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    Adrian Walker

    In Orchard Gardens, awaiting return of ‘God’

    Darryl Whiting
    Darryl Whiting

    Darryl “God” Whiting was always so much more than a drug dealer. He was a kingpin, a dictator, a crime overlord — and, for the past 24 years, a guest of the federal penal system.

    In his reign of terror during the years he ran the Orchard Park housing project, from 1987 to 1991, Whiting inspired equal parts respect and fear. Respect because he seemed like a criminal who could fight the law and win; fear because nearly an entire neighborhood was, willingly or not, conscripted into his ragtag army. At the height of his influence, his foot soldiers numbered in the thousands.

    “The calculation and the cynicism with which he approached that community were nothing sort of breathtaking,” said Bill McGonagle, the administrator of the Boston Housing Authority, one of the few people willing to talk about Whiting publicly. Such is the fear he still strikes, a generation later.

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    Whiting was eventually convicted of running a vast drug-trafficking conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison. A network of associates went to prison also. The undercover cop who did more than anyone else to put Whiting away committed suicide not long afterward, but not before becoming a famous cautionary tale in the dangers of crossing lines and blurring roles.

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    Among those who knew Whiting, or just remember what he did, there was shock last weekend when they read that the US Attorney’s Office supports reducing Whiting’s sentence to 30 years, a move that, if approved, would render him eligible for parole in 2017.

    On the surface, that action is routine. Drug trafficking is no longer an offense that carries a life sentence, and many long-convicted drug dealers are seeing their draconian sentences rightfully reduced to something closer to what they would get today. These days, there is bipartisan agreement that the long sentences of the so-called crack era were inflated by hysteria and racism, and that many former dealers have by now done more than their share of time behind bars. In general, I believe this is a healthy development.

    The thing is, Whiting, now 59, was a destroyer of lives, and very nearly took down a whole neighborhood.

    And he did it with style. Whiting dressed like a businessman — his signature trench coat was a Burberry — and drove expensive cars. But there was also a bit of Robin Hood in him, or maybe a bit of Whitey Bulger: he arranged camping trips to Canobie Lake for neighborhood youths and gave out turkeys at Thanksgiving. He bought children pricey sneakers.

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    But he also enticed young women, many of them single mothers, to let him use their apartments to deal drugs, persuading them with a combination of charm, cash, and fear.

    “God” Whiting wore his nickname with pride. He was, after all, the one who came up with it.

    Whiting was initially charged with one murder and suspected of being involved in others. But the murder charge was dropped, partly because the drug-trafficking case against him was strong enough to put him away for life. Or so people thought at the time.

    Whiting was the rare drug lord who was not always reticent about speaking to the press. In the early 1990s, he spoke at length to Ric Kahn of the Boston Phoenix, in a story that probably hastened his downfall. Whiting cast himself as a misunderstood public servant. “It ain’t about this gang violence,” he said. “I’m trying to curb that, speak against that. I’m trying to help police too.”

    It was all lunacy, of course, but the man understood the power of managing his image.

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    The Boston Housing Authority, which had basically lost control of one of its biggest developments to Whiting, was the first to investigate him. How powerful had Whiting become by then? One manager of the development was so intimidated by him that she resigned with just 24 hours notice, moved to Florida, and was never heard from again.

    “I’ve been here 35 years, and that’s the only time I’ve seen that happen,” said McGonagle, the BHA administrator.

    The BHA police went undercover, eventually joined by Boston Police and the US Drug Enforcement Agency. The undercover sting that destroyed Whiting’s operation took four years to complete.

    And this is where we come to the tragedy of Jeff Coy. He was the lead undercover officer throughout, and his work was crucial in putting Whiting away. But after so much time in the underworld, he was lost. “He couldn’t hang with cops, because they saw him as a criminal, and the criminals saw him as a cop,” said a former colleague.

    He was also overwhelmed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was just 33 when he took his life. A Hollywood movie — “In Too Deep” — told the celluloid version of his story.

    In the years Whiting has been away, much has changed. A refurbished Orchard Park has been rechristened Orchard Gardens. The wars he waged are unknown to a new generation of residents.

    One thing hasn’t changed. People are still afraid of Darryl Whiting. Yet the government thinks it’s time for him to come home.

    Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.