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The big-league prospect who became a mob hit man

In an handout photo, Maury Lerner, a minor league baseball player turned Mafia hit man who was convicted of murder in 1970. For years, Lerner had juggled fading baseball dreams and a dual life as a crook with self-destructive appetites; then he caught the eye of the Patriarca crime family.  (Handout via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH STORY SLUGGED BBO-MAFIA-LERNER BY BARRY FOR OCT. 30 2016. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. ?‘  XNYT67

In an handout photo, Maury Lerner, a minor league baseball player turned Mafia hit man who was convicted of murder in 1970. For years, Lerner had juggled fading baseball dreams and a dual life as a crook with self-destructive appetites; then he caught the eye of the Patriarca crime family. (Handout via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH STORY SLUGGED BBO-MAFIA-LERNER BY BARRY FOR OCT. 30 2016. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. ?‘ XNYT67

The Buick sedan crawled the Providence, Rhode Island, streets. The April sky was baby blue, the air pleasant and cool. Perfect baseball weather. The man hunched in the back seat once lived for days like this.

When the maroon car stopped outside Pannone's Market on Pocasset Avenue, its back-seat passenger leapt out with uncommon grace, a mask over his handsome face, a shotgun in his large hands. An armed and disguised accomplice followed close behind.

The mom-and-pop employees ducked as the nimble gunman found his target, a bookmaker who had defied Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the coal-eyed head of New England organized crime. The wayward bookie caught it from 3 feet away, his unused gun clattering to rest a few inches from his outstretched hand. His sidekick was dropped near a shelf of canned tomatoes, his face rearranged by buckshot.

Neighborhood children were soon pressing their noses against the storefront window, as investigators examined the two bodies splayed on the blood-slick floor. The Buick was already a memory.

The killer and his co-conspirators gathered that evening in a motel a few miles away. One of them later recalled how the athletic shooter, whose apt nickname was Pro, proudly tallied his personal stats. How he was first through the door, the one who hit the bookie, the one who killed the bodyguard trying to slip away.

It figured. The habits of old ballplayers die hard.

Have talent, will travel

Newspapers from Burlington, North Carolina, to Walla Walla, Washington, told the same story: Maury "Pro" Lerner could hit.

"Maury Lerner crashed a triple off the clock and rode home on Jacoby's single." "Maury Lerner doubled in two runs Sunday night to lead Boise to a 7-to-5 victory over Pocatello in the Pioneer League play." Maury Lerner singled, doubled, tripled, homered, won the game.

He could always hit. A 6-foot-2 prospect out of Brookline, Massachusetts, the scholarly Lerner batted .364 as a high school senior. The brief caption beneath his yearbook portrait conveyed a singular purpose ("Baseball, 2,3,4") and that singular nickname: Pro. It was supposedly derived from having been called Little Professor as a precocious child.

Lerner claimed to have enjoyed a happy childhood, spending part of his youth in a duplex on Verndale Street, about 2 miles from Fenway Park. But his son, Glen Lerner, disputes this assertion of boyhood happiness. Maury's father, Glen says, never told Maury he loved him, never went to his ballgames.

Maybe this explains things, he says.

Maybe.

Lerner signed with the Washington Senators at 18 and was dispatched to play entry-level ball in Erie, Pennsylvania. He batted a miserable .167 in 13 games and spent the next few years in the Marines.

But he returned in 1957 to join the Milwaukee Braves franchise in Boise, Idaho, where he smacked 158 hits in 127 games and batted an impressive .328 ("Second-sacker Maury Lerner got the vital hit, a double to right-center"). Then, up in Yakima, Washington, he hit .348 ("Lerner's drive was against the right field fence"). Then, over in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, he hit .372 for the Wilson Tobs in North Carolina ("Lerner popped one over the short center wall").

Pittsburgh's front office was watching, just in case Bill Mazeroski at second or Dick Groat at short got injured. This middle infielder coming up, this Lerner kid, seemed respectful, earnest, even erudite. A real gentleman, except when he wasn't.

Playing in Nicaragua during the 1959-60 winter season, Lerner was hitting close to .400 and having a good time. So good, in fact, that his manager, the major-leaguer Earl Torgeson, announced plans to cut him for missed curfews and other transgressions.

