NYPD Green CHAPTER ONE BANG! YOU’RE DEAD
“What are you lookin’ at? Get in that bread van now, you little bastard, before I blow the head off of ye!”
In my twenty or so years as a New York police officer I put about one thousand people behind bars. I worked on so many armed robbery cases that I lost count. But you never forget the first time you face an armed criminal. It was the summer of 1975 and I was just nine years old—and, to judge from the eyes staring out of the balaclava, my career in crime fighting was destined for a premature end. My fate rested with this criminal whose finger hovered on the trigger of a sawn-off shotgun, both barrels waving in my face.
Eighteen inches separated me from life and death. My lips moved wordlessly. I didn’t budge an inch. It wasn’t that I was a tough guy or that I didn’t want to cooperate. It’s just that nothing below my waist seemed to work anymore—with the exception of my bladder, that is, which had just sent a long stream down my trousers, trickling into my left shoe.
We stood there, staring at each other for what seemed like an age, until my brain suddenly rebooted and my legs finally got the message, sending me squelching and stumbling towards the back of the delivery truck. I clambered in and joined a baker’s dozen already held hostage, the door slamming behind us with a heavy clang as the gunman snapped the lock into place.
My future career in law enforcement was a million miles from my mind right now. A toy silver six-shot revolver lay under my bed alongside my shiny plastic policeman’s badge, filed in a shoe box with a Swiss Army knife and a thirdhand copy of Playboy. If my mother ever found them, she wouldn’t need a gun to sort me out.
I was outnumbered, outgunned, and out of my depth. An hour earlier I had been stacking cans of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops in my father’s tiny corner shop on Russell Avenue in Dublin’s inner city. My mother, Sheila, was sweeping the stockroom as my fourteen-year-old sister, Bernadette, cleaned down countertops, waiting for my dad, Vincent, to return from the local bakery distribution site. In those days, he—like all of the local merchants—used the bakery depot as a bank to exchange coins and pound notes for larger bills. But that night Ireland’s most dangerous man decided to make a withdrawal of his own.
Da wasn’t back yet and Ma’s patience was wearing thin. Da had driven our ancient Ford Escort one hundred yards up the road and turned the corner into JMOB—the Johnston Mooney & O’Brien bakery distribution site. It was a fifteen-minute round trip at most, so even allowing for the chat with his delivery pals and all the bluster, my mother sensed that something was wrong. Bernie took matters in hand by kindly volunteering her baby brother for the rescue mission.
“Good idea. Get over there and see what the holdup is, Luke,” Ma said, unwittingly prophetic in her turn of phrase. “And tell your father that if I miss my bingo tonight, I’ll kill him.”
I skipped down the street between the cracks in the pavement, whistling a song as I descended the short ramp into the yard. I made the sharp left turn, as I had done countless times before, stepping right into the two dark circles of a twelve-gauge shotgun.
At first I assumed the whole thing was some elaborate practical joke and grinned at the man on the other end. I was surprised at his roughness as he shoved me across the yard past the row of electric trucks, humming steadily as they recharged for the deliveries next morning. We stopped in front of a knot of half a dozen masked raiders, dressed in black and, like the sentry, all armed.
Their sudden explosion of curses and threats made me feel about as welcome as Santa in September. The raiders had carefully cased the joint and knew the high walls surrounding the site would give them the time they needed to empty the bulging company safe. But my unscripted appearance caused some of them to panic, never a good sign in a man with a long criminal record and an illegally shortened shotgun.
“What’s yer name, ye little bollix? What are you doing here? Where’s your ma and da? Who’s goin’ to come lookin’ for ye?” one of them said calmly. He seemed almost amused by the sight of a schoolboy in short pants surrounded by a semicircle of irate armed robbers, desperate men who realized that with my mother, or more likely the guards, next on the scene they were cooked.
“Right, lads. We’re banjaxed, thanks to this little bastard. Time to go,” the leader said with a sigh, shooting me nothing more dangerous than a grin as he ordered them to bundle me into the back of the van with my father and the employees. Meanwhile, he walked over towards my dad’s car.
We strained our eyes to peer out through the vents of our wheeled cell. Through the descending dusk we could just make out the last raider piling into the Ford. For the first time ever, it took off with a single turn of the ignition and a squeal of tires, and presumably a stream of curses, as the frustrated thieves were forced to leave all the dough behind.
They had even missed out on the consolation prize. The gunman who had ordered Da to hand over his car keys hadn’t thought of searching him. Vincent had hidden the shop takings of about three hundred pounds behind a shelf of half-baked rolls. He retrieved the stash with a gleeful chuckle and joined the other men booting the lock, which popped under the battery of boot leather.
