MIDDLESEX - Former State Rep. Tim O’Leary would spurn any hero references, but a recent review of his new whodunit novel could just as aptly be summarizing the Wakefield resident’s story since his disastrous political collapse back in the early 1990s.
“The hero is flawed - and that is just a fact. No apologies, just a guy moving forward and taking advantage of his second chances,” wrote an anonymous Amazon reviewer in an online synopsis of Connor MacNeil, the fictional protagonist in O’Leary’s second political thriller, “Robes”.
A four-year state representative for citizens in Stoneham and Melrose before his conviction in 1991 on embezzlement, perjury, and campaign finance law violations, O’Leary isn’t one to shy from his past.
And though recoiling at the idea of his story being one of redemption, his newest venture as a mystery writer is all about taking advantage of the multitude of second chances given by those closest to him.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to redeem myself. It was the people around me who helped me get here,” the Wakefield resident said matter-of-factly of his long path towards rehabilitation.
“I think of my wife, [Patricia O’Leary]. She could have easily said, ‘You’re out of here,’” the one-time Melrose alderman continued. “I think of guys like Bernie Carey, [the executive director for the Mass. Association for Mental Health]. He hired me [back in 1992], even knowing that I had gone off to the Billerica House of Corrections…So my road back was made so much easier through the loyalty of my family and the kindness of other people.”
O’Leary’s newest novel, ‘Robes’, picks up on the adventures of protagonist Connor McNeil, who was first featured in his debut 2011 political intrigue, “The Day Job”.
Again drawing on his own experiences, particularly the emotions and warped thinking around his own secretive and futile efforts to cover up his own misdeeds decades earlier, O’Leary said his newest work of fiction aims to illustrate that “robes neither make judges just, nor priests devout. They are garments signifying a profession, and can be used to hide who and what the wearer is.”
In the mystery, after a controversial judge is found murdered, the protagonist is unwittingly pulled into a case reaching from the chambers of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to the offices of the Archbishop of Boston, and to a mob boss in the back room of an auto body shop.
“It’s the same main character and I repeat that backstory,” explained O’Leary. “I use my knowledge about the statehouse and about how things work there. Robes is a little different though, because I get into the church and the mob.”
“‘The Day Job’ kind of wrote itself. But this one was much tougher,” added the author, whose sequel touches upon money laundering and the criminal underworld. "My wife and I took several day trips to scout locations for critical scenes. One was the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, and another was to the historic district in New Bedford.”
A great fall and rebound
A Watertown native who obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from Boston College, O’Leary attributes his rise in Massachusetts politics to his wife’s impulse to settle down close to her hometown of Malden.
So it was that after spending two years in California working on criminal appeals’ cases for the Golden State’s attorney general, O’Leary and his spouse were both attracted to a modest home in Melrose in 1972.
Soon after employed as an administrative division lawyer for former Mass. Attorney General Bob Quinn, the young O’Leary found himself in 1974 stumping on the gubernatorial campaign trail for his old boss.
Though Quinn ultimately lost the race to former Mass. Governor Michael Dukakis, O’Leary’s own star was on the rise in Melrose, where political pundits took note of the attorney’s affable personality.
Eventually, the lawyer, whose political rolodex filled out even more after he accepted a job at UMass’s general counsel’s office, would become an alderman in Melrose for two-terms.
Then in 1987, he was elected as state representative.
It was a role that O’Leary relished so much, he soon began neglecting his own law practice as the bills began stacking up.
With his mortgage company sending foreclosure notices, the new statehouse pol in a panic turned to one of his few law firm client’s escrow accounts.
“I was so addicted to being a state rep. that I paid no attention to my law practice and wasn’t making the money I needed for living expenses,” recalled O’Leary.
“I hate to use that word [addicted], because it sounds like I’m making excuses, but I was just so wrapped up in it,” he later said. “Nobody else did this to me. I did it. And I’m always very weary when I talk about my story that people will think I’m making excuses…I’m not. I went to jail and I deserved it,” he elaborated.
That terrible momentary lapse in judgement resulted in a nightmarish years-long scramble to cover-up the improper use of clients’ home closing payments and the misuse of political campaign funds.
Estimating that he used at least $30,000 in campaign contributions to pay for personal expenses and cover the trail from his illicit use of legal accounts, all the while the state representative’s personal financial woes only deepened.
“I was so afraid people like my wife would find out, that people would find out all my secrets. I was getting foreclosure notices on my house and rushing home to get the mail before my wife got home,” the Boston College alumnus recounted.
“I kept on saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’m holding $5,000 for a closing in a month, so I can use that to pay off the mortgage. Then in another month, I’d have to move another $5,000 to cover that,” he added.
By 1991, the whole Ponzi-like scam came crashing down as authorities began investigating the state representative.
Before being officially charged, O’Leary resolved to kill himself, and after leaving a note explaining his plan to his wife and children, he took off on a cross-country trek that brought him to the West Coast and back east by West Virginia.
Though making a half-hearted suicide attempt, the politician eventually realized how crazy his plan was. However, he still thought he had no-one to turn to and nowhere to go.
Believing during that 10-day run that his family and close friends were about to disown him, what the politician didn’t know was that those same people were tracing his gasoline purchases with a credit card in a desperate attempt to save his life.
For years after West Virginia police managed to locate the politician and convince him to return to his family, O’Leary continually found himself shocked by that spirit of forgiveness.
“I loved the job of being state rep. But that was the worst four years of my life. It could have been the best, but I damn near destroyed my marriage and family,” he said.
“The people of Melrose and Stoneham were just extraordinarily kind. Everyone knew I messed up, but I never got the kind of backlash I was so terrified of. People came up to me and said, ‘just keep your head up.’…I know everyone gets support from their family, but mine just went above and beyond.”
Loosely based on true events
For the scandalized politician, who emerged from the Billerica House of Corrections nearly three decades ago in debt and deeply ashamed of his actions, writing an unpublished autobiography of sorts proved cathartic.
Distressed by the thought of someone finding that first tome, which he dubbed “Sullivan’s Time”, O’Leary would trash that 700-page manuscript after stashing it in his attic of his former Melrose home.
But nearly two decades after his release from jail, when the then 65-year-old mental health advocate began flirting with the idea of writing fiction, he again decided to stick with parts of his own story.
So emerged Connor McNeil, the main protagonist of his first book, “The Day Job”.
In the self-published novel, McNeill, a disbarred lawyer and former state representative, is fresh out of jail and unemployed when he stumbles across an opportunity to do some political opposition research on the state’s popular governor.
The protagonist ultimately unearths evidence that the state’s chief executive, a former professional football star, is a hibernating serial killer.
O’Leary once completing his jail sentence in October of 1992 began working for the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, where he often talked to others about his history of depression and suicidal thinking.
He ultimately became the deputy director of the non-profit agency, before retiring after a 23-years career. Selling his home in Melrose and briefly living in Cape Cod after his retirement, he and his wife of 53 years, Patricia, moved to Wakefield in order to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Both “Robes” and O’Leary’s first novel can be purchased on Amazon in both paperback and e-reader versions. The mystery novels can also be purchased at the Book Oasis in Stoneham Square at 311 Main St.