The story had been my idea.
I was researching a feature on 1997 in Hamilton, Ontario, a year that included the gangland murder of Mafia giant Johnny Papalia at the hand of “hitman” Ken Murdock.
I thought, why not try to interview Murdock? He was out of prison.
I found a man under a different name on social media who lived out West. I thought it might be him.
And then I hesitated.
It’s the job, getting people to talk. Winning their trust, essentially bonding so they open up, can carry a cost.
Did I want to get inside the hitman’s head?
Maybe he would turn me down. That would not be a bad thing.
On a cold and desolate winter night, it didn’t seem to matter either way.
I wrote a message to the mystery person and asked one question: “This is a very long shot, but did you grow up in Hamilton?”
He wrote back: “Long shot … pun intended?”
Dark. Murdock shot people.
I interviewed him on the phone three times, lasting eight hours.
It started getting to me.
The protagonist in any story is inevitably elevated beyond the one-dimensional, and rewarded, if not necessarily with empathy, then some measure of understanding.
What weight do moments in a life carry when they are beyond the pale?
Murdock’s victims, or some of them, were among Canada’s most infamous criminals.
Johnny (The Enforcer) Papalia, for one, had lorded over organized crime in Hamilton, and then the entire province, in the 1950s and 1960s.
His dark legacy was such that in death, he was denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, even as the chancellor of the diocese said that only God could judge Papalia in the end.
But then Papalia, and the other victims, had wives, kids, extended family.
Murdock denied none of the violence attached to his name, but took issue with the “hitman” description.
A true hitman, he argued, is one who kills exclusively for money and is practised at the art of murder, and that was not him. At times he had been sloppy, and received vague agreements on payment, or had killed with no intention of getting paid.
“I am not a hitman; I know what a hitman is and I don’t fit the definition. If I was I’d either be rich or dead.”
I could hear a lighter flicking over the line, Murdock firing up a cigarette.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “the whole thing is, you never aspire to be anything like that.”
Eighteen-year old Ken Murdock received a phone call one night from his girlfriend. She lived in the upper city, on the Niagara Escarpment, known locally as the Hamilton Mountain. This was around 1980.
She told him that a boyfriend of her sister’s had just walked in on her, after she had a shower. She said she told him to stay out of her bedroom.
“And his words back to her were, ‘It’s nothing I haven’t seen before,’” says Murdock. “He just kept walking in.”
Murdock drove up from the lower city along with a buddy. They arrived near the house and he told the buddy to stay in the car. Murdock got out, carrying a bat.
He had recently started work as a bouncer at Bannister’s strip club downtown. Big John Akister, the ex-con who was like a surrogate stepfather to Murdock, knew the manager.
The guy owed Akister, so he sent Ken there to get a job as soon as he turned 18.
Murdock, who had been pumping stacks of iron in the gym, and training in boxing and martial arts, fit the part, but preferred diffusing situations without his fists.
At the same time, he had a short fuse with men.
There were some nights.
Once, a big menacing guy refused to stop touching a dancer. Murdock kept asking him to stop, and then he felt himself go quiet. This became Murdock’s pattern; the silence, and explosion.
He dropped the guy and dragged him out the door.
Later, as with many things, he didn’t feel good about what he had done.
“It was nothing worth bragging about, that’s for sure. I was never that guy. But it gets to a point where it’s not worth going any further to try and make things work. I just wanted to resolve the problem and be done with it.”
When he stopped working at Bannister’s he would hang at the club, socialize with dancers. When he wasn’t in a relationship he enjoyed having sex with them, in part because he knew them, felt they were good people, and there were no expectations. You never had to get close emotionally.
But he was in a serious relationship with his girlfriend, the night she called about the guy who walked in on her.
“You don’t do that to women. It’s inexcusable … He was a predator.”
Murdock beat the guy badly with the baseball bat that night. He was convicted for assault and served 90 days in Hamilton’s Barton Street jail.
It was his first time behind bars. It was an odd experience, but the more times he ended up in jail, the more he knew what to expect. Whether it went smoothly depended on who else was in with him.
There was the time a guy picked on a friend of Murdock’s inside, so Murdock beat him up badly in the courtyard.
At 19, he married his girlfriend. It did not last. He left her three times but kept coming back. He wasn’t home much, working two jobs, including one at the steelmaker Dofasco.
He went away smelt fishing one weekend and upon his return she asked if he was with another woman.
“And I never fooled around on anyone when I was committed.”
He left her a fourth time, and didn’t come back.
