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Authors: Bill Crowley Dennis Lehane Gilbert Geis Brian P. Wallace

Final Confession

BOOK: Final Confession
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FINAL

C
ONFESSION

The

Unsolved

Crimes

of Phil

Cresta

Brian P. Wallace & Bill Crowley

University Press of New England

HANOVER AND LONDON

University Press of New England

www.upne.com

© 2000 Brian P. Wallace and William Crowley

All rights reserved

First University Press of New England paperback edition 2013

ISBN
for the paperback edition: 978-1-61168-378-3

ISBN
for the ebook edition: 978-1-61168-379-0

For permission to reproduce any of the material in this book, contact Permissions, University Press of New England, One Court Street, Suite 250, Lebanon NH 03766; or visit
www.upne.com

Originally published in 2000 by Northeastern University Press

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Wallace, Brian P., 1949–

Final confession : the unsolved crimes of Phil Cresta / Brian P. Wallace & Bill Crowley.

p. cm.

ISBN
1-55553-449-
x
(cloth : alk. paper)

1. Cresta, Phil. 2. Thieves—Massachusetts—Boston—Biography. 3. Burglary—Massachusetts—Boston. 4. Organized crime—Massachusetts—Boston. I. Crowley,

Bill. II. Title.

HV
6653.
C
74
W
35    2000

364.16′2′0974461—dc21             00-058224

To the memory of Billy Cresta

Foreword

WHEN I WAS ASKED
to read
Final Confession
for the purpose of writing this foreword, my first inclination was to say no.

I don't read much in the way of true-crime chronicles, and I can't stand those biographies or pseudoautobiographies of criminals and mobsters that have filled the shelves of our bookstores lately. Most of these books attempt to make the criminal—the Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano or the John Gotti—seem shrewd and intelligent, which I find hard to believe if they are either in Witness Protection or in jail or have been so unsuccessful at practicing illicit activities that someone can write a book about them. I also find these books unreadable because of what I call
The Godfather
syndrome, which essentially boils down to the idea that our collective perception of the Mafia is that it's like an extension of the Corleone family—we see mafiosi as handsome, Machiavellian, tragic heroes who spend a lot of time talking about honor and hosting lavish weddings and who occasionally (but with wistful regret) do the odd bad thing to horses and guys named Carlo. The criminals I had contact with in my youth weren't like that. They were usually dumb guys or, if in the mob, far more like the Al Pacino in
Donnie Brasco
than the Al Pacino in
The Godfather: Part II
, which is to say they
were schlubs who dressed badly, were always short of money, and had never read a book without pictures.

There has been, to this point, only one exception to the rule, only one book that walked the line between our understandable fascination with the criminal underworld and our specious inclination to aggrandize it, one book that got it right-and that book was Nicholas Pileggi's
Wiseguy
, the story of low-level mobster Henry Hill and his friends, which became the basis for the Martin Scorsese film
Goodfellas
. What
Wiseguy
did was tell its story without melodrama or sentimentality, never once trying to paint Henry Hill as anything but what he was—a consummate hustler who, in the end, sold out everyone he knew in order to continue living the good life while the United States government picked up the tab. More than simply a story of one hustler-turned-stoolie,
Wiseguy
chronicled three decades of the major New York crime families through the eyes of one lowly soldier and brought a time, a place, and a lifestyle vividly to life.

Final Confession
, I discovered to my delight, does something similar, not through the eyes of a mob underling, but through those of an independent thief, a man named Phil Cresta; a man whom most people have never heard of, which is how he liked it; a man who was behind some of Boston's more infamous robberies of the sixties and before; a man who went to his grave so silently that many of those crimes are still listed on the books as unsolved. Through Phil Cresta, Brian Wallace and Billy Crowley don't merely show us the inner workings of a thief's mind, however; they take us on a rollicking tour of the Boston underworld, from Cresta's cramped upbringing in the North End of the 1930s and 1940s, through JFK's inauguration and the Impossible Dream season of the Red Sox.

This was an underworld overseen in New England by the Patriarca family of Rhode Island, but Boston was effectively run by two notoriously hot-tempered clans—the Italian Angiulo gang and the Irish Winter Hill Gang headed up by Howie Winter and James “Whitey” Bulger. Phil Cresta moved in this world—easily at some times, precariously at others because he
refused to pay tribute to its overlords. All the while, he diligently practiced his trade, approaching it the way all skilled craftsmen do, keeping up on the very latest innovations, creating his own innovations when those available didn't suffice, breathing his job every waking moment to the degree that it seemed far more a calling than a choice. The primary difference between Phil and other well-known, dedicated craftsmen was that Phil's craft was illegal.

