Mad Dog Sullivan has passed away in prison after a long bout with cancer. Some will not be sorry to see him go. He was a professional contract killer for the Mob who may have whacked over 20 people, mostly other gangsters. He is also the only man to have successfully escaped from Attica Prison (in 1971), which he did pretty much on his own with no accomplices. He was free for a few months before being captured in NYC, in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from where I live.
I got to know Sully over the years. He was an avid reader of my work, and he became, for me, an invaluable source on the subject of crime and the criminal mentality. For someone like me who writes about the criminal life though I am not a criminal, Sully’s willingness to talk honestly and truthfully with me was a tremendous act of generosity. He respected what I was doing and wanted to help me understand “the life.” He was an old school gangster from another era, the last of a certain kind of Irish American tough guy, and to know him was, given my profession, an honor. It was like a writer about politics getting to know a powerful lion of the Senate, or a writer about baseball befriending a Hall of Fame player.
Of course, he was also a killer, and for some this negates whatever other value he may have had as a human being. Sully made no apologies about his life as a gangster, but he was remorseful about his crimes and the devastation it may have caused for the family members and survivors of his victims. He was, believe it or not, a decent man, despite his spectacularly bad life choices, for which he paid a price. When I first met Sully he’d been in prison for over 30 years, with no end in sight.
Mad Dog is survived by his wife, Gail, who never left him even after his having spent half a lifetime in prison, and by his two sons, who have grown to be admirable men with no taint of the criminal life.
I wrote about Sully numerous times — in the book The Westies, which first brought my work to his attention, and also in Paddy Whacked. More recently, I wrote extensively about my meetings with Sully in prison for Whitey’s Payback and Other True Stories of Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revenge.
When I wasn’t meeting with Sully, we stayed in touch via the old fashioned way — letters and cards. In recent years, his medical issues came to dominate his life. I wrote him the occasional note to make sure he was still alive. In a recent message, he wrote to me, “Hi T.J.: thanks for checking in to see if I was still on the right side of the grass (smile). Yeah. But just barely, though I have no complaints, as I’ve had a long ride considering all those who have not.”
The last card I received from Sully was a Christmas card: “Just a short note from Gail and I to wish you and yours much love, good health, and a great new year! “
I am posting here an excerpt from Whitey’s Payback that includes my interviews with Sully in prison. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mad Dog Sullivan. For better or for worse, he truly was the last of a certain kind of tough gangster who was once a not uncommon figure in America’s big cities.
Excerpt from Whitey’s Payback….
Joseph “Mad Dog” Sullivan is a tough mammy jammy. Gangster, killer, fugitive from the law, prison inmate: Sullivan, 73, has lived a life in the darkest corners of the known world. He is a hard man who has withstood the primordial dictates of crime and punishment, and he has done so without complaining. But by the fall of 2012 — after a long career as a professional hitman for the Mob; after a lifetime highlighted by numerous escape attempts from penal institutions (some successful, some not so successful); after having been hunted down, shot at, captured and locked up — the clock is finally winding down for Mad Dog.
In year 31 of a life sentence, Sullivan’s mortality loomed like the black raven that occasionally flew over the prison yard, sending a ripple of doom through the hearts of inmates. Recently, Sullivan had been treated for prostate cancer. During preliminary examinations, doctors determined that cancer had also developed in his right lung. Within weeks, he had half a lung removed. And still he wasn’t out of the woods. Doctors suspected that the cancer had metastasized, that it was possibly in remission but could re-emerge at any time to spread through his body like a raging wildfire.
Despite the dire prognostications, on this particular day Sullivan is in good spirits. He feels as though he’s had a good run and mostly held up well against astounding odds. Never mind that 50 of his 73 years on the planet were spent in some form of incarceration. He feels lucky to be alive.
“It’s kind of a miracle,” Sullivan says in the visiting room at the Sullivan County Correctional Facility in upstate New York. “I should have been dead a long time ago.”
