Metro

KEVIN CULLEN

A hard-charging cop retires

Boston police Sergeant Detective Danny Keeler crossed Boylston Street on Wednesday, his last day of work.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Boston police Sergeant Detective Danny Keeler crossed Boylston Street on Wednesday, his last day of work.

For 37 years, Sergeant Detective Danny Keeler was the epitome of the hardcharging Boston cop, the polished detective.

His critics say he charged too hard, but Keeler was never one to pay too much attention to armchair quarterbacks. He did things his way, always believing he did the right thing.

Whenever something big happened in the city, he seemed to be in the middle of it. He was very colorful, and very controversial.

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They used to call him Mr. Homicide, and he was prolific and proficient at getting murder suspects to do what they usually do only on TV shows: talk to detectives without a lawyer present. Some defense attorneys marveled at him; others said he cut corners.

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He collected confessions like others collect stamps. In a dozen years in homicide, he closed some 200 cases. It was a good run, but growing skepticism among jurors raised on CSI cop shows, and a handful of cases that went south, saw Mr. Homicide eventually leave homicide. He went back to street work and remained at the center of things, no more so than when the bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Bill Brett for the Boston Globe
Mark Wahlberg will be playing Danny Keeler (right) in an upcoming movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Keeler turns 65 on Thursday and will be officially off the job next week, off to a retirement in which Mark Wahlberg will portray him in a movie about the Marathon bombings.

And as much as he says he’ll miss the people, miss the idea of being at the center of a constant struggle between chaos and civility, between good and evil, Danny Keeler seems to know timing is everything, and that the time to leave is now. It’s not that he’s leaving the job so much as the job is leaving him.

Times have changed. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse.

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Danny Keeler was 2 years old when his father walked out. His mother, Peggy, worked as a hairdresser and cocktail waitress. He remembers the stacks of quarters, the tips his mother brought home from delivering drinks at a place in Braintree. Those quarters put food on the table.

He went to school in Dorchester, at St. Gregory’s in Lower Mills, and stayed nearby with his grandparents. For a while he lived with his mother in the Morton Street projects.

“My mother said it was a development, not a project,” he says. “It was all cops and firefighters.”

He desperately wanted to go to Catholic Memorial High School. But it cost $280 a year and his mother said they couldn’t afford it.

In 1967, his mother remarried and moved to Kingston, but he stayed in Boston. As a junior in high school, he spent his days at Boston Tech, then worked the 3 to 11 shift at the Morton Street hospital for the mentally ill. He paid 12 bucks a month to live on the hospital grounds.

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Working with people who struggled, who couldn’t take care of themselves, he developed empathy.

‘It’s a different world today.’

High school on the other hand, seemed bland, boring by comparison. He dropped out his senior year and enlisted in the Marine Corps.

“Best thing I ever did,” he says.

After two years in the Marines, he came back to Boston in 1972, working first as a bartender at Daisy Buchanan’s in the Back Bay, then the Dockside near Faneuil Hall. You learn a lot about people while tending bar. Good training for a cop.

He didn’t come from a police family, but police work sounded appealing so he took the exam and waited. And waited. His uncle, Sonny McDonough, was a famous politician. But the list wasn’t moving, so Keeler took the firefighter’s exam and joined the Boston Fire Department in 1977.

As much as he admires firefighters, the job didn’t do it for him. After two years, he left the Fire Department and joined the Police Department. He was only on the job a year, riding in a cruiser with another cop, Vinnie Adduci, when they got a call for a guy threatening to jump off the BU Bridge.

As Keeler approached, prepared to talk the guy down, the guy made eye contact with him and jumped into the Charles River. Keeler stripped down to his underwear and went in after him, a 60-foot dive that felt even longer. He got the guy around the neck and pulled him to shore.

He tried to comfort the guy, and the guy turned to him and said, “I know I should thank you. But I can’t. I wanted to die.”

Keeler got the department’s Medal of Honor for that rescue. After then-Commissioner Joe Jordan pinned the medal, one of his aides pulled Keeler aside and said, “He wants to do something for you.”

Keeler didn’t hesitate. “I want to stay in 4,” he said.

