with a hatchet to make you faint. . . . But that wasn't John's style,'' said one associate.

Martorano graduated from Milton High in 1959, co-captaining the football team with his brother.

Boston later proved to be a major lure for Martorano. He spent a lot of time at Luigi's, a restaurant his parents owned on the edge of the Combat Zone. It was there and at another family establishment in the South End, friends say, that he was introduced to some of the gangsters who became his friends.

``You go into a bar and there's a guy with a roll of C-notes [$100 bills], you follow the money,'' said a longtime Martorano friend. ``When you're a kid you see the guys who are making money: the bookmakers and the lenders.''

As Martorano was drawn to the flashy guys in the bar, women were drawn to him.

``I always knew him as a fun-loving, really good guy,'' said the wife of an associate. ``He was like a Barry White. He was always surrounded by women. I never saw the bad side of him.''

The Martorano brothers met Flemmi in the early 1960s at the nightclub owned by their father. They met Bulger around 1971.

Martorano has admitted that he killed for the first time on Nov. 15, 1965, when he was 24. The victim, Robert Palladino, 32, of Winchester, had testified before a Suffolk grand jury that indicted Martorano's brother, Jimmy, for being an accessory after a young waitress was murdered and her body stashed in the loft of a restaurant owned by the Martorano family.

The following year, Martorano admits, he killed another man expected to be a witness in the same case, John Jackson of the Back Bay. Federal documents unsealed this week reveal that Martorano has admitted killing six other people in the 1960s, including the two Roxbury teenagers.

Throughout the 1970s, the Martorano brothers, Bulger, and Flemmi were part of the Winter Hill Gang, led by Howie Winter. In that decade, Martorano says, he killed 10 people on behalf of the gang.

When the 1979 race-fixing indictment was returned, Martorano fled. He remained a fugitive until January 1995, when he was arrested in Boca Raton, Fla., where he was living with a common-law wife and their 8-year-old son. He has four other children by three other women, including an ex-wife.

After his capture, he faced new charges of money laundering and extortion. But until this week he was never charged with murder.

If a judge approves the deal, Martorano will be sentenced to 12 1/2 to 15 years on federal racketeering and murder charges, in exchange for providing evidence against Bulger, Flemmi, and others. Since he has already been in prison for more than four years awaiting trial in another case, he could be free in eight years.

Still, Martorano's friends insist that the man who killed 20 people will pose no danger to society when he is released.

``I don't consider John an evil person,'' said an associate, noting that most of his victims ran in the same circles as Martorano or crossed people who did.

``It was just his lifestyle,'' the associate said. ``It's their own little society. They break the rules and they know when they break the rules what is going to happen.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 09/13/1999.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

Whitey Bulger
Stephen Flemmi
Frank Salemme
Kevin Weeks
John Martorano
John Connolly
John Morris

Photo gallery
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1 9 8 8
The Bulger mystique
A look at Boston's famous brothers, William and Whitey.

1 9 9 5
The story of Whitey's fall
How investigators brought down the elusive criminal.

1 9 9 8
Whitey & the FBI
The relationship between Bulger and Boston's law men.

1 9 9 8
Whitey's life on the run
The fugitive mobster's relentless travels across the country.

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