I had been summoned to meet Mad Dog by the man himself. Through a mutual contact who had interviewed Sullivan and produced a cable television documentary about his life, I was told that he wanted to meet me. I had written two non-fiction books in which Sullivan’s criminal exploits were prominently featured, and Joe was curious to know how I’d learned so much about him and the world he inhabited. Said the filmmaker. “He admires your work. He says you’re one of the few people who got it right.”
I was flattered and hesitant in equal measure. It has been estimated by law enforcement authorities that Sullivan, as a contract killer for the Mob, murdered somewhere between 20 and 30 people. What if Joe was not happy with me? Not only had I described some of his criminal exploits for the first time ever in a book, but, in my research for Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster, I’d even gotten a hold of a manuscript of his unpublished memoir entitled Tiers and Tears. I quoted passages from the manuscript without ever asking Sullivan’s permission – though I did cite the manuscript and made it clear it was Sullivan’s writing. Even so, what I’d done was possibly an infringement of his rights; he had a good reason to be pissed off.
Knowing that he was safely locked away in prison, I could have ignored Sullivan’s request for a meeting. But I felt that I owed him the courtesy. I had written about him and characterized his criminal career in print, and quoted from his writing without his consent. Plus, I was curious. Mad Dog Sullivan was a legend in New York crime circles, the last of a dying breed, an old school, professional hitman for the Mob. I wrote Sullivan a letter to make sure he wasn’t mad at me. When he answered that he was not, we made arrangements to meet at the prison.
For anyone with a professional interest in the criminal justice system, whether a cop, a lawyer, a parole officer, a judge, or a crime journalist, entering a penal institution is akin to descending into Dante’s ninth ring of hell. Prison is, metaphorically speaking, the asshole of the universe. Many stories of people in the criminal life end up here, or in the cemetery, or in the witness protection program. Short of death, prison remains the great equalizer.
In the receiving room, you are stripped of all personal belongings, patted down, pockets emptied out. As you enter the facility, much like an inmate, you must be accompanied by a guard at all times. The automated bars slam shut behind you, and others open in front of you. You enter, and those gates also slam shut. As you descend deeper into the facility, you feel the free world slipping away like overcooked meat falling from the bone. You are passed from one armed guard to another, until you are ushered into the visiting room, which is also monitored by armed guards.
“I thought you might be upset with me,” I said to Joe Sullivan, once we’d shook hands and sat down at a cafeteria-style table off in a corner of the room. “Having written about you,” I continued, “quoted from your memoir, I thought you might want to wring my neck.”
Sullivan smiled. “Hell no,” he said. “What you wrote was accurate. In a way, I was proud, because you wrote about me like I was a historical figure.” The aging gangster shrugged: “Who cares? All of that is the past. I can’t change what happened. And there’s no point in hiding it, because I’m never getting out of here anyway.”
Sullivan and I had a lot to talk about. In his heyday in the criminal underworld, Mad Dog had been involved in some key events that I had chronicled in my work, and I was fascinated to hear the details from his point-of-view. In the same regard, I had information and thoughts about certain events and people that Sullivan wanted to know about. Mad Dog regaled me with stories from his life of crime that were riveting and sometimes humorous. He told me how he escaped from Attica prison in 1971, the only man in history to ever do so by himself. He told of meetings with Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, John Gotti, Jimmy “the Gent” Burke of “Goodfellas” fame, and many other notorious mobsters. Joe had the Irish gift of storytelling. He was also a great conversationalist. He listened to my thoughts and observations with great attention to detail. Though he was a man with little formal education, he possessed a sharp intelligence, the hyper-awareness and street smarts of a true hustler. He was friendly, respectful, convivial.
“Call me Sully,” he said, after we’d been talking a while. And that’s when it hit me.
Nice guys make the best killers.
