Boston-based journalist Casey Sherman takes us deep into the origins of the FBI’s infamously corrupt Top-Echelon Informant program, whose poster child remains Whitey Bulger, and shows that Bulger wasn’t the first FBI informant to use his bureau connections to get away with murder: Joe Barboza would create the horrific template.
To be published this week, “Animal” is a compelling account of the life and death of the legendary New Bedford psychopath. Sherman illustrates how Barboza was intimidating and fearless, how he once bit a Mafioso’s cheek in a Mafia-owned Revere bar, earning his nickname, the Animal. As a boxer who fought in the old Boston Garden, Barboza loved inflicting pain; as a hitman, he’d kill without conscience. Most of all, explains Sherman, the Portuguese Barboza wanted to be a “made man” in the Sicilian-dominated New England Mafia, then led by Providence-based Raymond Patriarca. Although Patriarca would use Barboza’s murderous skills, he never trusted “The Animal.” Patriarca “understood early on that this was not a sustainable relationship.”
Sherman follows the murderous trajectory of Barboza’s career chronologically as he develops his fearsome reputation, and then futilely seeks entry into La Cosa Nostra. After he is rebuffed, the self-serving and hyper-narcissistic Barboza turns FBI informant, trying to play every angle until the end.
Barboza was terrifying and completely untrustworthy, Sherman’s account shows.
In the 1960s, Boston FBI agents Paul Rico and Dennis Condon would use Barboza as a blunt instrument to attack the New England Mafia, while a Machiavellian Barboza would dangle his testimony as a means to extract money from the Mafia. Rico and Condon had no problem covering up Barboza’s murderous exploits. While under FBI protection in Santa Rosa, Calif., Barboza continued to commit crimes. As part of a robbery attempt, he murdered one of his associates. Later, Barboza would return to New Bedford (without the knowledge of the FBI), get himself arrested for assault, and then admit the Santa Rosa killing to a cellmate. The cellmate penned a letter to the Santa Rosa police.
In a pattern that would reach its culmination with Bulger, the Boston FBI moved to block the 1970 Santa Rosa investigation of Barboza.
Perhaps worst of all, the FBI and Barboza worked together to convict men they knew to be innocent. One was Joe Salvati. Both Barboza and his psychopath friend Vincent Flemmi (also a “protected” Top-Echelon Informant) participated in the 1965 murder of Irish mobster Teddy Deegan. Barboza, and the FBI, needed to get informant Flemmi out of the frame, so they put Salvati (who unfortunately looked like Flemmi) into the frame, and helped convict him to life without parole. While Salvati would lose decades of his life in jail before his 1997 release, which occurred with the help of WBZ reporter Dan Rea, two other men set up for the Deegan murder (Louis Grieco and Henry Tameleo) would die in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
After the reckless Barboza was finally (perhaps fittingly) murdered by his Mafia enemies in 1976, the FBI would accelerate their Top-Echelon Informant program. Post-Barboza informants would be given even more protection and a license to kill. Sherman sums it up at book’s end: “For the bureau, Bulger represented the future, while Barboza was part of its past.”
What’s chillingly clear after reading Sherman’s book, as well as books about Bulger, is the truth of Shakespeare’s words, “What’s past is prologue.” If Barboza was the FBI’s opening act, Bulger was one heck of a follow-up. Sherman shows that the Boston FBI was corrupt to the core long before infamous FBI agent John Connolly approached his fellow Old Harbor homeboy Bulger. Sherman’s book adds to a growing indictment: The Boston FBI was less engaged in crime-fighting, and more involved in crime-enabling.Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast