DO WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE BIG ENOUGH TO DO
MY FATHER ONCE TOLD ME, “Do what you think you’re big enough to do.” Not particularly profound, but certainly practical advice. I don’t recall the particular circumstance that warranted this admonition, only that his father had imparted the same bit of wisdom to him after he had forged his birth certificate and enlisted in the navy during World War II at the tender age of fifteen. When I joined the navy in 1972, he told me his father had driven him to the train station in silence, put him on the train, handed him a five-dollar bill and tersely advised him, “Keep your eyes open, your mouth shut, and your dick in your pants.” He was not inclined toward much heart-to-heart conversation.
My grandfather had been a boyhood friend of Bob Hope in Cleveland and served as Hope’s boxing manager. The famed comedian fought under the name of Packy East, but after getting knocked cold by a fighter out of Cincinnati named Happy Walsh, decided to pursue a career in show business. My grandfather went on to play semi-pro baseball and football in the 1920s and was signed by the Boston Red Sox, but shattered his shoulder playing football in the winter, ending his hopes of playing major league baseball. He returned to Cleveland and became a clerk of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. He proceeded to drown his sorrow in alcohol with such fervor that my grandmother eventually fled, leaving him with four children. She was never to be heard from again.
My father, Robert Emmett Walsh, survived a kamikaze attack on the USS Nashville, returned home after the war, and joined the Cleveland Police Department. Shortly thereafter, he met Kathleen McFaul, a strawberry blonde who was babysitting for her aunt. He and a friend were picking up her cousin and several other girls for an evening at the movies. She had hardly paid him any attention.
As he was leaving, he leaned over and boldly informed her, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to marry you.”
She watched from the porch while the others sped away in a 1942 Packard convertible.
Well, now, isn’t he full of himself? she thought.
They were married in August 1951. I was born on December 18, 1952. My grandfather died three years later. My father worked his way up in the police department from patrolman to detective. He was making about forty-five hundred dollars a year, roughly “eighty-six bucks and change a week,” he would say. Apparently, this was not nearly enough to support a growing family. He left the Cleveland Police Department in early 1957 to pursue what he thought might be a more lucrative venture: a life of crime.
By 1966, our family had grown. I was the oldest of seven children, five boys and two girls. A pretty much typical Irish-Catholic family, or at least we seemed so. As was the custom with second generation Irish-Americans, my parents gave their first six children Irish names: Dennis Michael, Timothy Robert, Kathleen Mary, Daniel Patrick, Laura Kelly, and Robert Emmett, Jr. Then, oddly enough, in September of 1965 they broke tradition and christened the last addition to our family Christopher John, a traditional English name. Being the youngest of five brothers, Christopher came to be called Finnegan, Finny, or Fin—a slang term for “five.” I, on the other hand, always referred to him as Christopher. At his baptism at Saint Paschal Baylon Church in Highland Heights, I stood up as his godfather. I’m not sure whether my parents thought me to be particularly responsible at the age of twelve or whether I was the only family member who had a clean suit at the time.
In the meantime, my father’s criminal endeavors had steadily increased. He and his crew had been hacking through roofs in the dead of night and blowtorching bank vaults for a few years. They always managed to exit in time, thanks to a police radio supplied by a friend of his still on the Cleveland PD, in exchange for a cut of the score.
I got a hint about my father’s line of work at about nine or ten years of age, when I innocently ventured into the garage, where he and his cohorts were busy torching a safe. I’d later learn that they would practice on dummy safes before the real heist, so there’s no telling if this was a hot one or not, but I knew enough to follow orders when my father yanked up his welding mask and sharply ordered me to get the hell out of there.
I scooted back into the house, where my mother was preparing dinner. Supper, as she called it.
“Hey, hey, don’t go out there, your father’s working,” she cautioned.
This was the first time I realized that my old man wasn’t an insurance salesman or anything else of the kind.
Early in 1966, an FBI agent roused one of my father’s confederates, Frank “Skinny” Velotta, out of bed and warned him that J. Edgar Hoover himself had sent word that if one more bank got burglarized in northeastern Ohio, Frank, my father, and Ray Ferritto would go down for it, whether they did it or not. The federal agent’s threat of recrimination did not fall on deaf ears. The next we knew, we were pulling up stakes.
