Wearing his trench coat and fedora, Boston FBI agent John Larkin helped crack the biggest robbery in American history days before the statute of limitations was about to run out on the legendary Brink’s heist of 1950.
The bloodless North End robbery by masked men of $1.2 million in cash and $1.5 million in checks and money orders had stymied law enforcement for almost six years. With the robbers about to get away with it, Mr. Larkin took another shot at getting a prime suspect, Joseph James “Specky” O’Keefe, to talk.
Nicknamed Specky for his love of ripe speckled bananas, O’Keefe had lost most of his share of the robbery money when he let a fellow gang member with a gambling problem hold his dough. When he demanded more cash from the Brink’s gang, they hired a hit man to kill him. Bullets struck O’Keefe, but he survived. Through a slow, calculating jailhouse conversation in 1956 in Springfield, where O’Keefe was held on a probation violation, Mr. Larkin began taking the career criminal right where he wanted to go.
“He was motivated primarily by revenge, of course, so he did, he cooperated fully, was an excellent witness,” Mr. Larkin said in a 2007 interview with the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
Mr. Larkin, who later became an assistant attorney general in charge of organized crime investigations in Massachusetts and was chairman of the state’s Alcohol Beverages Control Commission for a decade, died March 11 in a Hingham nursing home. He was 98 and a former longtime resident of Winchester.
Eight men were convicted of the Brink’s robbery. Two others involved died before trial. All of the members of the Brink’s gang have died.
A Boston native who worked for the FBI for 25 years, Mr. Larkin’s efforts during the Brink’s case drew a personal commendation from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
When they went through their father’s belonging, Mr. Larkin’s sons found an October 1956 letter from Hoover.
“I was delighted to hear of the favorable culmination of the Brink’s Robbery case and again want to let you know how sincerely appreciative I am for your outstanding contributions to its success,” Hoover wrote.
“I am fully aware of the major part played by you, not only in materially aiding in the solution of the case, but in the preparation of the case for trial and in the trial itself,” Hoover added. “You are certainly deserving of the highest commendation for your accomplishments.”
Born in 1915 and raised in Roxbury, John Paul Larkin was the youngest of three sons. His father, William, and mother, the former Margaret Cassidy, both emigrated from Ireland. His father worked as a handyman.
Mr. Larkin graduated from Boston English High School, then worked for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and took classes at Boston University for several years. He later graduated from Suffolk University Law School. An FBI recruiter visited Suffolk and persuaded him to apply.
Mr. Larkin had all but forgotten about his FBI application when a telegram arrived in 1941 advising him to report to the Justice Department in Washington if he still wanted to become a special agent. His starting salary was $3,200 a year.
He worked briefly at bureaus in Ohio and New York before the FBI sent him undercover to Costa Rica, where he posed as the manager of a credit agency. His mission was to assess the government’s connections to Germany and Japan. With no credit industry in the then sleepy city of San Jose, Mr. Larkin’s cover was dubious.
“They observed that I was young, an American, it was wartime, and it wasn’t very long before people were telling me that I must work for the FBI,” Mr. Larkin said in the interview with the society.
The bureau later assigned him to Philadelphia, where he worked on the “Communism Squad, which was big back in those days,” he said.
In 1945, he married Irene Schubert, who was an FBI secretary in Philadelphia. She died in 1993.
Early in their marriage, Mr. Larkin and his wife were sent to Caracas, so he could report on the German refugees. The bureau brought Mr. Larkin back to Boston in 1947.
Author Stephanie Schorow, who interviewed Mr. Larkin for her book “The Crime of the Century: How the Brink’s Robbers Stole Millions and the Hearts of Boston,” described him as “a man of quiet strength” who talked about the Brink’s investigation with humor and compassion.
“He spoke movingly about O’Keefe’s mixed feelings about being a stool pigeon and that it went against everything the petty thief ever learned,” Schorow said.
Many in law enforcement were eager to take credit for solving the Brink’s case, she noted, “but that did not seem to be in Larkin’s nature. He was proud to do his job and do it well.”
Mr. Larkin’s rapport with O’Keefe may have stemmed from growing up in the same area. He also knew another Brink’s heist mastermind, Anthony Pino, and tried unsuccessfully to get him to reveal information.
“It was a game of cat and mouse for both of them,” Schorow said. “They would sit there and talk, Larkin waiting for Pino to slip up, which he never did.”
With the clock ticking on the charges, Mr. Larkin deftly handled O’Keefe. When O’Keefe demanded to meet with Hoover, Mr. Larkin hoped he would settle for a meeting with Edward J. Powers, the special agent in charge of the Boston office, but O’Keefe refused to leave his cell.
According to Schorow’s book, Mr. Larkin pleaded: “Don’t make me look bad. Come out and speak to him for a bit and then you can go back in.”
Powers and O’Keefe hit it off. The bureau chief, who died in 1989 at 75, later hosted the bureau’s prized witness at his home in Bedford, N.H. O’Keefe was eventually placed in witness protection in California.
When actor Cary Grant died, Mr. Larkin revealed to his family that the FBI had gotten O’Keefe a job in Hollywood as Grant’s chauffeur.
Mr. Larkin rarely told anyone about his FBI days. “He was humble,” said his son William of Williamsburg, Va. “To this day, if someone asked what he did, he always said he’s an attorney.”
Mr. Larkin’s son John Jr. of Portland, Ore., said his father did not talk much about his work when they were children. He recalled watching television news as a boy and seeing images of his father carrying a Thompson submachine gun.
“I saw him walk across the screen with one of those. It kind of blows your mind,” said John, who added, “I’m very proud of my father and what my father did.”
In 1996, Mr. Larkin was 80 and undergoing treatment for a form of leukemia when he married Marie Deary, the widow of a friend he had known since elementary school.
“We had to either pick up the pieces and get on with our lives, or just sit in sorrow the rest of our lives,” Marie said. “We figured we would have five good years and we had 18. We were blessed.”
The couple enjoyed going on cruises and traveling to visit their grown children and their families. They saw the Great Wall of China and hiked among Mayan ruins in Mexico.
In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Larkin leaves 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A service has been held and burial was in Wildwood Cemetery in Winchester.
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.