If it wasn't nailed down, Phil Cresta stole it. He stole jewels, rare coins, watches, and cash. He cut the heads off parking meters and flew to Chicago with them, where he had keys made so that he could return to Boston and open them at will, eventually stealing, from this one operation, a hundred thousand dollars during 1961 and 1962, so baffling the City of Boston that they gave up trying to catch him and eventually replaced all the meters with new locks. He stole from a heavily guarded jewelers' expo, mob-protected diamond dealers, a Brink's truck, and once from the basement of a Boston police station. He even stole the food he served in the diner he once owned: the special of the day was dictated by what Phil and his partner clipped off Boston's docks that morning.

There is something utterly fascinating about a man so dedicated, so determined, so
nutty
when it came to the concept of not paying for, well, anything at all. Phil Cresta sucks you in and emerges from these pages as a kind of lock-picking, armored-car-robbing savant. He was many things—meticulous, shrewd, unassuming, sociopathic at times, and undeniably magnificent at his chosen profession.

In Brian Wallace's and Billy Crowley's hands, we are taken into Phil Cresta's world, into the dimly lit streets of a Boston before
Cheers
, a Boston of back-alley deals and smoky bars where, from his motel-room headquarters in Kenmore Square, Phil Cresta planned the robbery of impregnable safes, the heists of rolling fortresses with heavily armed guards, the bribing of judges, the creation of a vast network of “ears” who worked the city streets and reported to Phil any potentials for danger or for
profit. After years of working solo, Phil, with his two oddball partners, spent a decade treating Boston like his personal piñata, hitting it time and time again until it spilled its precious loot and Phil could scoop it off the floor.

Along the way, he accrued the wealth of untold millions as well as a few enemies, and throughout
Final Confession
we watch as Cresta deftly maneuvers his way between treacherous “allies” like the icy Jerry Angiulo; a weaselly psychopath named Red Kelley; and Phil's archenemy, a career thug and alcoholic named Ben Tilley. Rounding out the cast is Phil's nemesis on the other side of the law, a cop with whom he engages in often hilarious battles of one-upmanship involving, among other things, the cop's beloved car. These battles were part of a kind of war that ultimately would cost Phil and his partners everything, including their freedom to taste fresh air.

You don't have to like Phil Cresta; I'm not sure I do. But within these pages you will often marvel at his ingenuity, his relentless guile, his bold, calculated daring. You will marvel too at Brian Wallace and Billy Crowley's often breathless narrative as it takes you at light speed through a Boston, and an America, that is fast fading from our mind's eye—a city of endless nights where men carrying bags full of drilling equipment, wearing uniforms that didn't belong to them, went out through dank alleys to start
their
days—and steal, steal, steal—while the rest of the city slept.

DENNIS LEHANE

PROLOGUE
Open Cases Now Closed

I
FIRST MET BILLY CROWLEY
on March 17, 1999, on South Boston's high holiday, St. Patrick's Day. Billy is a retired Boston police detective who worked the city's streets for eight years. While undercover one day in East Boston, Billy attempted to break up a fight and was punched in the head. He began to suffer severe headaches, and a series of tests determined that he had a brain injury from that blow to his head. Reluctantly, Billy Crowley retired.

We met that March morning in the Cranberry Cafe on East Broadway in Southie. As I walked in the door I knew immediately which of the dozens of patrons was Billy. City kids like me learn how to spot a cop.

We talked for a few minutes, and I asked why he wanted to meet me. Crowley said he always read my syndicated column, “Brian's Beat,” and he was a fan of mine. He told me that he had the rights to a fascinating story and he wanted to collaborate with me on a book. I asked him what the story was about.

He handed me a large manila envelope. “Have you ever heard the name Phil Cresta?” he asked. I told him I had not. He laughed and said that few people had—and for good reason.
“Phil Cresta,” Billy Crowley said, “was a genius who outwitted the feds and the local police for most of his life while stealing over ten million dollars.”

If Billy's purpose was to get my attention, he had succeeded. At that point he reached across the table and slid a thick pile of photocopies from the envelope, which I hadn't yet opened. “I brought these for you, to prove my stories are real.” He fanned out the papers so that I could see what they were: copies of stories from the
Boston Globe
and the
Boston Herald
, with banner headlines that caught my interest. I sipped my coffee and took a few minutes to scan through such headlines as:

$119,000
DISAPPEARS AS GUARDS SIP COFFEE

RARE COINS IN
$200,000
THEFT SAID TO WEIGH

HALF A TON

$25
MILLION X-WAY HAUL A DUD

HIGHWAYMEN GET
$150,000
GEMS

LONER STEALS ARMORED CAR—GUARDS INSIDE

BROOKLINE STORE

WEST ROXBURY DAYLIGHT STICKUP

ANOTHER ARMORED CAR HOLDUP—2 GUARDS SHOT

MACHINE GUN BANDITS GET
$68,000

FBI SEEKS HOODED TRIO IN LATEST

ARMORED CAR HOLDUP

SLEW OF ARMORED CAR HOLDUPS MAY BRING

ABOUT NEW LAWS

ARMORED TRUCK HIJACKED ON CANAL

STREET—OYSTER HOUSE DINERS UNAWARE

My interest piqued, I ordered another cup of coffee and read a few of the stories themselves. They were about well-planned jobs, but no perpetrators were named.