Half an hour later the place was crawling with detectives, some taking notes, others taking our footwear, which was sent to the forensics lab for analysis. My first brush with criminals proved more than an early lesson in crime scene investigation.
Standing there, shoeless, in urine-soaked shorts, I learned nothing about forensics but a little about life. It’s all about luck and being prepared to take a chance. My mother did miss her bingo jackpot that evening but she was probably the most fortunate woman in Dublin. Nobody was ever charged, but the police told my father that they were sure it was the work of Dublin’s most significant crime gang. In my years on the Job, I would question a lot of armed robbery suspects, but my first interrogation had been carried out by Martin Cahill.
The man who would become infamous as “the General” rose from the miserable conditions of his childhood in the worst slums in the city to become one of the few “ordinary decent criminals” to defy the IRA, robbing banks and jewelers in multimillion-pound holdups, even stealing priceless Dutch masters in art heists which horrified and fascinated the nation in equal measure. His exploits sold a lot of copies of the Evening Herald and inspired a couple of Hollywood biopics.
The General died as he had lived, gunned down by an IRA hit man on his way to return a copy of A Bronx Tale. Tellingly, the movie chronicled the life of a youngster who, despite the temptations, managed to stay on the straight and narrow. Cahill was shot almost eighteen years after the day he and his brothers stood pointing shotguns at a terrified child.
(In another strange coincidence, one of the actors from A Bronx Tale, Lillo Brancato, Jr., would later cross my path. Hopelessly broke and addicted to drugs, he shot an off-duty NYPD officer dead after a botched burglary. As fate would have it, I ended up discovering the shooting range where he and his crony practiced, complete with the mercury-tipped “cop killer” bullets he boasted of specially preparing before the shooting—evidence which would destroy his claims that the murder was a tragic, spur-of-the-moment mistake.)
I was born in October 1965 to Sheila and Vincent Waters, who, despite their modest means and raising our family of six children in a shoe-box-sized house, taught us that respect for others begins with respect for yourself. I grew up the second youngest of the six—three boys and three girls—in our version of the “Wild West”: Finglas, complete with horses, guns, and natives armed with bows and arrows. Finglas was one of a number of areas which had sprung up to replace the bulldozed slums of the inner city, which had bred people like the Cahills. Our housing estate was better than many, but it was far from perfect—in some ways like the New York housing projects I would visit years later, but on other levels far different.
Drugs and guns fuel crime in the USA—when I was young, narcotics were unheard of in the community, and cooperation with the Gardaí was the norm, not the exception.
Finglas has a reputation for being edgy, and it was much the same in my day: horses roaming freely on public parkland opposite our front door adding a realistic touch to the games of cowboys and Indians; children plaguing the deliverymen by grabbing on to the backs of their vans “for a carry” as they dropped off bread, milk, or bags of coal and sacks of dark, damp turf—in an era before central heating, the only way our parents kept the home fires burning, in the process blanketing the streets in smog for six months out of the year.
The Waterses had a far longer record with the law than Martin Cahill, but on the right side of it. Both my grandfathers had spent their careers in the Dublin Metropolitan Police and An Garda Síochána, a tradition followed by many of my cousins, and my older brother, Tom, would go on to serve as a sergeant in the force.
I formed a lot of close friendships through those years, and one ultimately would drag me to the USA. Paul Hurley was raised in a house identical to ours, but from an early age he was obsessed by the idea of moving to America. He eventually opened a string of Irish bars in New York and made a name for himself in one of the toughest businesses in the city.
My 1970s summers were spent on endless games of football in the streets, doing poor impersonations of Johnny Giles or Brian Mullins. I had no problems making friends and keeping them, although my social skills didn’t transfer into the classroom of St. Kevin’s, where I proved a consistent student—equally poor at everything.
I would happily play hooky if Sheriff Sheila hadn’t deputized my brothers, Vincent and Tom, to walk me the half mile to the front gates for our nine a.m. start and another seven hours of torment. My brothers were my keepers. And if they were busy, my two older sisters did just as well.
Bernie and Lucy not only took me to school, but on my ma’s orders stayed with me after school. They helped me with my “ecker” (slang for “homework” in my neighborhood), trying in vain to explain the mysteries of math and the Irish language. I would listen, nod, chew my Bic Biro to a pulp, and fill my copybooks with fiction, hoping that the teacher wouldn’t pick on me. Mostly I got away with it.
Ireland was a different place then, a different world, where joining the guards, the army, or the civil service was the height of most parents’ ambitions for their children: secure, pensionable jobs for life, entry decided on your performance in the Leaving Certificate; university education was not even discussed. Sports or music offered the only real alternative in our neighborhood—if you were lucky you did the same job as your father or, failing that, you emigrated.
