CONCORD, N.H. — On a summer day in 1994, 32-year-old Anthony Shea was part of a gang of Charlestown bank robbers that carjacked an armored car in Hudson, N.H., executed the two guards and escaped back home to Massachusetts with more than $400,000.
At the time, prosecutors said the brutality of the crime helped investigators crack Charlestown’s notorious “code of silence,” as former criminal associates came forward to testify against Shea and his four co-defendants, including a brother of one of the men. They were never charged with the murders, as witnesses were unable to identify the masked bandits. But Shea and the rest of the crew were sentenced to life in prison without parole for an avalanche of charges related to the Hudson robbery and a string of others in New England and Florida.
On Friday, Shea, now 60, was back in federal court for a new sentencing hearing, as the daughter who was a toddler when he went to prison sat in the courtroom along with her own baby and some 50 relatives and friends who showed up to support him.
This time, US District Judge Steven McAuliffe, who presided over the 1997 trial, sentenced Shea to 35 years, which makes him eligible for release in about 15 years.
“You have some hope today that you didn’t have yesterday,” said McAuliffe, adding that he believed Shea had done “remarkable and amazing” work while in prison. But he said he didn’t believe he could ever be “redeemed” after committing such horrific crimes.
“No you can’t walk your way out of that by being a model prisoner and helping others,” McAuliffe said. He rejected the defense’s request for a 30-year sentence that would allow Shea to go free when he’s 70.
The judge said Shea had benefited enough from a “quirk in the law,” resulting from a Supreme Court ruling that meant he couldn’t be sentenced to life in prison as a career criminal.
During the hearing, the defense played a video for the judge, showing Shea, his wife, and other relatives and friends describing his transformation in prison, where he has taken college courses, mentors other inmates, paints and runs a crocheting circle of inmates. They showed blankets and toys he had crocheted in prison for children with cancer, and artwork he painted of Winnie the Pooh and Marilyn Monroe.
“I have a lot of regret,” Shea said as he appeared on the video in an olive-green prison suit, his voice cracking at times as he reflected on his life, how his two children grew up without him and his 21-year-old son died of a drug overdose in Charlestown.
“I don’t think I was a bad person. I did bad things,” said Shea, describing himself as weak when he joined a Charlestown crew that robbed armored cars in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the 1990s. “I just wish I could take it all back and change my world. I want my daughter to be proud of me. I want to see my grandson grow. I want to see my son’s grave.”
But the brother and two sons of Ronald Normandeau, one of the two guards killed during the holdup, described the intense grief they feel every day by his loss and urged the judge to keep Shea in prison for the rest of his life.
“If Shea is a wholesome, changed man then why won’t he reveal the name of the gang member who pulled the trigger on August 25? Why?” asked Dennis Normandeau, citing trial evidence that his brother pleaded for his life before he was executed with bullets to the head. “Could it be the Charlestown code of silence is still part of his character?”
He said he had seen social media posts that suggested Shea had embraced his celebrity as a notorious bank robber in the wake of movies that glamorized Charlestown’s criminal culture.
Normandeau’s son, Christopher, said he misses his father every day and Shea should “keep making hats in prison where he belongs, unless he can crochet me back another 30 years.”
A jury found Shea and four other men guilty of racketeering and a dozen armed robbery conspiracies involving 55 crimes in four states, including the Aug. 25, 1994, carjacking of the armored car in Hudson. Northeast Armored Transport guards, Ronald Normandeau, 52, of Bow, and Laurence Johnson, 57, of Epping, were killed execution-style.
Four of Shea’s co-defendants remain in prison serving life sentences, including Stephen Burke, Michael O’Halloran, and Matthew McDonald. The fifth man, Patrick McGonagle died in prison.
In a letter to the judge before the hearing, Shea described growing up in Charlestown and wrote that he idolized his father “thereby setting the stage for me to fully embrace a life of crime.”
He noted, “As a young teenager I wanted to be a gangster and I was certainly not lacking in role models for this unfortunate life trajectory.”
In separate cases from the 1990s, Shea was previously sentenced to 30 years each for a bank robbery in Londonderry and an aborted bank robbery in Wakefield, Mass. Those sentences were also reduced to 12½ and 13½ years, because of Supreme Court rulings regarding sentencing.
“I’m so sorry for the way I’ve lived my life,” Shea told the judge just before sentencing, apologizing for the harm he caused to the Normandeau and Johnson families, and his own. “I feel so sad for the person I was.”
“All I can do is strive to be a better person ... try in some way to make amends,” he said.
After Shea was led away in shackles, his lawyer, Jeffrey Levin, said he’s still waiting for a federal appeals court to rule on whether to vacate two of Shea’s gun sentences. If that happens, he said Shea could be freed in as little as seven years.