“What do these stories have to do with this Cresta guy?” I asked Crowley, already getting the feeling I knew the answer.

“Phil pulled all those jobs,” he said with a straight face.

“How come I never heard of this guy?”

Billy just smiled and said, “I know, that's the best part!”

He pulled some papers from the bottom of the pile. There were fifty or sixty internal memos signed by J. Edgar Hoover and his successor asking their field agents why they couldn't capture Phil. They were dated between 1969 and 1974. “Even when they
knew
he'd done a job—like that Brink's heist—he gave them quite a chase.” He showed me one of those top-ten-fugitives lists. Phil Cresta's name was there.

I was more than a little intrigued by all this. “I know about most if not all of the wise guys in the Boston area—from Whitey Bulger to Jerry Angiulo to Howie Winter. I know about all the bank-robbing townies in Charlestown. I can't believe I never even
heard
Phil Cresta's name before today.”

Billy said, “Phil was better known in Chicago than he was in Boston—but not as a crook.” Then he reminded me that most of the headlines about Cresta's “more noteworthy” crimes had occurred between 1961 and 1969, when I was in school. He laughed and said, “Besides, some of his best scores never made the papers.”

“Yeah, but enough of them were printed,” I said as I scanned more of the stories. I told Crowley I'd do a little research myself on this Phil Cresta thing, then let him know my decision.

I WENT TO
the main branch of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and dug up information over the next three days. I put aside other work; Cresta took over my thoughts.

I talked to a few cops who were mentioned in the newspaper stories. They said they knew Phil Cresta. When I told them Cresta had pulled many of the unsolved robberies they had worked on, they were stunned. At the time, Boston had two kinds of police: Boston cops patrolled the city itself, and the MDC (Metropolitan District Commission) cops had jurisdiction both in the city and in the cities around Boston that make up
the metropolitan area. (Today the MDC police have been merged with state police.) Pretty soon both kinds of cops, mostly retired, started telephoning me. Did Cresta do this job? That one? I told them all the same thing: buy the book. For I had already decided to go ahead with the project.

Besides using Crowley's notes, which were detailed enough to include conversations Phil wanted recounted, I interviewed members of Phil Cresta's family, his friends and his enemies, good guys and bad guys, cops and robbers. I went over FBI documents, over police reports and police FIOs (field interrogation observations), and I scanned newspapers from Boston, Chicago, New York, and Kansas City. But this book would never had been written and the story never told if it wasn't for the perseverance of Billy Crowley.

Billy is a lifelong friend of Bobby Cresta, one of Phil's younger brothers. Crowley had briefly met Phil in their Medford neighborhood when Crowley was twelve years old. This was shortly after the Crestas moved from the North End to Medford, after Phil and Bobby's father died. Phil lived in Medford, near his family, after he was released from Norfolk prison in 1948. But Billy Crowley never had dealings with Phil until after the Cresta team was long out of business. For, as was often true in Boston-Irish families, Billy had had the choice of becoming either a wise guy or a cop. He chose to be a cop, one of Cresta's “enemies.”

Years later, in the twilight of Phil Cresta's life, Billy Crowley, retired from the force, offered to share his South Boston apartment with a then-hard-up Phil. Night after night, the aging wise guy talked about his exploits, recalling conversations from his early days in the North End and documenting what he could. He said he wanted his story told after he died, but he asked that the real names of his two wives and one mistress, his seven children, his two partners, and the one movie star he worked with be kept secret. They had either been bystanders or under pressure to cooperate or had paid their time and deserved to go on with their lives unimpeded by publicity. As Cresta talked of his
successes in the 1960s and of the famous 1968 Brink's robbery, the ex-cop Billy Crowley took copious notes.

Crime, betrayal, murder, and intrigue filled the life of Phil Cresta. The FBI's Boston chief described him in a memo to J. Edgar Hoover as one of the best burglars and lock pickers on the East Coast. That December 12, 1969, memo says that “Subject is known to have participated in many burglaries, as well as armed robberies.” But that FBI agent, like most people, had no true idea how active Cresta really was. Cresta masterminded not only the Brink's robbery of December 1968, but more than five hundred other crimes that remain unsolved on police records. There is nowhere near enough room in this book to tell of them all. But thanks to Billy Crowley and my corroborating research, the story Phil Cresta told about some of these crimes is now being made public.

Phil Cresta started robbing before the crimes related in this book occurred. His robberies of jewelers, furriers, and armored car companies in the Boston area and elsewhere happened during the 1960s, and he was finally tried in 1974. During his career, he injured and killed when he felt he had to; he bought politicians, bribed judges, and got sentences fixed; he toyed with city, state, and federal law enforcement for over thirty years—yet his generosity and compassion were legendary. Here are parts of his story.

BOOK: Final Confession
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