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In his later years, people would sometimes ask Thomas G. “Tommy” Gascoyne what he had done for a living.

“I’m a retired gangster,” he would answer with a sly smile.

Only Gascoyne could know for sure about the “retired” part, but he really was a gangster – a colorful, wily master thief. And, according to police, he probably got away with thousands of nonviolent crimes in a Buffalo-area career of lawlessness that lasted more than 50 years.

Gascoyne, who also spent time working as an undercover informant and helped police and FBI agents make nearly 200 arrests, died Sunday in his West Side home after a long illness. He was 88.

“He reveled in his reputation as a master criminal,” said one of his daughters, Angel Tomczak, of Amherst. “He was never ashamed of being Tommy Gascoyne. He was never ashamed of the life he lived.

“I was never ashamed to be his daughter. To me, he was a wonderful father.”

A Buffalo native, Gascoyne was born July 12, 1925, and grew up on the West Side and in Riverside. He was known as a burglar, arsonist, car thief and insurance fraud artist with close ties to organized crime. And he also was known as Thomas Murray.

Gascoyne long contended that he had committed thousands of crimes but only got caught for a few of them, and he was never convicted of a felony until he was nearly 70 years old.

During the mid-1970s, he went undercover for police in a sting operation that resulted in 181 convictions and uncovered crimes that cost victims $7 million, according to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

He joined the Federal Witness Protection Program in 1978, and with help from the FBI, moved to Chesapeake, Va., where he worked as a handyman. But in 1985, Gascoyne got into trouble again, when Virginia police accused him of running a major burglary ring.

Gascoyne fled to Buffalo, and he was captured at a West Side home in August 1985, shooting himself in the belly just as FBI agents were breaking down the doors to arrest him.

“I was there when it happened. I was 17,” Tomczak recalled. “Just before he shot himself, he said, ‘They’ll never take me alive.’ ”

Gascoyne survived the shooting and wound up pleading guilty to a stolen-property charge in Virginia. And he lived 28 more years.

Two retired law enforcement officials remember him well.

“He was a very accomplished individual,” said Donald E. Hartnett, a retired FBI special agent who investigated Gascoyne and also used him as an informant. “Tommy could take a car apart and put it back together again. He committed a lot of burglaries, and he was a mentor to a lot of younger burglars. He did a lot of good and a lot of bad.”

Gascoyne’s crimes included corrupting some local police officers, recalled Edward C. Cosgrove, a Buffalo lawyer who was Erie County’s DA from 1974 until 1981.

As an undercover operative, Gascoyne helped Cosgrove’s office solve hundreds of crimes, but in an interview this week, Cosgrove stopped far short of calling Gascoyne a hero.

“Good gracious, no. … I’d call him an enemy of the people,” Cosgrove said. “He was a wily, clever and intelligent criminal. … He was very dangerous – not in a violent way, but in the way he influenced certain people in the law enforcement community.”

Gascoyne last made local news reports in November 1995, when he entered state prison at age 70 to begin serving a sentence of at least two years for burglarizing a Town of Tonawanda home in 1993.

At the time, he insisted to The Buffalo News that he was innocent of the burglary and that a “kangaroo court” had convicted him. He contended that police unfairly targeted him because of his other criminal exploits.

“I didn’t do anything,” Gascoyne said in an interview after the Tonawanda arrest. “It’s my name – Gascoyne. That’s what did it.”

After that last conviction, Gascoyne lived an exemplary life, according to his daughter. She said he lived on the West Side, worked as a handyman and doted on his grandchildren. She said Gascoyne loved going to garage sales and reselling some of the items he had purchased.

“I never heard him tell his grandkids, ‘Don’t commit crimes like I did,’ but I think he would tell them stories about all the things he was involved in because he didn’t want them to go down the same path,” said Tomczak, who works as an accountant. “He wasn’t ashamed of what he did, but he didn’t want them to do those things.”

Many of his relatives were estranged from Gascoyne because of his criminal reputation, Tomczak said.

“He taught me some good habits and some bad ones,” she said. “He taught me never to sit at a restaurant with your back to the door. He could crack open the combination lock on a safe faster than my husband could open it with the combination.”

Tomczak said Gascoyne was essentially “kicked out” of the federal Witness Protection Program after getting into trouble in Virginia.

“After that, he lived in Buffalo and never tried to hide who he was from anyone,” she said.

After helping put dozens, if not hundreds, of criminals in prison, was Gascoyne ever targeted for retribution?

His daughter was never aware of any violence or threats directed at him. In fact, she said, she and her father attended a Buffalo wedding about 10 years ago, and many of Buffalo’s most notorious mobsters were at the same wedding.

Some well-known members of Buffalo’s Mafia family “sat two tables away from us. They didn’t talk to my dad, but they didn’t harass him, either,” she said.

Hartnett offered another explanation of why Gascoyne survived.

“He never really helped us put any of the top, most powerful mob people in jail,” he said.

According to his daughter, Gascoyne is survived by his third wife, Joanne Murray Gascoyne; seven sons, Bill Gascoyne, Thomas Gascoyne Jr., Glenn Gascoyne, Daniel Gascoyne, Scott Murray, Tracy Murray and Salvatore Mancuso; and another daughter, April Murray.

Private services are being arranged.

“Let’s hope he’s in heaven and that he repented and said his acts of contrition,” said Cosgrove, a devout Catholic. “Let’s hope he did some good in his later years to gain his peace after death.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com