If anyone from our estate did make a name for themselves, it was as a member of the Dublin team in Heffo’s ArmyI
or, if really lucky, they were signed by an English soccer club, like my schoolmate Ronnie Whelan, who starred for both Liverpool and Ireland. Northsiders U2 showed us all that unlikely dreams could come true and along with Springsteen provided the sound track to my formative years—the pictures came from movies and television.
Heroin had started to gain a stranglehold on a few working-class communities by the time I left St. Kevin’s for the nearby Patrician College Secondary School.
Finglas was still untouched by its evils—the only drugs on offer were cigarettes, loose Woodbines smoked furiously and furtively behind the sheds lest my father spot the telltale signs. Despite the fact that he smoked a pack a day, he’d have killed us if we were caught.
Patrician College had opened its doors a decade earlier to cater to the influx from the new estates, and my years there totally changed my attitude towards education. I was helped in no small measure by mentors like Brendan O’Reilly, an excellent teacher, who did everything to encourage me when I said I wanted to follow in the family tradition and join the police. My schoolwork improved dramatically, but I still struggled to play catch-up with Irish, which I needed to pass if I was to get through the gates of the training college in Templemore.
My neighbor Hurley couldn’t care less about the Leaving Certificate. He had his sights firmly set on the USA, and New York in particular, an ambition echoed in almost every house on Kildonan Drive and in the entire country in the late 1970s.
My father made front-page headlines himself shortly after the abortive JMOB raid when he was involved in another holdup: a raider walked into the shop and demanded the takings. My father grabbed the man’s revolver and the gun went off, the bullet narrowly missing Da’s head. The Martin Cahill wannabe took off out the door, with an irate shopkeeper a yard behind threatening him with a can of Batchelors beans.
My old man was unhurt, but not for long once my mother found out the details. His careful attempts at a cover-up were somewhat undermined by the interview he enthusiastically gave to the Evening Herald and which appeared on the front page. That was my father. Lying was not in his DNA. Neither was lying down.
Holdups, cons, and scams of all kinds were part of life in Haughey’s Ireland. The IRA used crime as a way to buy Semtex to bomb the Brits; ordinary criminals stole as much as they could to fund their retirement plans. With the top rate of income tax close to 60 percent and one in five adults unemployed, many otherwise decent people also became lawbreakers. Cash in hand, a nod and a wink, the black economy thrived.
Competition for a place in the Garda College was fierce, but my brother Tom had already made a good impression within the force—which would have helped my application if I hadn’t failed my Leaving, Irish proving the stumbling block. “Luke, if you really want the guards, repeat the exam. What’s another year? Nothing over a career,” Tom advised me over a pint in the local pub.
This time I had to study without the help of Brendan O’Reilly, who surprised us all by emigrating to New York, armed with nothing more than a set of brushes, a color chart, and a dream. It turned out that Brendan’s work would be inspired more by Dulux than any Dutch masters, as our old teacher switched from correcting piles of copybooks of dull prose to applying coats of brilliant white emulsion to the walls of new-builds along New York’s Long Island, a business which thrives to this day.
Hurley soon followed him over, just another young buck sweeping the floor of a bar for five dollars an hour, but before long he was already making a mark on the city we would both call home for the next couple of decades.
The only difference was that he knew it long before me. My sights were still firmly set on becoming a police officer in Dublin, and while Paul packed his bags I stuffed job applications into the postbox. I got lucky, landing a job as a security guard at Mostek, a U.S. computer company, in Blanchardstown. I made about £120 a week, more than my brother earned as a rookie pounding a beat in Dublin. I worked almost every hour that God sent and I paid the price when my results arrived. I had failed Irish for the second time.
If I was smart I would have followed the advice of Tom and Vincent and stuck with the security work, but I had inherited my father’s stubborn streak. I decided to resit my already-repeated exam the following June and hit the books whenever I could.
I sat my dreaded Irish exam for the third time and spent an anxious couple of months waiting for the results. This time around the markers must have taken pity on me: somehow I scraped a pass and my application to An Garda Síochána was back on track.
My family’s service clearly helped my application and I made it through the initial interviews. That left just the medical—but that was months away. I quit the security job and took the bus into the travel agency on O’Connell Street. Airline ticket in hand, I went down the street to the Bank of Ireland and changed my punts into U.S. dollars, the bills identical in size and color. Then I rang Hurley to tell him I was coming over to New York on holiday. Or at least that’s what Immigration would mark on my paperwork.
In reality I was heading to pick up some casual labor until I undertook my vocation that September in Templemore, County Tipperary.
On November 16, 1985, I waved the family goodbye and boarded an Aer Lingus 747, which touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport some seven hours later. The trip changed my life forever. I
. Kevin Heffernan (nickname: Heffo) was a famous Gaelic football player in the late 1960s whose fans were known as Heffo’s Army.