District 4, in the South End, was a busy house. There was plenty of action.

“Those days, being a cop was fantastic,” he says. “We had bosses who had the courage to understand that people make mistakes in tense situations. The difference between a mistake and someone who was outright wrong is huge. If you were doing the right thing, they backed you. Even if, in the public’s eyes, it didn’t look good.”

Later, he worked in Districts 2, in Roxbury, and 3 in Mattapan.

“Three and 2 were the places that you learned to be a cop,” he says. “People shot, chaotic scenes. It was helpful to me to learn how to arrive and insert calm into a chaotic scene.”

A reputation for doing just that got him promoted to the homicide unit in 1992. He worked cold cases at first, before being assigned to a squad supervised by Sergeant Detective Dan Flynn, with Detectives Dennis Harris and Jimmy Doyle. What surprised Keeler most about homicide was that there was no training, no clear protocol about how to become a homicide investigator.

“You were supposed to figure it out on your own,” he said. “I got lucky because I got put on a squad with Denny Harris, and he was the most talented interviewer I’ve seen in my life.”

Harris was sublime. Not a tough guy, easygoing.

“He’d sit in a room. Take his time. Wouldn’t hit the guy with questions right away. Denny would get them to understand that he understood why they did what they did. There was no judgment, just understanding.”

Harris says Keeler was a natural, that he could convey sympathy for someone caught up in that situation. During interrogations, one would pick up where the other left off. It wasn’t rehearsed. It was intuitive.

There was a case when defense attorneys seized on Keeler and Harris for not turning on a tape recorder in the initial part of an interview, in which a teenager implicated others for the 2002 murder of 10-year-old Trina Persad. Defense lawyers tried to suggest Keeler and Harris didn’t turn on the recorder until the witness gave them the scenario they wanted.

But Keeler said they never turned the recorder on at first, because they needed to establish a rapport.

“You didn’t take out a pen right away,” he said. “You eventually get to the point where you say, ‘Do you mind if I take some notes?’”

There was another case, the 1999 murder of a pregnant 14-year-old girl named Chauntae Jones, in which Keeler’s famous countenance was severely tested. He could barely contain his contempt for Kyle Bryant, Jones’s boyfriend and the presumed father of the 8-month-old fetus she was carrying, who admitted that he just stood there as a friend choked Jones, stabbed her and bludgeoned her with a rock, before burying her alive.

“And you stood there,” Keeler said, raising his voice.

“Like a dummy,” Bryant replied.

“Like a dummy,” Keeler said. “And I have to agree with that.”

After Bryant was acquitted, a juror told the Globe that jurors — who had heard a tape of the interrogation — thought Keeler was too aggressive in questioning Bryant. She complained that Keeler “harangued” Bryant during the interrogation.

To this day, Keeler is amazed that anyone could listen to that confession and then acquit Kyle Bryant of taking part in the murder of Chauntae Jones.

In 2001, Keeler was featured on an ABC reality show, “24/7,” during which he arrested an East Boston man, William Leyden, for the murder and decapitation of his brother John Leyden. Later, another man confessed to the killing.

“Do I feel horrible about that? Absolutely,” Keeler said. “Thank God that evidence emerged to vindicate him before the trial. But you go where the evidence takes you. We thought he did it. We had evidence. We never manufactured evidence. We went where it took us.”

Rosemary Scapicchio, the defense lawyer, was Keeler’s biggest nemesis. They don’t like each other.

“He will do anything and everything to get a conviction,” she says.

“She’s a screamer, hates cops,” he says.

Scapicchio represented a man, James Bush, who was accused of shooting 3-year-old Malik Andrade-Percival to death during a botched home invasion in Dorchester in 2002. She was able to show inconsistencies in Keeler’s reports, about who did some videotaping, about who was at the initial interview with the murdered boy’s parents. To Keeler, these were minor mistakes. But Scappichio tried to show a pattern, telling jurors that Keeler had been an investigator in the case of Donnell Johnson, whose conviction for the 1994 murder of 9-year-old Jermaine Goffigan was overturned. Bush was acquitted.