But then Torgeson and Lerner teamed up against some Cuban players after Lerner complained about too many brush-back pitches. Torgeson got into a fistfight with a Cuban player and resigned. Lerner attacked a Cuban pitcher and a Cuban umpire, but kept on playing. And hitting.

Frank Kostro, a future major-leaguer known for his pinch-hitting, competed against Lerner that winter. "I was hitting well over .300," he says. "But I wasn't even close to the leading hitter — who was Maury Lerner."

Lerner returned to the United States with a batting title, a reputation for being a good but uptight teammate — and a baby wildcat he had smuggled out in a satchel, according to the book Memories of Winter Ball, by Lou Hernández.

He also seemed to carry a self-destructive fear of success. Family lore has it that he sabotaged a chance to move up to the Pirates after Mazeroski got hurt — it is true, at least, that Mazeroski, a future Hall of Famer, incurred a couple of injuries at the time — by picking a fight with his manager.

"One of his biggest regrets," Glen Lerner says. "Whenever he was going to get promoted, he would do something to undermine it. He didn't know how to explain it."

Sliding Into Crime

Maury Lerner was 24, then 25, then 26 — middle-aged in minor-league time. A veteran bush leaguer making about $700 a few months of the year. A one-time prospect with no prospects.

He still managed to stand out, though, by reading books, watching his diet and exercising with weights. This was at a time when almost no one in baseball concentrated on strength conditioning, according to Gene Michael, the former Yankees shortstop and general manager who played three games with Lerner on the Savannah Pirates, in Georgia, in 1960.

Though the two ballplayers crossed paths only briefly more than a half-century ago — one going up, the other going down — Michael never forgot Lerner, a good fielder and a great line-drive hitter who advocated chopping down on the ball to beat out the throw to first. Over dinner one night, Lerner lectured on baseball strategy and training in ways that the younger, less experienced Michael had never heard before.

"He was way ahead of us," Michael says. "Way ahead of us."

No question. Pro Lerner was looking ahead. By the summer of 1961, the professional ballplayer was also trying out for a life of crime.

He was playing at the time for the Macon Peaches, a collection of has-beens and never-will-bes. One knock-around veteran had struck out in all three of his major-league at-bats. Another had toiled for 16 years in the minors, got called up for one game, and didn't even get to bat.

"A bastard club," says Tony Bartirome, one of its players. "All on their way down." Including its good-hitting middle infielder.

Bartirome remembers Lerner being so well-mannered that "he was like a priest, almost." Oh, and another thing: He would occasionally leave the team to take care of some personal matters.

Those personal matters might have included Lerner's arrest that summer for the armed robbery of a Boston furniture store. He was later sentenced to three years' probation.

Lerner was arrested again a few months later, charged with conspiring to commit armed robbery and carrying a firearm without a permit. According to Brookline police records, detectives interrupted Lerner and his ex-con companion in the midst of robbing an acquaintance.

Questioned by the police, Lerner repeatedly lied. And while he eventually beat the rap, the young ballplayer made an unfavorable impression. "I know the Brookline police were not fond of him," Glen Lerner says. "A Jewish troublemaker would not be well-looked-upon by an Irish police force."

Maury Lerner held on a little longer to his baseball dreams. He spent part of the 1962 season with the Raleigh Capitals, of the Senators organization, batting .308 and hitting eight home runs, the most of his professional career ("A two-run homer by first baseman Maury Lerner in the eighth inning won the game").

A teammate, John Kennedy, a future major leaguer, hasn't forgotten the sounds of obsession that emanated from Lerner's home in Raleigh, the rhythmic whacks of a fixated hitter striking a tire with a bat.

Thum, thum, thum.

"He couldn't care less about anything but hit, hit, hit," Kennedy says.

One time, Lerner coaxed a homeless man who used to linger outside the Devereux Meadow ballpark onto the team bus. He hid the man from the manager and supplied him with enough beer to last the daylong road trip. An act of kindness, Kennedy says. "As far as I'm concerned, he was a helluva guy."

