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Buried by the Mob

One family's brush with Whitey Bulger

By Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Globe Staff

This article is excerpted from the book, "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil's Deal," published by PublicAffairs.

[ Part One | Part Two ]

Julie Miskel Rakes and her husband, Stephen, were like a lot of other couples from the old neighborhood - family-oriented, hard-working, and determined to make their own modest way in life. They'd grown up in Southie. Julie was from the projects, just like crime boss Whitey Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly, and her family belonged to the same parish as the Bulgers, St. Monica's, situated at the outer boundary of the Old Harbor housing project and across a rotary from another, the Old Colony housing project.

Though only two years apart, Julie and Stephen did not really know each other at South Boston High School. They met later, when Julie was 20 years old and Stephen was 22 and he was operating the first of his many business ventures, Stippo's Sub and Deli. Stippo was Stephen's nickname, and the popular corner store sold coffee, doughnuts, and groceries. It was open from dawn to midnight, with Stephen's brother, sister, mother, and father all working shifts.

Julie began working at the store in 1977. Stephen was the owner and manager; he was in charge of ordering the stock, handling the banking, pricing and shelving the inventory. Soon enough, the couple began dating, and then, in 1978, the Rakeses and the Miskels gathered with friends to celebrate the marriage of Julie and Stephen Rakes. It was a South Boston family affair.

Stephen was no stranger to trouble; in the past, he and his brothers had tangled with police. But with Julie, he was going to make a go of it. Two years after they married, their first daughter, Nicole, was born; a second daughter, Meredith, was born in November 1982. During this time, Stephen sold the deli, became a partner in a liquor store, and then, by 1983, he and Julie decided they were ready to go it alone again. Stephen preferred owning his own business. The work pace might be punishing, but the rewards would be theirs alone. Julie suggested a video rental store, but Stephen convinced her that a liquor store would be more profitable.

Hunting around, Stephen spotted an abandoned Texaco gas station right at the rotary near St. Monica's Church. It was a prime site on a Main Street, Old Colony Avenue. Traffic was always flowing down Old Colony and around the rotary out front, and the property had a rare commodity in the compact business districts of South Boston - a parking lot. Together, they researched Boston property records to identify the owner.

"We were going to make it big," Julie recalls. "This was going to be our source of income that was going to give us the lifestyle that we wanted - for the rest of our lives."

But for all their hopes and hard work, there was a problem.

Whitey Bulger had been chased out of the Lancaster Street Garage, harassed by state troopers, and, most recently, hounded as a murder suspect. The time had come for him and longtime cohort Stevie Flemmi to quit all their running around and find a new home office. The way Bulger saw it, why not the cozy confines of the old neighborhood? There was no substitute for the familiar and insulated feel of South Boston. The Rakeses, unfortunately, knew none of this, and their modest ambition was about to collide with Bulger's plan in a town where whatever Whitey wanted, Whitey got.

The fall of 1983 was a mad scramble for the couple, trying to accomplish all that was necessary to open in time for the holiday season. In a relatively short period of time, things had gone pretty smoothly, beginning with their successful bid for a liquor license at an auction during the summer. In the newspaper, Stephen had spotted a notice for the auction of a license from a liquor store that was closing, displaced by construction. Eager, the couple dressed up one Saturday and went downtown to the law firm overseeing the sale.

The couple decided that Julie should do the bidding. "He was saying, `Go ahead. You can do it,' " says Julie. "And I was saying, `What do you do? What do you do?' It was fun. Exciting. He said, `Go ahead. Raise your hand. Raise your hand!' " Julie did. The bidding opened at $1,000. There was other interest, but Julie kept going. Suddenly, the bidding ended, and the Rakeses walked away with a liquor license for just $3,000.

It was a great start. They created a business corporation, Stippo's Inc., that consisted of a family lineup of corporate officers. "I was president," says Julie, "and we made jokes about it." Stephen took the titles of treasurer and clerk and of director. Then came some other good news: Julie was pregnant with their third child. At the end of September, the couple got in touch with a contractor, a friend from the neighborhood, Brian Burke. Burke started on the toughest part of the project - converting a gas station into a liquor store. The ground had to be dug up and the huge gasoline tanks removed, all in accordance with state environmental codes. Burke cleaned up the lot, replaced the roof, and applied a new look to the building's exterior. The Rakeses were not out to break new ground in design or aesthetics. Their pockets were not deep. The goal was a basic renovation that achieved functionalism: a clean, well-lighted, concrete-block building with glass windows. The couple felt a rush of excitement after the sign was hoisted into place on the front: Stippo's Liquor Mart.

