Updated: Tuesday, 08 Nov 2011, 9:22 PM EST
Published : Sunday, 19 Dec 2010, 7:33 PM EST
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A few months after Jack White died in October 2005, his wife gave their son Tim a box filled with assorted items from her husband's long career as an investigative reporter. It was one of many boxes the elder White had accumulated over nearly four decades as a newsman.
Buried in the box was a torn, yellowed envelope addressed to the Cape Cod Times, where White had worked in the early 1980s. It was from a "Robert Dempsey," and the return address was a prison in Colorado.
"I knew right away," Tim White recalled last week. "I made the connection right away."
As it turned out, Dempsey was the name the federal government had given Robert Dussault, the lead gunman in the epic 1975 Bonded Vault robbery, a key event in the postwar history of the New England Mafia. Jack White had spent more than a decade writing a never-published book about the heist, but neither he nor anyone else here knew what had happened to Dussault, whose testimony helped convict the others.
Finding that envelope, Tim White said, "was quite literally the key that unlocked the door."
Now, after spending more than three years following a trail of evidence that led from New England to North Dakota, and interviewing close to 100 people with knowledge of the crime, White and his two collaborators will unveil their findings in a television special this Friday at 5:30 p.m. on WPRI 12.
But the story behind the story is almost as interesting.
Working with two retired Providence Journal reporters – Randall Richard, his father's old partner, and Wayne Worcester, now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut – White painstakingly pieced together the story of the 35-year-old heist and its aftermath.
At the same time, the project offered White the opportunity to honor the memory of his father, whose job he took over in 2006.
"I think there's a certain amount of me that wants to see this through for Dad, because he knew it was a good story," he said. "I don't want to say he didn't see it through – he did a series that was excellent, it exposed everything. But I think there was a level of disappointment. He had unfinished business."
'The pit bull on the mailman'
Five years after his passing, Jack White remains a legend in Rhode Island's close-knit journalism community, remembered for his generosity as a friend and colleague in addition to his dogged reporting on organized crime and public corruption.
"He came across as a tough, solid guy," said M. Charles Bakst, who retired in 2008 as The Providence Journal's political columnist. "But not a mean guy – a very fair guy. A guy who couldn't be made to cower."
Jack White won a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 32 for his 1973 Providence Journal-Bulletin story revealing President Nixon's underpayments to the IRS. Nixon responded by saying "I'm not a crook" – then paying $476,000 in back taxes.
White later moved from print to television, winning two Emmy Awards as an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. And he had more sources than a Ph.D. dissertation.
"People had an enormous respect for him," said Scott MacKay, the dean of the Rhode Island press corps, who is now a political analyst at public-radio station WRNI. MacKay spent years working with White on WPRI's "Newsmakers" and served as a pallbearer at his funeral.
"He was a very aggressive guy, and he worked really hard," MacKay said. "He was someone who, if he got his teeth into you, he was like the pit bull on the mailman. He was relentless, and he was tough, and he was a smart guy."
'The hottest story around'
White was in his fifth year at the Journal-Bulletin on Aug. 14, 1975, the day a group of gunmen broke into 148 oversized safe-deposit boxes at the Bonded Vault Co.
The next day's front-page story by Wayne Worcester pegged the take from the brazen heist at $2 million. And curiosity about it only grew as it became clear the robbery was likely linked to organized crime.
Bonded Vault was "the hottest story around here in a long time," Jack White told the author John C. Behrens in an interview for the latter's 1977 book about investigative journalism, "The Typewriter Guerrillas."
"You have to remember, at that time the mob was much more of a presence in Rhode Island – certainly much more of a topic of conversation," Bakst said. "They had very colorful characters like the Patriarcas, the father and son, and a gun named Nicky Bianco. It was really a different era."
White's editors asked him and his partner, Randall Richard, to see if they could dig up more information about Bonded Vault. White had been named head of the paper's first permanent investigative team the previous year.
Within two days the pair had obtained a confidential list of the safe-deposit boxes' owners, "and we were off from there," White told Behrens. "We worked the story, dug out a lot of information and so impressed people who were involved that they ultimately became our sources."
Cianci, police chief both scoff
White and Richard continued to break news about the robbery over the months that followed. "We said very early that it was a multimillion-dollar job, that the lead man might want to make a deal and that there was a connection between the robbery and organized crime," White told Behrens. All of that turned out to be correct.
A Nov. 1 exclusive in the Journal-Bulletin quoted "reliable law enforcement sources" as saying the take from the heist was well over $2 million, not the $105,000 police were still claiming. The story also said the theft "had ties to top organized crime figures."
That article caused an outcry. Attorney General Julius Michaelson asked White and Richard to meet with him to discuss it – and to bring their notes. Providence Police Chief Walter McQueeney called for them to be subpoenaed and hauled before a grand jury. Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, then in his first term, held a news conference to say he believed the First Amendment did not protect the reporters, adding that he doubted their accuracy anyway.
But the officials quickly backed down. "Whatever they learned from law enforcement sources, we already know," Michaelson said, according to an Associated Press account at the time. "I can't conceive that two reporters know more about the investigation than this office."
