Chapter 6 Excerpt

CHAPTER SIX

THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT'S BIG, BAD, DUMB WAR ON DRUGS

Six times the cops came. Six times they seized the liquor, the gambling equipment and the other contraband. Six times Charlie Matta, the owner of the 37 Club -- a dingy after-hours club operating in the middle of a solid working class neighborhood of Boston -- was brought to court.

But somehow, despite the hard work of the police, the active support of the neighborhood, and the on-the-record backing of several city councilors, state representatives and the mayor of Boston, Charlie Matta and the 37 Club seemed strangely immune to official pressure to close down. At first, exhilarated by the challenge, the neighbors came together at the monthly meetings of the Treadway Road Crime Watch group; sometimes to get the latest report from Tom Crowley, the local police commander, other times to hear a speech from their state representative, or to trade the latest horror stories about Charlie Matta's friends.

"The real problem was the night," recalls Mike McGinn, founder of the crime watch organization and an exuberant, hard-working family man who until a few years ago lived a half-a-block away from the 37 Club.

"You'd be trying to sleep. But outside -- night after night --there'd be prostitutes and drug dealers shouting to each other, and double-parked limousines, their engines running, and gangs of guys pissing into your front yard," McGinn continued. "It was hard to sleep."[1]

"This guy Matta was so arrogant," said Hendrick (Salty) Solar, a retired truck driver whose house was directly across Savin Hill Avenue from the 37 Club. "He'd stand out there on the sidewalk, all these gold chains around his neck, his hands on his hips, looking at us as if to say, `What are you going to do about it?'"[2]

"Although a lot of people were fearful, we thought that with all this support and all the work of Tom Crowley and his police officers, that we could put Matta out of business," McGinn said. "But the process turned out to be too slow, way too slow, and the neighborhood began to fall apart."

As the months -- and then the years -- slipped by, the families living in the Dorchester neighborhood began to lose faith in themselves, the crime watch group and the power of the local authorities to get rid of Charlie Matta and his troublesome customers. A few even began to wonder whether the police raids were a sham, thinking that maybe some of the cops were on the take.

After a time, as the doubts grew stronger, families living near the club began to move away. First one, the another, then a third. Although the neighborhood and its Crime Watch group were starting to disintegrate, Captain Tom Crowley refused to give up. Officers were dispatched to ticket illegally parked cars and sometimes arrest the club's disorderly customers. Meanwhile detectives continued to gather the evidence they needed to obtain a judicial warrant for another raid.

"The cops did everything they could," McGinn remembers. "Captain Crowley was always here. It was almost as much of a headache for the police as it was for the people who lived in the area."

On August 21, 1988, in what eventually turned out to be the punch that brought Charley Matta to his knees, Crowley and his officers once again raided the unlicensed club, this time confiscating four gallons of liquor, four cases of beer, 27 packs of cards, 300 poker chips and 27 grams of cocaine. The drug seizure made during the August raid was pivotal because with it, for the first time, Charlie Matta faced a serious threat of being sent to prison. The club owner was indicted on felony drug charges in March of 1989 and was brought to trial almost a year later, on February 21, 1990.

By that time, Matta had decided on an unusual defense: he was not guilty of violating federal drug laws, he told the jury, because he was in fact a paid informant for the FBI. All of his activities at the 37 Club, he claimed, were designed to provide him cover while he collected intelligence for the federal government's war on drugs.