But family and friends were not the only visitors to the construction site during the final days before the opening. Taking note, too, of the progress were Bulger and Flemmi. Late at night, the two gangsters were coming around to inspect all the remodeling that was going on. There was usually a third man with them, Kevin Weeks, who had stepped in for the recently slain Nicky Femia as a new sidekick, driver, and sometime enforcer. Half Bulger's age, Weeks had the perfect resume. The bushy-haired kid stood a few inches shy of 6 feet, but his upper body was all muscle, and, most important, he had quick hands. The son of a boxing trainer, he'd grown up in the rings around the city. And, like John Connolly's, his boyhood was spent in thrall of the Bulger mystique. He filled up on stories about Southie's very own gangster but only caught his first glimpse of the man when he happened to spot Whitey marching through the housing project.

Weeks's first job after graduating from South Boston High School in 1974 was the one he was made for - a bouncer, or "security aide," at his alma mater, patrolling the hallways and breaking up the fights between white and black students that were a regular feature of court-ordered busing.

Then, the next winter, a few days before St. Patrick's Day, the 18-year-old moved up to Whitey's world when he went to work at Triple O's, the bar on West Broadway where Whitey hung out. He started out behind the bar, lugging ice. Then one night, the bar's big-bodied enforcers seemed unable to handle a brawl, and Kevin leaped from behind the bar and leveled the miscreants with blazing combinations. Whit ey took notice. Weeks was promoted first to a Triple O's bouncer and then to Bulger's side. By the early 1980s, Bulger was Weeks's mentor; Weeks was like Bulger's surrogate son. Weeks liked to go around bragging about his loyalty, telling people he'd rather serve hard time, even rather see harm come to his own family, than utter a bad word about Whitey Bulger.

For Bulger, it was a good time to be considering a new office. He and Flemmi were doing well indeed, better than ever. The local Mafia was rocked: Gennaro Angiulo was now in jail, along with a number of other key mafiosi. Bulger's own rackets had prospered in the aftermath of the FBI's bugging of the mob. The amount of rent, or tribute, Bulger charged was increasing steadily, as was the number of bookmakers and drug dealers making such payments. More than ever, Bulger and Flemmi were willing to help the FBI clear out the clutter from the city's underworld. It was great for business.

As they looked for a new office, Bulger and Flemmi's priority was a location that included a legitimate business. Running a business made it possible to launder profits from their illegal gambling, loan-sharking, and drugs. Bulger had often used the rooms above Triple O's. But bars were crowded, public, and often chaotic places. The fights that broke out at Triple O's drew police scrutiny. Instead, he and Flemmi wanted a place that might fit more tidily into the palms of their hands, and this new liquor store at the rotary had caught Bulger's eye.

By year's end, Julie and Stephen Rakes were in a rush. They'd missed Christmas and were not going to have time to hold a grand opening. Julie's two sisters, her mother, and Stephen's father and mother helped set up inside and stock the shelves. The Rakeses oversaw the installation of a bank of refrigerators - their biggest investment to date. To capture part of the holiday season, they opened up just in time for New Year's.

Their families sent over plants with ribbons to display on the counter, but beyond that, the Rakes es didn't mark the occasion; they simply opened their doors for business. Stephen took out an ad in the South Boston Tribune announcing that the store was "Now Open," was located at "The Rotary in South Boston," and, importantly, had "Parking Available." Listed were the hours: "Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m." It was pretty basic stuff. Then, at the bottom of the display ad, Stephen included an enticing item he hoped would catch a few South Boston readers' eyes. "Win a trip for two to Hawaii or $1,000 in a cash drawing on Wednesday, February 8, 1984, 5 p.m., at the Mart." The promotion was Stephen's idea, his brainstorm to draw customers to the store. "In the area, stores never offered things like trips," says Julie Rakes, "so we thought it was kind of big. It would attract attention."