Joe Sullivan was a nice guy. He had the charm of a talkative cab driver, or a friendly bartender who had a talent for getting people to relax and unburden themselves. If you ran into him at a saloon or tavern, he was the kind of stranger who, over beers at the bar, would quickly and effortlessly draw you into a conversation, getting you started but then gladly letting you do most of the talking, asking interesting questions, making jokes and observations, loosening you up with the skill of a psychiatrist. Before long, you’d feel like Sully was an old friend. You’d be revealing things about yourself you didn’t normally tell anybody, much less a complete stranger. Sully would also tell you stories, have you crying and laughing and listening in wonder. You’d want to match him yarn for yarn, to make him smile the way he made you smile. He’d say, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” So you’d lean in closer to tell him a particularly juicy detail or to deliver a punch line. And at that moment, without you seeing or noticing anything, Sully would whip out a gun, put it to the back of your head and blow your brains out.
I never set out to be a crime writer. In the mid-1980s, when I began my career as a journalist, I covered the waterfront, so to speak. As a freelance writer in New York City, driving a taxi at night to pay the bills, I was engaged in the classic American hustle. Back then, you could do it. You could live close to the bone and cover your bills while pursuing your craft, whether it was acting or filmmaking or painting or writing. To make any money at it, you had to maximize your talent and push the envelope. And so, as an aspiring journalist, I wrote about many subjects: politics, sports, entertainment, and crime.
More and more, I came back to the subject of crime – not arbitrary crime, or so-called crimes of passion — organized crime, crimes set against a backdrop of sociology, ethnicity, culture, economics, and politics. Through the writing of many magazine articles and five non-fiction books, I have been covering this beat, off and on, for close to 25 years.
Given my chosen profession, I am sometimes asked, “What attracts you to the dark side?” I have a hard time identifying with this question. I do not write about serial killers, or psychological aberrations, or vampires, or zombies. Mostly, I write about crime as an extension of the American social and economic system. I write about the underbelly of capitalism, men and women attempting to manipulate the system to their advantage, and law enforcement’s attempts to bring justice to this process. Sometimes, people in law enforcement are themselves players in this underworld. They frame innocent people who they think deserve it, or attempt to manipulate a given situation to their advantage, driven by the desire for financial gain or career advancement or the esteem of their peers.
The world is a messy place. Ever since Adam and Eve were chased out of the Garden of Eden, we have known this to be true. It is the job of elected officials, civic leaders and parents to promote the illusion that life is fair, people are good, and the world is an orderly place; our daily lives at home, school or on the job are designed to lend credence and support to this illusion.
The journalist’s job is to drag this fantasy out into the light of day, to pull back the curtain and make sense of what seems chaotic and difficult to explain.
I am not attracted to the dark side. I am attracted to the light, and what that light reveals about the true nature of the social universe.
The various articles in this collection were written over a 22-year period. They reflect my interest in crime as a vast ecosystem, a parallel universe to the social and economic system we observe in the upperworld on a daily basis. The way I see it, one cannot exist without the other. In the United States, business, politics and crime are frequently intertwined. What is happening below the surface shapes the world as we know it. What is presented to the public is occasionally wrapped in bullshit and lies.
For me, these collected articles are all basically about one thing: the pursuit of the American Dream. To the reader, the question is posed: How far would you go to achieve power and prosperity for you and your own? Some people out of free will, dire circumstances, or temporary insanity, make choices that take them to the wrong side of the law. Chronicling the path of misguided souls and devious minds has become a big part of my calling as a writer.
It is worth noting that the pieces in this anthology were written for a variety of publications, and that I have never been under the employ of a particular magazine or newspaper. My status as a freelance writer, I like to believe, affords me a certain degree of independence. I am not peddling a specific ideology, nor do I represent the views of an established publication like, say, Playboy magazine or the New York Times. Even though I have written for these periodicals, I have never been urged to adhere to a particular editorial point of view. I have never been pigeon holed in that way. My reporting is my own, and my point of view, when there is a need to assert it, is a consequence of my research and not an editorial dictate from above.
Creatively and spiritually, I am nurtured by the work. And the kind of reporting I enjoy most has to do with traveling to locales that serve as the setting and/or incubation chamber for the kinds of criminal activity I write about.