Tom Crowley was upset. "This was a truly regrettable situation," Crowley said. "Matta and his customers really messed up the neighborhood. I have no evidence that someone was intervening on his behalf, but he sure did seem to have a special immunity. The FBI, needless to say, never told me what they were up to. You really have to wonder about this operation. What was the goal? Given the world we live in, a few drug arrests don't mean that much. What in the world did the agents think they were accomplishing with their little project?"[3]

Maureen Feeney, now a Boston City Councilor, asks the same questions. "What were they doing? What should be important to the federal government? That was a whole solid block that was destroyed, and once you lose a neighborhood like that it is very hard to regain."[4]

Matta's lawyer at the trial was Robert J. Zanello. "From the beginning, I wasn't sure the strategy would work," Zanello said. "The government acknowledged making significant payments to him --for his mortgage, for his living expenses, even for his vacations. And if the FBI and DEA had followed up on this admission by testifying that Mr. Matta had been an important informant and that the drugs he was accused of possessing were directly related to his undercover operations, then maybe this would have been an effective defense. But if my client was involved in drugs on his own hook, then calling in the FBI and DEA probably wasn't going to help."[5] Zanello's doubts proved on the mark. For while the FBI sent Matta's lawyer a letter acknowledging that the owner of the 37 Club had indeed been paid for providing information that the bureau claimed had helped it seize several million dollars worth of heroin and arrest a number of drug traffickers, the agency was not willing to say that the 27 grams of cocaine were part of these operations. (For its part, the DEA admitted that Matta had been one of its informants some years in the past.)

At the trial, FBI Special Agent Roderick Kennedy testified that he had been Matta's handler for almost ten years. Kennedy, however, directly disputed Matta's claim that the drugs seized in his club really belonged to the government and that he had never done a drug deal except under the supervision of federal agents.

What, Matta's lawyer asked, had FBI Agent Kennedy requested the club owner to do in return for all the secret payments? "The instructions were to attempt to gather information concerning any large-scale narcotics dealers operating in the Boston area," Kennedy replied.

Neither the jury, which convicted Matta on drug charges, nor the judge, who sentenced him to 9 to 12 years in prison, gave credence to his defense.

In a narrow way, of course, McGinn -- who attended the Matta trial when he could get time off from his job at Polaroid -- had won the battle. In a broader sense, however, McGinn and his neighbors had lost the war.

"We tried to use the system and do things the right way," said McGinn. "But all along it turns out that the system, our government, was using us.

"My wife was scared," he continued, "scared for herself and our two little girls, and I concluded that for the safety of the family we would have to move out of the city."

After leading the energetic four-year neighborhood campaign to marshall the neighborhood against Matta, McGinn called it quits. "We decided to move out, way out, out to central Massachusetts," McGinn continued. "We had shut down the club but my wife was concerned, afraid of retaliation, afraid to go to the pizza shop around the corner. She had had it."

Born and raised in nearby South Boston, McGinn had originally bought the one-family house at 12 Treadway Road in Dorchester in 1985. "Except for the club, the neighborhood was real solid; decent people, a lot of little kids, and an elementary school almost in our backyard," he said. "What the FBI did was to force a group of hard working taxpayers out of the city."

In the end, through the intervention of United States Senator John Kerry, the new FBI Special Agent in charge of the Boston office met with McGinn and several of the other activists from the Treadway Crime Watch group. "This new guy, Tom Hughes, was in a tough spot," McGinn recalled "What had happened, after all, hadn't been on his watch. While he was nice enough, he was real hard ball. Hughes said he couldn't confirm or deny anything and the FBI certainly never apologized to us."

Bill Walzcak, a leader of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civil Association, is still upset by this tiny skirmish in the federal government's vast war on drugs. "The neighborhood was destroyed by the FBI and it has never really recovered," he said in an interview six years after the Tom Crowley's final and successful raid. "The building where the club was located is still empty, the property a wreck."[6]

No one for a moment thinks that FBI Agent Roderick Kennedy was trying to drive working-class taxpayers from Dorchester while he funnelled thousands of federal dollars to Charlie Matta in exchange for bits of information about the unlawful activities of some of his customers. Kennedy's goal, it seems certain, was to get information that would allow him to make another drug arrest. In fact, it is almost inconceivable that anyone in the FBI's Boston office even considered the broader consequences of the Justice Department's drug enforcement campaign. Their mission, after all, was to develop cases and make arrests, not to ask questions about whether their work was contributing to a safer and more productive city and nation.