It was the morning of July 5, 1966. My brother Tim and I were ordered to clean out the garage and burn whatever wasn’t going with us in a rusted trash barrel in the backyard. In one box, I fished out my father’s detective journal and flipped to December 18, 1952, the day I was born. In big bold black letters, his notation read, 8:18 A.M. FIRST SON BORN!!! I tried to ask the old man if I could keep the journal, but he cut me short.
“Goddamn it. I told you to burn all that shit. Hurry up, we don’t have all day.”
I tossed the journal into the fire. You didn’t argue with the old man.
As flames leaped from the makeshift incinerator, my parents packed themselves and their seven wide-eyed children into a wood-paneled Ford station wagon, hitting the road for sunny Southern California.
My siblings and I had no idea that we had been run out of town. Instead, the old man had been hyping the wonders of California for weeks.
“You loogans can pick oranges and grapefruits off trees in your own front yard out there,” he crowed.
My father routinely referred to his brood as loogans or loogan heads. Loogan was an Irish slang term for “misfits.”
“You loogan heads can swim in the ocean in the morning and then ski in the mountains in the afternoon.”
We were nothing less than astonished at the thought. Tim and I nearly wore out our two favorite 45 rpm records, “California Dreamin’” and “California Girls.”
The cross-country trip proved to be quite an adventure. Our large family coupled with my father’s line of work hadn’t allowed for many family vacations. With one hand on the wheel and his right arm draped across the back of the front seat, the old man worked us like a carnival barker, whetting our appetite for the upcoming sights.
“Fifty miles to the Big Muddy, the Mississippi River. Wait till you loogans see the Gateway Arch in Saint Looey.
“Now we’re gonna be crossing the Rocky Mountains. You hooligans are gonna see snow in the middle of July.
“Pretty soon we’re gonna cross the Bonneville Salt Flats. Any of you loogan heads ever see a whole desert made of salt? Keep your eyes peeled.”
We hit all the tourist spots as we zoomed westward on Route 66, “the Mother Road” as Steinbeck had dubbed it. We crammed into two motel rooms each night.
Eventually we crossed the California border and made our way to our destination, the San Fernando Valley. It was a warm, balmy July evening. We marveled at the mountains that ringed the Valley, and the stately palm trees that seemed to have popped out of nowhere. As our packed station wagon motored down Ventura Boulevard, we craned our necks, hoping to spot a movie star.
“Don’t worry, they’re all over the place,” the old man had promised.
We turned north onto Sepulveda Boulevard. After a few blocks, my father eased the station wagon into the parking lot of the 777 Motor Inn in Sherman Oaks. We got two rooms as usual and got ready for bed. My father left and came back shortly with two large boxes loaded with cartons of Chinese food. He took great delight by having each kid read the fortune cookie messages out loud. He read for the younger ones, Laura and Bobby, and teased us about our various fortunes. I don’t know that our family was ever as happy together as we were that night.
We had no idea what lay ahead of us in California, but we were all excited to be there.
How were we to know it would all go wrong?
* * *
Fast-forward thirty-seven years, to late June 2003. I’m an attorney, a sole practitioner, living about sixty miles north of Los Angeles in a quiet little rural town in the Angeles National Forest. My youngest brother, Christopher, had been missing for maybe seven or eight days. He, his two children, and I were the only family members still living in California. My brother Tim and sister Kathy are living in Vegas. My brother Dan and his wife and kids live in Phoenix, around the corner from my mother and sister Laura. My father and my brother Bobby are doing a stretch in federal prison due to a major cocaine deal that went south in 2000.
All week long, I’d been telling my other brothers not to worry.
“The kid’ll show up sooner or later. He’s probably on a bender somewhere.”
Even though he was thirty-seven years old, I still referred to Christopher as the kid. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for at least a year since he was behind glass in the prisoner lockup at the San Fernando Courthouse, begging me to bail him out on a drug-possession charge. Although it was not that unusual for me to be speaking with family members behind glass, I lit into him, telling him he was a poor excuse for a father.
