Editor’s Note: Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, is a CNN legal analyst and Rutgers University scholar. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Notorious Boston mafia boss Whitey Bulger was killed inside the high-security federal Hazelton Penitentiary in West Virginia. Bulger had just arrived at Hazelton the day prior. According to the Boston Globe, federal authorities are now focused on Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a former Massachusetts-based mafia hitman, as Bulger’s killer.
In 2011, I tried and convicted Geas, along with his brother Ty Geas and their mafia boss Arthur “Artie” Nigro for a string of vicious murders, murder attempt and murder conspiracies they committed in Massachusetts and New York. All three received life sentences.
While Bulger and Geas stood at opposite ends of the mafia hierarchy – Bulger an all-powerful boss and Geas an aspiring, low-level hitman – both men lived and ultimately were destroyed by the mafia’s code of lawlessness, blind loyalty and ruthless violence.
In the early 2000s, the Genovese family – one of the largest and most powerful of New York’s five mafia families – set up a satellite-style operation in Springfield, Massachusetts. Nigro, the New York-based acting boss of the Genovese family, saw an opportunity to make extra money through extortion and other crimes in a relatively far-off outpost, without much competition from other gangsters.
The Genovese family appointed a powerful, flamboyant captain, Adolfo Bruno, to run the Springfield rackets and, consistent with mafia practice, to kick a portion of his criminal proceeds back to the family in New York. As the Springfield criminal enterprise took off, Bruno began to run afoul of the family, as rumors circulated that he had been spotted talking to an FBI agent and as other mobsters began angling for a piece of his territory.
On November 23, 2003, as Bruno walked out of a social club in downtown Springfield after his regular Sunday card game, a young aspiring gangster, Frankie Roche, jumped out of a hiding spot in an alley and shot Bruno five times, killing him. We proved at trial that Nigro had ordered the Bruno murder, and that Freddy Geas was one of the middlemen who recruited Roche to do the hit.
Just a few weeks earlier, looking to establish their reputation as killers, Freddy Geas and his brother Ty decided to make a move. Geas knew that he could never be “made” as a member of the Genovese family because he was not Italian by birth. Nonetheless, he was an ambitious and violent criminal with his sights set on taking over Springfield.
Freddy and Ty Geas wanted to kill again, to make a name for themselves as people to be feared on the streets. And they found a perfect target: Gary Westerman, another aspiring young criminal who was widely suspected on the streets of committing the cardinal sin of any gangster: he was a “rat,” suspected (correctly, it turned out) of talking to the police.
So, on the night of November 4, 2003, Freddy Geas and others lured Westerman into the woods in Agawam, Massachusetts. The pretext was that Westerman would join Geas and others in robbing the nearby home of a suspected drug dealer. In fact, Geas and others already had dug an eight-foot hole in the ground nearby.
Once in the woods, they pulled out guns and shot Westerman, who was wearing a ski mask in preparation for the purported robbery. Westerman did not die immediately, so others bludgeoned him over the head with shovels until he died. Freddy Geas and his criminal partners then dumped Westerman’s body in the nearby grave they already had dug for him.
Westerman’s body remained in that grave in the woods, undiscovered until nearly seven years later. One of the men who was in the woods and who participated in the Westerman murder cooperated in our case and told us he could lead us to Westerman’s grave. The FBI agents on the case got permission from a judge to take that cooperator out of jail temporarily and drove him up to Agawam. The cooperator then walked with the FBI agents in the woods and showed them where to dig. The FBI carefully exhumed Westerman’s body. Westerman was still wearing the ski mask that he wore on the night of his murder.
During my closing argument in their trial in 2011, I told the jury that the defendants had unleashed an “epic spasm of violence.” The sentencing judge, after the jury convicted all three defendants, observed, “you don’t get to the spot (where these defendants are) by having a bad day … or a bad period of life. This was a way of life.”
So, if Geas is found to have played a role in Bulger’s murder, the questions remains – why? Geas almost certainly never met Bulger before encountering him in prison; Bulger was either in jail or in hiding throughout Geas’s life, and Geas has been off the streets for over eight years.
Based on what I know about Geas and the mafia, I’d offer two explanations. First, Geas always has been desperate for recognition – not the kind of recognition most people seek, but rather recognition as a “capable guy,” in mafia parlance, a person willing to commit any act of violence no matter how heartless or brutal. Already serving a life sentence, Geas had a reputation to gain and little to lose.
While Geas could well be tried and convicted for the murder of Bulger, he is already serving a life sentence. Geas could be charged with a death-eligible federal offense for the Bulger murder, but actual imposition of the death penalty is rare. (No federal inmate has been executed since 2003, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.) Geas could also be moved from his current maximum-security prison to the federal government’s only “ultra-maximum” facility in Florence, Colorado. Based on what I know of Geas, he’d willingly take that punishment if it burnished his reputation as a cold killer.
Second, Geas holds a deep hatred of cooperating witnesses – what the mob commonly calls “rats.” Geas and his confederates lured Westerman into the woods and killed him because they believed he had been providing information to the police. Similarly, though Bulger denied being an informant, he too, according to prosecutors, provided critical information on murders and drug deals that led to arrests. This mentality, that cooperators pose a grave threat and should be eliminated, is a fundamental value of the mafia and many other kinds of criminal organizations. Career criminals recognize that nothing poses a threat like cooperating witnesses, who can guide prosecutors and law enforcement agents through the inner workings of otherwise closed, secretive criminal operations.
Geas, like Bulger, chose to live a life defined by relentless crime and unthinkable violence. Both men ended several lives and destroyed their own because of their adherence to this twisted code. This week, the ethic of violence came full circle.