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Ralph Gants had a quiet but fierce thirst for justice

The late SJC chief cut his legal teeth as a federal prosecutor, earning the respect of federal agents who initially wondered if he was cut out for the biggest arson case in the world.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants
Chief Justice Ralph GantsSteven Senne/Associated Press

Since the shocking, untimely passing of Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, there has been much deserved focus on his determination to root out inequities that plague the state’s justice system.

I have a slightly different perspective, because I met Gants long before fame and honor found him, back when he was a young federal prosecutor.

In the mid-1980s, there was a series of arson fires that injured hundreds of firefighters and caused $50 million in damage, earning Boston the unwanted title of arson capital of the world. The fires were set by “sparks,” fire buffs motivated in part because they were bitter over being unable to land public safety jobs.

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The case was cracked by an aggressive, resourceful group of federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. It was a complex, sweeping investigation overseen and prosecuted by two assistant US attorneys, Mark Robinson and Ralph Gants.

I got to know the prosecution team. The supervisory agents, Jack Dowd and Phil Tortorella, and the field agents — Bill Murphy, Wayne Miller, Jim Karolides, and Terry Barry — were hard-charging feds, right out of central casting for the Treasury agents in the film “The Untouchables.”

Robinson was tall, brash, and handsome.

And then there was Ralph.

“He was a Harvard Law Review guy,” Miller recalled. “He was this small, quiet, balding guy. Mark was like a game show host. Ralph was the straight man. They were Abbott and Costello."

Miller and the other agents quickly realized that those first impressions of the diminutive, reserved Gants were off-base. Ralph was like the cerebral, bespectacled, and wildly underestimated Oscar Wallace character in “The Untouchables.” Despite his lack of physical presence, he was a formidable lawman.

“We all grew to love Ralph because he really knew the law, was fiercely loyal, and when you got to know him, that dry wit came out. He was very smart and very funny,” said Miller, whose book, “Burn Boston Burn: The Largest Arson Case in the History of the Country," is an exhaustive study of the case.

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After Gants was nominated to the SJC, Tortorella testified on his behalf before the Governor’s Council, extolling the legal acumen Gants brought to that arson case, resulting in the convictions of eight men for setting 269 fires that injured 383 firefighters.

But it was Tortorella’s stories about Ralph Gants, the person, that stood out.

“Ralph really cared about the victims. The people who got hurt. It motivated him,” Tortorella told me. “He was especially driven to deliver justice to a group of Boston firefighters who suffered career-ending injuries when they fell through a roof at one of the arson fires in South Boston."

He also cared deeply about everyone on his federal team. When Terry Barry’s mother died, Gants made the funeral in Central Massachusetts, even after his car broke down on the Mass. Pike.

When Bill Weld was US attorney in Boston, he and his top deputy, Mark Wolf, hired Gants and, separately, a young lawyer named Deborah Ramirez. The relationships formed there were lifelong. Ralph and Debbie started work at the US attorney’s office the same week and shared a small office. Romance blooms in small spaces. They got married.

Wolf became a federal judge, and after his son Matt set up a sports camp in Lowell aimed at helping Cambodian kids stay out of gangs, Gants’s son Michael worked there. Matt Wolf’s wife, Chanda, is the daughter of Cambodian refugees who settled in Lowell. When Chanda went to Northeastern Law School, Debbie Ramirez, a professor there, mentored her.

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When Jack Kennedy was elected president, Robert Frost advised him to be more Irish than Harvard. Ralph Gants was more Jewish than Harvard. As my colleague Shelley Cohen poignantly observed, his faith and sense of social justice informed everything he did.

Maya Angelou said that when someone first shows you who they are, believe them. It took some of us a little longer with Ralph Gants. The guy so many initially thought was a nebbish turned out to be a mensch. Never judge a book, etc.

Hopefully, he and Maya Angelou will meet soon, in a realm different than this. They’ll have a lot to talk about.


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