Christopher remained calm. Probably since I hadn’t yet agreed to post his bail. He sighed and leaned toward the glass. “Dennis, don’t talk to me like that in front of these guys,” he said.
Before I could reply, one burly inmate, a heavily tattooed skinhead, took exception to my comments. “Dude, you don’t have to take that shit from this dump truck. You ought to report his ass to the state bar,” he said.
I not only resented the inmate butting into our conversation, but also took exception to being referred to as a dump truck, jailhouse slang used to describe attorneys who pleaded out cases rather than took them to trial.
“Mind your own fucking business, asshole,” I fired back.
Christopher rolled his eyes and whispered, “You’re killing me here, Dennis.
“Don’t trip on it, he’s my brother,” Christopher told his cell mate, causing him to shrug and shift his concern to a half-eaten bologna sandwich.
I wavered over posting bail. I thought he deserved a few days in the slam, but leaving him with these losers didn’t exactly feel right.
Holding up his soggy sandwich, he pleaded, “Come on, man, I can’t eat this shit. I gotta get outta here.”
“All right,” I said, agreeing to post the required 10 percent for his release. “But from now on, you’re on your own. Get yourself a public defender, pay back my five hundred bucks, and lose my phone number.”
I was thoroughly fed up with Christopher and his lifestyle. I was aware he was abusing drugs, but didn’t realize that he was seriously addicted to crystal methamphetamine. Known as ice or glass on the streets, it was highly addictive. Meth users, known as tweakers, craved the immediate burst of energy followed by a state of acute alertness coupled with euphoria and increased self-esteem. Tweakers would be spun out for days on end, finally crashing for several days only to awaken in a state of paranoia and delusion. The drug had exploded onto the scene in the Valley in the ’90s. Still, I hadn’t fully appreciated the horrors attendant to its use. Not yet, anyway.
Christopher thanked me for posting his bail. By the way he hung his head, I could tell he was embarrassed to have to ask the favor. I quickly got up and left, pretty much writing off both him and my five hundred dollars.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time I’d ever speak with my youngest brother.
When Christopher went missing that week in June of 2003, my brother Dan was sure something was wrong. Christopher had been in the habit of calling him at least once a week. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, the twenty-ninth of June, during softball practice at Hjelte Park in Encino, that I became concerned. Johnny Rio, my Akita–wolf hybrid, was with me as usual. As I was tying his leash to the fence along the third base line, I was overcome with an eerie sense of foreboding.
“Something’s not right,” I said, turning to one of my teammates. “My kid brother’s been missing for about a week. I’m starting to get worried.”
“He’s probably holed up in an air-conditioned motel somewhere with a couple of broads while you’re out here sweating your nuts off,” he said.
“Yeah, that would be him all right,” I said as I laced up my cleats.
I trotted out to the infield but did not feel all that relieved. I had been taught to trust my instincts, and right now they were telling me something was wrong.
Three days later, Christopher’s decomposed, bullet-riddled body was recovered, sealed inside a trash barrel in a storage facility in Van Nuys, less than two miles from where I’d been mindlessly fielding ground balls.
* * *
It was Wednesday morning, July 2, when my brother Dan called. I was driving northbound on Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita.
“I’ve got a bad feeling they just found Chris’s body in a storage unit in Van Nuys,” he said. “You need to head down there right away, Dennis.”
My sister Laura had received a call from Debbie Wilcox, a friend of Christopher’s. A woman named Carolyn Vasquez had noticed a foul odor coming from a sealed barrel in her storage unit and suspected the worst. Laura immediately called the LAPD Devonshire detectives who were handling Christopher’s missing-person case.
I scribbled down the address, 15500 Erwin St., Van Nuys. It was the first of hundreds of notes I would eventually compile in haphazard fashion while trying to determine what had happened.
I could hardly speak.
“I’ll call you when I get there,” I said curtly, and hung up.
I pulled off the highway and stopped on the side of the road for a minute. My insides felt like they were clamped in a vise. I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried or prayed. I pleaded with God to please, please not let it be my brother. I wanted it not to be true more than I had ever wanted anything in my life.
