James Coonan was born in 1946 in the Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan area of New York City.
The war began when James "Jimmy C" Coonan, an 18-year-old Irish hood, had sworn revenge against Michael "Mickey" Spillane, the boss of Hell's Kitchen. The vendetta was undertaken for two reasons: the first was the Spillane initiated kidnapping and pistol whipping of Coonan's father. The second reason was that Spillane had an open affair with Coonan's mother. Coonan's whole purpose was to restore his father's honor. The "war" began in 1966 when the younger Coonan purchased an automatic machine gun and fired off a magazine from the top of a Hell's Kitchen tenement building at Spillane and his associates. Although Coonan failed to murder Spillane and his followers, not even wounding one man, Spillane received the word that the younger hoodlum was not to be taken lightly.
Coonan was imprisoned for a short period of time because of murder and kidnapping charges that were pleaded down to a Class E Disorderly Conduct Felony Charge and a Class C Manslaughter Felony Charge. He was released in late 1971 and continued on with his war and his criminal career. He and his gang of young Irish hoods began kidnapping, beating, and murdering Spillane loyalists. Coonan soon enlisted a 24-year-old Vietnam Vet by the name of Francis "Mickey" Featherstone as his right-hand man in his war against Spillane. The war became so intense that citizens of Hell's Kitchen had to choose sides. Those who took Spillane's side were subject to beatings, kidnappings, store vandalism, and robberies, all at the hands of Coonan's younger generation of Irish hoods. Those who chose Coonan's side were immune from these harsh activities because Spillane's gang was much older and more respectable.
Coonan formed the more powerful crew and took the neighborhood over from Spillane. Spillane eventually went into hiding and was killed by the Gambino crime family (rumored to have been at the hands of Roy DeMeo) as a favor to Coonan.
During the late 1970s, Coonan tightened his alliance between the Westies and the Gambino organization, then run by Paul Castellano. Coonan's main contact was Roy DeMeo, who had brought him word of Spillane's assassination. With Coonan's cunning and Featherstone's reputation, the two men ensured a notoriously vicious stranglehold on the already brutal racketeering circles of Hell's Kitchen. In 1979 both Coonan and Featherstone were acquitted of the murder of a bartender, Harold Whitehead. Another Westie, Jimmy McElroy, was acquitted of the murder of a Teamster in 1980.
Even as both Westies leaders were imprisoned in 1980—Coonan on gun possession charges, Featherstone on a federal counterfeiting rap—the gambling, loansharking, and union shakedowns continued on the streets of the West Side. After DeMeo himself was murdered, Coonan's Gambino family connection became Danny Marino, a capo from Brooklyn. Coonan eventually interacted directly with John Gotti, who took over the Gambino Family after the murder of Castellano in December 1985. From time to time, the Westies worked for the Gambino Family as a contract killer squad.
Bad blood between Coonan and Featherstone, in part due to Featherstone's distaste for Coonan's Italian mob connections, eventually led to Featherstone being framed for the murder of Michael Holly, a construction worker and neighborhood bar owner who refused to give the Westies "protection money." Holly became an enemy of the Westies gang when an off-duty policeman saw John Bokun shoot Michael Holly in Holly's bar. The policeman shot and killed John Bokun and the Westies blamed Holly for the death. Holly was murdered in broad daylight on West 35th Street in April, 1985 by Westie member, and John's brother Billy Bokun, while wearing a wig and moustache to impersonate Featherstone, and renting a car identical to the one Featherstone was driving.
Featherstone was convicted in early 1986 and began cooperating with the government in hopes of getting the murder conviction overturned. The information he and his wife Sissy provided, and the recordings they helped make, achieved this aim. In September 1986 the prosecutor who oversaw Featherstone's conviction in the Holly frame told the presiding judge that post-conviction investigation had revealed Featherstone was innocent of that particular crime. The judge immediately overturned the verdict.
At that point the information provided by the Featherstones resulted in the arrest of Coonan and several other Westies on state charges of murder and other crimes. Shortly afterward, federal prosecutor Rudolph Giulianiannounced a devastatingRacketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act(RICO) indictment against Coonan and others for criminal activities going back twenty years. Featherstone testified in open court for four weeks in the trial that began in September 1987 and concluded with major convictions in 1988. Jimmy Coonan was sentenced to sixty years in prison on assorted charges. Other leading gang members were also sentenced to long prison terms, including James "Jimmy Mac" McElroy, a top enforcer who was sentenced to 60 years, and Richard "Mugsy" Ritter, a career criminal sentenced to 40 years imprisonment on loan-sharkingand drug related charges.
He lived with his wife, Edna, in Hazlet, New Jersey before his incarceration.