This Spotlight Team 5-part series was prepared by editor Gerard O’Neill and reporters Dick Lehr, Michell Zuckoff, and Shelley Murphy. This installment was written by Murphy.
At the dawn of his deal with the FBI, James “Whitey’’ Bulger was an angry leg breaker at a Dedham restaurant looking to collect an unpaid loan. Leaning across a table, he gave the owner a choice: Pay, or have his ears cut off and stuffed in his mouth.
Restaurateur Francis X. Green told his story to the FBI, expecting protection and prosecution. But Bulger had an ace in the hole. He worked for the FBI.
Looking back, the 1976 incident at the Back Side Restaurant was a turning point. An extortion case, built on a credible, cooperative witness, might have stopped Bulger and his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, from launching a 15-year crime spree.
Instead, the FBI did nothing, sending a powerful message to two of the region’s most ruthless organized crime figures: As long as you’re with us, we won’t bother you.
As a result, Bulger and Flemmi became sanctioned career criminals while spying on the underworld for the FBI. Despite solid evidence indicating Bulger and Flemmi were involved in murders, shakedowns, and drug dealing, the FBI looked the other way throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
It made no difference who the victims were, fellow wise guys or innocent people. And it didn’t matter if the victims were willing to cooperate with the FBI or were scared silent. In some cases, the bureau even helped the gangsters by leaking information to them about ongoing investigations.
Recent court testimony shows the deflected cases ranged from the momentous to the mundane, but the consistent thread running through most of them is the involvement of Bulger’s handler, former FBI agent John Connolly of South Boston.
Some potential cases that went nowhere:
- In 1982, a wise guy turned FBI informant was gunned down after Connolly, according to testimony, told Bulger and Flemmi that the man had implicated them in a string of gangland slayings and the murder of an Oklahoma businessman.
- In 1984, a Boston police detective told Connolly that Bulger and Flemmi were trying to seize a liquor store owned by the detective’s relatives with a “can’t refuse’’ offer. But Connolly did not report the incident to superiors and, within days, Bulger sent word to the victims that he knew they had complained to the FBI and warned them to “back off.’’
- In the late 1980s, FBI agents John Newton and Roderick Kennedy failed to document or follow up on a realtor’s claim that a gun-toting Bulger threatened to stuff him in a body bag if the realtor didn’t pay him $50,000.
- In 1988, another FBI agent, supervisor John Morris, who had pocketed $7,000 in payoffs from Bulger, warned Bulger and Flemmi that the FBI had tapped the telephone of a Roxbury bookmaker who worked for them. While indictments resulted from the wiretap, including some Boston policemen for taking payoffs, Bulger and Flemmi went untouched.
Although there is evidence that Connolly protected Bulger and Flemmi, he was not alone. Supervisors and fellow agents often were swayed by his claim there was insufficient evidence to target the pair or that they were too valuable to the FBI.
For example, FBI agent James Blackburn testified he never pursued allegations that Bulger was shaking down a South Boston drug dealer in 1988 after Connolly told him it wasn’t true. And agent James J. Lavin III testified that in 1987 he ignored evidence that city workers erected guardrails on private property outside the South Boston liquor store controlled by Bulger after Connolly reminded him that Bulger was an indispensable informant.
In the end, Bulger and Flemmi were always suspects, but never defendants; always informants, never targets.
Last April, Connolly refused to testify at federal court hearings exploring the FBI’s controversial relationship with Bulger and Flemmi, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. In interviews, he has accused other agents of lying when they testified critically about his handling of Bulger and Flemmi.
“I’m not a rogue agent,’’ Connolly said recently. “Anything I ever did, I did lawfully. I have no trouble with what I did. I did it for the FBI, all the way to D.C. , constant oversight.’’
But the record now shows that the deal -- protection for information -- left the bureau shortchanged, co-opted, and compromised.
In a telling aside during recent testimony, one of Connolly’s closest associates in the bureau, former agent Nicholas Gianturco, talked about entertaining Bulger and Flemmi at his Peabody home. “I felt comfortable having them to the house,’’ he said. “It was not an adversarial relationship.’’
