Redemption 50 years in the making takes center stage at Flint Jan. 15

Jan 10, 2019 by

Published January 10, 2019

By DAN PAWLOWSKI

NORTH READING — The story of Rocco Balliro is interesting enough to fill a book.

He was a Boston mobster who was involved in a deadly shootout on Feb. 2, 1963. In Balliro’s words, it was a hastily planned rescue mission that went downhill in a hurry as he and his associates were immediately embroiled in a gunfight with several unseen assailants who ended up being several Boston police officers, waiting in ambush. In the aftermath, his beloved girlfriend, Toby Wagner and her toddler son, Mark, lay dead.

Balliro fled but turned himself in after a few days, ultimately spending 50 years in prison. A couple of prison escapes later, including once during Governor Micheal Dukakis’s Prison Furloughs in the early 80’s and Rocco Balliro found himself across a table from North Reading resident Dan Zimmerman, Toby Wagner’s nephew and Mark’s cousin.

That story, is what makes Zimmerman’s first book, “Shots in the Dark: The Saga of Rocco Balliro” so fascinating.

Though just a toddler in 1963, Zimmerman, a stringer who has written nearly 600 columns for GateHouse Media and currently covers the NRHS boys’ hockey team for the Transcript, was raised with this haunting story, told through his family.

“I decided I was going to try to find out the real story and put it on paper,” said Zimmerman. “I’ve done three radio interviews/podcasts for the book over the past month. Each host asked me the same question: where did this story come from? I grew up with it, but what I grew up with was a story about Rocco Balliro, cold-blooded murderer. He killed my aunt and killed my cousin in a shooting. That was the story I was originally going to write when I went into the prison for the first visit with him, right around my 50th birthday eight years ago. I was going to talk to a guy who killed my aunt and my cousin. It didn’t take very long for him to turn me and provide evidence via affidavits, articles, court documents, etc. to show me that the story I grew up with was inaccurate.”

On Tuesday, January 15, from 7-9 p.m., Zimmerman will be holding an event at the Flint Memorial Library to talk about his book.

Telling the accurate story of Balliro became Zimmerman’s objective.

“So far, readers have told me in their mind they also believe Rocco was innocent of the crime he spent 50 years in prison for,” said Zimmerman.

But after this was accomplished, it became clear that the process itself was a story in its own right. For two years, Zimmerman met with Balliro twice a week at MCI-Norfolk to get the whole story. All, per prison rules, with no notebooks, no pencils, no recorders.

“We would just have a conversation and I would run back to my car after the visit and write down as much as I could remember before it faded.”

That process resulted in Zimmerman corroborating more of the fast-paced stories in the book through letters and additional dialogues. 

“A lot of what went into this book, Rocco had the final say, including the photo on the front cover,” said Zimmerman. “He was very good at formulating his comments into things you could use for quotes. Some of the quotes you see in the book are actually Rocco speaking through a letter.”

What blossomed through all the visits and reams of letters was a totally unexpected friendship. One that lasted all the way to Balliro’s death in January, 2014.

Zimmerman was there through all of it. Through Balliro’s desire to die somewhere other than the prison morgue, which he worked in, to his other wish to not die alone.

In the end, Balliro’s family asked Zimmerman to do the eulogy at Rocco’s funeral. That’s where they found out Zimmerman and his wife, Mary, were there with Rocco when he passed, far away from MCI-Norfolk, at Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. 

“When I read my eulogy at St. Anthony’s Church in Revere, none of them knew that we were bedside,” said Zimmerman. “That was the first time they found out he didn’t die alone and they couldn’t thank us enough to be there for him.”

Zimmerman will certainly give a brief synopsis of his book at the signing on Tuesday, but what will precede the typical questions and answers will be a couple of his trademarked stories.

“People like to hear the backroom, side stories, the how-did-you-do-it type things, so I have a few of those I’m going to share with the audience,” said Zimmerman. “These were things that happened to me personally that don’t appear in the book. There’s a good one where I entered the prison and they forgot to stamp my hand.”

Stamps are changed every day so inmates can’t falsify it.

“Rocco offered me a place to stay,” said Zimmerman with a laugh.

Dan and Mary Zimmerman moved to town last year to be closer to his daughter Danielle, his son-in-law Chris, and his two grandchildren who also live in North Reading. Zimmerman’s first book is dedicated to all of them. 

“Shots in the Dark: The Saga of Rocco Balliro” is available for purchase on Amazon.com. There will also be copies at Tuesday’s book signing available for the discounted price of $15.

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