He slept in his car, and then lived out of a box, squatting in the staircase of an apartment building downtown. He would jimmy a door to access the sundeck, where he could wash himself. He drove each day to his job framing houses.
He didn’t want to ask his family for help.
“Probably the lowest point of my life.”
After he had left his wife, she gave birth to their daughter. She tried to get back together. He couldn’t do it, and couldn’t account for the reasons why.
Ever since he was a kid, Murdock had worked honest jobs. But the orbit in which he lived had presented other options, and his capacity for violence had become known.
He started doing street crime, including dealing cocaine, thanks in part to contacts made at the strip club.
Hamilton was a city that offered an additional avenue: organized crime.
What is the cause and effect? Is Murdock a criminal awaiting opportunity? Or does opportunity find in Murdock a candidate who is at once very strong and very weak?
In the early 1980s, a guy introduced him to the “social clubs” downtown, frequented by members of Hamilton’s crime families.
Murdock packed charisma in addition to toughness. He made friends.
One of the most notorious Mob families he met was the Musitanos.
The family patriarch was Angelo Musitano, who acquired the nickname “the Beast of Delianova” after shooting his sister in Delianova, a municipality in the Calabria region of Italy in 1937, because he believed she was pregnant out of wedlock. He also dragged her bleeding body through the streets to her lover’s house.
Murdock got to know the man’s nephews, Dominic and Tony Musitano. The three of them served time together in Barton Street jail: Murdock was in for robbery, Tony for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1983 death of Toronto mobster Domenic Racco, and Dominic for accessory after the fact in that homicide.
While Murdock didn’t care much for Tony, he was drawn to Dominic, who had known “the old man,” John Akister.
Dominic Musitano, a scrapyard owner 24 years Murdock’s senior, had become a powerful and respected figure in organized crime circles.
Dominic’s record included a seven-year sentence for a road rage incident in which he shot a Hamilton motorist who had irritated him by honking his horn.
Murdock had grown up never knowing his biological father, essentially raised by three stepfather figures, and his mercurial mother who beat him when she drank.
“Dominic wasn’t a flashy guy, he was kind of a family guy, and different from what I was used to. A humble dude, in one sense, and caring, which is kind of an oxymoron, I guess, in the business.”
In jail, Dominic asked Murdock to “look after the kids” when Murdock was on the outside. He meant his sons Pasquale (Pat), who was then in his mid-teens, and Angelo, who was a young boy.
The two sons would one day follow in their father’s footsteps, and have enemies packing long memories.
Murdock promised to protect them.
He killed for the first time on Nov. 21, 1985.
That night, two men picked Murdock up in a yellow Pacer, a two-door compact car with a rounded, glass-enclosed back end that was often likened to a fishbowl.
One guy was at the wheel, Murdock in the passenger seat, and the third acted as a spotter in the back.
They handed Murdock a submachine-gun. He had never fired an automatic weapon before.
The target was 53-year-old Salvatore (Sam) Alaimo, who worked as a janitor at Stelco, and who allegedly owed money to the Musitano family.
In recent weeks, Alaimo had erected steel fencing around his property in the core of the city, fitted wire mesh over his windows, and kept an iron bar under the seat in his car.
At about 5:30 p.m., the Pacer slowed in front of Alaimo’s house.
“We drove by at a distance and he’s in his garage. He’s a silhouette. As I shot, the gun bounced all over the door jam. I am by no means a marksman, that’s for damn sure. I wasn’t even trying to hit him, was kind of trying to shoot around him, like into the garage. The thing jumped around so much. I was just trying to make it look good for the guys in the car. I saw the silhouette fall, and we were gone.”
Murdock saw the headline in The Spectator the next day: “Hamilton man gunned down outside home.”
“It didn’t sit well with me at all. I felt shock. And I was afraid, ashamed. A whole plethora of emotions.”
Five shots were fired. The story said Alaimo died instantly from one bullet to the head.
A police officer suggested the victim was being blackmailed, and the shots were “a warning that went awry.”
“It didn’t sit well with me at all. I felt shock. And I was afraid, ashamed.”
Prior to that night, Murdock’s drug use had been limited to smoking oil and hash. But now he tried cocaine.
Coke helped scatter Murdock’s thoughts and keep images of the shooting out of his head. He continued to use.
He says payment for the hit had been discussed in advance: about $5,000. But he didn’t figure he would end up killing Alaimo, much less get paid.
In his way, he tried to make amends, he says, by contacting a Hamilton detective, and asking what might happen to someone who came forward with information about the homicide.
