By Thom L. Jones
Boston, Massachusetts, has long had a reputation as a corrupt and base city. Not so much a Mob town as a Mob's town. It has been plagued by criminal gangs over the years-The Winter Hill, the McLaughlins, the Mullens, the Barbozas, Roxbury, Killeens, the Gustings and the Campbells, and of course, its own little Mafia cartel, which controlled The North End. Over the years, gangsters and hoodlums fought to control their own turf, often leaving the bodies of their victims scattered at random across street corner, or floating in the Charles River, or stinking in some locked and fetid car trunk.
The city has seen its share of gangland killings: hundreds, more likely thousands, murdered over the last 100 years, but nothing quite like the Summer Street murders, or as they came to be immortalized in the media-The Blackfriars Massacre.
On June 29th, 1978, Bostonians opened their daily newspapers, or turned on their TVs and radios to discover that on the night of June 27th into 28th, five people had been shot dead in a place called The Blackfriars, a bar located at 105-111 Summer Street, at ground-level in a five-story office building, at the intersection with Bedford Street in Downtown Crossing, a shopping district to the east of Boston Common. An Irish-themed public house come restaurant, named after Blackfriars, a London theatre dating back to the 16th century. A little bit of culture on the mean streets of Beantown.
The bar (photo above) had been open since 1971, or earlier, or later, depending on the source of reference consulted. It ran a disco early in the evenings for those desperate enough at the end of their daily grind, served the food and drinks late, and let stuff happen. Stuff like people organizing drug dealing, extortion, and hijacking over their beers and Bushmills. The place was well known to the cops as a dallying stop for the criminal fraternity of the city.
The bar was owned by Vincent E. Solmonte, who was 35 and lived in an apartment in Quincy, and had another two hospitality spots in Boston, one a trendy bar called “Vincent's” on the waterfront, and according to the police, was a known cocaine trafficker. And allegedly, heavily in debt. He had been in partnership on Blackfriars up until 1975 with Dennis Mullins, who pulled out when Vinny decided he wanted to upgrade from a simple bar to a restaurant with disco on the side.
Solmonte was also under investigation by both the FBI since 1976 as part of a bankruptcy fraud case and the IRS. He had traveled to Switzerland in April and had been arrested for using a stolen credit card. What is known in the vernacular of mob speak as a “Shady Character.”
On the morning of the 28th, Jerry Robinson, the cleaner, arrived at 4:00 am to start his day. He worked through the early hours, unaware that downstairs, in the small basement office, was a nightmare of a scene waiting to be discovered. At 8:00 am, he made his way down there, bucket and mop in hand and stepped into something so bad, it would no doubt have embedded itself into his brain and retina, and squeezed his memory cells until they cried out for mercy.
In the small, cramped basement office, dead bodies lay, seemingly everywhere. One sprawled on a chair, the rest crumpled and twisted on the floor around a desk. Blood filled the room, seeping across the floor, splattered in discursive and random Rorschach blots and streamers across the walls in the dingy room. It was a charnel house out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco Goya. Except this was real. Some of the dead were so badly mutilated they had to be identified by fingerprint matching. One had tried to shield himself from shotgun blasts by using his hands.
At eight o’clock Wednesday morning, the Boston police radio band began to crackle.
“How many you got there?” asked the police dispatcher.
“Five,” came the response.
“How many ambulances will you need?”
“Never mind the ambulances; they’re all gone.”
When the police arrived they found five indeed dead. All had been shot by .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol, then, just to make sure, finished off by multiple blasts from two sawn-off shotguns. Some of the corpses were minus their heads or scalps. The crime scene experts determined the men had been playing backgammon around the table when they were surprised and killed. The victims were identified as:
Vincent Solmonte aged 35, the owner.
John A. Kelly aged 34, the night manager.
Peter Meroth, aged 34. He managed Shepherd’s Pub, the other place owned by Solmonte.
Freddy R. Delavega aged 34
Charles G. Margarian, 36. He worked in the insurance business and was, allegedly, a world-class backgammon player.
