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Beauty and the boss

The Boston Mafia king Steve Flemmi worshipped his beautiful girlfriend Debra Davis and gave her a life of luxury. But when she suddenly disappeared, her family suspected him of murder. After 20 years of waiting, they are about to see justice done. Clare Longrigg reports

Monday 06 October 2003 00:00 BST

The last time Olga Davis saw her daughter, they had spent the evening together. Debra, who was 26, had taken her mother out in her Mercedes to see a new house that her boyfriend Steve was buying. The women were lying on Olga's bed chatting when Steve rang at 11.30pm to summon Debra home.

"I wasn't feeling well," recalls Olga, now in her eighties. "Debra always took care of me, she was more like a mother to me..." Tears spring to her eyes. "She kissed me goodbye and said, 'I love you, mum,' and then she went to meet him. I always think I should have followed her..."

Olga Davis sits on the sofa in her small house outside Boston. A widow and the mother of 10 children, she is tiny and sharp, with sparkling nails and sculpted yellow hair, heavy make-up and big gold earrings. Her son Robbie, 30, wearing a black T-shirt, with spiky gelled hair, fusses about, gesticulating with the exaggerated "what can I tell you?" moves of a used-car salesman, which is what he is. Mother and son frequently yell at each other. Twenty-two years after Debra's disappearance, the family is still suffering from shock.

On the table beside Olga is a portrait of Debra, a smiling, beautiful girl with long blonde hair. Debra wanted to be a model, and could have been successful. She could have been something, had she not caught the eye of Steve Flemmi.

Debra Davis was just 17 and working behind the counter in a suburban Boston jewellery store when Steve Flemmi, a dark man in his late thirties, came in to buy a gift for his girlfriend. The moment he saw her, Flemmi forgot about buying the gift and asked Debra out instead. He was obviously wealthy; he set Debra up in a luxurious apartment and gave her cars, clothes and jewellery; he was attentive to her family, who thought he was wonderful. To her brothers, he was a role model. Only Debra's father disapproved of his daughter's choice, because of the age difference, but he never tried to stop her seeing him.

Flemmi was a well-known figure in the neighbourhood and no stranger to the Davis family: Olga had known him since he was 13, and according to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) memo, at one stage two of the Davis brothers were working for him. He was not much over 5ft 8in, but he was attractive and personable, with curly dark hair and brown eyes. He was also a murderer and drug dealer, one of Boston's ruthless criminal underworld bosses.

Steve "the Rifleman" Flemmi got his nickname for his sharp-shooting skills in Korea, where he served during the war. His father was an Italian immigrant, and Flemmi had grown up in the housing projects outside Boston, a young hoodlum well known to the local Italian Mafia and Irish gangs. In the mid-1960s, when gangs were massacring each other on the streets of Boston, Flemmi moved around constantly to avoid his enemies, operating alone, extorting protection money and dealing drugs.

By 1970 Flemmi was believed to be involved in at least three gangland killings. A lawyer was blown up in his car and lost his legs; Flemmi, who was the chief suspect, went on the run for four years. Returning to Boston in 1974, he teamed up with James "Whitey" Bulger, a notorious killer who had done time in Alcatraz and returned to dominate the south Boston underworld.

Bulger was being courted by the FBI as an informant, and he and Flemmi were recruited to supply information on the Italian Mob. In reality, information was passing from the FBI to the criminals: they were warned in advance of arrest warrants and advised if anyone was informing against them (the informers who came to their attention were all murdered). On the understanding that they were helping the FBI take down the Mafia, Bulger and Flemmi were protected by law enforcement as they dominated the underworld, extorting, dealing drugs, selling arms to the IRA, and killing. Between them they ordered or carried out 36 murders.

Flemmi was an inveterate womaniser; he had married in the 1950s, but left his wife soon afterwards. There was a regular girlfriend, Marion Hussey, with whom he shared a house; she had two daughters from a previous relationship, and three children with Flemmi. Another girlfriend, Marilyn DiSilva, met Flemmi at his homecoming party in 1974, and was impressed by his outlaw's bravado. "He was a good-looking guy," she later said. "Very charming. He thought he was invincible."

DiSilva enjoyed sparring with Whitey Bulger; she describes him as intelligent, sharp and humourless. He always carried a knife, and frequently gesticulated with it, brandishing it as a sign of machismo. He once slashed his girlfriend accidentally as he was illustrating a point. He reportedly told her to wrap her hand in a napkin and finish dinner.

When DiSilva realised that the company she was keeping was not good for her children, she told Flemmi she was leaving. "If looks could kill, I would have dropped dead," she recalled. "He couldn't believe I was leaving - like I had slapped him in the face. It was scary." Clearly, Steve Flemmi was not the sort of man you leave. Marilyn DiSilva still wonders why he let her go.

