BOSTON — A Boston church official who claimed in an autobiography he was a leg-breaker for reputed gangster James "Whitey" Bulger faces accusations that he looted the church's assets for personal financial gain.
Federal agents arrested Edward MacKenzie Jr. on Wednesday after a grand jury indicted him on charges including racketeering, extortion, and wire fraud, and well as conspiracy charges involving racketeering, money laundering and mail fraud.
MacKenzie, 54, of Weymouth was the director of operations at the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem Church, whose members are Swedenborgian, a Bible-based denomination.
Federal authorities said MacKenzie started the salaried position in 2003 and "began to systematically loot the church of its considerable financial assets through a combination of fraud, deceit, extortion, theft and bribery."
The indictment also alleged he threatened people who worked at the church, including by giving them signed copies of his 2003 autobiography in which he admitted to crimes that included burglary, robbery, armed assault and drug trafficking.
The voice mailbox at a Weymouth phone listing for MacKenzie was full and would not accept messages. His attorney didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday evening.
Nick Carter, an attorney for the church, said New Jerusalem put MacKenzie on administrative leave three weeks ago before firing him Wednesday.
"The church continues to cooperate fully with law enforcement and remains dedicated to its religious and charitable activities," Carter said, declining to answer other questions.
MacKenzie's arrest wasn't the first sign of friction involving him and the church.
In 2004, the national Swedenborgian church sued MacKenzie and another church official in federal court, alleging they tried to seize control of the Boston church's assets by taking advantage of its mentally-disabled minister. The suit apparently was dismissed that same year.
But the state Attorney General's Office reached an agreement with the Beacon Hill church after disgruntled members complained that new leaders, including MacKenzie, pushed out old members and stacked church boards with cronies to try to cash in on church assets.
Among the agreement's terms were that the church would hire an independent chief financial officer and that the church would let the attorney general review any expense or sale of church property worth more than $10,000.
Later in 2004, MacKenzie pleaded guilty in state court to swindling a 73-year-old woman out of her life savings, saying he didn't want to "roll the dice" with a jury. The woman had met MacKenzie while recovering from a stroke, and had hired him to look for her son who disappeared in the Cayman Islands, even though authorities had told her that her son committed suicide.
Phyllis Karas, the Boston University adjunct professor who helped MacKenzie write the book "Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob," said Wednesday that she hasn't had contact with him in years but was saddened to hear of his arrest.
"I thought that being with the church was such a good thing for him," she said.
While Karas said MacKenzie stands innocent until proven guilty, she added: "I was fooled into thinking his relationship with the church had changed him into something better ... He seemed to be doing all the right things."