My father was serving his sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. He had undergone a quadruple bypass and suffered from severe coronary disease. His cardiologist had declared his condition terminal. I’d been trying to obtain a compassionate release so he could die at home, but that endeavor did not appear very promising. That situation was stressful enough. Now my kid brother might be dead. A wave of nausea surged throughout my body in a visceral, gut-wrenching sensation.
I took a deep breath and looked in the rearview mirror. In that split second, I realized my life had changed, and changed forever. I knew without knowing that it would be my brother’s body in that barrel, and all the prayer in the world was not going to change that fact.
I proceeded south on the 5 to the 405, doing well over the speed limit. It wasn’t long before my grief turned to rage. I wondered what son of a bitch could have done this to my brother. I tried maneuvering into the fast lane. A frail, elderly woman in a ’60s mint-condition Lincoln Continental leisurely cut me off without bothering to signal. I narrowly missed slamming into her. A mere fifteen minutes ago, I would have dismissed the act as simple carelessness. Now I was overcome with a blind hatred for an unknown killer. I stomped on the accelerator and sped past her car, mouthing a few choice epithets in her direction. Though it was the dead of summer, she was curiously dressed in a black hat and veil, with a fox stole wrapped around her neck. I could hardly believe my eyes when she flipped me the bird. It was like being flipped off by your grandmother. Her reaction seemed so utterly incongruous with her age and her strange attire that I couldn’t help but laugh.
It would be a long while before I laughed again.
Within minutes, it was Christopher I was cursing, for having descended into that hellhole of a life.
Although it seemed like an eternity before I arrived at the Sherman Oaks MiniStorage, it had been only about twenty-five minutes. The facility was cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. The parking lot and street were teeming with uniformed police officers, detectives, motorcycle cops, black-and-white cruisers, and TV news vans. Local news and police helicopters circled overhead. The scene was strangely surreal. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.
I parked down the street and walked over to the yellow ribbon. I motioned to a uniformed motorcycle officer.
“My name is Dennis Walsh. I think that may be my brother’s body in there,” I barely managed to say with a lump in my throat.
I handed him my business card. He glanced at the card and looked back at me suspiciously but said nothing. The last thing I looked like was an attorney. I had been running errands when Dan called and I was dressed in jeans, boots, a Cleveland Browns T-shirt, and a Cleveland Indians ball cap.
“Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back,” he said, just as a dark blue SUV pulled up bearing the LAPD logo with BOMB SQUAD written in bold lettering.
The motor cop returned shortly with a plainclothes detective. White haired, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, he appeared disarmingly avuncular despite his shoulder holster and LAPD detective shield clipped to his belt. “I’m Detective Fleming. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything yet, we’re waiting on a search warrant and the coroner,” he said. “We might need you to identify the body. Can you stick around for a while, please?”
Hearing him verbalize what I had feared caused me to choke up. Somewhat embarrassed, I struggled to fight back the tears.
Damn it, I thought. Where the hell are my sunglasses?
I hoped I wouldn’t have to identify the body. I didn’t want to remember Christopher that way, but agreed to wait. I lit up a Churchill Maduro. The occasional cigar usually calmed me down. This one didn’t stand a chance. While I was pacing back and forth in front of the storage facility, it struck me that just a couple miles away on Sepulveda Boulevard was the 777 Motor Motel where my family had stayed the first night we arrived in the Valley, almost thirty-seven years to the day.
Thoughts of Christopher as a child ricocheted across my mind. I pictured my mother bringing him home from Saint Ann’s Hospital in Cleveland, where all the Irish-Catholic women had their babies. I remembered his christening, how proud I was to be chosen as his godfather. I recalled three-year-old Christopher feverishly pedaling his plastic trike down the driveway. It had probably been thirty-five years since I saw him clutching the little stuffed lamb he called Lambie Pie and carried everywhere, but the image flashed by as if it were yesterday. Memories of my brothers and me teaching him to play ball in the street on warm summer evenings until my mother sharply whistled us home for supper filled my head. I hoped none of the reporters, cops, and onlookers who crowded the street noticed the tears streaming down my face.
