Blind Spot

by Laurence J. Yadon


“I’ve been arrested!” Gasko croaked over the cell phone as the FBI agents watched his every move. Seconds earlier, a neighbor had scolded the officers for the way they surprised and roughed up the old man in the storage area of his seedy Santa Monica apartment complex. She noticed that Gasko seemed ashamed as he looked down at the grimy floor. Soon, Gasko’s “wife” Carol would also be sporting silver bracelets.

When Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, bald, bearded eighty-something Charles Gasko knew he was in trouble. With Bin Laden gone, Gasko became the most hunted man on America’s fugitive list thanks, he thought, to those rich cake-eaters in Tulsa.

It wasn’t much of a life anyway, if one of the Gasko neighbors could be believed. He couldn’t even lift a laundry basket or keep up with Carol on the Santa Monica boardwalk nearby. Charles and Carol lived like lower middle class pensioners getting by on next to nothing, trapped in four small rooms with bare, bashed-in walls that hadn’t been painted in years. They walked around on dirty gray carpet installed in the Eighties.

At least the price was right, thanks to rent control. The Gaskos paid only about nine hundred dollars a month, a bargain in pricey Santa Monica. The place was dark most of the time, thanks to the black curtains covering the windows facing a nearby luxury hotel, when Gasko wasn’t window peeping. But unlike most pensioners, the Gaskos had nearly a million dollars in cash hidden away in their apartment at the Princess Eugenia.

They came for him on June 22, 2011, two days after the FBI rolled out a $2 million reward for the old man’s arrest. Gasko had been ratted out by Miss Iceland 1974, a neighbor who noticed how well he had cared for an abandoned cat named Tiger. She’d called the authorities the day earlier from her summer home in Reykjavik the minute she recognized the Gaskos on television. But the tired old man who pretended to be losing a battle against dementia wasn’t Charles Gasko after all. His real name was Bulger, which sounded vaguely German or Polish, but was really Gaelic. It meant “yellow belly.”

Back in South Boston, they called him Whitey.

* * *

James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger grew up “in the shadow of Yankee Babylon,” gazing at pale, distant towers that marked the boundaries of an ebbing Protestant ascendancy. Downtown Boston was bordered by mostly Catholic Poles, Lithuanians, Italians, and his own troublesome Irish. Close friends in “Southie” called him Jim. “We were in a neighborhood, an enclave, [from] which a trip downtown was considered ‘going to Boston,’ ” Whitey’s younger brother William M. “Billy” Bulger, remembered later.

Whitey was born in September 1929, the month before the Great Depression began. Billy came along less than five years later. Their old man worked as a railroader until two freight cars collided in a train yard with him in between. One arm was so badly mangled that a doctor barely looked at it before he started cutting. In those days before workers were compensated for on-the-job-injury, the Bulger family of eight was now condemned to poverty.

Young Billy loved books and politics. He became a university president, but his white-haired older brother preferred bookies and larceny. At first, Whitey worked alone. He eventually joined a minor street corner gang called the Shamrocks. After some time in a reformatory and the Air Force—from which he was honorably discharged in 1952, despite a spotty conduct record—Whitey took a federal fall for hijacking and armed robbery. During a nine-year sojourn through three federal prisons, he became a life-long friend of “The Choctaw Kid,” Clarence Carnes—the pride of Daisy, Oklahoma, and youngest inmate ever sent to Alcatraz. Whitey was released in 1965.

He returned home and became an enforcer for the Killeens, the premier Irish mob in South Boston. Six years later, in 1971, the Killeens tangled with their rivals the Mullins in a deadly conflict prompted by a random, drunken brawl in which Donald Killeen bit off the nose of Mullen factionist Michael “Mickey” Dwyer. Although Killeen had the nose scooped out of a gutter, packed in ice and rushed to the Boston City Hospital where Dwyer lay moaning, the Second Irish War was on.

Whitey’s first assignment during the second war was a disaster. He killed Mullen enforcer Paulie McGonagle; only it wasn’t Paulie who ended up on ice. By mistake, Whitey (or his designated hitter) drilled Paulie’s look-alike brother Donald, who some say wasn’t even in the rackets. This got Whitey’s boss, Billy O’Sullivan, killed in late March, 1971, prompting Whitey to make his move.

