It was 6 p.m., Nov. 2, 2010. The early darkness was overspreading the houses and Gibbens Street in Somerville was empty. A red Honda Accord was parked by the curb, and at either end of the street and in the parking lot across from the house, four police officers and a federal agent were waiting for the driver of the Honda to appear.
Somerville Police Sergeant Joe McCain Jr., a 48-year-old detective, was sitting in his unmarked car half a block away when his colleague, Detective Mario Oliveira, said over the radio: “He’s coming out.’’
Throwing the car into gear, McCain had no way of knowing that not only was he about to rush into a life or death situation, but that it would be remarkably similar to one his late father, also a police detective named Joe McCain, experienced more than 20 years earlier.
In both instances, one of the first people to hear what had happened was Helen McCain, 75, a blunt, opinionated, and cheerful woman who had been a cop’s wife or mother for the past 50 years. “Am I going to have to go through this again?’ ’’ Mrs. McCain asked herself. “He’s my only son. He’s my only child.’’
As young Joe flew across the intersection that November night, skidding to a halt 30 feet from the suspect’s Honda, Matthew Krister, 21, had just gotten into the car. Almost immediately, Oliveira and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Brian Higgins, 37, reached the driver’s side door and yanked it open.
Krister knew Oliveira and Higgins. Less than two weeks earlier, Krister had met with the two men at the Somerville police station. During that interview, according to a report by the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Krister admitted that he had recently purchased eight handguns in New Hampshire and had sold six of them to gang members.
Krister told police he’d cooperate by identifying the gang members, but then he disappeared and eluded police for several days. “I gave you an opportunity,’’ Oliveira told Krister on the phone. He was now wanted for illegal possession of firearms.
Oliveira had his left hand on Krister’s throat, and his gun pointed at the suspect’s head. Re-holstering his gun, Oliveira, 43, a compactly built fellow, attempted to grab Krister with both hands. But as Oliveira reached for him, the district attorney’s report says “Krister pulled out a loaded 9mm semiautomatic pistol and pointed it at the detective.’’
“I saw the [muzzle] flashes,’’ said Oliveira, who was shot in the right forearm, twice in the stomach, and twice in the chest.
It was at that instant when Joe McCain Jr. emerged from the shadows, his .40-caliber Sig Sauer at eye level, advancing toward Krister’s windshield. “I’m already shooting,’’ said McCain, a burly, heavily tattooed man who’s been a cop for 22 years. “When that happens, your training takes over.’’
McCain’s first shot hit the hood on the driver’s side. The next one struck the hood close to the windshield. With the streetlight overhead shining on the glass, McCain couldn’t pinpoint Krister’s exact position in the car.
Simultaneously, ATF agent Higgins dragged Oliveira to safety while firing his own weapon into the open door of the Honda. Oliveira, still conscious, said he looked up and saw “the shell casings ejecting from [Higgins’s] gun.’’
McCain’s third round went through the windshield just above the steering wheel. “Then I put six right here,’’ he said, making a circle with the thumb and forefinger of each hand and holding it at chest level.
Coming around to the driver’s side, McCain saw Krister lying across the seat with the pistol in his hand. Krister began to raise the gun toward him and McCain fired three more rounds “center mass - right into his chest.’’
Amid the gunfire, Oliveira was curled up on the pavement a short distance away.
“I never lost consciousness,’’ he said. “I heard [Krister’s] mother come out and say, ‘That’s my son!’ I was thinking, ‘How can I undo this? I’m gonna die.’ ’’
Although Oliveira flat-lined twice on the operating table at Massachusetts General Hospital, he survived and returned to work last March. Krister, shot seven times, was pronounced dead at Somerville Hospital shortly after the incident.
Quickly Gibbens Street was teeming with sirens. When paramedics arrived, McCain called his wife, Maureen. “I just shot a kid,’’ he said. “Go downstairs and tell my mother it wasn’t me’’ who got shot.
Helen McCain was married to the late Metropolitan District Commission Police Detective Joseph E. McCain Sr. for 42 years.
A large, silver-haired fellow who resembled actor Lee Marvin, “Big Joe’’ McCain, who died in 2001, was well respected in law enforcement circles. Over the course of his long career as an MDC detective, he tangled with some of Boston’s most notorious gangsters, including James “Whitey’’ Bulger; Steve “the Rifleman’’ Flemmi and his brother, Jimmy “the Bear’’ Flemmi; Joe “the Animal’’ Barboza; and many others.
When Helen heard that Joe Jr. had been involved in a shooting, her first thought was “this can’t be happening again.’’ And then she went right on back to her ironing. A friend once remarked: “That’s what Helen does when she’s upset - she cleans.’’
On Jan. 29, 1988, when her husband, Big Joe, was 58, he was involved in an equally dangerous incident when an undercover drug investigation went bad in Hyde Park.
The elder McCain was part of a surveillance team watching a rundown house on Wood Avenue. Inside, undercover MDC detective Chris Brighton was attempting to buy $15,000 worth of cocaine from a dealer named Vladimir Lafontant. Brighton wore a listening device and when Lafontant produced a shotgun and tried to rip off the 15 grand, McCain and other cops rushed the house.
Joe McCain Sr. reached the front stairs with Boston Police Detective Paul Hutchinson right behind him. As they approached the doorway, a man hurried outside with a gun in each hand. There was an explosion and two bright flashes from the hand of the suspect. Hutchinson and McCain returned fire, and Hutchinson went down, hit in the shoulder. Lumbering forward, McCain fired five shots, and in the cramped space of the yard the rounds flew back and forth.
“That’s what you call a gunfight,’’ said retired State Police Trooper Bill McLean, 62, who was working surveillance that night. “They were all within 10 feet of each other.’’
Big Joe was struck in the abdomen and reeled backward onto the ground. Lafontant hurdled a fence just as McLean rounded the corner of the house. “I’m a police officer,’’ yelled McLean. “Stop!’’
“He glanced at me and I let a few [shots] go at him,’’ said McLean, who learned afterward that he winged Lafontant in the shoulder. Lafontant stumbled and fell dead in the street, shot through the heart.
Big Joe was slumped over on the walkway. “He grabbed me and said, ‘Tell Helen I love her,’ ’’ McLean said.
Big Joe survived, but lost a piece of his stomach, his gallbladder, spleen, and pancreas. For their actions that night in 1988, Joseph McCain Sr., Paul Hutchinson, and Chris Brighton received the George L. Hanna Medal of Honor, named for a trooper slain in the line of duty in 1983. Helen McCain was there that night more than 20 years ago.
And she was there again just last month when her son, Sergeant Joe McCain Jr., Detective Mario Oliveira, Lieutenant Gerald Reardon, Detective Ernest Nadile, and ATF Special Agent Brian Higgins received the same award. It was the first time a father and son received the Medal of Honor. Only days after seeing her son receive his medal, Helen McCain died of congestive heart failure.
Last April, when Joe Jr. returned to work, he accompanied gas company employees into a house, not far from where Krister had grown up and where his funeral was held. There on the nightstand, McCain saw a prayer card for the man he helped take down.
“I’m back on the job,’’ said McCain. “I could be in a position again where I have to defend my own life, or somebody else’s. That’s just the reality of it.’’
Jay Atkinson is the author of “Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective.’’ He teaches writing at Boston University.