All together in one room
It was an improbable convergence of characters that put two of the region’s top prosecutors under the same roof in Dedham with three gangsters while the hoodlums were extorting the owner of the establishment across the room.
In late 1976, then-Norfolk County District Attorney William Delahunt had just ordered dinner at the Back Side Restaurant and was awaiting the arrival of Martin Boudreau, a law school classmate and federal prosecutor, when he looked up to see another old acquaintance approaching his table.
It was Johnny Martorano, a well-known gangster who had attended grammar school with Delahunt in Quincy. Martorano and two other men had just entered the restaurant. While his companions moved to a cocktail table near the bar, Martorano chatted with Delahunt about the different paths they had taken since their school days, joking that there was more honor in his world than among bankers and lawyers. Flemmi joined the conversation briefly.
After Delahunt went back to his meal and was joined by Boudreau, the number-two prosecutor in the Federal Organized Crime Strike Force, the restaurant owner was summoned to sit with Bulger, Flemmi, and Martorano to talk about a serious arrearage of $175,000. According to later investigative reports, it was Bulger who delivered the pay-or-die ultimatum.
A few weeks later, Delahunt learned what really had brought his old schoolmate to Dedham. Delahunt said Edward Harrington, former chief of the New England Organized Crime Strike Force, called to tell him that Bulger and his friends had threatened Green, the restaurant owner, over an unpaid loan. And he said Green feared Martorano had connections to Delahunt after seeing them banter that night.
After reassuring Harrington he had no ties to Martorano, Delahunt said prosecutors assigned to his office interviewed Green and later turned the case file over to the FBI. Green, who declined to be interviewed by the Globe, is quoted in investigative reports as saying Bulger and Flemmi threatened to kill him if he didn’t repay a loan from a Boston credit union.
“It’s our money,’’ Bulger told Green, threatening to “positively kill him’’ and mutilate his face, according to an FBI report. Ears off, eyes out.
FBI agents Thomas Daly and Peter Kennedy interviewed Green on Oct. 13, 1977, and noted in their report that Flemmi told Green that nobody would get hurt if he made arrangements with the woman at the credit union who handled the loan. They wanted a $25,000 installment immediately.
In a recent interview with the Globe, Rita Tobias of Belmont confirmed that she loaned Green money through the finance company -- but said the amount was closer to $20,000. She insisted she doesn’t know Bulger or Flemmi and hadn’t gone to them for help.
The following year, Green became a star government witness, but not against Bulger or his friends. Federal prosecutors used Green’s testimony in an unrelated public corruption case to win a tax-evasion and bribery conviction against a Boston official. Bulger and Flemmi went unpunished and unchallenged.
Months after turning the Green case over to the FBI, Delahunt, now a Massachusetts congressman, said he asked Jeremiah T. O’Sullivan, chief of the New England Organized Crime Strike Force, what became of the investigation and was told: “It just didn’t work out.’’ O’Sullivan’s lawyer, Hugh Scott, declined comment on the incident, saying it would be inappropriate because of the ongoing federal hearings.
Harrington, now a federal judge, was working as a lawyer for a private law firm in Boston when Green reported his threatening encounter with Bulger and Flemmi in 1976. The following year, Harrington became US Attorney for Massachusetts, a job he held when his public corruption squad used Green to make a case against the Boston official.
Today, when asked about his role in the Green case and why it never led to charges against Bulger or Flemmi, Harrington said, “In view of the fact that I am a federal judge and wish not to be involved in a proceeding before another federal judge, I decline to comment on the matter.’’
Bulger implicated, mobster killed
Brian Halloran was a dead man. And the FBI knew it.
Just a few days before Halloran was gunned down along the Boston waterfront, an FBI official whispered to then-US Attorney William F. Weld, “I would not want to be standing next to this guy.’’
In fact, the FBI’s decision to deny Halloran entry into its witness protection program may have cost Halloran his life.
Halloran was awaiting trial for the murder of a drug dealer in January 1982 when he walked into the FBI’s Boston office and announced he wanted to cooperate against Bulger and Flemmi because he feared they were trying to kill him.