Beautiful Debra Davis was with Steve Flemmi for nine years. In 1980, he finally divorced his wife and asked her to marry him. The timing couldn't have been worse. She secretly wanted to leave; she had also met someone else. On holiday in Acapulco with her mother, she had encountered a charming Mexican businessman, and fallen in love. She had even considered staying in Mexico, and asked her mother if she would be all right flying home alone.

"Sure," her mother said, "but I have to face him. How do I tell him where you are?"

Debra could see that if she wanted to leave Flemmi, she would have to tell him to his face. There was no question of running. Even if she got away, her family would pay. So she went back to Boston. Perhaps she told Steve she didn't want to marry him. Perhaps he knew it anyway.

The day after Debra showed her mother the new house, Olga didn't hear from her. She usually rang or visited every day. Finally, Olga paged her. Flemmi answered, and said Debra had gone to the post office. She was never seen again. Over the following weeks Flemmi would turn up at the Davises' house, distraught and weeping. The family had their suspicions, but nobody dared say anything.

Olga Davis, who knew nothing about Flemmi's role as an FBI informer, reported her daughter's disappearance. FBI agents who interviewed her only seemed interested in Flemmi. "I had meetings with them in motel rooms, in a church, the back of a restaurant - that's how naive I was. I got wise to it in the end. I told them, 'I thought you were helping me find my daughter.' I never heard from them again." The FBI never questioned Flemmi about the disappearance of his girlfriend.

By the mid-1990s, as Bulger and Flemmi's crimes became more ruthless and blatant, the FBI's collusion with them was revealed. Flemmi was arrested early in 1995, but Bulger, acting on a tip-off, had already disappeared. The whole scandal revealed a morass of corruption at the heart of the FBI's handling of informants, and Bulger and Flemmi's FBI handler got 10 years.

When Flemmi was arrested, Olga Davis thought: "Wouldn't it be something if my daughter turned up on the doorstep?" After all that time, she still harboured a faint hope that her daughter had kept out of sight until her ex-lover was safely behind bars.

Nearly 20 years after Debra's disappearance the family finally learned what had happened: Flemmi's former associates started co-operating with the authorities in the late 1990s and a grisly picture emerged. After Debra had left her mother around midnight on 17 September 1981, Flemmi picked her up outside their apartment and drove her over to his mother's house. Bulger was there. The two men took Debra down to the basement, where they strangled her. The men carried Debra's body out to the car and drove to an isolated area of marshland, then buried her at the edge of the Neponset river.

In September 2000, investigators spent two weeks digging along the riverbank, watched anxiously by several of the Davis brothers. On the first search they found the body of one of Bulger and Flemmi's victims, but no sign of Debra. Bulger and Flemmi were charged with multiple counts of racketeering and murder, but Debra Davis's family still waited. "It's not a consolation to us that they have been charged with her murder if they don't find her body," said her brother Victor. "We've always known Stevie killed her. Our ultimate goal is to bury her. We want to know where she is."

Some weeks later, after one investigator doggedly returned to search an area that flooded at high tide, Debra's body was found. The discovery brought a measure of relief to this torn family, although they have waited another three years for Flemmi to be brought to court. Next week, Flemmi will finally go on trial in Boston, charged with 10 murders over a 30-year criminal career. Also watching in court will be Flemmi's children. His own son Michael will give evidence against him in relation to another murder.

While living with Marion Hussey, Flemmi seduced her daughter Debbie, who was then 14 and looked upon him as her stepfather. He continued to sleep with her throughout her teens, and by her early twenties she had turned to drugs.

Flemmi lavished gifts on Debbie: he gave her a car,jewellery, clothes and surprise trips. But these material sops were no comfort to the girl whose relationship with her mother had been destroyed along with her innocence. She turned to prostitution to pay for her drug habit. She and Flemmi started to argue, and she threatened to reveal what she knew about his crimes. She also said she was going to tell her mother about their affair. When she was arrested for soliciting, Debbie screamed: "Do you know my stepfather is Stevie Flemmi? He'll take care of you!" Flemmi took care of her first.

After his arrest, another informer revealed what had become of Debbie Hussey. In 1984, when she was 26, Flemmi took her shopping for a new coat, then drove her to a friend's house. Bulger was there. While Flemmi looked on, Bulger strangled the girl with his hands. When Flemmi observed that she was still alive, he put a rope around her neck and tightened it with a stick.

They buried her in the basement, alongside two other victims. Months later, they moved her to waste ground on the outskirts of Boston. Debbie Hussey's body, along with the bodies of the two other victims, was dug up in January 2000. Her teeth had been pulled out and her fingers cut off.

The families of the two dead girls are still trying to get a settlement from the FBI, who they claim colluded in hushing up the murders. The whole process of losing the girls, uncovering the truth and seeking justice has taken 20 years of their lives.

Whitey Bulger is still on the run, and was sighted in London a year ago. Since going to jail, Flemmi has developed nervous tics and twitches. One of his cellmates observed: "It's the devil eating his body."

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