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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Thursday, September 26, 2002  
A Cautionary Tale

For a number of years the most popular caller on Boston sports radio was a fellow known as "Butch from the Cape." He cultivated a raffish air of mystery as to his background and whereabouts: The suggestion was he had ties to the wise guys. He was tremendously funny, calling in to the talk shows daily to deliver, in a Bronx sneer, brilliant comic riffs on the sports news of the day. He became a fixture on the airwaves, a familiar personality to millions of loyal listeners. When he died last year after a publicized battle with cancer, the news was greeted with an outpouring of grief.

But then, after his death, a story in the Hartford Courant (see below) revealed Butch from the Cape, in real life, had been a scam-artist and confidence man who had bilked scores of gamblers in sports-betting schemes. His last and most far-reaching con had been to invent himself anew for millions of radio listeners.

He had created an entire persona for himself, and become like a member of the family to sportswriters and radio listeners who sang his praises and considered him a friend – but who, in few if any cases, really knew anything about him at all.

The point is, you may think you know personalities on the airwaves – or in cyberspace – but all you really know is what's presented to you. You may think you know someone based on the persona he or she presents on the Internet. But how well do you really know a virtual friend?

Trust but verify, Ronald Reagan once said about the Soviets. It's good advice, too, in Blogistan.

October 18, 2001 Thursday, 7 SPORTS FINAL

LENGTH: 1463 words


BYLINE: By EDMUND H. MAHONY; Courant Staff Writer

Tommy Speers, ace con man, had moves so slick the police never really figured out whom he worked for. That goes some distance toward portraying Speers' skills as a swindler, because for 20 years or so, he was supposed to be working for the cops.

He was a gambler who called what he did "ripping" people. His theory of the sports bet was simple: Bet often. Collect when you win. Never pay when you lose. That, of course, was easier said than done.

But it worked for Speers until the bitter end Wednesday when he died at 58. He beat the mob, he almost always beat the police and he beat a sad line of suckers from Poughkeepsie to Cape Cod. And for the last decade, he beat thousands of sports radio fans in eastern Massachusetts.

Thomas W. Speers lost the one that counts at 4:10 a.m. Wednesday, in bed with his family beside him in his newest home on Cape Cod. It was a hard, nearly two-year fight with renal cancer.

But as always with Speers, you never got what you thought you were getting. He left his last scam intact. At the end of a life-long rip, the sports airwaves in Boston were filled with accolades for the man radio callers knew only as the mysterious "Butch from the Cape." Boston sportswriters were writing tributes to the most brilliant, perceptive, caustic, hilarious sports commentator ever.

If they knew the real Butch -- the one who terrorized bookmakers and police officers in Connecticut for decades -- they never wrote about him.

Speers lived his final decade or so at the elbow of Cape Cod in a condominium paid for by his victims. He arrived there on parole from a Connecticut gambling charge. It wasn't long before he did what he had done so successfully over a career of hooking marks: He fashioned a brand new persona. It was swallowed with equal enthusiasm by wiseguys on the Cape and the sporting crowd in Boston.

According to his new story, Speers was a New York Yankee fan and would-be writer from some unspecified upstate New York town, forced by bad breaks into life as a saloon owner. It was a slippery step from the saloon to the bookies, Speers told his new friends in Massachusetts. He told them he got caught gambling, did a short stretch in a New York jail. But there were never any details. For Boston sportswriters, Speers' last name was "none of your business." Speers was a man trying to hide a mysterious past, something he knew would only add to his allure to those in sports radio land.

"Not many people can lay claim to be being the best at anything," a writer with the Boston Herald wrote last week as Speers' life neared its end. "Butch, 58, is the best talk-show caller there is, probably the best there ever was. In many ways, he defined the art, combining a caustic sense of humor with an iconoclastic sense of mischief."

An Associated Press sportswriter reported Wednesday that when Butch from the Cape spoke into the radio, Nomar Garciaparra became "No Arm," Rick Pitino was "Coach Pinocchio," and Drew Bledsoe was either "Drew Bozo" or "Nancy Drew," depending on his mood.

When the news broke in sports radio land that Speers was suffering from a probably fatal disease, he told an interviewer: "Maybe I've got Red Sox cancer, the kind everybody beats."

Speers certainly was good on the radio; program hosts fought over him to promote their shows. He was good at a lot of things. His old handlers in the Connecticut State Police used to call him brilliant, until he started setting fire to their careers. But they remember him a little differently in Waterbury where he grew up.

