The Mobs Irishmen
John William Tuohy
Coonan, Jimmy Leader of the Westies. Jimmy Coonan led the Westies, New York’s most violent gang, from 1977 through 1986. Coonan, truly one of the toughest hoods to ever walk in the shadows of the underworld, took over what would become the Westies gang in Manhattan, after being released from jail in 1970. Coonan, who is smart and charismatic, recruited accomplished killers like Richie Ryan, an uncontrollable cocaine addict and alcoholic, Francis "Mickey" Featherstone, who would become Coonan’s right hand man. Featherstone joined the Army at the age of 17 and served in Viet Nam and returned to New York in 1970, where he quickly became involved in several gangland murders, beating the rap on an insanity plea and never stood trial. Others in the gang included Jimmy McElroy, Eddie Coonan, Jackie Coonan, Kevin Kelley, and Kenny Shannon. Like Ryan, most of these hoods were wild, addicted to cocaine and alcoholic and completely fearless. From 1970-1986 the gang is suspected carrying out at least 30 unsolved homicides, probably more. The Westies fortune grew mostly through narcotics sales and sports betting. Eight years after his release, Coonan struck and alliance with the very powerful boss of the massive Gambino family, Big Paulie Castellano. In their arrangement with Castellano, the Westies could use the Gambino family name in their business dealing in exchange for 10 percent of their gross earnings out of the West Side of Manhattan. Part of the bargain was that the Irishmen were forbidden to kill anyone without the Gambino’s prior consent, a rule the Westies broke immediately and repeatedly. Under pressure from the NYPD Castellano was eventually forced to cut his ties with the Irishmen. After Castellano was murdered by John Gotti and other, the Irishmen and the Gambino’s were back in partnership, with the gang operating as a sort of satellite operation to the Gambino’s through its leader, the very tough and very unpredictable, Jimmy Coonan. It was Coonan who introduced Westies gang member James Patrick McElroy to Gotti at the wake of Gambino hood Frank DeCicco.
In early 1986, Philip Modica, an alleged Gambino soldier decided to upgrade a restaurant he owned called the Bankers and Brokers Restaurant in Battery Park City.
Modica had decided not to use union carpenters on the construction, which brought around a visit by John F. O’Connor, business agent and chief operating officer for Local 608 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners.
Instead of negotiating with Modica, O’Connor sent in some goons who smashed the restaurant up, causing an estimated $30,000 in damage. The day after the incident, Modica took his complaint to Gotti, and, if the tapes taken of Gotti talking about the incident are understood correctly, Gotti ordered that O’Connor be “busted up”
Afterwards, over dinner, Coonan told McElroy that John Gotti “wanted someone whacked” and McElroy said he was interested. It was clearly McElroy’s understanding that Gotti wanted someone “Whacked” or killed, although the Gotti forces would later say that McElroy misunderstand the request, and that Gotti only wanted the subject beaten up.
A few weeks later, McElroy and Coonan met Gambino big shot Angelo Ruggiero who asked McElroy
“Can you handle it?”
McElroy handled it.
According to Sammy Gravano, Gotti underboss, the coked up Irishmen misunderstood Gotti’s orders ‘“They were just supposed to give this O’Connor a serious beating,’ Sammy said. ‘But a lot of the Westies were all fucked-up, drug addicts and drunks. And they end up shooting O’Connor in his legs and ass for whatever reason. So now when the D.A. eventually gets into this, it’s a major thing.’
On May 7, 1986, at about 6 AM, as O’Connor was standing in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan office building waiting for an elevator , McElroy, with Westies’ gang members Kevin Kelly, Keith Shannon and associate Joey Schlereth, shot O’Connor four time, hitting him in the buttock, left leg and hip. “I saw him spinning around in circles,” McElroy stated. “He was trying to get into the elevator, so we shot him again”
O’Connor recovered, but he was arrested for coercion and criminal mischief in the damaging the restaurant. A few hours later, the cops arrested McElroy, Kelly, Shannon and Schlereth on information provided by former Westies underboss Francis “Mickey” Featherstone.
