At the very end, I ask Murdock if he hoped I would not write his story.
I was feeling a wave of gloom and regret.
Ask me not to do it. Give me a reason.
Ken Murdock: Hamilton, Ontario native who lives in Western Canada under a false name.
His memories include friendship and love. And beatings and murders.
In articles he was called Mob muscle, hitman, and a contract killer; one of the most prolific in Canadian history, who brazenly executed a legendary crime boss in a Mafia war.
I’ve interviewed a half dozen men over the years who killed.
I believed I wanted to explore the human condition. Perhaps I wanted to feel unease.
Crime stories can offer rays of redemption in the darkness if you look hard.
But where was the redemption, the higher ground, in Murdock’s story?
Something else weighed on me, and it wasn’t the bloodstained ledger.
The killers I interviewed were fuelled either by greed, extremist belief, rage or revenge.
And Murdock? None of the above.
I had spoken with him on the phone for hours, and was prompting him in my passive way — old habit — to get me to stop.
“I don’t hope anything,” he replied in answer to my question. “You’re from The Spectator. It’s my hometown. I’m simply telling you what you want to know.”
He did not ask.
He told me what I wanted to know.
And what I did not expect.
You could start the story in 1977: a mother and son, riding in an Oldsmobile east on Highway 401, Lake Ontario filling the horizon, placid and blue and still as a painting.
It might not seem an unusual scene, except that 15-year-old Ken Murdock is at the wheel. He has no licence, or experience, apart from driving his stepfather Bert’s car in the laneway since he was eight.
Ken’s mother urges him to pass a big rig he’s trailing; first time he has ever attempted a pass on a highway, and he pulls it off.
He is driving his mother three hours from Hamilton to Collins Bay federal prison in Kingston, to visit one of her boyfriends, John Akister. Big John goes six feet, 300 pounds, and is doing 11 years for armed robbery of a Hamilton bank.
He too is like a stepfather. Ken eventually starts calling him “the old man.”
You could start the story 10 years earlier.
A gunshot echoes.
Murdock is five or six years old, and has peeked out of his bedroom on the main floor of a house in a Hamilton neighbourhood on Lake Ontario called the beach strip.
He sees it all over the kitchen.
A large glass bottle of Heinz ketchup has been blown to pieces, shot for kicks.
Big John and Bert are in the house drinking with Ken’s mother, Edna, as they often do.
Ken runs out the front door, down Beach Boulevard, up a driveway, and hides under the parked car of neighbour Johnny Evans, who is one half of the “Love Brothers,” a professional wrestling duo.
“I was a kid, I thought someone had died,” says Murdock.
He hides until Stan Murdock comes looking for him. Stan is also a stepfather.
Ken Murdock was born two weeks before Christmas in 1962. His home sat in the shadow of the Burlington Skyway that was then four years old and not yet twinned.
The frequent jackhammer-like drone of J-brakes on trucks rumbling over the bridge was one of his earliest memories.
The beach strip, the oversized sandbar separating Hamilton Harbour from the lake, had always been a community unto its own, with unique characters and close-knit neighbours.
There had long been an edge to the beach, too. Historically, it had been an outpost, disconnected from the city, with its own police force and residents who were dubbed “marsh dwellers.”
The clubhouse for Canada’s first biker gang, the Red Devils, was 200 metres down the boulevard from Murdock’s first school. In 1984, the house was peppered with 20 rounds from a semi-automatic rifle, killing a biker standing at the bar.
Hamilton is a port city with a long history of organized crime, its Mafia families bearing names like Luppino, Papalia and Musitano.
During the 1920s, prohibition spawned infamous local bootleggers such as Rocco Perri and Antonio Papalia, men who immigrated from the same region of southern Italy, who smuggled liquor to the U.S. by land and water, and expanded their criminal enterprises into narcotics and extortion.
Perri and Papalia worked side by side, yet Papalia was rumoured to have played a role in the shotgun murder of Perri’s wife, Bessie, who was also his partner in crime. In 1944, Perri vanished, ending up, many believed, at the bottom of the harbour in cement shoes. Antonio Papalia’s 20-year-old son, Johnny Papalia, was rumoured to be responsible.
Mafia violence would rise and fall over the years, but never fade entirely. Hamilton’s nickname had long been “Steeltown,” but into the 1970s and early 1980s, mob-linked explosions in restaurants inspired a new nickname: “Bomb City.”
Murdock, whose roots were Scotch-Irish, shared no blood ties with any of the crime families. But one day he would feel a near familial bond of loyalty.
Beach strip resident Edna Godbout had her first child, a boy, with husband Stan Murdock, but gave him up for adoption. When she was 20 years old, and still with Stan, she became pregnant by a man named Jim, who drove a truck and came in and out of her life. She kept this second child, and named him Ken.
She had a third child, a boy, again with Jim, and adopted him out as well.
And then with Stan she had a girl, and a fifth child, a boy, and kept both.
Ken grew up with his half-brother and half-sister.
At various times Stan lived at the house as did Bert — who ran a boat business on the beach called Bert’s Boats — and also John Akister, the one who shot the Ketchup bottle.
All of them with Edna and the kids under the same roof.
“It was a weird situation,” says Murdock.
He thought of Stan most of all as his dad.
“Stan worked at (steelmaker) Dofasco, was an easy going, excellent guy. If he loses his temper, that’s something to be concerned about. But the guy never did, that’s the thing.”
Jim, Murdock’s biological father, never lived there. Murdock caught a glimpse of him once or twice when he was little.