Investigators concluded that the murders took place around 2:00am. Searching the premises, the police found a cache of firearms, a small stash of cocaine and marijuana, and $15,000 in cash in an unlocked safe. Everyone killed worked at the Blackfriars according to some sources. According to other sources, apart from Solmonte and Kelly, none of the them worked at the club. Meroth may have double-dipped between the two places he was connected to. However, everyone killed was known to the police.
A bunch of guys enjoying a game of chance when they were surprised by the worse possible chance, and brutally killed.
"The massacre of five men at the Blackfriar's has all the earmarks of a gangland execution. In all my years as district attorney, I've never witnessed a more shocking crime," Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne said.
Police Commissioner Joseph Jordan said, “It was a real wicked, vicious type of crime. It was a professional job. It was the biggest mass murder in the history of Boston, in my memory at least. ”
Up to that time, it was.
The hurried press conference outside The Blackfriars confirmed this was going be a big one.
According to the Boston Herald, the killers only expected to find three men on the premises: Meroth, Delavega and Solmonte. Just how they knew this was never confirmed.
The police, however, knew their city and their customer base. It wasn't too long before detective work unearthed a short list of potential perps:
James J. "Whitey" Bulger (above), alleged leader of the Winter Hill Gang, an Irish-American crime family operating out of Sommerville, a Boston suburb. Bulger was also a top-echelon informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, joining Club America sometime in 1975. At his trial in 2013, the prosecutor described him, “as one of the most vicious and violent criminals ever in Boston.
Nicholas Femia, East Boston, a member of the Patriarca Mafia crime family, the Barboza, and the Winter Hill Gangs, who was involved in extortion and armed robbery.
James Martorano, killer and member of the Winter Hill Gang and later the Patriarca crime family, who was a friend of Kelly.
Robert Italiano, East Boston, Massachusetts.
William N.“Bad Billy” Ierardi, Lynn, Massachusetts, a drug dealer.
Louis Litif (left). A Lebanese-American bookmaker from South Boston and an associate of Bulger, mainly used for the heavy stuff. In April 1980, he would end up trunk music after Bulger stabbed and shot him dead in a bar in South Boston.
The more they dug, the more the police were coming to believe that this was an organized crime hit, not some random, impulse killing. It was about money and drugs. But then isn't almost all OC crime about this?
Mullins didn't believe a word of it. Sure Vinny snorted the odd line and Jack enjoyed a spiff now and then. But that was it. He said.
Jack Kelly may or may not have been an important part of the massacre.
He had been hired by WNAC-TV in January 1974 as an investigative reporter and quickly made his name as both a field man and a newsroom anchor.
Tall, bearded and tousled haired, he was seen frequently in bars and restaurants with known criminals. Like any good reporter, he needed to develop sources. His philosophy was:
“If you want a story on a gangster, go to a cop. If you want a story on a cop, go to a gangster.”
Kelly (right) often drank and socialized at “Vincent’s” a trendy bar on the Boston waterfront. It was here, he met and became friends with the owner, Vincent Solmonte, and made contacts in the underworld through people like Jimmy Martorano, Frankie Salemme, and various other gangsters and hoodlums, some of whom were linked into the murky world of James Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, two of Boston's most prolific criminals. He spent so much time in the company of crooks that he had himself become a suspect, and the BPD had opened a file on him.
In November 1976, following a series of major confrontations and controversial allegations involving the mayor, the police commissioner, and the liquor licensing authority, Kelly was sacked by the station management. He had to give up his South End apartment, which he shared with Solmonte and move back to live pertinently in Framingham with his wife and four children.
In September 1977, Kelly filed a $390,000 damage suit against WNAC, claiming the station had damaged his reputation as a reporter
Sometime in 1977, desperate for a job, he was hired by Solmonte to be the night manager at Blackfriars. Ironically, three weeks after his murder, he was due to start work as a freelance producer at WLVI-TV Channel 56. His first pilot program was slated for July 14th.
His violent death vindicated the many comments made by his friends and associates over the previous three years on how his unhealthy relationship with criminals would one day come to haunt him.
Less than a month after the killings, on July 12th., the police arrested two men and charged them with the murders at Blackfriars. Italiano and Ierardi were arraigned on multiple homicide indictments by a grand jury. Although a major suspect, Nicholas Femia was never charged. The fourth man assumed to be involved in the crime was never officially identified.
