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John O’Donovan, state trooper, at 81

Retired Mass. State Police lieutenant colonel dies

Globe File photo

State Police Lieutenant Colonel John O’Donovan spoke to reporters in 1976.

The gunfight echoed across the rooftops of the Back Bay that spring night. It was April 27, 1966, and State Police Trooper John R. O’Donovan was chasing a fugitive when he caught a bullet high above Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street.

Later in the hospital, Mr. O’Donovan showed off his torso wound to the officers who were with him that night.

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“Mickey, ain’t that a beaut?’’ he told Revere police Detective Michael Casoli, who helped bring him down from the roof on a stretcher .

John R. O’Donovan (left), FBI agents John Morris and David Brady, and State Police Sergeant Robert Lang in 1979.

Globe File Photos

John R. O’Donovan (left), FBI agents John Morris and David Brady, and State Police Sergeant Robert Lang in 1979.

Police caught the shooter, art thief Myles J. Connor, who also took a bullet, and Mr. O’Donovan, who was known as “OD,’’ went back to building a reputation as an extraordinary trooper whose reputation for tenacity and toughness drew respect from colleagues and even some criminals.

Five years after he rose to become lieutenant colonel in 1975, he sent detectives to investigate James “Whitey’’ Bulger and confronted FBI agents about his suspicions they were protecting Bulger and his partner Steve Flemmi. This was long before the now-infamous scandal broke.

Lieutenant Colonel O’Donovan, a Marine Corps veteran and Belmont native who tracked down domestic terrorists in the 1970s and once rescued hostages held at gunpoint in a Somerville pharmacy, was 81 when he died Friday at the VA Hospital in Bedford.

“He was the first one to kick in the door and last one to leave the scene,’’ said Bob Long, a retired trooper who considered Mr. O’Donovan a mentor. “He had a command presence about himself and he put his heart and soul into every hour of the day.’’

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Current State Police Lieutenant Colonel Marian McGovern said, “he was someone who many people emulated through their careers not only for his style, but his uncanny sense for ferreting out criminal activity. He could just listen to someone and size them up very quickly. He was an honest good cop.’’

About eight years ago, signs of Alzheimer’s began robbing Mr. O’Donovan of his powerful personality and he lived in nursing homes for the last few years, according to a family member. Complications of the disease took his life.

Born in Arlington, he graduated from Belmont High School. His father was a Belmont police officer. Mr. O’Donovan served in the Marine Corps for three years with the military police before he became a Belmont officer himself. He joined the State Police in 1956.

He married another longtime Belmont resident, Sylvia (Wilson). They were married more than 50 years and had five children.

Mr. O’Donovan’s former law enforcement colleagues, including Casoli, often said Sylvia “deserved a special medal’’ for living with a lawman obsessed with stopping crime 24/7. “OD’’ had police scanners in almost every room of the house, including the bedroom and the bathroom, they said.

One former colleague quipped there was one place a fugitive could hide and Mr. O’Donovan would never find him - in the trooper’s own cellar because he spent so much time at work.

“Jack was the kind of guy, if there was a door to go through he was the first one through. Any assignment of any danger you relied on Jack because he was leading the pack,’’ said his longtime friend retired State Police trooper Richard Barry, who first met him in 1956 when they were recruits at the State Police Academy.

In 1979, Mr. O’Donovan helped end a standoff in a Somerville pharmacy where six people were held hostage.

He and State Police Sergeant Jack Dwyer went into the store and came face to face with a man pointing a shotgun at them.

“I had my gun pointed at him but then I put it back in the holster and said to him, ‘Relax. Relax,’ ’’ Mr. O’Donovan later told the Globe. “Then the druggist pushed him. I went very low and ran as fast I could, and shoved the barrel of the shotgun up.’’

He and other officers then wrestled the gunman to the floor.

His dead-on instincts about Bulger echoed for years in the minds of law enforcers.

According to Bob Fitzpatrick, a retired FBI agent and author of “Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent who Fought to Bring Him Down,’’ Mr. O’Donovan spoke to a class at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., in the late 1970s and told them he believed FBI agent John Connolly and his supervisor John Morris had cut a secret deal with the Irish mob.

In 1980, Mr. O’Donovan’s suspicions deepened when a State Police inquiry into Bulger’s activities from his headquarters in a garage on Lancaster Street in Boston was suddenly compromised.

Bulger seemed to know detectives were listening in. He changed his habits and was heard opining about the State Police’s fine efforts patrolling the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Mr. O’Donovan confronted FBI leaders at a meeting in a Boston hotel, Long said, and tensions between the agencies simmered.

It would take almost 20 years before the truth came out in federal court.

Morris admitted to a corrupt relationship with Bulger and Flemmi. Connolly was convicted of racketeering.

And former State Police Lieutenant Richard J. Schneiderhan was convicted of conspiring with Bulger and Flemmi and obstructing justice.

Mr. O’Donovan took little joy in the revelation he had been right about many things, according to his son-in-law State Trooper Martin Conley.

“He had friends over at the bureau, too,’’ Conley said. “In the end you’re all cops and you don’t want to see a bad apple.’’

For eight years, Mr. O’Donovan also tracked a group of domestic terrorists known as the United Freedom Front who detonated a bomb in the Suffolk County Courthouse in April 1976 and were accused in a plot to bomb a State Police barracks. One of the men was later captured.

Mr. O’Donovan is credited with persuading him to turn against his crime partners.

The conspirators and their leader, Raymond Luc Levasseur, were later captured by federal agents.

In 1988, Mr. O’Donovan’s wife caught word on the scanner that their son James, who was also a trooper, was chasing a suspect on Fresh Pond Parkway in Cambridge. Mr. O’Donovan, who was just about to leave their house in Belmont, raced over to join the chase.

He helped his son box in the suspect’s car and force him to surrender.

“I would assist any trooper, but I was a little more interested in this one,’’ Lieutenant Mr. O’Donovan told the Globe in an interview.

Mr. O’Donovan spent 35 years with State Police before he retired in 1991; he was appointed to head the MBTA police and retired from that post in 1998.

Former colleagues often visited Mr. O’Donovan in the nursing home over the years.

They tried to impart the news of Bulger’s capture last year in Santa Monica, Calif., after 16 years as a fugitive, but they were never sure if he understood. His gaze always seemed to drift past them.

During a recent visit though, he surprised them. He reached out and grabbed a friend’s hand, according to Long. Then he said something they used to hear him say often in the old days to troopers and criminals alike. “I’m watching you,’’ he said. “I’m watching you.’’

In addition to his wife and son James of East Sandwich, Mr. O’Donovan leaves two daughters, Susan Conley of Belmont and Cathy Annunciata of Waltham; two other sons, John of Brookfield, Conn., and Michael of Belmont; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 9 a.m. Friday at St. Luke’s Church in Belmont. Burial will be in Belmont Cemetery.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.

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