According to most accounts, Whitey approached Howie Winter to make a deal. Winter was the leader of the mostly Irish yet commendably diverse Winter Hill gang, named for a section of Somerville, a blue collar Boston suburb with the ambience of Sand Springs. Winter (his name is pure coincidence) became leader of the Winter Hill gang in 1965, during the First Irish War, when gang founder James “Buddy” McLean was killed. That conflict began on Labor Day 1961, when McLaughlin gang luminary Georgie McLaughlin made a subtle pass at a girlfriend of Winter Hill gang associate Alex Rocco by pinching her breast. The casualties resulting from that flirtation included sixty dead mobsters and hangers-on.

But in mid-May 1971, the traditional tale relates, Whitey killed his own boss, Don Killeen, to end the second war, survive, and move up. Other sources insist that Killeen was done in by the Mullins. Whoever pulled the trigger, Howie Winter and the Mafia, represented by the Partriarca crime family, soon mediated a merger of the Mullins and the Killeens into the Winter Hill gang.

Beginning in 1973, despite a declared moratorium on violence, Whitey and his associates killed a number of old Mullen rivals now operating within the newly merged Winter Hill gang, notably including Paulie McGonagle, the rival Whitey had tried to kill two years earlier. The next year, Whitey began regularly teaming up with Stephen Flemmi, another associate of the Winter Hill gang. Five years later, in 1979, Flemmi and Whitey ascended to Winter Hill leadership when Howie Winter and his entire management cadre were rolled up and jailed for fixing horse races, with charges against Whitey and Flemmi quietly dropped. This was no coincidence, since Flemmi and Bulger were FBI informants.

Whitey may have been a lucky charm, but a problem was brewing 1600 miles away in Tulsa that required his attention. And that problem was another hard-charging Boston native three years older than Whitey who ran the Telex Corporation.

His name was Roger Wheeler.

* * *

Even today, litigation-prone Roger Milton Wheeler is remembered in Tulsa as a brash, bold innovator. Stories of his rise from salesman to top-shelf executive—accounts of hallway firings, urban legends of altered contracts, and recollections of bluffs Wheeler ran against the Securities and Exchange Commission—are still told in midtown places where Tulsans of a certain age gather for morning coffee or evening grape.

Yet there is also his compassion for the most obscure Telex employees and the quiet generosity that prompted to him to rehabilitate a camp enjoyed by generations of Tulsa children, once his fortune was made. Wheeler and his employees transformed Telex from a hearing aid and stereo equipment manufacturer into a computer peripheral powerhouse. The trim, volatile tycoon even challenged IBM in court and won $353 million at trial (although IBM won an $18 million counterclaim for industrial espionage). Eventually, the award to Telex was reversed and the case was settled with no cash changing hands in mid-October 1975, seventy-two hours before the Supreme Court in Washington was scheduled to announce whether or not it would hear a Telex appeal.

Since Telex admitted four months earlier that it did not have the cash to pay IBM the eighteen million, some in the business press speculated that Telex had been on the verge of bankruptcy. Later, Wheeler had to be ordered to pay his own attorney about $1.3 million dollars for litigating the losing case. But within months of the IBM deal, prospects for Telex began to improve.

Now a Fortune 500 CEO, Wheeler began buying and selling other successful businesses on the side. In the market for cash-generating gaming operations, in 1979 he purchased World Jai Alai Inc., a privately owned corporation founded by Bostonians in the Twenties, with operations in Connecticut and Florida. Jai Alai resembles racquetball, with players wielding a long, funnel like scoop to catch and then release a ball into play. The teams are professionals paid out of the betting proceeds, making the sport perpetually ripe for “the fix.” The Jai Alai ball travels with such dizzying speed that career-ending injuries are not unusual. At least four players have been killed playing Jai Alai since the 1920s.

