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Burglar caught in violent web

Victim made last desperate calls for money

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / March 9, 2000
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His voice was strained over the speaker phone when Arthur "Bucky" Barrett called his wife on a July afternoon in 1983, and told her to take their two boys, a 2-year-old and the other just 13 weeks, and leave their Quincy house.

The last time Elaine Barrett spoke to him was at 11 that night, when he called to check on her and their children, saying, "I just want to make sure you're OK. I won't be home for a while. I have to get some money together."

But he never came home. Yesterday, on his birthday, Barrett, who was 45 when he disappeared July 26, 1983, was positively identified through dental records as one of three victims unearthed in January from a gully alongside the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester.

Investigators were led to the grave by Kevin Weeks, a longtime associate of fugitive South Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger. Weeks is now cooperating with authorities and has implicated Bulger and his sidekick, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi - both longtime FBI informants - in the slayings, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

"I think the government is responsible because if they put them away when they should have, Bucky would be alive today," Elaine Barrett said. "They gave them a license to kill and do whatever they wanted."

What Elaine Barrett did not know when she last talked to her husband was that he had spent all that day desperately trying to raise money from friends, reportedly to meet the demands of Bulger and Flemmi. Barrett, a master safecracker, had helped a group of corrupt police officers steal $1.5 million in cash and millions more in jewelry from Depositors Trust in Medford during the 1980 Memorial Day weekend.

Intent on grabbing whatever money Barrett had left from the burglary and subsequent ventures, the Bulger crew lured him to a South Boston home on that July day in 1983 on the pretext of looking at jewelry, according to Barrett's former associates.

After calling his wife and ordering her out of the house, Barrett is believed to have been forced to drive to his Quincy home and turn over money he had stashed there to Bulger. Barrett's friends estimate the Bulger crew stole anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million in cash and jewelry from Barrett, but it apparently was not enough.

Throughout that day, Barrett called friends - including the now-deceased Charlestown gangster Joseph Murray - trying to raise more money, sounding as if he was reading from a script and talking over a speaker phone. In 1988, Murray told the FBI that Bulger and Patrick Nee of South Boston kidnapped Barrett because they wanted a share of his take from the Medford burglary.

An FBI report of an interview with Murray filed in federal court says, "They held him and went to his house and took $300,000 and then they killed him."

The allegations by Murray, who was shot to death in 1992 by his wife in a case that police concluded was self-defense, never resulted in any charges against Bulger or Flemmi. Bulger has been a fugitive since his 1995 indictment on federal racketeering charges and Flemmi has been jailed for the past five years while awaiting trial in that case.

"They killed him for money and greed," said Boston lawyer Kevin Glynn, a close friend of Barrett's who is representing the Barrett family. "He was not a choir boy, but he was never violent. He wasn't part of that treacherous [Bulger] group. He was just a victim of it."

It was a violent end for Barrett, a man with a legendary reputation as an engineering whiz who could bypass even the most sophisticated alarm system. Yet he never carried a gun and had no history of violence.

He also had legitimate work as part owner of Little Rascals, a now-defunct restaurant on Broad Street in Boston, and the owner of a jewelry shop in Lynn. He married Elaine in 1980 and supported six children from two marriages.

"He was just a happy-go-lucky guy and had a grand sense of humor," said Boston lawyer Earle C. Cooley, who met Barrett around 1980 while hanging out at Clarke's, a bar near Faneuil Hall. "I thought everybody loved him. I couldn't believe it when I heard he disappeared and was believed killed."

But life was not always easy for Barrett.

Born March 8, 1938, Barrett, nicknamed Bucky by a childhood friend, was one of four children. His father, who was in the merchant marine, abandoned the family. The children lived in Maynard with their mother, who frequently kept her children home from school.

The state stepped in, taking Barrett and his brother away from their mother when he was 8. He spent the rest of his youth at the Middlesex Training School in Tewksbury, a notoriously harsh, now defunct, residential school for truants.

Barrett married when he was a teenager and had four children during his first marriage. He worked various jobs, including at a supermarket, a meat-packing plant, and a heating company, and took night courses in steam engineering, according to his family. He obtained a second class fireman's license to work with steam boilers.

"He didn't grow up around wiseguys," Glynn said. "He was a good family man, a good worker, a good provider."

Barrett's entrance into the criminal world came when he hooked up with Benjamin Tilley, a bank robber with close ties to the late New England Mafia boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca. Under Tilley's tutelage, associates say, Barrett honed his skills as a burglar alarm expert.

In the 1970s, Barrett was convicted of stealing $400,000 worth of rare stamps from the Cardinal Spellman Museum at Regis College in Weston. A second conviction soon followed for burglary of safe-deposit boxes at the Parker House hotel in Boston.

The most sensational case involving Barrett came in 1980, when he was recruited by a group of Medford and Metropolitan police officers to burglarize the Depositors Trust. The men spent the three-day holiday weekend inside the closed bank, rifling through safe-deposit boxes.

One of the burglars, former Metropolitan Police Captain Gerald Clemente, later told the Globe that the thieves gave an extra $200,000 to Barrett, who claimed he had to pay tribute to Bulger and the Mafia.

But even as he was pocketing a cut from the caper, Bulger was being credited within the FBI for fingering Barrett as one of the burglars, according to FBI files made public in 1998.

In a ruse to find out whether Barrett would roll, Bulger suggested that FBI agents try to "scare" Barrett into cooperating by warning him that Bulger and Flemmi were going to shake him down for a cut of the robbery profits.

Former FBI supervisor John Morris, who admitted taking $7,000 in bribes from Bulger and Flemmi, testified in 1998 about the plot proposed by Bulger and admitted he told Barrett that he should cooperate because Bulger was poised to come after him. Still, Barrett refused to talk.

Boston lawyer Martin G. Weinberg, who represented Barrett in previous cases, condemned Morris for concocting the scheme with Bulger, saying, "It was universally understood that Barrett did not carry weapons and was not a man of violence."

On April 6, 1983, Barrett may have run afoul of Bulger when he was arrested along with five other men by federal agents who raided a South Boston warehouse and seized 14 tons of marijuana. The drug ring was headed by Murray, and Bulger was furious that the Charlestown gangster had stored drugs in South Boston without his permission, according to FBI reports.

When Barrett disappeared three months later, his car was found abandoned on Savin Hill Avenue in Dorchester, where Barrett's friends believe it was stashed to deflect suspicion from Bulger and Flemmi.

"It wasn't necessary that his kids grew up without a father," Glynn said. "These guys were so greedy, they just wanted everything."

Elaine Barrett, who values her privacy and has raised two boys on her own, said she feels some closure in knowing what happened to her husband.

She is planning a quiet burial.

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