PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – After years working the dangerous streets of Washington D.C. as a police officer, Gregory Adams decided to take a job in a sleepy town 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh.
For seven years in the 1970s, Adams worked as one of just two cops in Saxonburg, Pa., a town of just 1,000 people. He eventually became the chief of police.
It was under his tenure the town was rocked by its first-ever homicide: his own.
What has followed in the 35 years since Adams was shot twice in the chest during a routine traffic stop has been an unsuccessful, international manhunt for a man with ties to the New England mob.
Donald Eugene Webb would be 84 years-old now, and rumors about what happened to him – including his death at the hands of the mob he worked for – have circulated for decades.
But the FBI special agent assigned to tracking Webb down believes he’s still alive, and now the feds are offering up $100,000 for any information leading to Webb, dead or alive.
Webb came to New England by way of a dishonorable discharge. Originally from Oklahoma City, Webb made his way east when he was assigned to Otis Airforce Base on Cape Cod, Mass.
Special Agent Thomas MacDonald said Webb decided to stick around and landed in the New Bedford and Fall River area.
“He chose to make a living in a criminal fashion and that way was through conducting burglaries, primarily of jewelry stores,” MacDonald said during an interview at the Boston office of the FBI. “When you steal jewels, at least back in those days, you need to re-sell them in order to make a profit, and the best way at that time to fence those jewels was through the assistance of organized crime.”
Multiple organized crime sources interviewed by Target 12 – all of whom asked to not be identified – described Webb as quiet and mild-mannered, but a master at his craft. And he proved to be a moneymaker for the Patriarca crime family as well as an organized crime outfit in the Miami area, where he would also fence his ill-gotten gains.
According to a 1955 article in the Providence Journal, Webb was arrested in Boston after a failed bank robbery there. Going by one of his aliases, Donald Perkins, Webb told a reporter he owed a $1,500 gambling debt to one of mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca’ s bookmakers.
“I was told by a member of the Patriarca mob that I had until Thursday to get the money or else,” Webb told the reporter. “Patriarca is ‘mayor’ of Providence.”
After serving time at Walpole state prison for the botched robbery, investigators say Webb got his criminal act together and began looting jewelry stores and banks outside New England, then liquidating the goods through the Federal Hill mob.
Webb and his gang of thieves – which the FBI unceremoniously dubbed “The Fall River Gang” – hit the road to practice their craft. They would travel up and down the east coast, including Pennsylvania and New York, to rob jewelry stores, banks and hotels.
Peter McCann, a retired FBI agent from Pennsylvania who worked the Webb case in the years following Chief Adams’ murder, said Webb and his gang would do their homework on people staying at high-end hotels.
“They always had an inside guy, like the guy at the desk,” McCann said. “So he gets a high roller in there and they know when the woman has all the jewelry, they tip [Webb] off to what room they’re in.”
Retired Pennsylvania State Police Detective James Poydence said Webb usually ran with an alarm-system expert on his crew, and on at least one occasion, cut a hole in the roof of a jewelry shop when it was closed to clean it out.
All that loot would be returned to Providence, and expertly fenced, with the appropriate cut off the top for the wise guys.
While Webb was very good at what he did, he wasn’t perfect. In the mid-seventies, he had a two-year stint at a federal prison in upstate New York for a bank robbery there.
Then in December 1980, Webb was once again a wanted man, this time for a jewelry store job, again in New York. He was driving his rental car with out-of-state plates through Saxonburg when he was pulled over by Chief Adams.
The driver’s license Webb handed to Adams had someone else’s name on it. But whatever the chief did during the stop – or the questions he asked the stranger in his town – spooked Webb, and he reacted violently.
‘He was going to find out all about this guy’
What exactly about the White Mercury with Massachusetts’ plates prompted Chief Adams to pull it over will never be known. Detective Poydence said an elderly woman sitting in her living room knitting and looking out the window saw the white car pull into the parking lot – possibly to avoid being spotted by the cruiser driving toward him from the opposite direction – and was about to leave the lot again when Chief Adams pulled in.