Christopher was only seven when I left for the navy. I was too busy drinking beer and chasing girls to have spent any time with him that year. He was just my kid brother, and I was a typical self-absorbed teenager. He and my brother Bobby had tagged along with my mother to my navy boot camp graduation ceremony in San Diego. My girlfriend had come down as well, so I didn’t pay much attention to my little brothers. I felt guilty as I recalled seven-year-old Christopher holding on to my mother’s leg, wearing my crisply rolled sailor hat while staring up incredulously at his big brother in his navy whites.
We grew up in the Porter Ranch section of Northridge. Our neighbors, the Martins, leased a ranch in the foothills of Granada Hills. I could still see four-year-old Christopher sitting on the curb in his cowboy hat and boots, waiting for Chuck Martin—who’d always stop to take him along to feed his horses. It was a small kindness in the midst of our father’s frequent absences that I had never fully appreciated until this moment.
Similar thoughts flooded my mind in a kaleidoscope of images. As I walked over to my car to get my Ray-Bans, my thoughts turned to my father. Christopher’s murder was the obvious result of the path our father had chosen. It was his fault, I thought. Had he been home setting a good example for his sons, maybe my brothers would have become cops and firemen instead of blindly following in his wayward path.
“If Bobby had stayed on the force, he probably would’ve become chief of police,” a detective who had worked with my father told my uncle Tom.
No matter your opinion of Robert Walsh, no one could deny that he was bright and charismatic—traits his son Christopher had inherited. I could picture my father softly singing “Danny Boy” to my brother Dan and “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” to my sister Laura when they were babies. Yet he was the same man who had sat in the car at L.A. International Airport when Ray Ferritto put a bullet in the back of Julius Petro’s head while a jet roared overhead. Now, thirty-four years later, his son had been murdered.
Julius Petro may have been a hard-core hoodlum who had once pulled a knife on Ray Ferritto, tried to get a contract to kill my father, and was muscling bookmaker John “Sparky” Monica, but did he deserve to be killed? His family probably didn’t think so. I guess what they say is true: What goes around comes around. My mind was forever filled with conflicting thoughts about my family.
My cell phone rang and jolted me back to the moment. It was hot and sticky. I felt nauseated and could taste my own bile. It was Dan, calling for an update. I filled him in, as I would do time and again for the next five hours or so. Detective Fleming soon appeared with a nondescript woman he introduced as Carolyn Vasquez, the lessee of the storage unit who had noticed the foul odor and called the police. The detective excused himself and left.
“I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother,” she said.
I thought that was odd, since my brother’s body had yet to be identified. I may have believed that it was my kid brother’s body in that storage locker, but I resented her for seeming so assured. I sensed she knew something more, but was still overwhelmed by the entire situation. I let her remark slide without comment. Instead, I heard myself mouthing what was to become my signature phrase.
“There are four brothers left, and we’re coming,” I said. “Anybody who had anything to do with the planning, the murder, moving the body, or the cover-up is going to answer for it. Make no mistake about it—and you can tell each and every one of those assholes out there—nobody walks on this case. Nobody!”
Carolyn appeared somewhat uncomfortable upon hearing the admonition. Before she could reply, I took a long draw off my stogie, rudely blew a cloud of smoke in her direction, then turned and walked away. I should have peppered her with questions; instead I let my anger get the best of me. It would not be the last time.
I had no idea that I had just embarked on a four-and-a-half-year nightmare of an odyssey that would almost completely consume me.
Dan called back and informed me that an attorney by the name of Barry Cohen was telling the police that he represented the Walsh family. As if that wasn’t enough to grab my attention, Dan said the police were leery of this character.
“Get a hold of this prick and have him meet me down the street at Wendy’s on the corner of Sepulveda and Erwin. Tell him he can’t miss me, I’m wearing a Cleveland Indians ball cap,” I told Dan.
I continued pacing in front of the storage facility for another fifteen minutes or so until Dan called to confirm the arrangement. It was around 3 P.M. when I walked into Wendy’s, but the place was still fairly crowded.
At the back of the restaurant a large individual, who had to be every bit of three hundred pounds, motioned to me. “Dennis,” he called out.
He began to speak rapidly as I strode toward him. I didn’t know what he was saying, and I didn’t care. Normally I tend to speak in a low voice. Right now, however, nothing seemed normal.
“Shut the fuck up,” I roared without thinking.
