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Legends of Winter Hill

Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective

Legends of Winter Hill by Jay Atkinson
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“At McCain Investigations, I’d be sent looking for people who didn’t want to be found, following guys who didn’t want to be followed, and entering neighborhoods where I was not at all welcome. There would be no commercials, no time-outs, no ‘do-overs’ if somebody got shot or stabbed or run over. These guys were playing for keeps.”

Seasoned journalist and adventurer Jay Atkinson spent a year working as a rookie private eye for the storied firm McCain Investigations, founded by the late Joe McCain, Sr., one of the most decorated police officers in Boston history. In his colorful narrative style, Atkinson describes some of the cases he worked as a detective, chasing down an assortment of felons, thieves, and con artists, as well as the ghost of a real-life American hero, legendary cop Joe McCain.

Atkinson traces McCain’s story from the day he put on his Boston Metropolitan Police uniform in the 1950s through the heyday of his run-ins with mafiosi, bad cops, and ruthless killers. Big Joe was the genuine article, a detective so committed to his work that a gunshot wound suffered in the line of duty took thirteen years to kill him. McCain pursued such infamous Winter Hill mobsters as Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi and the murderous James “Whitey” Bulger, who remains on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Here Atkinson reveals new details—based on his exclusive interviews and an abundance of his own shoe leather—about how Bulger, one of America’s most notorious fugitives, came within inches of being apprehended during Joe McCain’s reign.

Atkinson also tracks the career of Joe McCain’s son, Joe Jr., a tattooed, hard-riding motorcycle fanatic who followed his old man onto the force. Since big Joe’s death, young Joe has learned the hard way that a father’s mythic persona can be both a blessing and a curse, as a fellow cop with a grudge against Joe Sr. may be out to ruin young Joe’s career. Atkinson delves into this dark and dangerous aspect of “the job,” where it’s uncertain which side some cops are on.

Legends of Winter Hill takes you into an alluring and gritty world where heroes go unsung every day, and moral boundaries aren’t always black and white.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; March 2005
ISBN 9780307237828
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Title: Legends of Winter Hill
Author: Jay Atkinson
ONE: Joey and the Angels

This is my son, mine own Telemachus
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Somerville Police Department is a low concrete structure that looks like a small town library from the 1960s, with a fenced-in yard containing a fleet of half-serviceable patrol cars and a steep concrete ramp out front that leads to a walled parking lot. Right at noon, thirty-nine-year-old Joe McCain, Jr., pulls up and I climb in the passenger side of the sump-smelling cruiser and buckle myself in. Since we’re working together and so much of the “cop job” spills over to the P.I. firm, McCain has suggested I ride along with him on his shift as a police sergeant and hear about a few past cases while getting familiar with the territory. He shakes my hand with a grip like a wrestler and pushes off beneath gloomy skies, past the convenience stores, pawnbrokers, and blocks of crowded tenements.

Two of the many truths contained in the hard-boiled detective oeuvre are that there’s no money in it and a whole lot of sitting around. In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe says, “I went back to the office and sat in my swivel chair and tried to catch up on my foot-dangling.” As a working cop, Joe McCain has a distinct advantage over the classic gumshoe: instead of dangling his feet inside the Fulton Street office of McCain Investigations, four out of every six days he puts on a bulletproof vest, straps on his gun, and hits the pavement equipped with an up-to-the-minute criminal database and supported by 130 well-armed, well-trained partners. There’s no down time on the streets of Somerville.

Just looking at him, Joey McCain is the kind of guy somebody would tire of knocking down long before he’d stop getting back up. He’s a former U.S. Marine, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts–Boston, and possesses a master’s degree in criminal justice. A compact, powerful man with a shaven head and neatly trimmed mustache, McCain is covered in tattoos, from his neck to his ankles. As he rides through Porter Square, he keeps up a running commentary on past investigations while peering into alleyways and sizing up the other drivers and their passengers.

Standing outside her Brazilian eatery, a tall, attractive female shopkeeper with a circle of bright lipstick whistles at McCain and waves. “What’s up?” he asks through his open window. The woman smiles and blows him a kiss.

Not an especially large man, McCain is a presence nevertheless; he has the swagger of a city cop leavened with sympathy for those who are growing up on the same streets he did. He says he owes it all to his late father, who was his hero, mentor, and best friend. “He knew how to relate to people from all walks of life: doctors to dockworkers,” says McCain. “That was his secret.”

Very often, great dads are easier to lionize in death than they are to emulate in life. Being “Junior” is a hump some guys never get over, and they go running to another part of the country, a different sort of career, a new life. But Joe McCain, Jr., is not awed or intimidated by the legend of his father. Under the rough talk and the lurid swirl of tattoos, including a vengeful ex–undercover cop from Marvel Comics named “the Punisher” that fills his entire back, Joey’s a character in his own right. He’s also a guy who put on the uniform, staked out a piece of turf, and assumed the mantle of his old man out of respect, not as a way of keeping up. If you know Joey McCain, you can’t imagine him doing anything but this: investigating crimes and putting away bad guys right where his father started, more than forty years ago.

