I could do the rest of my time on Block 10 standing on my head!” he hollered at the deputy superintendent of Walpole State Prison after a hearing didn’t go his way. “How do you think you’re going to straighten me out—you fuckin’ knob-head guinea!” He’d target every authority figure he could—“From now on, you better keep your right up!” Especially the guards—“Why don’t you resign like Angus did? You’re yellow just like him, I scared him, and now you’re scared!” He threw his urine and stools at them so often that they wore raincoats during their rounds.

“He has been causing trouble both upstairs and now downstairs. He still talks of revenge against certain officers,” reads one report. “This inmate will not conform to any of the rules in this department,” reads another. His confinements were usually spent in segregation blocks or isolation, but he still raised hell; if no one else was within reach, he’d attack himself.

His name was John Robichaud. When he was released from Walpole in 1962, he went on an armed robbery spree, killed a man in Rhode Island, and shot another one five times at point-blank range before he was stopped near the Massachusetts–Rhode Island border. Even then, the law needed help. He stuck a gun in the arresting officer’s stomach and was overpowering him until citizens came running over and tackled him. In his car, someone’s inebriated wife was sprawled across the front seat. Under the seat was a lead pipe. A sawed-off shotgun and a suitcase filled with loaded clips were in the back seat.

Back he went to Walpole, like a thunderstorm receding over Blue Hills.

His prison record rivaled the heft of a congressional bill, though nothing in its 446 pages was his fault—he blamed the whole world and everyone in it for singling him out. Letters written by his parents to the Commissioner of Corrections hint at what went wrong in his life. They had more excuses for Robichaud than Robichaud himself, and they were soon lobbying priests and politicians to make things easier for their darling boy.

Boston underworld survivors know what he was. “Oh, God,” they told me, shaking their heads. “He was a savage. A maniac.”

One August morning in 1966, Walpole’s iron doors screeched open and something very different was escorted into the maximum security section. Hard eyes followed Winter Hill’s Joe McDonald as he made his way to cell #69. Robichaud would have nodded to him. The two had crossed paths five years earlier, when McDonald began a sentence for armed robbery, though McDonald was Robichaud’s antithesis, like order is to chaos. He had no disciplinary reports, kept a neat cell, read law books, and wrote no letters. He earned privileges, became a trusty. When he escaped in 1963, even the conservative dailies justified it. “Mild and seemingly harmless,” said the Boston Record American, he “might just have corrected an injustice and quietly resumed his old way of life.”

McDonald’s “old way of life” was neither mild nor harmless. The 49-year-old father of five escaped to join the Gangland War then surging on the streets of greater Boston, a war between a group of bookies and loan sharks he organized in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville and the McLaughlin Gang in Charlestown. In fact, a week after the article appeared, McDonald reportedly shot half of Punchy McLaughlin’s jaw off and was trying to drag him out of a car. To him, it was an act of justice—the McLaughlins were trying to kill his friends. By 1966, two of the three McLaughlin brothers had been summarily executed, and The Hill, as it was known, was expanding its territory into Charlestown. Psychopathic Georgie McLaughlin, the last surviving brother, got lucky. His trial for murdering a guest at a christening party ended in conviction. He was on death row in Walpole—in other words, out of reach.

At 9:30 pm on August 12, 1966, the very night McDonald arrived back in population at Walpole, there was a riot. It’s remembered to this day as the “Pill Riot” because it broke out while inmates were waiting in line for medication and several were seen gulping pills by the handful. Robichaud was at the lead, slugging guards while wearing one of their hats. One guard was stabbed with shears; another was knocked to the floor and kicked unconscious when a few of his fellows rushed out from the infirmary to drag him inside. A tug-of-war ensued before inmates trampled over him and spilled into the infirmary.

Squad cars, sirens screaming, raced to Walpole from surrounding towns. State police in riot gear piled into trucks at a half-dozen barracks and followed. The riot was put down after two hours. Makeshift weapons, bloodstained, were found scattered on the floor. At least 11 guards, slashed and beaten, were hospitalized. One of them, who went on to become a deputy superintendent and a police chief in a town north of Boston, was badly injured. “I thought I was a dead man,” he said. He also said that the press was fed a low number of rioters. It was twice what was reported—“at least 80 to 100.”

Sixteen convicted murderers, armed robbers, and rapists were indicted as the main instigators. At their trial six months later, state police were stationed around the courthouse with shotguns. Two dozen court officers were inside, and a policeman stood behind every manacled defendant. John Robichaud, the worst of them, sat there smirking. His defiance was on full display when he refused to stand as the judge left the bench and clapped his hands mockingly. He may have been one of the defendants who spat on a spectator inside the courtroom and on a news photographer outside as they were escorted to the detention room, which they turned upside down.