A helluva guy who was also passing worthless checks in Tennessee, stealing a television set from a hotel not far from Fenway Park and hustling some college saps in games of pool.

Baseball scouts used to scrutinize Lerner's every move. Now agents from the FBI were the ones watching.

A trail of violence

By this point, Lerner was hanging around with two well-known New England criminals, John Kelley, also known as Red, and George Agisotelis, also known as Billy A. Those two were central suspects in the notorious and still unsolved mail truck robbery in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1962, in which men dressed as police officers commandeered a Postal Service truck and made off with the then-record haul of $1.5 million in cash.

But he was also still playing baseball, holding on with a Senators affiliate in Pennsylvania with the exquisite name of the York White Roses. He batted .250 in only 28 games, the reasons for his truncated 1963 season unclear, except for an internal FBI document from that time:

"Joseph McKenney, Director of Publicity, American Baseball League, and Joseph Cronin, President of the American League, after reviewing records, advised Maurice Lerner is presently on the suspended list of the York, Pennsylvania, Baseball Team subject to moving up to a higher classification.

"Cronin stated that being on the suspended list indicates either Lerner did not report to the York team or was suspended while there for some infraction of the club's training regulations."

There was no formal announcement, no issued news release. But Pro Lerner had given up baseball to concentrate on a new career. A name that once appeared in scouting sheets and small-town newspapers was now popping up in police intelligence reports.

Maurice Lerner, aka Pro, aka Reno. Newly wedded to Arrene Siegel. Suspect in the robberies of the Boston Five Cent Savings Bank and the Suburban National Bank. Associate of known criminals Kelley and Agisotelis. Formerly employed as a professional baseball player. Considered armed and dangerous — whether with gun or bat, it seems.

Part of the growing Lerner reputation was how Pro once applied his bat skills to his new profession by ringing a doorbell and taking a cut at the head of the man who answered. The oft-told story may be apocryphal, but word of Lerner's penchant for violence had clearly reached the front office of the Patriarca crime family, the Boston Red Sox of the underworld. And he got called up.

When some men made the ill-conceived decision to rob a bookie operation linked to a high-ranking mafioso, it was Lerner, along with Kelley, who was dispatched to straighten things out. When certain people disappeared or stopped breathing, Lerner often seemed to be, shall we say, part of the postmortem conversation.

In January 1965, the body of an inconsequential gangster named Robert Rasmussen was found in Wilmington, Massachusetts, having taken a .38 bullet to the back of his head. An informant later claimed that Rasmussen had tried to extort money from Kelley, so he was lured to Lerner's apartment with the promise of a nice score, a bookie's cash-jammed safe — only to wind up dead in a snowbank, wearing little more than a necktie.

Then there was Tommy Richards, another member of Kelley's crew, who vanished just before the 1967 trial for the mail heist in Plymouth. The well-known lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who represented Kelley, recalls that when he asked about Richards' whereabouts, he was told, "Well, Tommy won't be joining us."

Richards had a decent excuse; he was dead. Another Kelley associate later told Bailey of being present when Lerner shot Richards in the head, right after the man pleaded for his life, saying, "I never did anything to hurt any of you guys."

It was not what Richards had done, but what he might do. Kelley didn't think his friend would hold up on the stand, so, apparently, he had to go. Kelley and the other living defendants were acquitted in the Plymouth case, and the disappearance of Richards remains unsolved.

Unraveling the underworld

"I didn't see nothing, I didn't hear nothing," said the owner of a small store close to Pannone's Market. On the clear and cool Saturday of April 20, 1968, a pair of masked gunmen had just left two dead bodies on the market's floor. Their getaway Buick was later recovered, with a sawed-off M1 carbine, two sawed-off shotguns and two .38-caliber pistols still inside.

"You want information?" someone told an inquisitive Providence Journal reporter. "Call 411."

Months passed without any solid leads, although the involvement of Patriarca, the New England mob boss, was generally stipulated. Nothing moved in Providence without the say-so of "the old man," who would sit outside his small coin-vending business on Federal Hill, working his cigar as he watched the cops watch him.