To my surprise and utter chagrin, everyone in the restaurant shut up. Without breaking stride, I continued on, taking a seat across from him. He attempted to speak again.
“I told you to shut the fuck up,” I said, very calmly. “I’m going to ask you a series of questions. The first time I think you’re lying, I’m gonna splatter your head all over that fucking wall.”
By now beads of sweat dotted his forehead, his shirttail was hanging out, and his rumpled tie was askew. “I’m a friend of Christopher’s. You shouldn’t be talking to me like that,” he stammered.
“Hey, asshole,” I said, thrusting my face forward. “My brother’s body is stuffed in a barrel like a piece of trash about a hundred yards from here. I’m not in any mood for any horseshit, and by the way, don’t ever tell anyone that you represent the Walsh family. If anyone represents the Walsh family, it’s me. Understand?”
As it turned out, Barry Cohen meant well. He had been a friend of Christopher’s. He was facing disbarment and would soon be surrendering himself to federal prison on mail fraud charges. He was such a pathetic character that my anger gave way to pity. He provided some insight into my brother’s lifestyle that was an eye-opener for me. It was nothing, however, compared to what I would later learn about Christopher and his downward spiral into a crystal meth–induced hell.
I thanked him for meeting with me, and made my way to the restroom. I splashed cold water on my face and stared into the mirror. I looked like hell.
“Dennis, Dennis,” I said, shaking my head with disgust.
That was the second time that day I had let my emotions govern my actions. I made a mental note to tone down my demeanor in the future. It was a good lesson for me at this early stage, and would serve me well, at least most of the time. Still, the white-hot fury that had overtaken me would become my constant companion over the next four and a half years.
On the walk back to the storage facility, I repeated my vow that whoever killed my brother would pay dearly. Mark my words, Christopher, I said to myself. Nobody walks on this one, not if I can help it.
My friend Jolene’s brother, Kenneth Bacon, was murdered over thirty years ago in Granada Hills. The case remains unsolved. Whatever it took on my part, my brother’s murder was not going to become a cold case. Not if I could help it.
I wandered around aimlessly for hours before Detective Fleming mercifully informed me that I would not be needed to identify the body.
“We’re not going to open the barrel until we get it over to the coroner’s office. Hopefully, they can make a formal identification and we’ll know, one way or the other,” he said.
I didn’t need to wait for a formal identification. It was what it was.
It was my family that was usually on the wrong end of the long arm of the law. Now I wanted the cops to make the case, the system to work in our favor. Although I loved my father, I strove not to be like him. I was the one son who had rejected the criminal life. I respected the rule of law. Still, I knew then and there that I was fully capable of avenging my brother’s murder in a lethal manner. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I guess I was my father’s son, no matter what—bachelor of arts degree, juris doctorate, and all. That’s just the way it was, like it or not.
All day long, my father’s voice had resonated in my head: Do what you think you’re big enough to do.
Well, there was no doubt I was going to do whatever I had to do—whatever I thought I was big enough to do—whatever the consequences.
* * *
I drove home from the storage facility in a daze. For the first time in eleven years, the long drive up the winding canyon to my little rural town in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest afforded me no relief from the suffocating congestion of urban life.
We decided to keep my mother and Christopher’s kids in the dark. They didn’t need to know, at least not yet. My mother was seventy-five and already sick with worry since Christopher had gone missing. His son, Shane, was ten years old, with copper-colored hair and a perpetual grin. Blond-haired Ashley was nine and cute as a button. They had inherited their parents’ Irish looks. They were way too young to lose their father.
Christopher had never married their mother, Michelle O’Halloran. They had recently separated after a tumultuous relationship. Like him, she had a serious drug problem. I know he loved his kids, and I believe he still loved her. Things were not all that good in my brother’s world, as I would later find out.
When I finally arrived home, I was eagerly greeted by my dog, Johnny Rio, and Frank the Cat. I scooped up Frank and hugged him and Johnny Rio, a little longer than usual. I cracked open an ice-cold Heineken, fed Frank and Johnny, and heated up dinner. I didn’t eat much and did not bother to check my phone messages. I grabbed another beer and eased into an overstuffed leather chair in the den, with my cat on my lap and my dog at my side.