He, or someone behind him, was up to something. When his defense lawyer added the name “George McLaughlin” to the witness list, street cops perked up. The judge wisely consulted them and ruled against it. “On reliable information,” he said, “we have been told that his appearance anywhere outside of Walpole might pose a threat to the conduct of this trial and a threat to the life of the witness.” Years later, one of the inmates leading the riot alongside Robichaud revealed something that only now makes its way out of the Boston underworld.

“We were trying to get to Georgie McLaughlin,” he said.

An investigation revealed that the riot did not erupt “spontaneously” over pills, that it was more than a drug-induced melee. Inmates were hiding weapons when they rushed the guards and tried to ram down doors. It was planned—a murder attempt under the cover of a riot. At least four of those leading the riot, including Robichaud, were connected to Joe McDonald, whose arrival back at Walpole that very day is too coincidental to be a coincidence.

McDonald’s attempt to hasten the wheels of justice and kill the last McLaughlin thwarted, he immersed himself in his own case. He filed posttrial motions as a pro se litigant in the court that convicted him and won his release after serving less than three years of an expected 20. It was no small achievement.

Robichaud may have been inspired. At his trial for the riot, he represented himself during closing arguments, albeit unsuccessfully. He enrolled in a course (“English for Everyone”), took Harvard seminars for Law and Psychology, and exploited the writ of habeas corpus—in 1968 alone, he was “habed” six times to four different courts in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. His disciplinary reports began to drop off the next year, the year McDonald went free. He consented to therapy and pretended, avowed atheist though he was, to be a good Catholic by attending Mass and meeting with one of the three priests who had joined his parents in naively advocating for his release.  

The commissioner warned the enablers at home, repeatedly. “As I told you,” reads a letter to his father, “I am much more concerned about his desire to lead a law-abiding life in the community than I am about whether he has his freedom within the next few weeks or few months.” A letter written to his mother says much the same: “It would be of more help to him and to us if his parents would encourage him to conform to the rules and regulations.” Robichaud’s parents never let up; in 1969, their state senator got involved.

In June 1970, a parole summary urged caution. “Records indicate that subject has a violent nature and crime has become a way of life. If paroled, extreme supervision in all areas is highly recommended.” On December 2, his parole was denied. On December 14, he was discharged anyway.

By then he was a monster.

Joe McDonald (Illustration by Garry Brown)

Officer, can you help me?” A woman, or what appeared to be a woman, stood at the passenger-side window of a police car parked outside the Transit Café in South Boston. It was Robichaud, wearing a wig. Before the officer could respond, he climbed into the car and stuck a gun in his ribs. “I got you now.” Robichaud took the kidnapped officer to a house in the South End and kept him there for three days. He was making good on a promise after the two had had a run-in some weeks earlier. What happened in the house is unknown, though images of the captured cop tied to a chair in Reservoir Dogs come to mind.

Robichaud soon hooked up with a ring of armored-car thieves operating out of the 1310, a bar near Glover’s Corner in Dorchester. In April 1971, he was one of two dressed up like priests who held up a Brinks courier in Rhode Island. The take was $66,000, but he never had the patience to be a professional thief and proved it again that fall. He was running late to a meeting with a mafioso in the North End and pulled over at a Howard Johnson’s motel. As he hurried into the lobby to use the payphone, he saw someone already in the booth. He grabbed hold of the man, a 60-year-old Ford Motors executive from Detroit, and threw him bodily out of the booth. When the man started hollering, Robichaud went to his car, grabbed a Louisville Slugger, and struck his head in front of about 15 witnesses. The executive’s name? Woodhead.

Robichaud was charged with assault to commit murder and jumped bail. The problem of Woodhead hollering again, this time from the witness stand, prompted Robichaud to drive out to Detroit. He and two accomplices attached sticks of dynamite to the ignition of Woodhead’s car, but when Woodhead left his house to return to Boston to testify, a friend drove him to the airport. The next morning, his wife started the car. The explosion destroyed the garage and sent the hood of the car flying across the block. Mrs. Woodhead was left mangled and in shock; what was left of her legs had to be amputated, and she died a little more than a week later.

Robichaud, already a wanted man and now a woman killer, returned to Massachusetts. The chaos, and the heat, came with him.

Joe McDonald didn’t like chaos and didn’t need heat. He was in the middle of an interstate scheme involving a million dollars’ worth of rare stamps, and Robichaud’s return was sure to bring the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force snooping around Somerville, around Winter Hill.