First National Bank of Boston had recruited Wheeler for the deal. The descendants of the World Jai Alai founders were looking for a buyer just at the time Wheeler was in the market for businesses that threw off cash and lots of it. World Jai Alai was all of that, spewing out about six million dollars (today $14 million) over operating expenses every year.

In theory, once the loan was paid off in little more than eight years, the six million dollar annual cash boodle would all belong to Wheeler. The Boston bankers even offered to finance the whole $50 million deal themselves, with one catch. Current management, including one Richard Donovan, and John Callahan, a former banker at First National, had to remain in place. Callahan was a certified public accountant with Winter Hill connections.

Acquaintances and family members opined years later that Wheeler may have known about the connections between organized crime and World Jai Alai before he made the deal. After all, it was unlikely that an astute businessman like Roger Wheeler could somehow miss or ignore how close his Connecticut Jai Alai operation was to several organized crime centers— places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, all less than 250 miles away. Newspaper and magazine accounts published years later would conclude that Wheeler did not understand or appreciate the risk of mob interference in World Jai Alai until it was too late and he was on the hook for the fifty million. And, according to these accounts, it was only then that he discovered that his profits were being skimmed daily.

However early Wheeler learned the full extent of mob involvement in World Jai Alai, by late 1980 he had discovered the size of the skim and began taking actions to protect his investment. According to one account, in February 1981, John Callahan called in Winter Hill assassin Johnny Martorano to deal with Wheeler.

There are several underworld versions of how the Wheeler assassination was arranged. If Martorano is to be believed, it all began over dinner with Callahan at Yesterday’s Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Callahan complained he had a problem in Tulsa and needed help from Martorano, who owed him for favors done years before, although Whitey Bulger had to approve the action.

Martorano claimed in his memoirs that he hadn’t been offered any money for the job, although he eventually received $50,000, which he split with Winter Hill associates. According to Martorano, Wheeler was killed because he would not sell World Jai Alai to Callahan. Eventually, Martorano claimed, Callahan offered Bulger and Flemmi a bonus skim of $10,000 a week to get rid of Wheeler.

A Winter Hill veteran named Joe McDonald agreed to drive the getaway car as a return favor to retired FBI agent H. Paul Rico, a World Jai Alai security man who was also allegedly part of the skim. According to Martorano, Rico provided the background information necessary to track and kill Wheeler.

Northeastern Oklahoma was not the hot, dry desert full of cowboys or hostile Indians Martorano or McDonald might have imagined back in South Boston. And, in late May 1981, Tulsa was flush with money. New power couples, some in their thirties or even younger spent, dressed, bought, and built with lavish abandon. Tulsey Town was jumping all over again. The latest oil boom, then barely five years in the making would never end, or so it seemed. And one big prize was membership at “the Hill.”

Of course, you couldn’t simply buy your way into Southern Hills Country Club, not without the necessary connections, manners, and social graces. At one time, you had to be white and Christian, although race and religion restrictions were eventually eliminated. Southern Hills, then scarcely forty years old, was and is considered a monument to old Tulsa money. Although he came from “nothing,” Roger Wheeler—by then a twenty-year member—easily qualified as old money, having made his first big business deal in Tulsa thirty years earlier.

* * *

The assassins drove past the white 61st street gatehouse as if they owned the place, meandering up the oak-lined roach which climbed gently leftward past the championship golf course Tiger Woods would praise years later, as had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as young men.

Martorano and McDonald probably didn’t notice the polo fields, skeet shooting range, or the bare grass where first-class stables and a riding arena had been before a tragic fire five years earlier. They were far too preoccupied with the assignment to appreciate the tidy gardens or the children at the pool basking in the sunlit spring afternoon.

Martorano had killed at least eighteen people by then, many of them with a quick pistol shot to the back of the head in cars, trucks, bars and alleys, often in the company of the victim’s friends. Most of the men Martorano killed never knew it was coming, but Roger Wheeler would be different.

