“The evil that men do lives after them;William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
On February 21, 2022, Gerald M. “Jerry” Tillinghast died of natural causes. Had one taken a bet as to his ultimate manner of death back when Jerry first gained notoriety in Rhode Island, natural causes would have been one of the least most likely choices.
His transformation from a tough kid from South Providence to a combat Marine in Vietnam to his association with organized crime did not lend itself to a non-violent death. Yet Jerry overcame all that stood in his way to survive seventy-five years, succumbing as we all will eventually to inevitable mortality.
If one were to read the news stories of his passing, one comes to see that two Jerry Tillinghast’s died that day.
There is the one forever identified as a “mob enforcer” and linked to crimes for which he was acquitted; and there is the one who was a brother, father, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather raising a family despite the limitations of his imprisonment and enjoying to this day their love and devotion.
This is not an attempt to excuse Jerry’s actions in the past. He has said it himself over and over, “I made my choices and I am living with the consequences.” This is an attempt to point out that injustices against anyone, no matter one’s opinion, are something antithetical to the American Justice system.
In the many articles about his passing, they identify him as one of the Bonded Vault Robbers. He was tried in that case and found not guilty. To paint him as a participant despite his acquittal is to make a mockery of the jury’s decision in this case.
He served his sentence, spending thirty-three years in prison for his conviction in the George Basmajian matter. That is how the system works. You do the crime, you do the time, and then you move on. But the prurient interest on anything mob-related is an indelible mark on his character that ignores our system of justice.
I had a ringside seat to witness the two Jerry Tillinghasts. The one I knew of and the one I came to know in authoring the book with him. During the research for the book, one of the most startling things I discovered was the injustice done to him in Vietnam. And I didn’t form this opinion because of what I learned about the case; I formed this opinion after talking with the former Marine JAG lawyer who defended Jerry during the trial in Vietnam.
When I spoke with this gentleman, he was now retired from an over fifty-year career in the law, including time as the Presiding Justice of the California Court of Appeals. To my astonishment, he remembered every detail of the case, despite the passage of time. He told me with certainty that the case against Jerry was one of the most blatant travesties of justice he had ever experienced, and it troubled him all his life.
That got me thinking about how it is often circumstances outside our control which channel us into paths we might never have otherwise chosen. If what happened to Jerry in Vietnam had not occurred, what might his choices have been?
There will be those who only see the Jerry Tillinghast of the headlines. They will gloss over his acquittal in the Bonded Vault case, claiming he “got away with it.” They will only see what they want to see because it somehow makes them feel better about themselves. There is nothing I can say that will change that.
There are also those who will ignore the reality of the terrible choices Jerry made that sent him down some dark pathways. Their affection blinds them for the Jerry Tillinghast they know. I can do nothing to change that either.
All I can say is that Jerry was more than a headline. He would be the first to tell you he made some terrible choices and lived to regret them. He would be the first to tell you there is no glamour, no honor, no respect in the mobster’s world. He would tell you to think otherwise is to fool yourself.
Jerry would tell you the one truth he knew better than anyone. When you make choices, you live with the consequences. No one forces you to do anything, the choice is always yours.
I have known, like many of you, of one Jerry Tillinghast. I am glad I got to know the other Jerry Tillinghast. He was one of the most memorable people I’ve ever met.