Robichaud wasn’t even being careful. He got into an argument with a bartender in an East Cambridge café and started knifing him. When two police officers stopped him near Glover’s Corner, he beat the hell out of both, took their guns, and left them lying on the street. Rumor has it that he had another run-in at the Transit Café, this one with Whitey Bulger. Robichaud complained about the cook, and when Bulger defended the cook, Robichaud—who stood 6’2” and weighed 220 pounds—took a sizzling steak off the grill, bent Bulger over the counter, and stuck it down his pants.

Something had to be done, and everyone knew it. Winter Hill decided to deal with him diplomatically, so McDonald arranged a rendezvous with him. I was told that he handed Robichaud thousands in cash—an ostensible loan, with a condition attached: “Get out of town and lie low. Don’t come back.”

Rhode Island wasn’t far enough away, and Robichaud didn’t lie low enough. In May 1972, he stepped out of his car, and ten Pawtucket police officers surrounded him with guns drawn. When they booked and searched him, they were startled by what they saw. “The police said that Robichaud had been wounded several times recently, but it was not known how or when,” said the Boston Globe. “A bullet was still lodged in his right hand, detectives reported, and another in his upper chest. He had been shot at least four other times.”

I had to pause at that. I knew that Robichaud was a menace, even a monster, but shot six times and walking around with two bullets still in him? I met with my underworld contacts. One was 18 in 1972 and remembers Robichaud pulling over in a car and handing him $500. “Merry Christmas,” he said. Another has a rap sheet that goes back to the 1960s that’s marked “O.C.”—organized crime. He, too, was wanted for possession of explosives in the early 1970s, though he went out of his way to assure me that Robichaud was a lot worse than he was.

But no one could tell me who shot Robichaud or why. If they didn’t know, it was unlikely that I’d find anyone who did. The police hadn’t a clue, and the reporters on the crime beat had few contacts on the street beyond a few fringe hoodlums who’d say whatever you want for 20 bucks.

I got the name of the associate who accompanied Robichaud to Detroit with dynamite. A thief and murderer who stood 6’6”, he’s doing hard time somewhere in the South, I was told. He’s doing hard time, all right—I found him on death row in Raiford, Florida. I wrote to him three times and even sent a Christmas card. He has yet to write back. The likelihood that I’d get the facts about an unreported, unprosecuted underworld shooting that happened 50 years ago was nearing the vanishing point. In mid-October 2021, I rummaged through piles of research notes one more time. That was when I found out what happened.

It was after midnight, and four silhouettes were in a stolen car on a street near the North End. Robichaud was in the passenger seat, probably checking his gun. In the driver’s seat was the recipient of my letter to Raiford. Two others were in the back seat. My source said that Robichaud was there to murder a mafioso he’d been nursing a grudge against. In fact, my source was that mafioso; he’d gone through an intermediary to get to the driver, assuring him that killing a made man in the North End would be suicide for all concerned.

That night, the driver had a decision to make, and he made it.

“Give me the gun,” he said to Robichaud. “He won’t expect me to shoot him.”

Robichaud handed him the gun and then saw the barrel pointing at him. The driver shot him several times and booted him out of the car and onto the street. Before he could pull away, Robichaud, with blood pooling on his chest, got up and jumped back into the passenger seat.

“I’m still alive!” he said, wild-eyed. “Shoot me again! Shoot me again!”

He was laughing. The driver, wide-eyed, shot him again and Robichaud fell backward and tumbled out of the car. No one stuck around to see if he’d get up again. The driver jumped out and ran like hell was behind him. The two in the back seat frantically climbed over each other and did likewise. Bloody Robichaud was still breathing and ready for more; he just needed a minute.

He wouldn’t die, but he did get himself surrounded in Pawtucket and taken into custody. He was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to five-to-seven years in Rhode Island State Prison. Other indictments were coming, as was an extradition request from Michigan for dynamiting the Ford executive’s wife—a capital crime. Everyone breathed easier. Robichaud was finished. Or so they thought.

On September 20, 1972, he escaped. It was a public-relations disaster for law enforcement. Thirty-six detectives were assigned to shifts around the clock, and the search spanned New England, the Midwest, Florida, and Canada. A tip said that he was in Somerville, and a blizzard of badges descended on Winter Hill. Rhode Island and Boston police were kicking doors in, hauling in parolees, disrupting the rackets.

They got nowhere. Four days later, they were still at a loss. They had zero leads. “There have been no new sightings,” the assistant commander of detectives admitted to the Boston Herald late on the night of September 24.

At six the next morning, construction workers heading to work on the new interstate highway in Somerville found a corpse lying faceup in a grassy area off the Fellsway, near the Mystic River. An autopsy determined that the victim had been shot five times in the chest and once in the head. No identification was found in the pockets, and two rings and a gold wristwatch had not been taken. It was a gangland execution.

Fingerprints revealed that the dead man was John Robichaud, 32.