In Waterbury they will tell you that the closest Speers ever came to owning a bar in upstate New York was nearly getting buried under the parking lot of a joint outside of Poughkeepsie. The bar owner was a connected wiseguy who caught Speers trying to run off on a losing bet.

For a guy who worked the wrong side of the law, Speers was uncharacteristically smart, funny, engaging and captivating. A generation of state troopers still talks about his stories about his life in crime. About a decade ago, just before he left Connecticut for good, he was handicapping football games for the guards at the Brooklyn Correctional Center. Speers was serving a short gambling sentence -- his last.

Speers has claimed that it was his first bet -- or more accurately, the fact that he won -- that put him on the wrong side of the law. He laid down $13 to win $10 on the San Francisco Giants in 1961. But it is far more likely that associates will place the beginning of Speers' notoriety at his brief dalliance with the newspaper business.

During a number of interviews in the 1980s, Speers said he was hired by the newspaper in Waterbury to collate sports scores delivered to the newsroom by wire services. He was fired when the editors discovered he was doctoring the scores to cover bets he made with local bookies.

Tossed out of the news business, Speers embarked on a career that terrorized bookmakers and sports bettors in Connecticut for more than two decades. This is how he said it worked: He would assume a false identity. A favorite was "Terry Conlon," a banker new to the state. Then he set out to ingratiate himself with a bartender or bookmaker or anyone else who looked willing to take a bet.

He bet small to begin with, paying when he lost and collecting when he won. But as his credit increased with whoever was taking the bets, Speers raised the limit. Eventually, the bet was $5,000 or $10,000, a big sum in the 1960s and '70s. If Speers won, he collected. If he lost, he disappeared. It wasn't long before a lot of people in a lot of saloons were looking for Terry Conlon, a bespectacled banker in a conservative suit.

Sports betting wasn't Speers' only game. While still living in Wolcott, he once passed himself off as a liquor store owner from the Cape. He told his mark in Naugatuck that his liquor business was such a bust that he set it on fire in a successful insurance fraud.

Speers offered the greedy mark the surviving inventory at a discount -- if the mark could provide the up-front money to cover "expenses." When the day of delivery arrived, Speers appeared without the goods. He carried with him a newspaper clipping reporting that the state police had impounded a shipment of bootleg liquor on I-84 the night before.

Using his newspaper experience, Speers had impersonated a state trooper and called a rural news bureau with a news release about an illegal liquor shipment. The fake story about the liquor bust was published.

Speers came to the attention of the Connecticut State Police in the early 1970s, about the time the agency was creating a new organized crime squad. He became the first informant, Number 01. But it wasn't long before confusion developed over whom Speers was really working for.

In a series of interviews before his death, Speers said that he would report to his handlers that he had stumbled upon a bookmaker who was taking action. Usually, he said, the state police instructed him to place bets to build a case for a bookmaking arrest. In the meantime, Speers said he kept whatever money he won. When he had enough evidence -- usually after losing a big bet -- Speers handed the bookie over.

But in many cases, Speers said, he didn't find the bookmakers himself. Rather, mobsters would direct Speers to bookmakers who weren't paying the Mafia for permission to operate.

The beginning of the end of Speers' relationship with the state police occurred in 1973. A meeting to settle a dispute between Speers and a gambler in Danbury got out of hand. When it was over, one of the gambler's two enforcers was dead. The state police covered the meeting to protect Speers and became involved in a shootout. A medical examiner's report later concluded that the enforcer shot himself in the head. There were many in law enforcement at the time who did not believe an enforcer would shoot himself to avoid arrest.

Former Chief State's Attorney Austin McGuigan began arguing that Speers should be cut loose as an informer. The state police resisted, perhaps because as many as 60 percent of their gambling arrests were based on information provided by Speers. McGuigan eventually lost his job as a result of continuing disagreements with the state police.

By the late 1980s, Speers had become too notorious to ignore and police in Waterbury arrested him on gambling charges. Speers was eventually convicted and served a brief sentence at the correctional center in Brooklyn. But before the case was over, Speers' lawyer was charged with trying to improperly influence the judge.

At the time, Speers said he was enraged by the arrest.

"I'm not content to just walk away from this," he said. "What with all the exposure and mental anguish I've had to live with."


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