Customers came. The husband and wife worked as a tag team, moving between store and home, handing off the business and the kids. Relatives always pitched in, but they were volunteers. It was exhausting and all-consuming, but the business was theirs and the cash register was ringing. But before they could complete even a week's worth of business, the Rakeses would be finished. They wouldn't even be around long enough to hold the advertised raffle. Whitey and Stevie had no plans to fly anyone off to Hawaii for free.

Julie threw on her coat and headed out into the winter night, a night that was beginning like so many other nights: hectic. One spouse coming, the other going, a pace the couple had maintained throughout the renovation of their new store and into its opening days. The talk around town was mostly about the city's new mayor, Ray Flynn, the "people's mayor," an Irish son of Southie who was starting his new job during these first days of 1984.

Julie drove over to the store from their house on Fourth Street, a short drive that took her along routes she'd known her entire life, past the homes, stores, and bars along Old Colony Avenue. It was the only world she knew, and she was thinking good thoughts - about her family, about the new business, about Stephen. After she arrived, and chatted with the person they'd hired to work in the stockroom and make deliveries, the telephone rang.

It was Stephen.

"How am I supposed to know when the lamb is ready?" asked

Stephen. He and Julie were learning to be interchangeable - she in business, he at home. Julie walked him through the instructions for the roast and then tended to a few customers. It was midweek and pretty quiet, and Julie had a chance to catch her breath. Around 9 p.m., the phone rang again. Stephen? she wondered. What is it this time?

"Julie?"

"Yes."

Julie did not recognize the deep and husky voice coming over the line. "I know you, I like you, and I don't want to see you get hurt."

"Who is this?"

The voice ignored her question. "You should get out."

"Who is this?"

"The store is going to be bombed."

"Why are you doing this?"

Julie's voice was rising in alarm. "If you like me, why don't you say your name?" She was shouting. "Why don't you say your name?" But the caller had hung up.

Julie was frightened. She looked around the mostly empty store, feeling that someone was watching. She was back on the telephone with her husband, upset and explaining about the anonymous call she had just taken, and the more she described it, the more upset she got. Stephen, for his part, tried to sound comforting. Julie could hear the television in the background, and she could hear the kids making noise. But hanging up, Julie also thought Stephen's voice had sounded tense.

Stephen Rakes had a good reason for sounding that way. In his kitchen, at that precise moment, he was entertaining three uninvited visitors. He had been cleaning up after dinner, playing around with his two girls, getting them changed for bed and letting them watch some television, when he heard a knock at the door. He hadn't been expecting anyone. He went to the door and pulled it open. In the dark stood three men, and Rakes recognized them all. Rakes knew Kevin Weeks from growing up, although they were never close. Stephen also recognized the other men. He sometimes saw them at Triple O's, too. But he didn't know them personally, never had had anything to do with them, and they'd never come to his house before. It's just that everyone knew Whitey Bulger and Stevie Flemmi.

It did not look good. The men walked right in and took Stephen into the kitchen. Bulger and Flemmi sat down. Weeks stayed on his feet nearby. Bulger was in charge. "You got a problem," he told Rakes. The competition, Whitey said, some of the other liquor store owners, wanted him dead. But Bulger had an option. "Instead of killing you, we'll buy the store."

Rakes fidgeted. "It's not for sale," he said.

It was the only peep of protest Stephen Rakes would make. Bulger exploded, saying they would kill him and take the store. Bulger stormed out, Flemmi and Weeks at his heels. In a panic, Rakes called his wife and told her about the surprise visit. They didn't know what to do. Before Stephen had time to begin to think clearly, there was another rattle at the door.

Bulger was back. He pushed his way past Rakes, accompanied again by Flemmi and Weeks and squeezing a brown paper bag. Back in the family's kitchen, Bulger put the bag down and stood over Rakes at the table. Bulger had a pocket knife in his hand, which he opened and closed as if to punctuate his words. One of Stephen's little girls wandered into the kitchen to see what was going on. Flemmi pulled a handgun from his waistband, put it on the table, and lifted the girl onto his lap. "Isn't she cute," Flemmi said. The gangster tousled her blond hair. The gun's hard metal caught the child's attention, and she reached for it. Flemmi let her touch it, and the girl even put part of the gun in her mouth. "It would be a sin for her not to see you."

[ Part One | Part Two ]


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

 FEATURES
Photo gallery
Whitey sightings
Books on Whitey
Whitey chats
Whitey links on the Web

 GLOBE SPECIAL REPORTS
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.

Complete list of reports

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