The hit was as hard as it gets. “He was bad news,” said the Middlesex County D.A. “He was usually prepared for anything. He wasn’t surprised very often, but he was in this case.” Robichaud was worse than bad news—he was the Boston underworld’s version of Michael Myers. Who could get to Michael Myers?

The police never found out. They never got close to finding out. His murder remains unsolved.

John Robichaud, 1972 (Illustration by Garry Brown)

Joe McDonald got to him. I was told how it happened, separately, by two who knew. I had questions, they had answers, and if they didn’t have answers, they had better theories than the police. My first question was around Robichaud’s reason for coming back to Somerville. Robichaud was sociopathic, not stupid. He’d been told to stay away because of the heat he was bringing, so why return?

“He was desperate,” I was told. “The whole world was looking for him. He reached out to Joe Mac.”

It made sense. Robichaud knew him from Walpole State Prison and through the 1310; they had very likely pulled armored-car heists together. It was McDonald who gave him the loan a few months earlier, and he knew of Joe Mac’s resources and his reach. What he didn’t know was that Winter Hill sent McDonald out for the hard hits.

The call came in on a payphone. McDonald would’ve kept it brief, put him at ease with a promise to help, and set a time and a place for a rendezvous. Robichaud came to the rendezvous armed. “Robichaud was always armed,” my source continued.

Joe and another man I won’t name were waiting in a boiler [a stolen car] when Robichaud got there. Why two? Because it’d be stupid to take chances with him. This hit had to be in the hands of real professionals, experienced guys who don’t make mistakes. I will tell you that the second guy, the driver, was solid; the same caliber as Joe Mac—100 percent reliable—and he worked armored-car jobs with Robichaud, so Robichaud knew him, too.

This is how it went down: Robichaud climbed into the back seat and moved to the middle so he could see both of the guys in the front seat. Joe was in the passenger seat. Joe was very smart; he’d get him thinking about tomorrow, get him assured that he has a tomorrow. He told him where the safe house was, what he should and shouldn’t do for a few months while things were taken care of, while he did what he could with his contacts. Then he reached down toward his feet. A paper bag stuffed with cash and a couple of phony IDs was there. A .32 was under the seat. Joe turned around. “Here. Take this,” and as the bag went up and Robichaud reached for it, the gun came up behind it.

He shot him in the chest first. That would’ve stiffened him up. Then came four more—bing, bing, bing, bing—all to the chest. The coup de grace was the one to the head. That was the driver did that. He had a .38. They dumped the body, then they dumped the boiler.

And off they went into the night.

My mind wandered back to a warning that Robichaud’s mother had received years earlier from the Massachusetts Commissioner of Corrections: “Constant defiance of authority of all forms can only lead to grief for himself and his loved ones.” Authority of all forms. It’s a curious way to put it.

The autopsy revealed much. Powder burns were on his body, which indicate that he was killed at point-blank range by someone he knew. Five .32 slugs were removed from his chest cavity. It was also determined that a .38 was used to shoot him in the left temple, and the bullet had gone straight through. Two guns. Two killers. They weren’t taking any chances.

That night, state police found a car parked on a sleepy street in Medford off the Mystic Valley Parkway, just a few miles north of where Robichaud was found. No fingerprints were in it, but a Medford police sergeant told reporters that a spattering of blood was on the back window, and the right side of the rear seat was soaked through. A bloodstained .38 slug was on the floor in the back, which told police that two weapons had been used, which meant that two persons were involved. My sources were spot-on.

“Joe Mac got him,” one said. Then he stared off for a moment, and his eyes went as blank and as dead as Robichaud’s. “He did the whole world a favor.”

He also sent a message to the whole criminal-justice system.

Three months earlier, in June 1972, Furman v. Georgia became the law of the land. The United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus incompatible with the Eighth Amendment. Georgie McLaughlin, a multiple murderer, was one of 631 whose death sentences were vacated. McDonald, who was all about just deserts, must have been outraged—he couldn’t get to McLaughlin, and now the system refused to. In Robichaud’s case, the system failed miserably. Robichaud got his just deserts only after he escaped from prison, from the system. I wondered if anyone saw the irony in it.

I couldn’t ask McDonald. He died in 1997. Natural causes. Last September, I was in the Halligan Club in Charlestown and wondering aloud. I was with a friend of his, who’d done time with him and Robichaud at Walpole. He was hoisting Budweiser’s “Freedom” cans left over from Memorial Day.

“Y’know where they found Robichaud?” he said.

“Yeah. Off the Fellsway in Somerville.”

“Off the Fellsway directly across from Somerville District Court. That’s where Robichaud’s corpse turned up,” he said. “Habeas corpus.”

Top photo: John Robichaud, 1972 (Illustration by Garry Brown)


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