It was alleged by the police, that three pounds of cocaine with a street value of $300,000 was taken from the club on the night of the shooting, and was being offered for sale six hours later. Taped by an informant, Italiano (below) was heard saying he was going after the stuff (drugs) and claiming he didn't see the first shooting, “but after that, everyone had to go.”
The trial of the two, which lasted twenty-seven days, ended on April 9th, 1979, and after a seven-hour adjournment, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict for both men.
Then things got really interesting. Information, which has a habit of finding its way to its greatest source of disclosure, started seeping out of the media, on the radio programs, in newspaper articles, and endlessly percolating around the bars and clubs of inner and outer city Boston. Some of it was in progress before, during and after the trial. Some hovered around for months, even years, but eventually surfaced. Most all of it clung to Bulger and Flemmi like a spoiled child pestering a parent.
As Louis L'Amour once said, “There're times when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
Following the mass murder at Summer Street, Bulger contacted his corrupted FBI handler, John Connolly and asked him to get copies of the BPD crime scene photographs taken at Blackfriars. He knew a real estate developer called Ted Bereson who had borrowed $60,000 from Solmonte. Bulger paid the man a visit and told him he had carried out the massacre and demanded that Bereson pay him the money he had owed Solmonte. When Bereson started to hesitate, Bulger laid out the images on the man's desk. The terrified man promptly paid up.
Suspect William N. Ierardi (right) would name James J. Bulger and Stephen Flemmi as two of the three triggermen in the massacre. Retired corrupt FBI Special Agent Michael J. Buckley said in court that he told FBI Special Agent John Connolly in 1993 that Ierardi later admitted that he had fabricated the involvement of Bulger and Flemmi in the unsolved massacre.
Kelly had hired Marilyn Di Silva, the girlfriend of Flemmi to work as a waitress at the bar. The twenty-six year old single mother of three girls, met Flemmi early in 1974, when working as a waitress at Chandlers, a local bar in the South End that was a mob hangout, partly owned by Howie Winter who had taken over the leadership of the Winter Hill Gang on the death of its leader, James McLean, who had created it back in the 1950s. Di Silva's best friend, Alexis, was dating a friend of Flemmi's, a hulking, brute of a man called Nick Femia. They would often finish up, late in the evening, drinking at The Blackfriars.
One night in June 1978, she told Flemmi she was going to the bar to see Solomonte and Jack Kelly. "Don't go tonight," Flemmi told her, and something in his voice told her to listen. The next morning, she learned that Solomonte, Kelly, and three other men had been murdered, gunned down during an apparent drug money robbery in the restaurant's basement. Flemmi insisted to her later, that he had no idea what was going to happen that night, that it had only been a fortuitous premonition. Yet his associate Nick Femia was always a prime suspect in the multiple murders, almost from day one.
Nicolas Femia, 38, was a massive, 240 pounds, overweight hulk, with a cocaine addiction, and a penchant for sawn-off shotguns which he wielded at times when carrying out extortion or disciplining exercises, and for wearing flashy, flamboyant clothing. He had a troubled relationship with James Bulger, with whom he had become associated through the Winter Hill Gang in 1976. Femia had started his criminal career working with Joseph Barboza, one of Boston's most unpredictable and violent thugs.
Read more about Barboza in Joe Barboza: Boston Barbarian
Years later, when Di Silva was visiting Flemmi in prison, he confirmed that Femia had been part of the hit squad that night in The Blackfriars.
After Femia (right) joined Winter Hill, Bulger informed Connolly that he was not to be considered a suspect in the Blackfriars case. Bulger did this in order to avoid any law enforcement surveillance and police interference in his activities. When Bulger and Femia fell out over Bulger's distaste for Femia's lifestyle and eating habits, Bulger reported back to Connolly that Femia had, in fact, been one of the killers. Femia would then remain under police surveillance as a suspect in a number of crimes until he was shot dead during a failed shakedown on a body shop in Condor Street, East Boston, in 1983. Femia still remains one of the suspects in the massacre, but his involvement has never, legally, been proven.