A few days before, Martorano and McDonald had flown into Oklahoma City as “Richard Aucoin” and “John Kelly.” They rented a car, drove the 120 miles or so to Tulsa, and stayed in a series of mediocre Tulsa motels. Their last stop was the aging and neglected Trade Winds West, which had once hosted Presidential candidates. While they waited for the “hit kit” containing weapons, bullet proof vests and assorted goodies to arrive from Southie, they used detailed information provided by former FBI agent H. Paul Rico to determine where best to assassinate the target.

They also looked for a good fast car to steal. The ideal “boiler” could be quickly driven away from the hit and dumped elsewhere to distract authorities while Martorano and McDonald highballed to Oklahoma City in their nondescript rental car. And when the bulky hit kit arrived at the downtown Tulsa bus station, the killers moved their plan forward. It had been shipped to “Joe Russo”—another prolific assassin then working in Boston, perhaps to deflect attention to the Mafia later.

Martorano had already decided they could not kill Wheeler at his mansion. The house, located at 1957 East 41st Street, is now hidden by a development, but was then fronted by a largely open, seven-acre estate that would have revealed the direction of their escape to witnesses. Nor was it practical to take him out at the Telex headquarters, high atop a hill surrounded by acres of bare ground some three miles east of the Wheeler manse. So they decided to kill him where Wheeler likely would be most relaxed and least on his guard—after his regular Wednesday afternoon golf game at Southern Hills.

Ordinarily, Wheeler played with a foursome and capped the game with a Scotch and milkshake in the clubhouse. But today, he quickly showered and joked with golf shop manager George Matson about his score on the way out. He shot an 88 and lost five bucks. “These boys are killing me,” Wheeler carped in jest, according to one news article.

Earlier, that Wednesday afternoon, May 27, Martorano and McDonald acquired a stolen Pontiac left for them at a large apartment complex near the country club and doffed disguises purchased at a Tulsa theatrical shop. They scouted the parking lot just behind the swimming pool, found the Cadillac they were looking for and waited for Wheeler to appear so they could finish the job and fly back to Florida. That day, Wheeler had parked on the far southern edge of the asphalt next to a light pole, facing a small, placid pond surrounded by willows. They didn’t have to wait long. Soon, the trim figure in a pin-striped business suit walked briskly out of the clubhouse past them towards the Caddy, already late for a meeting back at Telex.

Wheeler opened the door and climbed in, oblivious to Martorano rushing from behind on his left. Martorano testified a quarter century later that he grabbed the door to keep Wheeler from closing it and shot him between the eyes with a .38 snub nose pistol just as Wheeler jumped or fell backward into the seat. The pistol fell apart as it fired, dropping four bullets, but Martorano didn’t stop to pick them up, although he managed to retrieve the cylinder. Or perhaps he left the bullets on or near Wheeler as a stark warning to others—a not uncommon occurrence in such a hit.

Once Martorano was back in the Pontiac, McDonald careened eastward out of the parking lot in a counterclockwise semicircle, passing the party barn called Snug Harbor and the tennis courts. Finally, after a sharp right turn, they sped beyond the eleventh hole of the golf course on their left and slipped out the country club gate into Harvard Avenue traffic. Although newspapers reported the pair promptly disappeared, within a few days an anonymous caller told police that they stopped long enough to pick up a second car on the residential road paralleling the winding contours of 61st Street to the north a few minutes after the killing.

Of course, Wheeler never knew he’d been taken out on the orders of Whitey Bulger, a thug for all seasons who came of age less than fourteen miles from where Wheeler began his wheeling and dealing on the streets of Reading, Massachusetts. Nor would he know of his own grieving daughter, standing watch alone in the dusk at Southern Hills as detectives investigated her father’s murder.

Wheeler braved through those last seconds of consciousness comforted by club manager Dean Matthews but surrounded by curious kids in swimming suits, his head leaning against an old gym bag. He may have wondered how he ever thought he could buy a cash-business ready made for mobsters, say no to the skim, and live to tell the tale.

Yet, the fate he unwittingly fashioned for himself had been there all along, obscured by the brightness of a late spring afternoon, but mostly hidden by his own unbridled confidence: the specter of violent, lonely death and destiny in a cheap fake beard, with sunglasses hiding lifeless eyes, rushing into his face from out of nowhere, from behind his own blind spot.