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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Jimmy McElroy, 66, died in California last week, where he had been sent to serve a federal sentence of forever and a day

23:19 |

Jimmy McElroy, 66, died in California last week, where he had been sent to serve a federal sentence of forever and a day as the third-ranking person in the Westies. They were an Irish-American gang that ruled and ran the rackets in Hell’s Kitchen from the 1960s through the 1980s. For kicks, they butchered the bodies of people they had killed over debts or insults. Mr. McElroy was not known to have wielded the knife, but drove what the group called the “meat wagon,” a red van used to deliver body parts for disposal on Wards Island.

A bagpiper in a kilt, waiting on the top step of the church, warmed up by sending a few test wails that somehow managed to pierce the midmorning din of 42nd Street. You could tell that “Amazing Grace” would soon be unleashed. There was, however, a slight delay.

The funeral could not begin promptly because the church already was filled with students from the parish elementary school, a small army of fresh-faced boys and girls, who were at a Mass to celebrate the distribution of graduation rings to the eighth-grade class. They sang popular songs, like “This Little Light of Mine,” adapted for the occasion with religious lyrics. Some of the younger children held up posters from a pew toward the back of the church: “Congratulations 8th Graders!” There was no trace of an Irish-American past in the names of the students — Arce and Baizar, Ramirez and Ruiz.

The past had to wait its turn. There were pictures to be taken on the steps of the church. At last, the way was cleared, and a silver coffin was slid out of the back of the hearse. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Peter Colapietro, shifted his attention from the merry schoolchildren to the promise of a merciful God, always a subject of interest at funerals.

Jimmy McElroy himself had once been an eighth grader, but not a ninth grader. He dropped out of school to work with a friend, Jimmy Coonan. Their first jobs were as administrators of a beating. — Mr. McElroy would say that they had punched someone in the face and broken his jaw, and received $50 for their work. He was a pretty good boxer, and could be intimidating, said T. J. English, author of “The Westies,” a definitive history of the gang. “McElroy was more on the brawn side than the brains,” Mr. English said.

Mr. McElroy got a job as a doorman at the Plaza. As he would tell the story, two very wealthy “Arab sheiks” heard that he was a boxer, and invited him up to their suite on the promise of $100. His assignment was to beat up one of the men, both of whom viewed it as a bargain-basement thrill. The regular working life was not for Mr. McElroy. He could not get enough cocaine and pills. He worked as a principal enforcer for Mr. Coonan.

After an argument with a friend named Billy Walker, Mr. McElroy took him to the 79th Street boat basin and shot him in the mouth. On another occasion, a man who was thought to be skimming money from a union, without properly sharing it with the Westies overlords, was driven by Mr. McElroy to New Jersey. Someone in the back of the car shot the accused thief five or six times — but failed to use a silencer or open the windows, causing Mr. McElroy to complain that his ears were ringing for days.

They were clumsy and resorted to working as an outsourcing operation for the Gambino crime family, but before long they were all rounded up, and the betrayals began. They went away to prison, with the exception of the leading informer, Francis Featherstone, who transferred into the witness protection program. After Mr. McElroy was sent away for racketeering, he took a shot at being a stool pigeon but was no good at it; a jury did not believe him when he testified that John Gotti had sent him to shoot a carpenter’s union official. He got no break on his sentence of 60 years.

Halfway through the Mass, the “Ave Maria” was sung; the truck traffic heading for the Lincoln Tunnel chimed in with a blaring chorus. “My father was no saint,” Ryan McElroy, one of Mr. McElroy’s three children, said in a eulogy. “But people said he could light up a room. He’s been away 15, 20 years, and you still felt protected by him.”

As he stepped down from the altar, the congregation burst into applause. The coffin was carried out the front of the church. The family got into cars, the friends drifted off, a lost world dissolved.

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