Webb handed Adams a New Jersey license with the name Stanley Portas. The real Stanley Portas had died years ago, but the FBI said his widow had remarried Donald Eugene Webb.
“Greg [Adams] was a professional cop, no nonsense,” Poydence said. “He was going to find out all about this guy. He was going to find out Webb was wanted somewhere.”
Special Agent MacDonald said it was likely the prospect of going back to prison that motivated Webb to pull out a gun.
“[Webb] was 49 years old at the time of this car stop,” MacDonald said. “If the small-town police chief was going to identify and learn who he actually was, he was going back to prison and going back to prison for a long time.”
Webb brandished a .25 caliber handgun and tracks in the snow indicate he told Chief Adams to move away from the car and around the side of a building. Poydence said the evidence in the snow then showed a struggle ensued. Adams was beat violently to the face, likely with a handgun. At some point Webb was able to grab Adams’ service revolver.
“There were bloody handprints in the snow where a struggle obviously had occurred,” Poydence said.
Investigators say Adams was shot twice in the chest with Webb’s handgun.
Webb had been hurt too. It’s unclear how, but it is possible he was shot to the leg, either by Webb himself during the struggle, or by Adams getting a round off before his gun was taken away by the much-larger Webb.
“There was a blood trail from the open police cruiser door … to where the door of the Mercury would have been entered,” Poydence said.
The blood was Webbs’.
Investigators say he went to the cruiser after shooting Adams to rip out the microphone for the two-way radio, likely in case the chief was still alive and wanted to call for help. The top page of Adam’s notebook was also torn out.
The elderly woman never saw the violent struggle – as it was out of her view – but she watched the white Mercury drive out of the parking lot, alone.
A neighbor nearby said she was vacuuming when her teenage son ran to her saying he thought he heard gunshots. They went outside to find Chief Adams lying in the snow, moaning.
When police arrived, Adams was unable to identify his killer. He died on the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.
Detectives later found the driver’s license Webb handed to Adams in the snow and the .25 caliber handgun Adams was shot with, but the chief’s gun was missing.
“Anyone in law enforcement can relate to what happened to Chief Adams on that day,” MacDonald said. “He made a vehicle stop and lost his life.”
Months later, as winter’s grasp started to loosen its grip on Pennsylvania, a group of kids found Adam’s rusting handgun in the melting snow in a field as they walked home from school.
By then, the white Mercury rental car had been recovered in the parking lot of Howard Johnson’s hotel in Warwick, R.I., and Webb’s blood was all over the driver’s side floor.
“He made it back to New England, he made it back to Rhode Island,” MacDonald said. “Now we need to know who knows what happened next.”
Dead or Alive
Police believe Webb wasn’t alone when he returned to Rhode Island. His longtime partner in crime, Frank Lach, originally of Cranston, made the drive back from Pennsylvania with Webb, authorities believe. It’s unclear if he was with Webb at the time of the shooting. He has never been implicated nor charged in the homicide.
Lach certainly had his interactions with law enforcement after the death of Chief Adams: he served time for burglary, stolen goods and conspiracy throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Federal Bureau of Prison records show Lach was released from prison in 2000 and indicate he’s still alive, now 75 years old.
Webb’s wife at the time of the murder, Lillian Webb, is still living in the New Bedford area. Records from the Bristol County Probate and Family court show she divorced Webb in Sept. 2005. The cause listed in the paperwork is “desertion.”
No one came to the door of her North Dartmouth home when a reporter paid a visit. She later returned a call saying she wasn’t interested in talking about the case.
“I don’t know anything and can’t help you out,” Lillian Webb said just before hanging up.
She has been questioned repeatedly over the last 35 years about the whereabouts of her now-former husband.