For a crime journalist, there are few undertakings more invigorating than traveling into a city – say, Kingston, Jamaica, or Hong Kong, or Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – in search of a good story. The trip must be planned with near-surgical precision. If you know what you’re doing, some important interviews will have been set up ahead of time, so that you come into town and hit the ground running. You travel light, dress unobtrusively, carry little more than some research material, a notepad, a tape recorder, a laptop. You stay somewhere downtown in an anonymous hotel, a Holiday Inn or something similar. You circulate without calling attention to yourself, talking with people on all sides of the law, playing dumb, if necessary, to get what you need. You profess to have no ideological agenda, and hopefully you do not, for to tip your hand one way or the other can quickly rile passions and create untenable situations. You get what you need and then get the hell out of town as quickly as possible. Hopefully, the sources you have spoken with think little of your visit until after they see your article in print and react accordingly.
I do not whack people, but I can’t help but think that what I do on these assignments is akin to being a hired assassin. You arrive from out of town as a mysterious stranger. Every move you make, every conversation you have, is geared towards a specific goal. The task at hand is to accomplish what you came for cleanly and professionally, and then – poof – disappear in a cloud of smoke.
Seated in the prison visiting room in upstate New York, Mad Dog Sullivan smiles at my analogy. He finds it cute. The idea that a writer gathering information and putting words down on paper is in any way similar to the actions of a professional hitman is the kind of literary prestidigitation that brightens his day. Sullivan knows about high-intensity assignments that leave people scratching their heads, wondering what happened. But he also knows that the end result of his line of work is a dead body and shattered lives. “I belong in here,” he says, “no doubt about that. If they were to give me the death penalty, I can’t really argue with that either, even though I don’t want to die.”
The immorality of Sullivan’s actions are clear, but this does not stop the hitman from taking pride in his work. And this is where Sullivan and I sense a kinship, a mystical connection that can sometimes exist between a writer and his subject, no matter how contrary may be their backgrounds, lives or daily existence. Sully and I come together out of a shared appreciation of craftsmanship.
Believe it or not, Mad Dog always operated within a personal code. For one thing, he has never been a rat. Many times since he began his most recent period of incarceration in 1981, he has been approached by federal agents and prosecutors offering him some kind of deal if he would testify against organized crime figures for whom he worked. Sullivan’s response has always been the same: “Go fuck yourself.”
The other part of Mad Dog’s code has to do with being the best at what you do.
At one point in our conversation, I ask Sully to describe his cleanest and most professional hit. He describes the planning and execution of a particularly perilous assignment with evident satisfaction, how he stalked his victim – a notorious underworld figure – until he knew the man’s daily routine. Sully describes how he created a disguise and chose a particular caliber weapon best suited to the unique conditions of the shooting. One night, he penetrated the victim’s inner sanctum — his favorite saloon. Joe got right up next to the guy, chatted with him at the bar for twenty minutes before shooting him once in the head, then walking – not running, walking – right out of the bar. His disguise was so seamless, and the act so sudden and unexpected, that witnesses gave three entirely different descriptions of the shooting, and a description of the shooter that guaranteed that Joe Sullivan, without the disguise, would never be identified as a suspect.
Sullivan’s appreciation of a job well done extends to my own undertakings as a writer. Since he’s been in prison so long, Sully has lots of time on his hands, and he’s become a voracious reader He is fascinated by the process of gathering information and getting it down on the page. He asks me if I use a tape recorder or take notes when I’m doing interviews. “How do you get people to talk to you?” he asks. He wants to know how I’m able to put so much into my writing and still keep everything organized. He’s curious how I’m able to remain mostly objective when writing about people that many would dismiss as “scumbags.”
I answer Joe’s questions, and he listens attentively to my answers.
I am fascinated by his life’s work, and he is fascinated by mine.
Over a couple visits to the prison visiting room, we continue our conversation. Often, Mad Dog and I become so engrossed that it’s easy to forget where we are. The hours pass, the day drags on. We are merely two craftsmen – the assassin and the journalist – discussing the tricks of our respective trades.
January 2013: It is a gloomy drive through the frozen tundra of upstate New York to Sullivan County, for another visit with Mad Dog Sullivan. As we greet one another in the prison visiting room, as usual, I joke with the aging gangster about the fact that he is named Sullivan, incarcerated at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, in Sullivan County. “They were so worried you were gonna try to escape,” I say, “they wanted you to feel as welcome as possible.”