His mother was the one constant presence.
“When she wasn’t drinking, she was perfect. But when drinking she was a mean drunk. You had to kind of stick your toe in the water to check the temperature before you went near her.”
She often hit Ken, either with a broomstick, or over the back of his head with a strip of plastic track from his Hot Wheels car set.
He says Bert hit him, too, although not as much as his mother.
When his mother bought his younger brother a bicycle, she warned him not to touch it.
“The first thing out of the old lady’s mouth was, ‘I’ll kick your ass if I see you near the bike.’”
He rode it anyway. She lost it and beat him badly with the broomstick. Bruises all over.
“Stan pulled her off me. I was six or seven. When he was cleaning me up, I remember her coming in and saying she was sorry.”
He watched his mother and Bert fight. He saw her take shots, and hit back.
Not long after the ketchup bottle incident, Edna boarded Ken out to a family that lived nearby on the beach strip.
A year later, he returned and she boarded him out to a new family, 30 minutes away on a farm northwest of Hamilton.
He liked it there. He rode a bus each morning to Greensville elementary school.
And then his mother took him back again.
Murdock didn’t know his grandparents. Edna didn’t seem to get along with her mother, either.
“Her mother Hazel — typical farmer’s wife — was like four-foot-nothing, but carried a big stick, that one.”
Edna eventually married Bert, Stan left.
Big John Akister, meanwhile, wrote Edna letters from prison, and when he got out, Hamilton police detectives kept an eye on him.
“Cops would come around the house, sit on the front porch and talk to the old man and old lady.”
The beach held some good memories for Murdock. Simpler times. As a kid, he set pins in a bowling alley at the beach strip amusement park.
Bert and Edna moved the family to Hamilton’s hardscrabble North End. Things changed.
Murdock was bullied starting in Grade 5. He was an easy target for older boys: new to the neighbourhood, and a big kid at nearly six-feet, but with no desire or ability to hit back.
Guys continued picking fights with him at Ainslie Wood secondary on Main Street West, when it was an all-boys vocational school in the late 1970s.
One day, when he was about 16, Murdock walked out the door of a variety store with a friend.
“I came out with an ice cream cone and down the stairs, turned the corner and next thing I know I’m on the ground. A guy sucker-punched me from behind.”
By the time he regained focus, he was lying on his back, ice cream melting on his chest.
It felt like a switch flipped inside.
“It was the last straw. I had a samurai sword at home. I went and got it and went looking for the guy, but didn’t find him.”
“You want him dead, he’s dead.”
Murdock took boxing lessons at a boys’ club on James Street North downtown, and taekwondo and karate at Dan Warrener’s gym on Barton Street East.
After graduating high school, he took courses in fibreglass construction at Hamilton’s Mohawk College so he could work at the boat business Bert had sold to Ken’s brother-in-law, a man Murdock admired for his work ethic. He loved working for him, and it drove his mother crazy.
“She got mad at me for working there because I wasn’t on her side. I said, ‘What side?’”
His mother started asking him for money. He had enough. He left home and got an apartment.
In addition to learning fighting skills, Murdock lifted weights like a demon.
Ultimately, into his 20s, he got to the point where he could bench press 500 pounds and squat 600, like a powerful football player or body builder.
But he wasn’t pounding iron to prove how much he could lift, or for sport.
Murdock had been raised with violence always hovering in his peripheral vision.
He became hard, fast and ready.
You could start the story on Saturday, May 31, 1997.
It is a day when dominoes begin to fall for those dwelling in the revenge-fuelled Mafia underworld, and the impact is felt far beyond Hamilton.
For some death comes swiftly, for others it approaches more slowly.
On that day, in a restaurant on James Street North, a member of a Hamilton crime family urges Murdock to kill 73-year-old Johnny (Pops) Papalia, whose nickname is “The Enforcer,” and who is one of the most prominent figures in the history of the Mob in Canada.
“You want him dead, he’s dead,” Murdock says.
His movements feel robotic, walking away from the restaurant.
Papalia has a vending machine business on Railway Street, an abbreviated dead end in the core. It sits on the property where he was born in 1924, in the neighbourhood where he learned his father’s criminal trade, embracing a brass-knuckled mobster life with his influence extending from Ontario into the U.S. and Quebec, where he was wounded in a Montreal gunfight.
Papalia pulled strings in an infamous New York City heroin ring and was sentenced to 10 years; the crime story was made into the movie “The French Connection” that won Best Picture Oscar in 1972.
“Johnny Pops” had maintained an untouchable aura, and faded into the shadows. He complained of health problems and seemed to spend most of his day in his office watching TV and playing chess.
Still, rumours floated he had a hand in the murders of Toronto mobsters Paul Volpe in 1983, and Enio Mora in 1996.
The meeting in the restaurant is not the first time Ken Murdock has been asked to kill Papalia. He’s been putting it off, and passed up at least two opportunities to do it.
He recently rode an elevator up to Johnny’s Hamilton penthouse, but backed off.
He doesn’t want to shoot him. But it’s complicated.
The same afternoon he vows to take Papalia off the board, Murdock parks his pickup truck near the business on Railway Street.
He knocks on the door. He goes for a walk with Johnny.
Murdock holds the muzzle of his .38 revolver to the back of “The Enforcer’s” head.
He looks away as he pulls the trigger, outside, in broad daylight.
It is not Murdock’s first time killing. The first time had not gone down well.
And he has to figure it will not be the last.
Read Part 2 and Part 3 on thestar.com. Exclusive to Star subscribers.