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The Westies: Last of the Irish-American Mobsters

December 17, 1986 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Irish-American organized crime, which went out with Prohibition in most places, endures in Manhattan’s grimy ″Hell’s Kitchen,″ where officials say a small group of mobsters is responsible for at least 28 unsolved murders.

″The Westies″ were described Wednesday by District Attorney Robert Morgenthau as particularly brutal.

″They not only kill people, but they dismember them,″ he said.

Michael Cherkasky, head of Morgenthau’s rackets bureau, said they practiced ″violence for violence’s sake. These are people who would cut off a guy’s head and take it to a bar to show his friends.″

Although dismemberment is used for effect, it also facilitates the disposal of bodies. ″After one body floated to the surface of the river, we heard one of them say, ’We should have cut the lungs open,‴ said a prosecutor who requested anonymity.

He said that although Morgenthau mentioned 28 killings, ″those were just in Manhattan.″ Other murders were committed by the Westies in New Jersey and other jurisdictions, he said.

The Westies are about 15 men - almost all in jail or in hiding - who have as many as 100 criminal associates. They ″control many theatrical unions, giving them a foothold in television studios, exhibition halls and convention centers,″ according to a report this year from the President’s Organized Crime Commission.

When the city’s new Convention Center opened, leaders of the Westies and the Mafia ″met ... to negotiate control,″ the commission reported.

On Wednesday, Morgenthau announced the indictment of three alleged Westies in the murder of a longshoremen’s union official, Vincent Leone.

Leone, also described by law enforcers as a loanshark, was shot to death on Feb. 11, 1984, in Guttenberg, N.J., allegedly because he failed to share proceee James McElroy, 36, of New York City; William Bokun, 29, of North Bergen, N.J.; and Kevin Kelly, 31, of New York City. Kelly is a fugitive, while the other two were arrested, police said.

Also indicted, on a charge of conspiracy to murder, was Julia Coonan, 44, of Hazelet, N.J., wife of alleged Westies leader James Coonan. According to the indictment, she visited Coonan in prison and passed along his orders that Leone be killed.

Coonan is being held on unrelated murder charges. Police say he killed a 28-year-old stagehand and fellow Westies member in 1975 to avenge the slaying of yet another Westies member two months earlier in a saloon fight over a woman.

Police said Coonan and an accomplice shot and dismembered Patrick Dugan, put the remains in plastic bags and dumped them in the East River.

The Westies and the Gambino family have been working together for eight to 10 years, according to police intelligence reports. The Gambinos ″used them as hired guns, contractors,″ Morgenthau said, ″because of their control in this part of the city″ - Manhattan west of midtown, between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River.

Although reputed mafiosi have dominated news accounts of organized crime for decades, ″a documentation of organized criminal activity in New York would be incomplete without the inclusion of the Westies,″ according to a 1983 New York City Police Department report.

The gang - which dates back to Owney ″Killer″ Madden, owner of the Cotton Club - is a remnant of the huge Irish presence in organized crime in American cities at the turn of the century.

Sociologist Daniel Bell, who described organized crime as a rung on ″the queer ladder of social mobility,″ wrote that ″The Irish came first, and early in this century they dominated crime as well as politics.″

Almost every trend of the post-World War II era, from containerization of shipping to the movement of many Irish-Americans to the suburbs, worked against the Westies, and the gang soon was surpassed in power and influence by the city’s Mafia families.

Despite a sharp decline in the recruiting pool of poorly educated, inner- city Irish-Americans, the President’s Commission noted that Irish groups also have survived in Boston and Philadelphia ″through accommodation with the dominant (Mafia) interests.″