“Keeler’s problem was he rushed to judgment,” says Scapicchio. “If you close 200 cases, or three times the amount as other detectives, you’re rushing to judgment and not doing your job right.”

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Boston Police Sgt. Detective Dan Keeler on his last day of work.

Keeler said it’s simplistic to hold police or prosecutors solely responsible for acquittals in an era where the “CSI Effect” has placed unrealistic expectations on investigators.

Keeler looks at it this way: He closed about 200 homicides, and there were problems in only a few of them. In a business where witnesses are often flawed, and sometimes criminals, Keeler stands by his record.

“That’s a pretty good average,” he said. “No one has ever accused me of manufacturing evidence. I always went where the evidence took me.”

Keeler clashed with some prosecutors, who were feeling pressure after a string of acquittals. He bristled at some prosecutors telling him how to carry out investigations.

“I didn’t tell them how to do their closing arguments,” he said.

When there was a shakeup in homicide, there was never a question of where he wanted to go: back to 4. He didn’t miss homicide.

“Homicide takes so much from your family, your children,” he says. “You’re at dinner but you’re thinking about a case. You’re at the beach with your kids and you have to leave and bail your informant out. It’s extremely demanding, total commitment.”

Back at 4, Keeler worked Boylston Street, near the finish line, every year at the Marathon. On April 15, 2013, he was checking the bars and restaurants along Boylston, to make sure they weren’t overcrowded. His daughter and her friends had turned down his offer to get them tickets to the stands at the finish line.

At 2:50 p.m., he was at the intersection of Fairfield and Boylston when the first bomb went off down the street. He thought it was a transformer. He was running toward that explosion when the second one went off behind him.

He ran back toward the second bomb and saw the bottom half of a leg, lying in the street, smoking.

“This is 984!” he roared, yelling his ID into his microphone. “Multiple explosions on Boylston!”

Stop the Marathon at Hereford Street, he yelled. Keep the Ring Road clear, he yelled, because that will be the evacuation route for the wounded. He looked over to the sidewalk and saw Denise Richard kneeling over her mortally wounded 8-year-old son Martin.

He watched a firefighter he knew, Charlie Buchanan, place sheets over Martin and Lingzi Lu, the Boston University student from China who was killed.

He led some cops to the medical tent and stood in reverence before the body of Krystle Campbell.

“I want you to remember this,” he said to the other cops. “We need to find out who this young woman is and we need to find out who did this. Treat her with the dignity she deserves.”

Later that night, he walked into the California Kitchen at Huntington Avenue and Ring Road. He collected his thoughts, had a double shot of Jameson, then went back to work.

He was there in Watertown when they took Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of the boat. He drove away from Watertown with another detective, Andy Gambon. People were lining the streets, cheering. He shouted “USA! USA!” over the car’s loudspeaker and the crowd shouted it back.

“It felt like the ultimate in good triumphing over evil,” Keeler said.

He said the character that Wahlberg will play in the movie is not just him but a composite of other police officers who worked on various parts of the bombing case.

Keeler spent the last year as director of security at City Hall.

“The first day job I had in 37 years,” he says. “It allowed me to slow down and look around and realize what’s important.”

What’s important to him is that he still hears from the families of the murdered, the dead he spoke for.

Every year, around the anniversary of Paul Gauthier’s murder, his family reaches out to thank him for putting the man who killed Gauthier away for life.

Keeler shot and wounded that man, John Powell, in 2002, after Powell opened fire on Keeler on a street in Roxbury. It still bewilders Keeler that after he returned fire, some people tried to suggest he was trigger-happy.

Powell was an ex-convict with a long history of violence. After Powell was convicted of murdering Gauthier, a handyman, Keeler took the stand and gave a victim impact statement.

Keeler looks back at that case and wonders what would happen today if the same scenario played out. He worries about an anti-police sentiment that is unfair to the vast majority of good cops, a lack of balance, of perspective.

“The job is gone today,” he said. “You might survive 20 years, then you get the phone call: video of you putting your hands on somebody. Gone. Pension gone. It’s a different world today.”

His son is getting out of the Marines and the truth is, if it came down to the police or fire, Dan Keeler would tell him to try the fire department.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com