NEW YORK (AP) – The mystery began when a Boston ex-con dropped dead on a New York train platform with a backpack stuffed with $180,000.
It has ended with the government getting most of the money.
The former bank robber-turned-aspiring-movie producer who tried to claim it is back to prison.
And the source of the money? Prosecutors won’t comment, but a defense attorney and a Philadelphia entertainment promoter say it was connected to a failed concert deal.
The 75-year-old bagman was William Coyman, a longtime resident of Boston’s Charlestown section who had been a fixture at a union local once known for organized crime ties and for shaking down movie producers in New England. He died of a heart attack in New York City.
Just what Coyman was doing with so much cash was unclear. His family told investigators he had been delivering the money for a company called 180 Entertainment, which listed a Philadelphia home as its business address.
Federal prosecutors went to court in February and asked to keep the money, saying they suspected it was related to narcotics trafficking. They had little hard evidence, except that a drug-sniffing dog had detected something in Coyman’s luggage. But they cited Coyman’s decades-long criminal record, which included prison time for a department store heist.
Another Charlestown native and ex-con, Joseph Burke, filed legal papers claiming the cash.
Now 48, Burke went to prison in 1988 after admitting to sticking up at least 18 banks and armored cars in several states. He got more time tacked onto his sentence when he was caught trying to organize a cocaine ring from behind bars. He was finally released on a combination of probation and parole in 2010.
When The Associated Press first wrote about Coyman and his mysterious $180,000 package in May, Burke’s lawyer declined to tell the AP what the cash was for or where it was headed.
He also wouldn’t discuss 180 Entertainment. But public records show that the company’s business address was a house owned by a friend of Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, the onetime boss of the Philadelphia Mafia. Merlino and Burke were incarcerated together at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., in 2009 and 2010.
Last month, a federal court in New York approved a settlement in which Burke agreed to forfeit $143,984 of the money found on Coyman. He got to keep the remaining $35,996. Federal prosecutors in New York declined to comment on the settlement.
No criminal charges were filed in connection with the cash, but Burke was sentenced to eight months in jail for violating the terms of his probation.
His offense: In March, Burke flew to Europe to meet with another old prison buddy, Zvonko Busic, a Croatian nationalist who served 32 years for hijacking a jet and planting a bomb that killed a New York City police officer.
In a brief interview with the AP last week, Burke’s lawyer, Steven DiLibero, insisted there was nothing nefarious about his client’s visit to the former terrorist, now 66. The men had simply become close friends in prison.
Burke and Busic were both in the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., from 1989 to 1995, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They also spent time together at the prison in Terre Haute from 2007 to 2008, when Busic was paroled.
A more complete explanation of the trip came from Burke’s partner in 180 Entertainment, Anthony Fedele.
Fedele, a former business associate of the late Philadelphia music producer Stephen Epstein, told the AP in a phone interview Tuesday that he was interested in transitioning into the movie business, and had gotten interested in Burke after hearing about him from Merlino, a longtime friend.
The two talked. Fedele was impressed. They decided to make movies together and thought that Busic would make a good film subject.
“This guy has a great story. And it would be a great story to get out there,” Fedele said. “It has love, romance, tragedy, triumph, you name it.”
In 1976, Busic, his American-born wife and two accomplices seized a TWA jet leaving New York and ordered it to fly to Paris in an attempt to draw attention to Croatian nationalists who wanted independence from communist Yugoslavia.
The hijackers used fake dynamite to take the jet, but the group also had put a live explosive in a locker in Grand Central Terminal. The device later detonated accidentally while police officers were examining it at bomb squad facility in the Bronx, killing a police officer.
Fedele said Burke had persuaded Busic to give them the film rights to his story.
Unfortunately, the ex-con never cleared the trip with his probation officer. The investigation into Coyman’s death caused additional complications.
As for the $180,000 in cash, Fedele insisted it was not drug money and didn’t have anything to do with organized crime or with Merlino.
Burke had been working on a concert-promotion deal, but it had fallen through, and he was trying to return the cash to a North Carolina business associate, said Fedele and DiLibero, Burke’s lawyer.
Why didn’t Burke just send a check?
“He went to jail when he was 23, so, his process is … He does things the way he would have done them back then,” Fedele said. “Joe has a primitive way of thinking.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons said Burke’s projected release date is December. Fedele said he still hopes to find a producer willing to make an independent film about Busic, although he acknowledged that any movie about a protagonist responsible for the death of a police officer is a challenge.
“There are some sensitive things. I’m figuring it out,” he said.
As for Burke, Fedele said, “He’s going to be out in a few weeks, and we’re going to get back to work.”
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