Two years after the murder of Chief Adams, Detective Poydence and others flew up from Pennsylvania to question Lillian Webb. She had retained famed criminal defense Attorney John F. Cicilline, whose client list included ruthless mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca.
“We called Cicilline and he said we could come to his office and we could meet with Mrs. Webb,” Poydence said.
They booked a flight and flew to Providence. Poydence said when they arrived at Cicilline’s office, Lillian Webb was there as promised.
“I told her we were there to talk to her about her husband,” Poydence said. “She said ‘Mr. Cicilline has instructed me not to speak to you guys.”
The crew was stunned.
“It was like, wow,” Poydence said. “‘Why didn’t you tell us on the phone?'”
Cicilline has not responded to repeated requests for comment from Target 12.
Several organized crime sources said the rumor on the street was Webb was killed by the very people he made money for: the New England mob.
One of the theories is Webb had a disagreement with a wise guy over a robbery. Another is he was murdered because he brought unwanted attention on La Cosa Nostra by law enforcement for killing a police chief.
McCann, the retired special agent, said it’s entirely possible the mob was involved in Webb’s disappearance.
“If he was a pain in [their] backside, he could have been killed just to stop the heat,” McCann said. “But if they wanted to send a message, we’d find him.”
For McCann’s part, he says its “60/40” Webb is still alive.
‘They’re not over it’
Five months to the day that Chief Adams was murdered, the FBI put Webb on their “Top Ten Most Wanted” list. The case was profiled on the television program “America’s Most Wanted” and “Unsolved Mysteries.”
There was a glimmer of hope in 1990 when a letter was sent to then-FBI Director William Sessions penned by someone claiming to be Webb. According to newspaper accounts, the letter apologized for the murder and claimed Webb was considering turning himself in. At the time, the letter was deemed credible, but leads never materialized and now there is doubt that it was written by Webb.
He was removed from the FBI’s most wanted list in 2007, replaced by a new wave of alleged murderers and terrorists.
But the FBI has renewed their efforts, marking the 35th anniversary of the Pennsylvania homicide with a $100,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of Webb, or to his remains.
Special Agent MacDonald said his gut tells him Webb is still alive, because a tipster would be more willing to come forward with information about someone who is dead.
“I still think someone out there knows where he is and how we can locate him, which is why the increase in reward to $100,000.” MacDonald said. “Let’s be honest, this case is in the ninth inning here; Mr. Webb is 84 years old and the time we have to locate him and take him into custody diminishes by the week.”
If he is dead, the FBI would use DNA testing to determine the identity of the remains.
This past summer, MacDonald paid a visit to Saxonburg and to the scene of the crime. The murder – even 35 years later – still hangs like a cloud over the small town.
“They’re still not over it I can tell you that,” MacDonald said. “This is a case where to lose a young police chief in small town America is something that a home town has a hard time getting by and they just want this case to be resolved.”
MacDonald said Adams’ wife still lives in the area and his kids are now parents themselves.
“His children and his grandchildren want someone who knows something to do the right thing,” he said.
Susan Elaine Haggerty was an administrative assistant for the district court in Saxonburg when Adams was shot and used to interact with him on a daily basis. The day of the shooting, the court was loaded with police officers handling cases, she said. The building emptied out when the call came in that an officer was hurt.
“We were shocked,” Haggerty said in a phone interview. She is now a magisterial judge in the same courthouse.
“We didn’t expect something like that in a small community,” she said. “Nothing like that had ever happened before around here or anywhere that I know of.”
And nothing since.
Adams was the first homicide Saxonburg was ever rocked with and, 35 years later, it remains the last.
For her part, Haggerty thinks Webb is dead, because detectives and agents worked too hard over the decades and “they would have been able to find him if he was alive.”
“I hope I’m wrong and I hope they ultimately find him… but I don’t know,” she said, pausing. “It would be a wonderful thing to happen.”
Anyone with information regarding Webb’s whereabouts can call the FBI tip line: 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324)