He offered to “go all the way’’ against the two, but wanted immunity from prosecution and protection for himself and his family, according to the FBI report. A member of the Winter Hill gang who had frequent dealings with Bulger and Flemmi, Halloran told a tale of murder and mayhem.
For openers, he described how he dropped off South Boston bookmaker Louis Litif at Triple O’s tavern on April 12, 1980, for an after-hours meeting with Bulger. Moments later, Halloran said, he watched as Bulger and an associate lugged Litif’s plastic-wrapped body out the back door of the South Boston bar and dumped it into the trunk of Litif’s new Lincoln. The car and the body were later found in the South End.
Then Halloran moved on to another bloody murder scene, this one in Oklahoma. He claimed he could help solve the shooting death of millionaire Roger Wheeler, the Telex Corp. chairman who was shot to death on May 27, 1981, outside an exclusive Tulsa country club.
Wheeler had bought World Jai Alai (WJA) three years earlier and suspected Somerville’s Winter Hill gang of skimming profits from the company’s operation in Connecticut.
Halloran claimed that his friend, John Callahan, former president of WJA, summoned him to a meeting with Bulger and Flemmi in January 1981 at Callahan’s Boston waterfront apartment.
Halloran said Callahan asked him to murder Wheeler, who suspected that employees who remained loyal to Callahan were doing the skimming. Later, Halloran said, Callahan told him he wasn’t needed and the murder was carried out by Bulger, Flemmi, and John Martorano.
Despite the significance of Halloran’s account, authorities in Oklahoma say the FBI in Boston never shared it with them.
Instead, FBI agent Morris said he passed along word to Connolly that Halloran was cooperating with another squad in the FBI against his two prized informants.
Morris testified that Connolly then told Bulger and Flemmi that Halloran had implicated them in Wheeler’s murder, prompting Connolly to file an informant report from Bulger arguing that “there was no way that they would have been involved with Halloran in connection with anything, let alone murder.’’
Ultimately, the FBI, along with Strike Force Chief O’Sullivan, concluded that Halloran was unreliable and turned him away from an FBI safe house on Cape Cod.
Weeks later, on May 11, 1982, Halloran was gunned down as he left a bar on Northern Avenue in South Boston.
Callahan, being sought for questioning as a potential witness in the Halloran and Wheeler slayings, was found murdered three months later in Miami.
In a recent interview, Connolly said he “absolutely never’’ told Bulger and Flemmi that Halloran had turned FBI informant against them before he was killed. Connolly said he filed reports before Halloran’s death noting that Bulger claimed the Mafia was going to kill Halloran.
The fallout from the investigation spread within the FBI, as agents in Oklahoma City and Miami accused the Boston office of stonewalling about Wheeler and Halloran.
The distrust spilled over into the Boston office, as the agent assigned to the Wheeler case accused Connolly of “rifling’’ his file and leaking information to Bulger and Flemmi that would help them establish alibis. Connolly vehemently denies the charge.
At first, Connolly refused to call in Bulger and Flemmi to have them photographed so investigators in Oklahoma could show their pictures to potential witnesses. According to recent testimony by James Ring, who was then supervisor of the organized-crime squad, Connolly became “defensive’’ about the photo request, arguing that Bulger and Flemmi had proclaimed their innocence. Connolly relented only after Ring threatened to drop Bulger and Flemmi as informants.
Still, the FBI didn’t force Bulger and Flemmi to take polygraph examinations after they refused. In contrast, Halloran was dropped as an informant when he refused to take the lie detector test.
“For a long time we thought, it’s just pure incompetence,’’ said Wheeler’s son, David, who now believes the FBI has obstructed the investigation into his father’s murder. “But I never dreamed it was as extensive as it is.’’
Whitey and Stevie go shopping
It was Christmas time 1983 and Whitey Bulger and Stevie Flemmi were out shopping. They were cruising around South Boston when they saw something they wanted: a newly renovated liquor store on the site of what had until recently been an abandoned gas station.
It meant nothing to Bulger and Flemmi that Stephen and Julie Rakes didn’t want to sell Stippo’s Liquor Mart on Old Colony Avenue.
During a menacing visit to the Rakes’s South Boston home during the first week of the new year, Bulger and Flemmi handed Stephen Rakes a bag stuffed with $67,000 cash and announced they were buying the liquor store, according to testimony.