McQueeney continued to question their reporting, though. "We have no evidence to substantiate that the robbery was anywhere near $2 million," the police chief said. It turns out he was right, if inadvertently – the haul was actually far higher than that, perhaps as much as $30 million, according to the new findings in Friday's special.
Mob fears force police escort
White and Richard's tenacious reporting apparently put them in danger, too.
Law enforcement apprehended Robert Dussault, the lead gunman, in Las Vegas on New Year's Day 1976, and brought him back to Rhode Island to testify against the others he'd fingered for their roles in Bonded Vault. The two investigative reporters decided to travel to his hometown of Lowell, Mass., to learn more.
White and Richard were talking with officers in the detective division of the Lowell Police Department when the phone rang. It was Fred Smith from the AP's Boston bureau, asking whether "those two reporters from Providence are there."
The problem was, the AP didn't employ a reporter named Fred Smith. But a local businessman by that name had been killed by the mob a few months before and then, in White's words, "cut into small pieces." Moreover, the only person who knew White and Richard were in Lowell was their direct editor.
The Lowell detective told the caller he didn't know whether the two were there but would check. When "Fred Smith" called back and was told he'd have to talk with the chief detective, he hung up.
The officers decided not to take any chances.
"The Lowell police gave us a two-car escort out of town," White later told Behrens. "A Massachusetts state trooper picked us up outside of town and took us to the state line. A Rhode Island state trooper met us there and escorted us to the Journal building.
"Of course, if they want to get us they will," he added. "But everyone felt it best that night to at least get us back to Providence OK."
Book never came to fruition
The first Bonded Vault trial in 1976 stretched on for eight months. It was the longest trial in Rhode Island's history, as well as the costliest at more than $200,000 – around $750,000 in today's dollars. Dussault was the star witness, and his testimony mirrored White and Richard's Journal-Bulletin stories.
"When the man took the stand to turn state's evidence in the bail hearing for the other defendants he made us look pretty good," White said later.
In fact, Dussault said so much already known to White and Richard that the paper held back their major six-part series on the robbery until after the trial for fear it might otherwise taint the proceedings. It finally ran in January 1977.
Two years later, Jack White left the Journal to make his first go at a television career, joining WBZ-TV. It wasn't a good fit, and in 1981 he returned to print with the Cape Cod Times. White remained there until 1985, when he began his 20 years at WPRI.
Amid those changes, White and Richard also continued to chip away at the Bonded Vault story with the goal of turning it into a full-length book. They accumulated boxes and boxes of material and wrote draft after draft.
But they never wrote the ending. True crime was a tough sell in the mid-1980s, and the pair's agent in New York wanted them to turn the story into a fictional account, something they were dead set against doing.
White grew tired of the back-and-forth, and eventually he set Bonded Vault aside for good. The book was never published. "He only returned to it over the dining room table and us talking about it," his son recalled. "He never returned to it as a formal project, nor did Randy."
'Casey hit by the bat'
One person who didn't tire of it was Tim White, Jack's youngest son, who was born the same year his father won the Pulitzer Prize. He'd been fascinated by the Bonded Vault story since his father first shared it with him – as a bedtime story.
"Normal kids got the story of Casey at the bat; I got the story of Casey hit by the bat," Tim quipped, and Bonded Vault "was kind of the zenith of all those stories."
Little Timothy was barely out of diapers when he got the opportunity to meet Robert Dussault in person – at, of all places, a parade in Newport he was attending with his father and brothers.
Dussault was in the Witness Protection Program at the time, but he'd returned to Rhode Island to testify in a trial. He walked up to Jack White, who'd interviewed him for his Journal-Bulletin stories, and struck up a conversation.
Tim White still marvels at Dussault's chutzpah: "Here's a guy who was so charismatic that he convinced detectives to bring him to a parade that he wanted to go to, even though he was in the Witness Protection Program."
That experience helped keep the younger White interested in Bonded Vault as he was growing up. He made his father retell the story to him countless times. As a teenager he pestered his dad to finish the book project, to no avail.
At 18, Tim enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His father was dead set against his son following him into the news business, so instead Tim majored in communications, which included a concentration in screenwriting. He wound up writing a full-length movie script about Bonded Vault, a project that got him curious about what had happened to Dussault.
And despite Jack's admonitions, Tim soon went into the TV news business, quickly rising through the ranks behind the scenes at WBZ in Boston. He couldn't resist.
"Dad just made it so damn interesting," he said.
'Gambling, booze and hookers'
On Oct. 12, 2005, Jack White died of a sudden heart attack. His death at the age of just 63 shocked everyone who knew him and many who didn't.
"He was really respected by the people that you have an adversarial relationship with, which made him so successful – I kind of envy him for that," said Mike Stanton, who has been on The Providence Journal's investigative team since 1991 and is a Pulitzer winner himself. "He wasn't loathed and hated. That's why, I think, he was always finding things out."
