They tried to talk him into giving up his boss. They offered a reduced sentence. They offered the witness-relocation program. Then they threatened: if he wouldn’t help, he’d be going upriver for 40 years or life. He’d be “Gray Shea” by the time he got out. He didn’t care. To hear the subject even broached was an insult. “I walked in a man, and I’ll walk out a man. I would rather die than become a rat,” he writes. “I would show Whitey he was right. He could count on me.”
A rat was the lowest form of life in South Boston. “It’s something that you learn from a young age,” Shea says now. “It’s taught from your forefathers on up. And that was the backbone of South Boston. Having integrity. A lot of that has been lost in society today. And it’s a shame.”
For Shea, it’s sickening to see his former friend, Kevin Weeks, making the media rounds, promoting his new book, talking about his time as Whitey’s henchman. “Five years,” he snorts at the reduced sentence offered the man now branded Two Weeks, for the length of time it took for him to flip on his former mentor. Just as abhorrent to Shea is the number of old Southie friends who still hang around with Weeks. To Shea’s mind, Weeks’s actions should make him a pariah in his own neighborhood. By breaking Southie’s social contract, he should be exiled from it: “There are people who associate with Kevin still. People of good reputation. The question is, why?” (Weeks, for his part, appears to respect Shea’s integrity. In a recent Boston.com chat, he lauds him as a guy who “went away and did his time like a man.”)
This is why Shea wrote the book. “I thought, ‘Hey, these stories are always told by an informant.’ ” He says it quickly, as if he’s so disgusted by the word that he spits it out. “Sammy the Bull. Henry Hill. I thought it was about time that a stand-up guy got recognition. Instead of an informant, a rat, it should be a guy who walked the walk. And not only someone who stood up, but someone who doesn’t associate, even today, with any informant. I’m not saying what I did, morally, was right. But I cannot walk in the same footsteps as a guy who doesn’t have integrity.”
Snapping Whitey’s Neck
John Shea’s youth was typical of that of a lot of Southie kids of his day. An alcoholic, absentee father. A strong mother doing her best to keep the family together on her own. Brawling with “D Street dirtballs, Old Colony rats, and Old Harbor dustheads.” Throwing rocks and bottles at the cops and court-ordered buses in front of South Boston High.
Boxing, with its controlled fury, its rules and discipline, its own warrior’s code, provided a healthy outlet for these tendencies. But after taking up the sport at age seven, finding early success with it, and even flirting with going pro, Shea drifted away. Mentors like Red Corcoran and Tommy Connors, with “their sporty brimmed hats, their smokers’ coughs, their worn sweaters, and the smell of booze coming off them mixed with a little Old Spice or Aqua Velva,” weren’t enough to keep him on the up and up.