Gang Said to Have Been Vanquished in ’80s Makes Cameo in Extortion Case
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
Published: December 2, 2012
When federal prosecutors accused three men of a loan-sharking scheme last week, the authorities vividly described how the men used threats of violence to ensure that they would be repaid.
One debtor reported that someone fired a gun at his car as he was backing out of his driveway in Queens, according to court filings. Another debtor said two of the men, Daniel Hanley and his associate, would display firearms when he met with them to pay back a piece of what he owed.
But the most tantalizing accusation was not of violence but of affiliation: prosecutors described Mr. Hanley, 47, as a member of the Westies, the Irish-American gang in Hell’s Kitchen that specialized in extortion and in dismembering their victims.
When Mr. Hanley, who is in federal custody in the case charged with extortion, heard that he was being labeled a member of the Westies, “he was incredulous,” said his lawyer, Marion Seltzer.
She added, “It’s hard to be a member of an organization that no longer exists.”
The federal authorities claimed in 1988 that they had vanquished the organization, so the government’s assertion that the gang was still a going concern has added a twist to a case that otherwise would most likely have attracted little notice.
T. J. English, the author of a book about the gang, “The Westies,” described as “totally absurd” any claim that the Westies still existed.
The leadership of the organization, Mr. English said, was taken down in a trial in the late 1980s. Soon after the gang lost its key figures like James Coonan, its leader, to prison, it lost its turf on the West Side of Manhattan to gentrification.
“The environment that gave rise to the Westies is totally altered and changed,” Mr. English said. “Hell’s Kitchen of 2012 is not the same Hell’s Kitchen of 1975 or 1985.”
“The whole cultural framework” has changed, he said.
But he said the government might “throw it into the press release and stir things up.”
Indeed, the headline of the news release about the arrests that was issued by the United States attorney’s office mentioned the Westies.Irene Hanley, Mr. Hanley’s wife, also characterized the government’s claim that her husband was a member of the Westies as absurd.
“It’s absolutely baffling to us,” she said in a brief telephone interview. “I haven’t heard of the Westies in years. They all must be dead by now.”
Mr. Hanley’s ties, if any, to the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen remain unclear.
His wife said that he grew up in Queens and that the family had lived in TriBeCa for two decades before moving to Cliffside Park, N.J., in recent years.
Mr. Hanley served a prison term for robbery in the mid-1980s, according to prison records; details of that crime were not immediately available.
The government’s claim of Mr. Hanley’s gang affiliation appears toward the bottom of a letter by an assistant United States attorney in Brooklyn requesting that the court order Mr. Hanley and his two co-defendants held without bail.
“According to a witness, defendant Daniel Hanley is a member of the Westies,” says the court filing, signed by the federal prosecutor, SreeVamshi C. Reddy.
Robert Nardoza, the spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, declined to comment further.
A law enforcement official said Mr. Hanley had described himself as a member of the Westies to one of the victims.
It was the second time in a year that rumors of the gang’s continued existence had received widespread attention.
An article in The New York Post in February declared, “The Westies are back,” after a nephew of two one-time Westies members was arrested last December, with the authorities saying he had been unloading nearly 250 pounds of marijuana from a private plane.
But the government’s court papers in that case did not mention the Westies, and the nephew’s lawyer said his client had no affiliation with the group. The nephew, John Bokun, who is in his early 30s, has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Gerald L. Shargel, the defense lawyer who represented Mr. Coonan, the Westies’ leader, at trial 25 years ago, contested the idea that the Westies were ever an organized gang.
“The Westies historically were just a bunch of tough guys on the West Side of Manhattan, and it was convenient for the police to label them as Westies,” Mr. Shargel said, adding, “There were no made members, no ranks, no structure.”