Incorporated in 1842, Somerville is a city of four square miles and roughly 80,000 people, located along the northern edge of Boston. Once a stronghold of Irish and Italian immigrants, Somerville today is a melange of over fifty nationalities, a diverse mix of students, shopkeepers, blue-collar and bohemian types, and a couple of posh, leafy neighborhoods bordering the campus of Tufts University. Guys like Joey McCain and his fellow P.I. Mark Donahue grew up playing baseball at Trum Field; went to Somerville High; swam at the Dilboy pool and learned to skate at the MDC rinks; drank beer in the McCain basement; and shot thousands of pucks off a sheet of plywood in the McCain driveway. Donahue eventually moved his family out, to suburban Methuen. But Joey McCain has always called Somerville home.

“I love the Somerville of today,” says McCain. “The arts, the entertainment, the restaurants. You just gotta keep your eyes open.”

In Teele Square, where several nondescript storefronts lie opposite a city firehouse, McCain tells me about the day in April 1999 that he was riding his bicycle on a community policing detail and came upon a joint called the Station Café. Piqued by something, he rode up to the entrance, dismounted his bike, and peered into the front window. The barroom was filled with Hells Angels and Outlaws, rival motorcycle gangs that were locked in a mortal struggle for the New England drug trade and that never, ever socialized together.

McCain has a long, bad history with the Hells Angels, who have at various times threatened him, his friends, and his wife and three children. Although he has dabbled in things such as scuba diving, marathon running, and playing drums in a jazz band, the one true passion of Joey McCain’s adult life is motorcycling. He’s been riding since he was nine years old, when his father bought him a used Yamaha 80. Today he own a KDX 200 Kawasaki dirt bike, a ’92 K75S BMW street bike, and a ’99 Electra Glide Standard Harley-Davidson. All three of his sons—Joseph, age eleven; Liam, nine; and Lucas, six—have their own motorcycles. And McCain is a card-carrying member of the Renegade Pigs, a national organization of police and firefighters that ride American-made motorcycles. The Renegade Pigs are composed of twentyfive chapters, including two in Massachusetts, and over five hundred members.

“Some people, even other police officers, categorize us as rogue cops, because we’re heavily tattooed and wear leather vests,” says McCain, cruising down Powderhouse Boulevard, alongside the flat, green planes of the Tufts athletic fields.

But the Renegade Pigs are nothing more than a group of law enforcement types who blow off steam by riding their Harleys, camping out, and drinking beer, McCain says. The enmity between Joe McCain, Jr., the Renegade Pigs, and the Hells Angels began in the mid-nineties, when McCain gave an interview to a New Hampshire newspaper that disparaged the Angels.

“I said that they were punks and drug dealers, and the funniest thing about it was, they didn’t object to being called drug dealers, just punks,” McCain tells me.

After the story was published, an accompanying photograph was passed around Angels’ haunts, and word came down that Joe McCain should start watching his back. Friends said that his photo was hanging up in an Angels’ clubhouse with a red line through it, that there was a bounty on him, and that Angels were competing to see who would strip the Renegade Pigs’ insignia from Joey’s leather jacket.

Estimates of the Hell Angels’ involvement in the illegal methamphetamine trade nationwide are as high as 75 percent, McCain says, and they also traffic in cocaine, marijuana, prostitution, and the “chopping” and reselling of stolen motorcycles. Recent efforts to legitimize their existence by retailing club paraphernalia and portraying themselves as the last free Americans are nothing but a smoke screen for their true identity, according to McCain.

“They are the dregs of society,” he says. “Stop me when I’m lying, is what I always say to them. They’re nothing more than a fascist regime.”

By the late 1990s, the Hells Angels were upset with the Renegade Pigs for a number of reasons, including the law enforcement group’s habit of wearing their chapter name in semicircle formation on the back of their vests, an Angel practice that other clubs are “forbidden” to emulate. Then one night, just a few hours after someone in New York had affixed a Renegade Pigs sticker to a Hells Angels’ motorcycle, a small group of the Pigs left the Red Rock bar in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. A dark blue SUV cruised up alongside them, the tinted windows came down, and someone inside the van opened fire.

“They shot a Washington, D.C. cop, in the ass, Dave Moseley, a buddy of mine,” says McCain. No one was ever arrested for the shooting, but “it was definitely the Angels,” he says.

It was against this backdrop that Joe McCain, Jr., rode up that night in April to the entrance of the Station Café. Seated at two tables pushed together in the rear of the saloon were approximately ten members of the Hells Angels and a dozen Outlaws, gangs that had been killing each other since the 1970s. Immediately, McCain radioed his division commander for backup units and asked that they keep out of sight.

Although the two gangs have always hated each other, their operations had been sufficiently undermined by law enforcement that they had convened to discuss a truce. As luck would have it, their sworn enemy, Joe McCain, Jr., working alone, had discovered the proceedings.

His heart hammering in his throat, McCain pushed open the door and went inside. “I felt like those guys in Animal House, when they walk into the bar and they’re the only white guys,” says McCain.

