MIAMI - Ending a chapter in Boston history that has cast a shadow on the FBI for more than a decade, a Florida jury convicted retired agent John J. Connolly Jr. yesterday of second-degree murder for plotting with informants James “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi to kill a potential witness against them 26 years ago.
Connolly, 68, who retired from the FBI in 1990, sat beside his lawyers, staring expressionless at the six women and six men as they announced the verdict that means he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
After seven weeks of testimony and 13 hours of deliberation, the jury found Connolly guilty in the 1982 Florida slaying of Boston business consultant John B. Callahan, a 45-year-old accountant and former president of World Jai Alai who fraternized with gangsters.
The conviction marks the complete fall from grace of the once-decorated agent who is already serving a 10-year prison term for his 2002 federal racketeering conviction for helping Bulger, one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, to evade capture and for protecting him and Flemmi from prosecution.
”Unless we catch Whitey Bulger, this ends what is really a sad chapter in the history of law enforcement in Boston,” said Fred Wyshak, a federal prosecutor from Boston who led a wave of criminal prosecutions that exposed the FBI’s corrupt relationship with Bulger and Flemmi. He teamed with Florida prosecutors to bring Connolly to trial for murder.
”Hopefully this will never happen again,” said Wyshak, referring to the alliance between the FBI and Bulger and Flemmi, two of Boston’s most prolific killers, whose relationship triggered congressional hearings, a revision of the FBI’s informant guidelines and a series of civil and criminal cases.
”That was the point of this investigation, making sure this never happens again,” Wyshak told reporters in the courthouse hallway.
The verdict brought some relief to Callahan’s widow, who said during a telephone interview that she and her children have waited 26 years for answers to questions about how and why he was slain.
”Bulger is the worst thing that ever happened to Boston,” said Mary Callahan, adding that Connolly “was good at his job until he got touched by Whitey.”
”He chose to do the wrong thing, and he’s going to pay for it,” she said. “Unfortunately, so will his family.”
Connolly’s defense team, which had argued that he was just doing his job when he used Bulger and Flemmi as informants to help decimate the New England Mafia, vowed to appeal the verdict and said he had been smeared by evidence of alleged wrongdoing and corruption unrelated to Callahan’s killing.
”I think the jury reached a verdict of guilty because of all the uncharged bad acts that were introduced,” said defense attorney Manuel L. Casabielle. “Obviously some of the mud did stick.”
Though Connolly was charged only with murder, prosecutors were allowed to present additional evidence to try to prove that the former agent was corrupt.
Jurors were given a stark view of Boston’s underworld, FBI corruption, and murder through a rogue’s gallery of witnesses that included Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for 10 killings; former hitman John Martorano, who is free after serving 12 years for 20 murders; gangster-turned-author Kevin Weeks, who served five years for assisting Bulger in five killings; and John Morris, a former FBI supervisor who admitted taking $7,000 in bribes from Bulger and Flemmi and leaking information to them.
Casabielle said he thought the verdict was probably a compromise by jurors, who found Connolly not guilty of first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory life sentence, or conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Instead, they agreed on the lesser charge of second-degree murder with the use of a gun.
But Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft, who prosecuted the case with Wyshak, said he believes that Connolly’s second-degree murder conviction means that jurors understand “there was a total disregard for human life if he’s giving out that information” that sealed Callahan’s fate.
Prosecutors said Connolly faces 30 years to life in prison. But Casabielle said he will argue that current sentencing guidelines, which were not in place at the time of the 1982 slaying, should not apply. He said he will urge the judge to sentence Connolly to far less.
Judge Stanford Blake scheduled sentencing for Dec. 4.
During the trial, 74-year-old Flemmi testified that Connolly warned him and Bulger that the FBI planned to question Callahan and said he “wouldn’t hold up” and would probably implicate the gangsters in the 1981 slaying of World Jai Alai president Roger Wheeler.
It was Callahan, Flemmi and Martorano said, who persuaded the gangsters to kill Wheeler when he refused to sell his company to Callahan and several partners.
In some of the most chilling testimony, Martorano coolly recounted how he lured Callahan to Florida and shot him in the back of the head.
Callahan’s body was found in the trunk of his car at Miami International Airport on Aug. 2, 1982.
Flemmi testified that Connolly, who grew up in the same South Boston housing project as Bulger, was like another member of their gang. He said that over two decades, Connolly took $235,000 in payoffs from him and Bulger and routinely provided them with information, including tips that prompted them to kill Callahan and two FBI informants, one in 1976 and one in 1982.
US District Senior Judge Edward F. Harrington, who sits in Boston, testified that Connolly was a star agent who was credited with using informants to help decimate the New England Mafia.
Yesterday after the jurors left, Connolly hugged his brother, James, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent, and held his sister Sally’s hand. He declined to comment, saying his lawyers urged him not to talk.
Then he changed from the dark suit coat, tan pants, shirt, and tie back into his red prison jumpsuit and was led down the hallway in shackles and handcuffs, heading back to the local jail where he has been in solitary confinement since his murder indictment 3 1/2 years ago.