"One of the most powerful crime bosses in the country," said Thomas Verdi, a Providence deputy police chief and former commander of the department's organized crime unit. "He was revered and feared by all."

But in 1969, the Patriarca operation suffered a critical security breach when one of its associates turned informant. Unfortunately for Pro Lerner, the canary was his friend and mentor, Red Kelley.

A recent Brink's armored-car robbery of a half-million dollars had been too tidy to be anything other than an inside job, leading investigators to an errant Brink's employee who quickly named his accomplices. Among them was Kelley, who soon indicated his desire to exchange information for the comforts of protective custody.

Kelley told federal investigators that Lerner, the primary shooter, was bright, courageous and homicidal: the most dangerous man he had known in his 25 years on the dark side.

Kelley kept talking. About how a Patriarca lieutenant, Luigi Manocchio, had recruited Lerner for his controlled violence, and how Lerner had recruited Kelley for his meticulous attention to escape plans. How they repeatedly scouted the daily movements of their intended victims, the wayward bookie, Rudy Marfeo, and his bodyguard, Anthony Melei. How Manocchio later shook hands after a job well-executed and conveyed the message that "George" — code for Patriarca — was pleased.

FBI agents arrested Lerner early one morning at the Brookline apartment he shared with his wife and two young children. While Lerner dressed, an agent noticed a brown gun case. When law enforcement officials returned hours later with a search warrant, they discovered its contents, a pump-action shotgun and a fully loaded pearl-handled .45-caliber pistol.

As Lerner's wife took sick and went upstairs, they went downstairs and found a cellar converted into a shooting range. A silhouette target had been drawn on the bullet-pocked wall, and bits of lead peppered the floor.

The shooting of imaginary men, it seemed, had replaced the swinging of bats at imaginary balls. Thum, thum, thum.

Lerner's arrest allowed others to relax. According to FBI records, another federal informant, Richard Chicofsky, told his handlers that "that bastard Lerner got what he deserved."

"When asked what he meant by that, he replied that Lerner was a sadistic killer and that he got his kicks from watching people bleed. He told of the time that Lerner had bragged to him how he killed Billy Aggie (Agisotelis) with a .45 while he and Aggie held a casual conversation in an automobile.

"Chicofsky further stated that he feels a lot better now that Lerner is off the streets because when Lerner was around, he was never really sure when Lerner might decided to 'plank' him."

The hearings and trial for the Marfeo-Melei killings included the usual mob theatrics. One defendant screamed at a prosecutor ("I'll get you, you bastard. I'll see tears running down your face before this is over"), punched a wooden door and broke his hand. A witness for the prosecution disappeared for a day, only to resurface with a tale of being whisked to a secret location and asked to testify against everyone except Patriarca and Lerner; as the witness left the stand, a defendant's relative threatened her life.

Through it all, Lerner was the odd man out: a Jew from Brookline, not an Italian from Providence, who sought comfort in the regular visits to the prison by a Boston rabbi.

After three days of deliberations in March 1970, a jury in Providence convicted Lerner, Patriarca and three others of conspiracy, while Lerner was also convicted of murder. The man with a career batting average of .308 was given two life sentences. He was 34.

The former ballplayer sent word that he didn't want any more visits from the rabbi.

John Kennedy and Gene Michael. Ed Brinkman and Bernie Allen. Rich Rollins and Donn Clendenon. Tony Perez and Rusty Staub and Steve Blass and Rico Petrocelli and Tommie Agee and Cesar Tovar and Roy White and Mel Stottlemyre. All those former teammates and opponents were still playing and even thriving in the major leagues.

And where was Maury Lerner, the hit-obsessed prospect who once sat beside them in dugouts, joined in on those long bus rides and shared small talk around second base? Occupying a first-floor cell in an infamous corner of Rhode Island's Adult Correctional Institutions.

"One of those should-have-beens," his son says. "An American tragedy, when you think of it."

A model inmate

Facing life behind bars, Lerner could easily have assimilated into the hard culture of the prison's north wing, an area reserved for big-name inmates that was controlled by Gerard Ouimette, a vicious and unpredictable gangster connected to the Patriarca crime family. The rules were so lax, and Ouimette so powerful, that inmates could do pretty much anything but leave.