Sully looks amazingly fit considering the cancer surgeries and his most recent prognosis: There is a cancerous field in his one remaining good lung. It is only a matter of time before the cancer becomes active. Sully’s days are numbered. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, though, thanks to his daily visits to the prison gym and a rueful acceptance of his mortality. “Nobody lives forever,” says the former hit man.
We settle into our regular spot in the prison visiting room. As usual, Sully reminisces, and I take it all in. These days, he doesn’t have much to hide. There is a Wikipedia entry about Mad Dog Sullivan on the Internet that details a criminal life that is almost impossible to believe. Son of a New York police detective who died when Joe was thirteen; institutionalized and later criminalized by a hardscrabble life on the streets; many hired killings carried out under contract with the Genovese crime family and other organized crime groups; more time spent in prisons than on the street.
It’s all true, Sully admits, except for one fact on the page that gets his goat. Wikipedia and other Internet sources claim that Sully was given the moniker “mad dog” in prison, so named by other inmates due to a salivary gland problem. “Total bunk,” says Sullivan. He tells me the true story about the origins of the nickname.
It was 1981, and Sullivan had been contracted to murder a mobbed-up Teamster official named John Fiorino. Sullivan killed Fiorino with a shotgun blast in a restaurant parking lot in Rochester, New York. He and his getaway driver were pursued. After their car crashed into a large snowbank, the driver was captured, but Sullivan got away by hiding in that freezing snowbank for nearly eight hours. A team of state police and FBI agents descended on the scene in pursuit of Sullivan. The lead lawman told the others, “Be careful. This man is armed and dangerous. He is a mad dog killer.”
That night, Sullivan got away, but the nickname stuck when the New York Post and other newspapers, upon his eventual arrest weeks later, plastered it in headlines such as ‘Mad Dog Hit Man Nabbed!’ and ‘How Cops Put Leash on Mad Dog.’
In most accounts of Sully’s life, his many murders stand out like a horrible gash, an open wound so gruesome that anyone pondering the life of this man is unable to see anything beyond his penchant for destruction. I have never asked Sullivan exactly how many people he murdered. It is a long list. He knows now that these killings were the product of a deep-seated sickness, though he notes that the people he killed were almost always people in the criminal life—gangsters, or even killers themselves. Sullivan did not have a psychological compulsion to kill people. He did it for the money. He did it because it was his job.
Sully is not proud of his role as an angel of death, but there is one aspect of his long criminal career that does warm his heart, and that has to do with his many escapes from jails and prisons. His early life was driven by a deep-seated fear of entrapment, which, subconsciously, led him to embrace a philosophy based on Newton’s third law of motion, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Up until his most recent extended incarceration, Sully’s life was a cycle of entrapment and escape, escape and entrapment.
At the age of 14, not long after his father died, he ran away from home. He was apprehended by police and sent to the New York State Training School for Boys in Warwick, and later the New York State Vocational Institution in Coxsackie, both notorious reformatories in upstate New York. When Sullivan was released at the age of nineteen, he went on a petty burglary spree out west with a boyhood friend. They were apprehended by police in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, Sully pulled off his first escape by diving through a plate-glass window at a police station. Bloodied and on the run, he walked into an Army recruitment station and joined up, mostly as a means to escape the law.
In the Army, he went AWOL on numerous occasions and fled back to New York City, where he was captured and thrown in a military stockade on Governor’s Island, in New York harbor. Sullivan escaped from that facility by covering his body with Vaseline, throwing himself into the frigid waters of the harbor, and swimming all the way to Brooklyn.
Sully’s course in life was set: His hatred of institutional authority meant that he would never hold a legitimate job. In his early twenties, he undertook a more serious life of crime, with a series of robberies and stick-ups, until he was caught and thrown in prison in New Jersey. In Trenton State Prison and later in Rahway, Sully witnessed prison rapes
and killings, and was in the middle of a horrific prison riot. He was released in 1965. Not long after that, he killed a man at the Willow Bar and Grill, near his home neighborhood in Queens, and was sentenced to prison for manslaughter. This led to his most daring escape, in 1971, from Attica, a maximum-security facility.
