He was one of the most notorious hitmen in Boston mob history. He became the first in a rogues gallery of underworld figures to turn government witness against gangsters James “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and their corrupt FBI handlers.
On Thursday, 66-year-old John Martorano is to become a free man after killing 20 people and serving 12 years and two months in an undisclosed federal prison out of state.
He rejected an offer to join the federal witness protection program and has no qualms about returning to the Boston area, according to his brother, James.
”He just wants to keep his head down and be quiet and just get on with his life,” James Martorano said in a telephone interview yesterday. His brother’s plans are “just to mind his own business,” James said.
Martorano’s freedom and return to Boston, however, are a bitter pill for the families of his victims, who were gunned down in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
”I think it is a sad state of affairs where we have to turn to mob hitmen to find the truth about our FBI,” said David Wheeler, pointing out that the 1981 slaying of his father, Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler, remained unsolved until Martorano confessed that he was the triggerman, acting on orders from Bulger and Flemmi.
Attorney James P. Duggan - who represented the family of Boston financier John Callahan, another of Martorano’s victims - said, “How do any of us have any guarantees that he’s not going to murder again? You know he’s a serial murderer. You know he still has scores to settle. It’s unconscionable, really, that he should be released.”
John Martorano will remain under court supervision for five years. As part of his agreement with the government, Martorano will testify later this year at the Florida murder trial of former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr., who is accused of plotting with Bulger and Flemmi in the 1982 gangland slaying of Callahan.
Under a plea agreement with state and federal prosecutors, Martorano was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2004 for killing 10 people in the Boston area in the 1970s on behalf of Bulger’s gang, as well as racketeering, extortion, and money laundering. He also admitted killing eight people in the 1960s, but was never charged with those slayings. He pleaded guilty to Wheeler’s killing in Oklahoma in 1981 and the related slaying of Callahan in Florida.
After getting credit for the time he spent in prison while awaiting trial since his January 1995 arrest on the federal racketeering charges, Martorano will finish his sentence this week.
Retired State Police Colonel Thomas Foley, who spearheaded the Bulger investigation, said that investigators and prosecutors wrestled over whether to cut a deal with Martorano, but agreed it should be done because he helped expose Bulger and Flemmi’s murderous exploits and their corrupt relationship with FBI agents and a high-ranking retired State Police lieutenant.
”No one knows what the future holds, but if we felt he was going to be a danger and continue to go out and do what he was doing, we wouldn’t have gone along with” the deal, Foley said.
He also said that Martorano was not charged with any murders when he was arrested on federal racketeering charges in 1995 and that the 20 slayings had been unsolved until he came forward.
After Martorano and Flemmi were arrested in the 1995 racketeering case, the hitman learned during pretrial hearings that his longtime partners in crime, Bulger and Flemmi, were also longtime FBI informants who fed agents information on rivals in the Mafia and on his own friends, including Martorano. The betrayal prompted Martorano to become a powerful government witness.
His testimony helped lead to the 2002 racketeering conviction of Connolly, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking information to Bulger and Flemmi and warning Bulger to flee just before Bulger’s 1995 racketeering indictment.
Bulger remains one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted.
Martorano’s cooperation also helped prosecutors build a sweeping indictment charging Bulger and Flemmi with 19 slayings. Flemmi pleaded guilty to 10 murders, was sentenced to life in prison, and is now cooperating with the government.
Foley also credited Martorano’s decision to cooperate with prompting other gangsters, including longtime Bulger deputy Kevin J. Weeks, to follow in his path and lead investigators to the secret graves of some of Bulger and Flemmi’s victims.
Martorano, Flemmi, and Weeks are expected to testify when Connolly goes on trial Sept. 17 in Miami in the Callahan slaying. Martorano says Bulger and Flemmi enlisted him to kill Callahan after Connolly warned them that Callahan might implicate them in the Wheeler slaying.
Martorano was also credited with leading investigators to new evidence that helped Peter J. Limone and Joseph Salvati, who served more than 30 years in prison, prove that they had been wrongly convicted of a 1965 gangland murder. A ruling is due soon in a civil suit against the federal government filed on behalf of the two men and two others who died in prison, seeking more than $100 million in damages.
Weeks, who also rejected an offer to join the witness protection program, said Martorano never betrayed his friends. “The world is a different place today and with everything that has been exposed in this case people realize the complexity of the case and the choices that were made based on Bulger and Flemmi’s betrayal,” Weeks said yesterday.