"I remember walking into the prison one time to work on a case, and there in an office were these big food containers full of steaks and lobster tails," Vincent Vespia, a former state police detective, recalls. "So I asked: What's all this for?"

The answer: "Ouimette's having a party."

But rather than join in, Lerner removed himself, capitalizing on the uncommon deference he had earned by keeping his mouth shut about Patriarca. He was, after all, a pro.

An inveterate reader, Lerner had the second-highest IQ in the prison, and he took pride in learning a new vocabulary word every day. A fitness fanatic still, he was an early advocate for the health benefits of raw vegetables. And whenever a law enforcement official stopped by to try to draw him out, he clammed up.

"A disciplined guy; the coldest, hardest guy there," says Brian Andrews, a former detective commander for the Rhode Island State Police. "And Pro wouldn't talk. Sometimes he'd look at you and wouldn't even answer you."

Lerner "conformed strictly to the rules of the institution," a prison record indicates. He retreated to his cell when fights broke out, fulfilled his work assignments, took multiple furloughs without incident and ably handled a work-release job at a nearby landfill. A model inmate.

In 1980, Lerner came to the rescue of a correction officer who was being choked with a cord by another inmate. He subdued the inmate and escorted the injured officer to the infirmary. A formal commendation was entered into Lerner's file, applauding him for a "heroic action" that would not be forgotten.

Gerald Tillinghast spent a lot of time with Lerner in prison. Now 70 and out on parole, Tillinghast was a particularly feared figure in the Rhode Island underworld, the reasons for which became clear during a breakfast conversation. Over a crime scene plate of scrambled eggs slathered with ketchup, Tillinghast recalls a beef he once had with a federal informant:

"So I come up behind him, I spun him around, said what are you doing? He said it's none of my effing business. Boom. I knocked him right out, threw him down the stairs and, uh, stabbed him with an ice pick a couple of times."

He says Lerner, whom he respected, was of a different prison stripe than most.

"Take organized crime away, or any kind of crimes like that," Tillinghast says. "If you was to know him, you would never equate him with that. Never. When you get to know him? Very charismatic — if he likes you. Very seldom you'd get him laughing."

All the while, Lerner remained a family man; that is, to his own family. When appeals to overturn his conviction seemed at a dead end, Lerner moved his wife, Arrene, and their two young children, Glen and Jenni, to a small house close to the prison.

"I never met a more loyal woman in my life," Tillinghast says of Arrene. And when Pro would come into the visiting room, he says, "them kids would run to him."

Glen, who was raised to believe that his father had been framed, says he spent more time with him than most children do with their unincarcerated fathers. "I saw him five days a week, two hours a day, across a table in the visiting room," he says.

Still, it was not easy on the Lerner children. Glen says he often brawled with other kids who teased him about a father serving life for a double homicide. Plus, his father could be controlling — "You need to do this, you need to do that" — partly because he had lost control of his own life and partly because he wanted to steer his children away from that life.

But Glen says with admiration that domestic normality was somehow established in a profoundly abnormal situation. "My parents did an amazing job to overcome this stigma," he says, and to convey to others that "we're not who you think we are."

His father had a concrete wall installed in the backyard so Glen could practice soccer kicks, and he learned all he could about a game he never played so he could counsel his son. When furloughs allowed him brief freedom, he would attend his son's high school soccer games, cheering Glen on to star status.

"He gave us every opportunity to succeed," Glen says. "Everybody would always say to me, 'Man, I wish your dad was my dad.'"

Glen added, "I wouldn't trade him for anybody as my father."

Finding freedom

Maury Lerner did his time: 1975, 1980, 1985. Through it all, he found distraction, and maybe even sustenance, in his former profession as a ballplayer. When he heard that a prison job counselor, Joseph Filipkowski, was the father of a promising Little Leaguer, he offered to work on the boy's mechanics. On a prison ball field, an inmate in khakis tossed Wiffle ball pitches to a 12-year-old.

The kid's doing fine, the incarcerated ex-ballplayer advised.