Two years later, James McElroy, jailed on a federal racketeering charge, agreed to cooperate with the government and told the feds that Gotti had ordered the hit. Police Gotti was arrested for first degree assault and conspiracy in the fourth degree for the assault on January 24, 1989, as he walked along a SoHo street.
The John O’Connor shooting trial began in January 1990 with a sequestered jury. Gotti was ordered held without bond until a hearing on his release was held. When he entered the courtroom for his arraignment hearing, almost 50 defendants rose to their feet and applauded him. Gotti’s attorney Bruce Cutler pleaded to have his client released, however the. Assistant District Attorney “Mr. Gotti needs to be treated like any other defendant.” To which Cutler responded, “If Mr. Gotti was like any other defendant, then they wouldn’t have used 100 people to arrest him.”
Gotti was released on $100,000 bond, frustrating the law, adding insult to injury, when leaving the courthouse, he was forced to push his way through a several dozen of reporters, television cameramen and photographers and almost one hundred sight seers.
The prosecution was determined not to be humiliated. It entered a small mountain of tapes made in Gotti’s office, the promising of which was one in which they lawyers claimed Gotti was overheard ordering, “Bust him up!”
Gotti’s lawyers however, quickly derailed the state’s highest hopes by pointing out that if authorities knew that O’Connor was in danger, why didn’t they warn him? To which one investigator testified that the tapes weren’t clear enough for them to identify O’Connor which prompted Gotti defense to say “If the tapes weren’t clear enough to warn O’Connor, then they are not clear enough to convict Gotti.
As for the “We’re gonna bust him up,” statement by Gotti on the tapes, the defense challenged the authenticity of the tapes and questioned the state as to whether the tapes had been tampered with by the police. Adding to their argument was the remarkably poor sound quality that made an accurate transcript almost impossible to print.
The states star witness, Westies gang member James Patrick McElroy, took the stand and admitted that he was testifying to try and get a reduction in his 10 to 60 years federal prison sentence and that he had murdered two men, shooting two others and cutting the throat of another.
On the third day of deliberations police searched John Gotti Jrs. black Lincoln Continental parked outside the courthouse, after getting a call that guns were inside the car. Junior was frisked and the car was searched, but all that found was an aluminum baseball bat.
On February 10, 1990, the jury returned Gotti not guilty on four assault charges and two conspiracy counts.
Coonan also ordered the killing of Luchese mob associate, Ruby Stein, one of the most successful loansharks in New York City, who was also close to Boss Fat Tony Salerno. It was this murder where Coonan introduced the method of chopping up his victims and keeping the hands for fingerprints. Over the years, Coonan also tried to kill Salerno, which, had they succeeded would have caused a massive and bloody street war in New York.
Coonan was also ambitious enough to try to form an agreement with Boston’s Irish gang leader, Petey Wilson, whom he had met in Sing Sing Prison. The two gangs met in New York and Boston several times, once robbing a pharmaceutical warehouse. The beginning of the end came in 1979 when Mickey Featherstone and Jimmy Coonan were indicted for the murder of a hood named Whitney Whitehead. The case fell apart, but the Westies were now law enforcements top priority.
The following year, Coonan and Featherstone were sentenced to four years for gun possession and counterfeiting. When Featherstone was released, he was angry that Coonan had not taken care of his family as he promised to. Featherstone, who despised the Italians, resented that Coonan had made the Westies subservient to the Gambino’s and began to rebel, turning down several commands from Coonan to murder hoods that the Gambino’s were having problems with. However, when Coonan refused to lend Featherstone $40,000, the hood put together his own gang of and murder Coonan. Featherstone flipped over to the government in 1986 and testified against Coonan who was convicted under the RICO act in 1988 and received 75 years in high security lock up.