The Attica escape is perhaps the most noteworthy item on Sully’s résumé. Using a pole constructed from pieces of pipe, he shimmied over a prison wall, dropped to the ground, and sweet-talked an unwitting visitor in the parking lot to drive him to the nearest town. From there, he hopped a Greyhound bus to parts unknown. He was captured a couple of months later in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, with a sawed-off shotgun stuffed in the leg of his pants.
Sullivan smiles when I tell him that I live two blocks from where he was pinched, at East 10th Street and University Place. “Nice area,” he says. “Some nice diners, a few good bars. I used to go down there to visit my wife. That’s how I got caught. They staked out the office building where Gail worked and nailed me when I tried to see her.”
Talk of Gail, Sullivan’s wife of thirty-seven years, is a subject that often brings a tear to the eyes of this unreconstructed tough guy. They were married in 1976, after Sully—having served ten years for manslaughter—was paroled, thanks in part to the help of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who had befriended Sullivan and served as his attorney before the parole board. Gail was an account executive at a small advertising firm who met Joe through a friend. They soon had a child who they named Ramsey, in honor of the man who got Joe out of jail. Three years later, they had another boy named Kelly.
Gail did not know that her husband was a hired killer for the Mob. It was her understanding that he worked at various construction jobs that he had secured through union connections.
After my first prison visit with Sullivan, I met Gail at a diner in Manhattan, and she told me, “Joe could be difficult. He had a problem with drugs and alcohol, and I suspected he was having affairs, but he was a good provider. He cared about his family and his kids. Most of the time, he was a good man.”
Gail is no dummy. She is not naive. Through arrests, trials, and incarceration, she has stuck by Sullivan because she believes, “inside of him, along with everything else, there is a good person. That’s the part of him I fell in love with.” Gail made sure their two boys grew up knowing their father, with regular visits to prison. They have become fine young men, never in trouble with the law, with kids and families of their own.
The idea that Sullivan has somehow managed to maintain a marriage and healthy nuclear family while being a hit man and longtime prison inmate does not fit the profile of a psychotic mad dog. Sully gives Gail most of the credit. “I told her if she wanted to leave me and get on with her life, I would understand,” says Sullivan. “I told her, ‘You have a choice.’ She stayed. I owe everything I have to her, no doubt about that.”
The dedication that Gail has shown to the man she married, and the relationship Sullivan has been able to salvage with his two sons, is—in the savage narrative of Joe Sullivan’s life—as miraculous as the Immaculate Conception. Improbably ennobled by family relationships that have survived and grown stronger over a forty-year period, Sullivan, the inveterate gangster and cold-blooded killer, can’t talk about any of this without choking up: “Gail, my sons, the grandkids—it’s more than I deserve. I don’t know why or how I got to be this lucky. It’s all I have to live for.”
It’s getting late in our visit, and Sully wants to hear more about Whitey Bulger. He has followed my writing about Bulger in Newsweek magazine, and he is fascinated by how Whitey maintained his power by gaming the system for all those years.
The Bulger story, of course, is right up Sully’s alley. He never met Bulger, but he knows the type. “He reminds me of Joey Gallo,” says Sully. “Machiavellian. Always playing one side against the other.” Gallo was one of numerous Mafia bosses who, in the late-1970s, hired Sully to whack out their enemies in the underworld.
Sully admires Bulger’s mastery of the criminal universe in which he operated, but he is not pleased to hear that Whitey’s attorney has announced that Bulger will take the stand at his trial and reveal all about his criminal career, particularly as it relates to his relationship with the U.S. Department of Justice. Sully sees my excitement as I detail how Bulger, realizing he has nothing left to lose, will finally tell all and name names of people in the government who, he says, promised him immunity from prosecution as long as he supplied them with information about the Mafia. Says Sully, “See, you’re all for it because you’re a writer and it makes for a good story, but from where I’m sitting, it’s the lowest thing a guy can do.”
