December 5, 2020

The Bubbie and the Mobster

By Phyllis Karas

Phyllis Karas

Phyllis Karas

How on earth did I — a journalist, a college professor, a doctor’s wife, and a nice Jewish grandmother — become the sidekick of the real life criminal, Kevin Weeks, whose impressive resume includes five murders and who is being represented in the new movie, Black Mass, by Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad fame?  And, how do I reconcile all that with my Judaism?

The answer to all these questions starts in the late 1990’s after I’d finished a book about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis. My agent found me a low-level drug dealer, Eddie MacKenzie, who wanted someone to write his story. He was working for the infamous Irish mobster from Boston, James “Whitey” Bulger, who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for 19 murders. Over the next two years, I learned a lot — about drug dealers, the Medellin cartel, leg breakers and swear words I’d never known existed. MacKenzie was a pretty likable, albeit rarely truthful character, and he liked me a lot after the book, Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob, got reviewed in The New York Times in 2003.

When a couple of bankruptcy lawyers called me a year later, it wasn’t exactly out of nowhere. They had come up with a way for another member of the Bulger mob to avoid wrongful-death suits. He could write a book about his major asset, his life story, and give 50 percent of his profits to the victims’ families.

Kevin Weeks

Kevin Weeks

When they told me it was Kevin Weeks, I was dutifully impressed. Weeks had been Bulger’s closest confidant, the only person reputed to have met with Bulger since he had disappeared 10 years earlier. With this book, I would be climbing way up the ladder of bad guys.

The only thing the lawyers did not tell me was that Kevin, still in jail and not due out for at least 18 months, hated MacKenzie and despised Street Soldier and everything it said about him.

To make the situation even more unpleasant, Kevin Weeks didn’t want to write his life story. He’d spent his entire adult life committing criminal acts under the cloak of darkness. Revealing his life of crime to any author, never mind a woman, he repeatedly stated, was even worse than remaining in jail for the rest of his life.

But his lawyers prevailed and I pursued him with an intensity I’d never known I possessed, ignoring his crankiness, nastiness, murderous ferocity and all-around disdain. I was determined, I have no idea why, to have my name on his story’s book jacket. Three years after my first meeting with his lawyers, Kevin was out of jail. The book about him, Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob, spent time on The New York Times Best Seller List, and I was getting birthday presents from my subject.

While the Kevin Weeks who walked out of prison appeared to have no problem turning his back on his former life of crime, I was a changed woman. Things happened to me that made it impossible for me to return to my former life away from the mob. Too many experiences had altered my way of thinking. I now know more about crime — loan sharking, extortion, drug dealing, stabbings, leg breakers, the RICO Act, money laundering, bookmaking, shipments of arms, hideouts built into walls, C-4 explosives, witness protection, superseding indictments and accessories to murder — than Carmela Soprano.

For instance, I remember the day I couldn’t spend with my two-year-old grandson because I had to be with Kevin, getting photos of murder sites where he had buried a few bodies. “If nothing happens to Bubbie while she’s schlepping through the marshes tomorrow, she’ll be able to play with you on Monday,” I once told Jason.

I managed to squelch any strong feelings of guilt that accompanied my role as a Jewish biographer to the Irish mob. In truth, my Judaism often comes in quite handy for this role, especially when I introduce my criminal co-author to groups of curious readers.  As my rabbi kindly explained to me before one large gathering, nobody is completely innocent.  From a Jewish perspective, even speaking gossip is a crime.  Yet a person who rights the wrong he has committed or pays for his crime in some way, a ba’al teshuvah, is deemed more highly in God’s eyes than the person who is born perfectly and never makes a mistake. The Talmud expresses high regard for baalei teshuva with the statement, “In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.”  Thus in Judaism you can right your wrong, pay for your crime and return to the straight and narrow.

Whitey Bulger, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit

Whitey Bulger, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit

Our book, Brutal, has been in print for six years now. Kevin and I are once again partners in crime, or at least in crime fiction. This time we have written a fictional account of Whitey Bulger’s 16 years on the run, eventual capture, trial and sentencing, called Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger. Once again, we are spending lots of time together  promoting the book, meeting lots of new people.  Some like us, fascinated as they are with mob life; others hate us for making money from criminal acts. While I identify more with the latter, I remind myself that at least with Brutal, victims’ families are still profiting from that book, an occurrence that rarely, if ever, happens in other true-crime books.

Today, 10 years after his release from prison, Kevin Weeks, who I guess I could, with a bit of liberty, call an Irish ba’al teshuvah if he would let me, is a law abiding citizen, making an honest living in construction, living a quiet simple life, close to his two sons and his beautiful pregnant new wife Anna whom he loves dearly.

Hunted Down may not be the last book we write together.  We are nearly finished with a second piece of fiction, The Jewel Thief, based, once again, on Kevin’s nefarious deeds.  It is a weird collaboration — the former Irish mobster and the bubbie — that I will admit. But right now, Kevin is out of jail, having forsaken a life of crime. While I know we are not writing Crime and Punishment, I do think our stories are entertaining, honest, and above all, Kevin and I are not breaking any civil or religious laws.  For that, I will utter a heart-felt kinehora.

Phyllis Karas is a former adjunct professor at Boston University, former stringer for People Magazine and author of many books including the recent, Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger. Karas’ story was recently featured in The Jewish Advocate.

Comments

  1. Zelda Kaplan says:

    How very exciting to see/read you on the hbi website. Now many more people can know and appreciate your excellent and always interesting work.

  2. Julia Creet says:

    What a fantastic story. I just saw Black Mass, which is great, but the books sound even better. Beyond the books, the story of your collaboration warrants its own.

    Julia Creet,
    Department of English
    York University, Toronto
    Former HBI Scholar-in-Residence

  3. I think the Phyllis Karas article is great. I enjoyed it all!

  4. Well written, fascinating story. You are obviously an amazing woman.
    Another topic that may interest you is the great extent of egalitarianism dating back to biblical times. Examples are highlighted in the Judaism’s Egalitarian World web site.
    http://jeworld.goldharry.com

  5. Thank you so much. Dorothy. I will eagerly check out that web site.

  6. Extra excellent!!

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