Lerner also became the demanding player-coach for a competitive softball team that took on all comers — correction officers, professional football players, anyone willing to play an opponent who would always have home-field advantage. The younger players listened to him, Tillinghast says, because they feared him.

"He wanted perfection," he says, adding, "God forbid you lost a game, you know what I mean?"

In some ways, Lerner still considered himself part of the professional baseball family. He once contacted a former minor-league manager of his to say he had a hot prospect on his prison softball team: This kid could do it all. The former manager, by then a high-ranking Pirates executive, dispatched a scout to run the inmate through a workout.

The player turned out to be exceptionally good — at softball.

According to Tillinghast, Lerner's interaction with his players ended on the ball field. He might say hi to a teammate in the yard, but he rarely engaged in serious conversation.

"He just wanted to do his time," Tillinghast says, cleaning his teeth with a toothpick. "He did his time like 10 men. Never complained."

And after 18 years in prison, Pro Lerner finally won.

His former mentor, Red Kelley, was now acknowledging that he had embellished his testimony during the murder trial in 1970. Do not get him wrong. Things went down just as he had described, except for a few details, including that part about how he had met with Patriarca to discuss plans for the Marfeo-Melei hit. Never happened, he admitted. A corrupt FBI agent, who would later die in prison while awaiting trial on murder charges, had put him up to it.

This nettlesome matter of perjury finally persuaded the Rhode Island Supreme Court to overturn Lerner's murder conviction. So, a few days before Christmas in 1988, the old ballplayer and hit man pleaded no contest to murder and conspiracy charges, received credit for time served, and walked unshackled into the cold Providence day.

He was 53.

Lerner and his wife quickly left Rhode Island for California and then for Las Vegas — as if to get as much distance as possible from the past. Patriarca was dead and now so was a part of Lerner. He had no desire to reconnect with his former cronies, no interest in being compensated for keeping his mouth shut. He just wanted out.

"He walked away from any reminder of that life," his son, Glen, says.

By this point, both his children had attended Duke University, and his son, the soccer star, had played on Duke's 1986 national championship team and gone on to law school at Tulane. A photo from Glen's law school graduation shows his smiling parents arm in arm, his father wearing a goofy striped sweater, looking down.

A bittersweet image. A few years later, Arrene, the loyal wife who had kept the family together, died of cancer at the age of 56. Her husband was devastated.

Lerner never remarried. He continued to live in Las Vegas, where he helped out at his son's personal-injury law firm and found some modest action at a local sports betting operation. Sometimes he took his young granddaughter for drives around Sin City, singing along with Sinatra and Ella.

Now and then, Glen Lerner would try to engage his father in a discussion about his past; more specifically, how to get out from under that past. "Why can't you forgive yourself?" the son would ask of a father who was famous for holding grudges against others — and, it seemed, himself. Even now, he wouldn't talk.

"I could look in his face, and I could see the regret," Glen says, adding: "There may have been things he did that he didn't get in trouble for."

The former athlete who once sprang so gracefully from the batter's box, bat in hand, and from a sedan, shotgun in hand, could not dodge time. A few years ago, dementia set in. He fell and broke a hip. When death came in 2013, at age 77, he left a son, a daughter, grandchildren and so many questions.

"It's a whodunit," Glen says. "You know who did it, but why? Why?"

Maybe Lerner had gravitated toward father figures who had led him astray, his son says, sounding wishful. Maybe he was looking for someone to look up to. Maybe.

"He was very sweet at the end," Glen says. "He lost a lot of his edge."

But Maury Lerner never lost his sense of belonging to the professional baseball fraternity. Among its members, he was not known for being anything other than a loyal teammate who could hit like hell. A real pro.

In the years after prison, Lerner began calling former teammates and opponents around the country — people now in their 70s and 80s, who knew him before. He enjoyed reminiscing about the old days, the times spent in baseball's ports of call: Erie and Boise, Macon and Raleigh, Yakima and Managua.

"He called me," the former major leaguer Kostro recalls. "And I says, 'Maury, where you been?'"

The old ballplayer explained as best he could.

The big-league prospect who became a mob hit man 10/30/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 30, 2016 12:37am]
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