After the killings, Flemmi contacted FBI Agent Connolly and advised him that he believed Femia and two of his gang associates, Italiano and Ierardi had committed the murders. Flemmi confirmed that at some time previously, several members of the Winter Hill Gang had ambushed and badly beaten Italiano who was suspected of robbing a Winter Hill connected bookmaker of $12,000.
Marilyn Di Silva would hang out with Flemmi at Marshall's Motors in a garage in Marshall Street, Somerville. This was the headquarters of the Winter Hill Gang from the 1970s until Bulger cut and ran in 1994. He had no doubt read the comments of Mafioso Sonny Mercurio after he was indicted following the famous swearing in ceremony in Medford, in 1989:
“Power of the lam means you get a lesser sentence. I advocate everyone run away.”
The Winter Hill Gang was a loose confederation of Boston area organized crime figures, predominantly Irish-American, with a small Italian-American faction. The gang's primary rackets included extortion of legitimate businesses, extortion of bookmakers, drug dealers, gambling dens and shylocks, gambling, bookmaking, loansharking, arms trafficking, money laundering, and narcotics trafficking; they were also known for their violent and numerous murders, as well as working endlessly at corrupting the Boston office of the FBI.
According to former mob associates, Bulger sent many of his fellow Winter Hill associates to jail via his FBI connection. Through his many tips, corrupt federal agents allegedly protected him from arrest and prosecution. This, according to court documents, allowed him to traffic in drugs, carry out multiple murders and crimes of extortion, with impunity. He fed the Feds what they were looking for, and they turned a blind eye to his multiple acts of criminality. He would murder thugs like Brian Halloran for being an informant, and then arrange to meet one of his FBI handlers to pass on his own brand of information to help them in their campaign to bring down the Mafia in Boston. In particular, the Angiulo brothers who ran the city under a franchise arrangement with Raymond Patriarca who was based down in Rhode Island.
Even though Blackfriars was never officially solved, it has been documented as being linked into organized crime. With more suspects than an Agatha Christie mystery, thirty-seven years after the bloodbath in the basement, we are no closer to the truth. It was a crime probably based on greed rather than revenge; opportunity in place of syllogism. It's shocking and egregious violence triggered as much by circumstance as any pathological jeremiad. At end of day, it's almost safe to assume, that somewhere, in a polemic about the Blackfriars Massacre, the name Bulger will surface as a signpost leading us to a possible truth. Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed our greatest evil flows from ourselves. In the case of Bulger, it was more a torrent than a flood.
Boston is no stranger to the violence of mass murder.
Two years after Blackfriars, in September 1980, four workers at Sammy White's bowling alley in Brighton were murdered during a robbery that netted the killer less than $5,000.
Early January 1991, five men were killed in a social club in Boston's Chinatown.
A father and son walked into a Dorchester 99 chain restaurant in November 1995 and shot dead four men sitting in a booth.
December 7th, 2000, 7 employees at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield were shot dead by a disgruntled worker.
December 2005. Four men were shot dead in a Dorchester Centre basement.
Over a twelve year period from 2000 to 2012, murders in Boston per 100,000 population were consistently higher than the U.S. average. In some years, it is double, close to triple the country average. It is also higher for rapes, robberies, assaults, car thefts, and general thefts.
Boston is a tough place to have to live in. And relatively easy to die violently in.
The Blackfriars Pub is long gone. The revitalized office building now houses at street level, a Weight Watchers Store and next to it a GNC shop with the ironic message above the entrance “Live Well.” This is approximately where the bar was located. At the end of the block is a Dunkin Donuts. Whoever leased these spaces obviously had a weird sense of humor.
Herman Melville, the American author, claimed our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.
The events that culminated in the Blackfriars that night in June 1978 would have had those strings twanging like a ukulele played by Jake Shimabukuro.
You can read more of Thom L. Jones stories at his Mob Corner at Gangsters Inc.
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy reading:
- The Making of Mob Boss Whitey Bulger
- Give a Man a Gun: The story of Carmine DiBiase
- The scoop on the man who brought down Genovese
- A Mean Street in Queens: To Kill a Cop
- The Man Who Stole the French Connection
- Joe Barboza: Boston Barbarian
Copyright © Gangsters Inc. and Thom L. Jones 2015