“We don’t want to sell it,’’ said Rakes, who was home with his two young daughters while his wife was working at the store.
Flemmi allegedly sat down at the kitchen table, pulled one of Rakes’s blond-haired daughters onto his lap, and set a gun on the table in front of her. The curious toddler picked up the gun and playfully sucked on the handle, according to federal grand jury testimony revealed in court.
“It would be a shame not to see your children grow up,’’ Bulger allegedly said.
A horrified Rakes called his wife at the store and told her to pack up all their belongings and come home.
Within days, then-Boston Police Detective Joseph Lundbohm said he went to Connolly on behalf of his niece, Julie Rakes, unaware that Bulger and Flemmi were informants and Connolly was their handler.
Connolly said he took no action to stop the hostile takeover by Bulger and Flemmi because the couple “did not want to get wired up and they did not want to be witnesses. How do you make a case like that?’’
It was a chilling lesson for the Rakeses, who discovered a few days later that Bulger knew they had complained to the FBI.
“Whitey said to back off,’’ Stephen Rakes told Lundbohm, who said he suspected Connolly tipped Bulger about their meeting. In a Globe interview, Connolly denied leaking the information.
Connolly said he couldn’t recall whether he reported the incident to his supervisor, but federal prosecutors said a search of FBI files failed to uncover any paperwork on it. It appears Connolly made a unilateral decision to neither investigate the extortion nor pass it along to a supervisor.
The store was sold to Bulger’s friend, Kevin Weeks -- at least on paper -- without a hitch and was renamed the South Boston Liquor Mart. It immediately became a new hangout for Bulger and Flemmi.
Soon, the FBI was patronizing Bulger’s store. A 1990 raid of the Liquor Mart by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Suffolk County Organized Crime Squad, and the IRS uncovered a receipt indicating the FBI bought liquor at discount prices to give away at its annual Christmas party months earlier.
The receipt indicated that the liquor was purchased by agent Dick Baker, the party organizer. And a separate piece of notebook paper indicated who the agent was: “Dick Baker (friend of John Connolly).’’ Connolly does not deny the FBI bought liquor at the store but says the piece of paper with his name on it was planted.
No FBI followup to extortion
Years after Louis Litif was allegedly murdered in Triple O’s, Bulger and his friends summoned an unsuspecting businessman to a meeting in the Broadway tavern, according to court documents and recent testimony.
“Someone hired me to kill you,’’ Bulger told South Boston realtor Raymond Slinger, after calling him to a meeting in an upstairs apartment in the late 1980s.
Bulger, accompanied by his friends Kevin Weeks and Kevin O’Neil, said he was willing to spare Slinger’s life in exchange for cold cash. But, when Slinger had the audacity to arrive at a follow-up meeting with the trio packing a gun, he was beaten and kicked as an enraged Bulger ordered his friends to “go downstairs and get a body bag.’’
After Bulger’s demand increased to $50,000, Slinger reported the extortion to the FBI. Agent John Newton testified that the FBI had “a great case’’ against Bulger because Slinger was willing to wear a wire and testify.
Still, the FBI took no action.
Days later, O’Neil told Slinger that he’d only have to pay $25,000, but “there wasn’t going to be any FBI investigation,’’ according to testimony in the federal court hearings.
Newton’s supervisor, Bruce Ellavsky, testified that the FBI dropped the case because the extortion stopped and Slinger no longer wanted to go forward.
Yet, Ellavsky couldn’t explain why there were no FBI reports on the incident.
There was no mystery about why Bulger and Flemmi never got caught up in an FBI investigation in the late 1980s of a Roxbury bookie who was paying them “rent’’ and dealing extensively with them. The pair were warned to stay away by agent John Morris because a wiretap was going into John Baharoian’s office.
Morris, who had taken three bribes from Bulger, was concerned that the pair could give him up if they were caught and indicted.
But he also testified he was tired of the hold Bulger and Flemmi had on him and the relentless expansion of their criminal network. And he wanted no more blood on his hands. Leave Baharoian alone, the former organized-crime supervisor told them. “I don’t want any more Hallorans.’’