Within a year, WPRI decided to hire Tim White to succeed his father. The decision surprised no one more than Tim – reporting on air "wasn't something I was really dying to do at all," he said – but it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
During that same period, White found the letter from Robert Dempsey in Colorado. He began running the name through the federal inmate system. By the end of 2006, he'd found someone in Colorado who remembered the former prisoner and had documentation showing Dempsey and Dussault were one and the same. ("You summarize it in 30 seconds, but it took months to get to this point," he noted.)
The individual also had news: Dussault was dead.
"I remember feeling disappointed," White said. "It would've been fun to have interviewed him." Then again, the news wasn't really a surprise. "This was no health nut. He lived a pretty poor lifestyle. He really liked gambling, booze and hookers."
White's next target was the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Eventually – and there were a lot of "eventuallys" over three-plus years' research – he got a woman on the phone who knew the name of the coroner who'd buried Dussault/Dempsey. The coroner told White to contact the Thompson-Larson Funeral Home in North Dakota.
After considerable cajoling, the funeral director sent White a video of Dussault/Dempsey's burial service. Armed with proof that Dussault was dead, White made a formal request for the dead man's FBI file in April 2007.
He also reached out to Randall Richard, his father's old partner, and Wayne Worcester, who wrote the first Journal-Bulletin story on Bonded Vault right after the robbery. Richard had retired after a career at The Journal and the AP, while Worcester was teaching journalism. White convinced them to return to the story they'd started working on when their new partner was still an infant.
A race against time
The wait for Dussault's FBI file dragged on through 2007. And 2008. And 2009.
"Once you get the Department of Justice involved, particularly under the Bush administration, things moved very, very slowly," White said.
Then, out of the blue, White received a letter from a Justice Department lawyer inquiring whether he was still interested in obtaining Dussault's file considering what a long time had elapsed since his original request. It didn't include a phone number to contact the lawyer, but White tracked one down and called to make clear that oh yes, he was still interested.
More months passed. Finally, just after the start of this year, a package arrived at WPRI from the Justice Department.
"It sounds weird considering the context of this conversation, but when it came I was like, 'What the hell is this?' " White said. "It came out of the blue. And I opened it up, and I remember I was in the newsroom and I let out a: 'Oh my God!' "
It was Dussault/Dempsey's FBI file – 364 pages of it. (The feds refused to release 15 more.) The contents confirmed much of what White and his colleagues' reporting had found, and dovetailed with information they were receiving from other sources.
What surprised White most, though, was that only about half the 364 pages were about Bonded Vault. The rest chronicled the many crimes Dussault had committed throughout the U.S. while officially under the protection of the federal government.
The file also added to the already long list of individuals White, Richard and Worcester had to interview.
Some tongues had been loosened by the passage of decades. Others remained wary of divulging what they knew; it took five interviews before one source revealed the existence of a crucial videotape from the early 1980s showing Dussault speaking to Providence police cadets about the robbery.
The three were partly in a race against time, as a growing number of those directly involved with the decades-old crime passed away. To take one example, they interviewed former District Court Judge Albert DeRobbio Sr., the chief prosecutor in the Bonded Vault trial, just a week before his death in late 2008.
The interviews took the trio far from Rhode Island. They returned to Lowell and cold-called Dussault's relatives. Richard flew to Las Vegas to search for Dussault's old girlfriend, who was a prostitute. (White laughed, "I always joked with my wife, 'Hey, Randy and I have to go to Vegas to find a hooker.' ")
Another law-enforcement source led them to Joseph Danese, one of the gunmen, who remains in prison under an assumed name for an unrelated crime. They interviewed Danese by phone at the home of the source, an ex-cop who'd kept in touch with him.
Danese "was unbelievable," White said. "He just doesn't care anymore, and he told us that he and another guy were placed into the group specifically to steer testimony away from [Raymond L.S.] Patriarca" – the notorious Mafia boss.
'Bittersweet' for Tim without Jack
Last month, not long after the 35th anniversary of the heist, the trio previewed their findings with a segment during the late newscasts on WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. It stretched out to an unheard-of seven minutes, and topped the ratings.
"The reaction has been far more than I expected as far as the level of interest – the viewership, the readership online," White said. "And believe me when I tell you that if people don't like a story you've done, you hear about it," he added.
The next milestone is Friday's TV special. And, having finally finished the book begun when Jack White was still alive and abandoned when Tim White was a teenager, the three are now shopping it around to publishers.
White said that while he likely wouldn't have been driven to pursue the Bonded Vault project if his father hadn't died, it's "bittersweet" that he can't share the final results with him.
"I like to think that he would have been thrilled to see this thing through," White said. "And I think we did see it through, even if I never hold the book in my hands."
Scott MacKay, for one, has no doubt what Jack White would think of his son's work.
"He's looking down from somewhere," MacKay said, "and he's damn happy."
Ground rules for posting comments: No profanity or personal attacks. Please comment on the subject of the story itself. If you do not follow these rules, we will remove your post. Keep it civil, folks!
Our commenting section is powered by IntenseDebate. If you registered for an account but didn't receive a verification e-mail, check your spam folder or click here for more information. For additional technical help, click here.