Murdock was fishing for a plea deal. He believes the police, on advice from the Crown prosecutor’s office, wanted more: names of all involved. It went no further. Murdock washed his hands of it.
In the months that followed, he spent time in Florida. Later, upon returning to Hamilton, he shot and wounded a man in the east end of the city. He says the man dealt drugs and had put a contract out on him.
“Someone was getting shot that night, is how I look at it. And he initiated it; as soon as he said to the chick in his house to get his gun, I shot him. It’s something you don’t want to do, but some people don’t understand anything but that way sometimes.”
Murdock then drove 40 minutes east to Niagara Falls that same night, to shakedown a guy who owed him money. In the guy’s kitchen, Murdock pulled a meat cleaver from a butcher’s block and hit him in the head with the dull end, knocking him cold.
“It was a pretty terrible night.”
When it was over, he slept in a penthouse Johnny Papalia owned on Market Street in downtown Hamilton. A guy he knew was minding the place.
The next night, Murdock checked-in at the Esquire Motel in Burlington next door to Hamilton, with plans to head to Toronto and then Montreal the next day.
Before the sun rose, he was face-down in the motel parking lot, surrounded by police, a rifle barrel pressed to the back of his head.
“I wasn’t running; I’m not a runner. I drove a Caddy Eldorado Biarritz that stuck out like a sore thumb. Parked it right in front of my motel door.”
Murdock says a Hamilton detective named Jack Sutton talked him out of the motel. Sutton had been one of the officers who used to come calling at the house in the beach strip neighbourhood where Murdock spent his chaotic childhood, checking up on John Akister.
“Jack said, ‘Ken do what I say and we won’t have a problem’ … Hamilton cops are good guys. They were doing their jobs, and always were respectful. I have zero complaints about them, with the exception of a few.”
Murdock was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for wounding with intent, and using a firearm in the commission of the offence.
He says the Crown wanted to convict him of attempted murder.
“I told the judge that if I wanted to kill him he would have been dead.”
Less than a year after his release, he joined two men in robbing a jewelry store in Burlington. Murdock knocked out the owner. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
“I told the judge that if I wanted to kill him he would have been dead.”
“I do not wish to continue like this,” he told a judge in court. “There may be some cases where people have to be locked up all the time … but I’m not one of those people, I’m not sick minded.”
In August 1995, once again a free man, Murdock sat in Hamilton’s Cathedral of Christ the King at the funeral for Dominic Musitano. He had died of a heart attack, at 57.
About 1,000 people paid respects that day, and Musitano received a full Catholic mass.
Standing in the cemetery for the burial, Murdock took note of plainclothes Hamilton police officers in the wings, taking pictures of mourners.
One year after that, in September 1996, Murdock lost John Akister.
It happened a few days after Murdock, who was about to turn 34, married for the second time.
He cut short his honeymoon in Muskoka because he had a bad feeling about Akister, who was ill with liver disease.
Soon after returning to Hamilton, Murdock had just ordered steak and eggs for breakfast with a friend at a restaurant when his mother called his cellphone.
She said Akister’s phone had been busy for days. Murdock paid the bill and they left without having a bite.
There was no answer at Akister’s apartment door when Murdock came knocking.
He called 911. A police officer arrived first, and asked: “Kenny, what’s going on?”
“And I said to him: ‘I think my father might be dead on the other side of the door.’”
“And he said, ‘So what are you thinking?’ And I said I want to boot the door. And he said, ‘What are you waiting for?’”
Murdock mule-kicked the door in. Akister was sprawled on the bed, dead.
It looked as though he had been trying to make a call; the phone was off the hook.
“My business card was in his hand. He was trying to call me.”
Murdock insisted on carrying Akister’s body down the stairs with his friend’s help, rather than risk paramedics mishandling the large man.
At that time, Murdock worked for a tow truck company. He was also still in the deep end of the pool of Hamilton’s underworld.
“You leave that life but keep coming back. People get to know who you are.”
Dominic’s sons, Pat and Ang Musitano, had grown up.
In 1996, Pat beat a charge of conspiracy to commit arson, in the aftermath of an attempt to blow up the historic Collins Hotel that he owned in nearby Dundas; placemats soaked in gasoline had been stuffed in toasters set on timers.
(A fraud and arson investigation launched by Hamilton police was called “Project Toast,” an effort, the Spectator reported, “to figure out why Musitano properties kept bursting into flames.”)
Pat Musitano’s name also became associated with bookmaking and environmental frauds.
In the spring of 1997, six months after Akister’s death, Pat Musitano met with Murdock.