Sully, of course, is referring to “the code,” the principle that under no circumstances does a person rat out anyone, not even his enemies. Sully is in prison because his accomplice in the Fiorino hit cooperated with the government and testified against him at trial. Sully would rather be dead than be a rat, and he has paid a heavy price for adhering to the code. It is likely that he would be out on the street right now, his sentence reduced by many years, had he offered up testimony against the many Mob bosses with whom he did business.
Sticking to this principle of never being a rat under any circumstances has caused Sully distress within his own family.
“Him and his code,” says Kelly Sullivan, Sully’s son, whom I met and interviewed after my first meeting with Sully. Kelly told me that he and his father have often had arguments over the issue. “I’ve said to him, ‘Dad, what good has your code done for you? Many of your enemies are out on the street because they cut deals with the government. You’re in here . . . in prison for life. What you’re saying is that your code means more to you than your own family.’ ”
Sully knows that it is hard for anyone to understand, especially law-abiding citizens—civilians—who have never been in his shoes.
I attempt to explain the nuances of the Bulger situation, how this is slightly different, Bulger naming names of people in the government who he feels have sold him out, but Sully is not interested. He’s spent an entire lifetime living by his code; it is the only thing he has, other than his family. Though, like his son, I may have issues with it, I respect Sully for sticking to what he believes is the highest principle of the streets—even if, in this day and age, it makes him seem like the last of the Mohicans.
As our visiting time nears an end, Sully and I have our picture taken. It’s part of the visiting ritual: girlfriends, wives, brothers, and other visitors stand in front of a fake background—a wide-open sky and trees, or some other nature scene that will never exist in reality within the prison walls. Sullivan and I lean in close together as a prison guard, for the price of two dollars per photo, snaps our picture with a Polaroid camera.
As we are waiting for the photo to develop, I mention to Sully that I’m currently working on a magazine article about some armed robbers who used state-of-the-art synthetic masks to disguise themselves while robbing a check-cashing store in Queens. I tell him, “Two black guys pulled off a couple of robberies disguised as white cops. That’s how good these masks are. You can completely alter your identity.”
I see Sully’s eyes lighting up. He’s like a cocaine addict who hasn’t done blow in thirty years when someone just placed a bowl of coke in front of him.
“Hey,” he says, “do you think they could make one of those masks according to specifications? Like, if I gave them a photo of someone, say, a guard in here, could they make a mask that looked like that?”
I smile, because I know where this is headed. “I don’t know, Sully. Maybe they could.”
We’re both smiling now. Riffing. It is a lark—a fantasy—that Sullivan, age seventy-four, down to one cancer-infested lung, could pull off one last glorious escape.
“How would I get it in here?” I ask.
“You fold it up and stuff it down the front of your pants, in your crotch area. You could get by security with that.”
I nod. Yeah, maybe I could.
“You pass it to me here in the visiting room. I’ll take it into the bathroom. I can get a guard’s uniform. I’d put on that mask and walk right out of here. They’d think I was a guard.”
Sully says all this with a twinkle in his eye. We both know that, although I write about criminals in books and magazine articles, and attempt to do so with knowledge and even a certain degree of intimacy, I am, after all, a civilian. I am not going to help Mad Dog Sullivan break out of prison.
I chuckle and say, “Okay, Sully, I’ll check and see if they can make that mask.”
“Yeah,” he says, “would you do that?”
Visiting time is over. There is a common practice for both visitor and inmate as a visit comes to an end: The inmate is escorted by a guard to a door on one side of the room, and the visitor is also escorted by a another guard to different door on the other side of the room. Visitor and inmate, knowing they will not see each other for months or years or maybe ever again, watch each other being led from the room, wanting to get one last look at their friend or loved one.
I shout across the room, “Take care, Sully. And stay out of trouble.”
Sully gives me a pumped-fist salute. He knows what I mean. Nearly on his death bed with lung cancer, bowed but unbroken, I watch him disappear through the electronic, steel-plated door, a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face, visions of escape dancing in his head.
© T.J. English. Whitey’s Payback and Other True Stories of Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revenge. Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2013.