He passed through a small alcove, which was clad in dark 1970s paneling and badly lit; to his right was the long wooden bar and to the left a narrow room outfitted with benches and booths lined up along the wall. Every biker in the place turned and watched him come in, dressed in shorts and boots and wearing his badge and gun.

“Anyone with a brain in his head was finishing his drink and trying to leave as unnoticed as possible,” says McCain.

As he neared the table, an Outlaw rose from his seat. A well-muscled, stocky man with thick shoulders and a military haircut, the gang member was a former corrections officer and Army Ranger whom McCain had been introduced to while hobnobbing at a local Harley shop.

“Hello, Joe,” said the Outlaw, shaking McCain’s hand. “There won’t be any trouble here, and we’ll be gone in half an hour.”

McCain reinforced the notion that he didn’t want any trouble, and that he wanted the gang members out of the neighborhood. Then he turned around and walked out.

This was unbelievable; the Angels and the Outlaws were having a summit in a public bar while offering peace terms to law enforcement. “I live near there, and I left my bike, went around the corner to my house and got my video camera, and went over to the firehouse across the street,” says McCain. “I asked the guys there if I could get to the upper floor and hauled ass up the stairs. A little while later, the Angels and Outlaws started piling out of the bar, laughing like they’re all great buddies now. You gotta see it.”

We’re approaching the end of McCain’s shift, so we return to the station, park the cruiser in the lower lot, and enter through a reinforced door next to the mechanic’s bay. As we pass through the dispatcher’s area, where detailed maps of Somerville are pinned to the wall and a steady stream of radio traffic is heard, a tall, burly E-911 operator named Scott Lennon hails McCain. “You guys ready to eat?” he asks. “I’m starving. My stomach thinks my throat is cut.”

McCain laughs. “Yeah. Let’s get some chow.”

In the division commander’s office, Joey rigs up his video camera on the desk and rummages through a cardboard box for the Hells Angels tape. On top of a nearby file cabinet is a set of women’s clothing in a stapled plastic bag, the evidence from a rape the night before. One of the dispatchers comes in and mentions that the rest of the rape kit is in the freezer down the hall. McCain continues searching until he finds the right tape, and then Lennon enters with the food: wire-handled containers of rice, mushy vegetables in sweet sauce, and candied pork and chicken from the Thai place across the street.

McCain finishes cueing up the tape, and we sit there with steaming plates of rice and chicken balanced on our knees. The Station Café is a long, yellow brick building with two picture windows fronting on Holland Street. The camera zooms in, panning across six husky figures in leather vests clustered around the bar. The “rockers” sewed onto their vests indicate that four of the men are Hells Angels and two are Outlaws. McCain’s voice is heard on the tape, as well as that of a fireman who is standing beside him.

You don’t usually see them together, the fireman says.

Never, McCain says. Something’s up, for sure.

The camera settles on the Victorian-looking door, which contains a sheet of etched glass that doesn’t allow a clear view into the bar. On tape, McCain says, C’mon, you guys. I want everybody to come out, so’s I can . . .

In a moment the door opens and a huge, bald-headed Outlaw with a thick gold chain exits the bar, laughing with two Angels and an Angel prospect, identified as such because he lacks an upper rocker on his vest. As the gang members pass into the evening, McCain frames a nice, tight shot on each of their faces.

Outlaws and Angels smiling and joking, says McCain on tape. I love it.

Because of his own rightful distinction between motorcycling enthusiasts and what he calls “criminals disguised as bikers,” McCain takes genuine pleasure in deflating the Angels. One after another they cross the threshold of the barroom like they’re being introduced on a TV show, and Joey says, “Thank you, thank you, and thank you,” as each man scowls into the camera.

Just then two Angels with long shaggy hair come outside. They are dressed in black jeans, black, long-sleeved T-shirts, and their vests, and are smoking cigarettes. One of them spots Joe’s bicycle, which is still leaned up near the entrance, and he nudges the other gang member, exhales a plume of smoke, and says something. In a juvenile show of defiance, the Angel pantomimes getting on Joey’s bicycle, and he and his crony roar with laughter.

“Tough guys. Except they’re so fucking stupid they can’t tell they’re getting their pictures taken,” McCain says to me.

While we’re watching the tape, Joe McCain’s phone rings; he picks it up, growls his name, and immediately drops into a more pleasant register. It’s his mother calling. Helen McCain, sixty-six, a retired nurse and widowed for a year, is having a rough day. Today would have been Joe Sr. and Helen’s forty-second wedding anniversary, and next week is the first anniversary of his death.

Joey speaks with his mother for a few minutes and promises to look in on her when his shift is over. Other than breaks for college and the Marine Corps, Joe McCain has lived in the house where he was born his entire life. The McCain residence is right off Powderhouse Boulevard in West Somerville, in a neighborhood bordering on the Tufts University campus and composed of half-million-dollar homes dating back to the Grover Cleveland administration.

“It used to be, in the thirties, forties, and fifties, that three generations would stay together as a single family unit,” McCain tells me. “That’s the main reason we stayed in Somerville: I wanted to raise my kids in the same house as the greatest guy in the world, my father.”

From the Hardcover edition.
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