According to Murdock, this is when Musitano, then 29, asked him to kill Johnny (Pops) Papalia.
Pat had been telling people he owed “The Enforcer” money, which put him in jeopardy.
“I’m a loyal guy, and my word means a lot to me,” says Murdock. “In my mind, at that time, I was protecting the kids, Pat and Ang. That was the crux of it, keeping my word to the father … I didn’t want to do it, but there was a lot involved. No. 1: John (Papalia) is John. So you know who he is, and what he represents. He has lots of friends, is a big guy. No one in their right mind would want anything to do with that. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
But Murdock had stalled in carrying out the hit. He made excuses: there are too many people around; he had been given the wrong address.
He wanted to chat with Papalia, figure out what was going on, maybe work something out.
Murdock sat with Pat Musitano at a table in The Gathering Spot, a downtown restaurant Musitano owned, on May 31, 1997.
It made him angry, how Musitano was getting on him about killing Johnny, acting like he was the boss, asking Murdock: “Why haven’t you done anything yet?”
Murdock drove home that afternoon to the east end where he lived with his wife.
Then he headed back downtown to Papalia’s business on Railway Street in the core.
He knocked on the door and introduced himself.
They went for a walk. Papalia handed Murdock a cigarette.
Small talk: Murdock mentioned John Akister, who Papalia had known.
Then Murdock lied to Papalia to gauge the reaction: Pat owes me money, Murdock said, adding that he was not pleased about it.
“Do whatever you have to do,” Papalia said.
Murdock thought that meant it was true what Pat was saying, that Papalia would ultimately come after Pat.
That put the nail in the coffin, he thought. This is the way it works.
“After he said that,” says Murdock, “I wasted no more time.”
He pulled a revolver from the waistband of his pants.
After the Papalia hit, Murdock received a large quantity of cocaine from Pat Musitano, but there was no contract in advance, he says.
And he would have done it for nothing.
“My thing was protecting the kids. There was no talk of money. I had planned a trip out to Winnipeg, and Pat gave me a couple thousand bucks, but it was just Pat being Pat: ‘This will pay for your trip.’ And I was like, ‘Thanks.’”
Angelo Musitano presented Murdock with a thick, square, gold ring. It had a diamond embedded and Murdock’s initials. Pat and Ang wore the same type of ring.
“That pissed off a few guys; Italian guys who had been around the family for years and all of a sudden Ken gets a family ring. It was no big deal. I never wore it. My thing is watches … I lost the ring, I don’t know where it is.”
One day, Murdock went to see a movie at a mall in Hamilton’s east end with Pat and Ang. He didn’t know what movie they were seeing; they entered the theatre through a side door Pat always used.
As Murdock settled in, the movie “Donnie Brasco” rolled. It was the true story of a Mafia infiltrator. In the first scene, Al Pacino references “wise guys,” or mobsters.
“I looked over at Ang — Pat was in front of us — and I said, ‘See ya, I’m gone.’ I didn’t want to watch a movie that glorified a rat, so I left. I mean, people got what they deserved, and that’s the way it goes. I get that part, but, at the time, I didn’t want to see the movie at all.”
Around the time of Papalia’s murder, there had been several other hits Murdock was asked to do, he says, including a request to machine gun a room full of Mob-linked men who met regularly at a Hamilton coffee shop.
“I was like, are you crazy? I actually know the guy who runs the goddamn coffee shop, he’s a good friend. And I’m not a nutbar.”
When he was assigned by a mobster to kill a man in Toronto — a man he knew — Murdock showed up at the guy’s office and told him: you’re supposed to go.
“He said, ‘Are you going to do it?’ And I said absolutely not, I’m just giving you a head’s up. The other side wasn’t too happy with me.”
As time passed after Papalia’s death, Murdock knew he might be a target himself.
Mourners had come to pay respects from Toronto, Montreal, the U.S. and Italy. A Mafia expert was quoted in the Spectator saying “The Enforcer’s” murder had “the same intensity as an earthquake of nine on the Richter scale.”
Murdock noticed shoe impressions in the grass at the side of his house.
Someone was watching him.
He told his wife she couldn’t live with him there any longer.
“That was the confusing part for her. We are both on the front lawn, basically both of us crying, but I can’t say nothing to her to explain. I didn’t play stupid with her, I just said: you have to leave.”
And then he heard that one of Papalia’s men had been talking openly about killing him.
“As soon as I heard that, I simply said we have to get him first. Like, you know what you’re dealing with, right? It’s either you or them. And I would much prefer it to be them, than me.”
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