While growing up, I had always feared something might happen to one of my brothers or sisters. Now, all these years later, something terrible had happened. I felt helpless.
It struck me how different Christopher had been from the rest of us, beyond not getting tagged with a traditional Irish name. He was the youngest and the obvious favorite of my parents. I recalled my mother abruptly leaving the other kids at the dinner table to take six-year-old Christopher to McDonald’s because he didn’t care for roast beef and potatoes. Tim and I remembered our family being on welfare, eating potato pancakes every night for a month while our father was in prison.
My parents were actively involved with Christopher’s Little League and Pop Warner teams. But then again, there were also long periods when my father was either in prison or on the lam. Those long absences without a father figure proved especially harmful to Christopher. I blamed myself and my father for not being more involved in Christopher’s life.
My first big case out of law school was defending eighteen-year-old Christopher on a felony assault with a deadly weapon charge. He had gotten into an altercation after taking exception to racial insults directed at two of his African American high school football teammates. He broke the bigot’s arm with a eucalyptus branch.
In the hallway of the San Fernando Courthouse, I tried to talk some sense into him. “Look, either clean up your act now and go to school to make something of yourself or wind up like the old man and spend your life in and out of jail,” I told him.
I could see he was scared. He said all the right things. “Yes, sir. I want to go to college like you did. I don’t want to go to jail,” he replied.
I couldn’t forget that comment. None of my brothers had ever referred to me as sir.
I thought I had made some headway with the kid and continued to prepare for trial. On the day of jury selection the DA announced that the People were unable to proceed, due to the unavailability of the victim. Some time later, I learned that Tim, Dan, and Bobby had convinced the victim that it was not in his best interest to appear and testify. Ultimately, I guess their way made a bigger impression on Christopher than mine.
As I sat in my den that evening, the phone rang several times, but I let it ring. I was physically and emotionally spent. My kid brother was dead and my father was in prison again, along with my brother Bobby. I wondered if the craziness would ever end.
I retrieved another cold Heineken and reflected on the events of my father’s arrest on June 12, 2000. Aldo Santore, a neighbor of my parents, called to inform me that the house was being raided by various agents from the DEA, LAPD, and FBI. Later I learned that Bobby was arrested simultaneously in Cleveland, along with twenty-eight others across the country, including Phil Christopher, Ronnie Lucarelli, and Eugene “the Animal” Ciasullo. Phil Christopher is notorious for the 1972 United California Bank robbery in Laguna Niguel, one of the largest bank heists in U.S. history, allegedly netting thirty million dollars in jewels, cash, stocks, and bonds. Ronnie Lucarelli was a member of the Cleveland Mafia. Eugene Ciasullo was a well-known Cleveland mob enforcer.
The feds estimated the ring had transported over twelve million dollars’ worth of cocaine over a two-year period. They had enlisted the services of Bobby’s friend, an American Airlines employee. Bundles of cocaine were slipped into passengers’ luggage in Los Angeles and removed at Cleveland Hopkins Airport before the bags were placed on the conveyor belt.
I was aware of the apartment my father kept at the Carlyle, a high-rise on the shores of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s west side. I stayed there while attending the 1995 Braves–Indians World Series. He and Bobby were traveling back and forth from L.A. to Cleveland quite frequently. I just assumed the old man was bookmaking. The news that he was the so-called mastermind of a major drug-smuggling ring left me speechless. He was seventy-one years old, had a bad heart, and suffered from severe diabetes. It was beyond my comprehension that he would risk going back to prison.
I made several trips to Cleveland over the following year to assist in negotiating their pleas. My father was sentenced to twenty years, basically a life sentence for him. Bobby got thirteen years, but would wind up doing only three years and nine months. Since then, I had been doing yeoman’s work trying to get my father a compassionate release.
I snapped out of my reverie. By now, Christopher’s body was probably on a slab at the coroner’s office. My father and brother Bobby were in prison, my poor mother and Christopher’s kids were blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had befallen our family, and I was out of Heineken. I poured myself a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey and trudged upstairs with Frank the Cat and Johnny Rio at my heels.
Copyright © 2013 by Dennis M. Walsh