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 Lehr.
Day was night for gangster James J. “Whitey’’ Bulger, which meant he often met with his FBI contact John Connolly while most of Boston slept. Sometimes Connolly himself was asleep, dozing off on the couch inside his home in South Boston while watching the late news on TV. Connolly would leave the door unlocked, and Bulger would let himself in.
Over nearly two decades, there were more than a hundred of these nighttime sessions. Besides Connolly’s house, they’d meet at other agents’ homes. Or they’d meet in the middle of the Old Harbor housing project in South Boston, where both men had been boys. Or they’d meet at Castle Island. Or Savin Hill Beach.
Following most encounters, Connolly would write up an informant report about the surreptitious chat. Eventually the FBI files in Boston swelled with the internal reports: the underworld according to Bulger, as authored by Connolly.
The once-secret Bulger files now show that Connolly had a way with words. Though these were the files relied upon by the FBI brass to assess Bulger’s value, Connolly’s memos often read more like the work of a publicist than that of an impartial FBI agent chronicling Bulger’s activities.
Time and again, Bulger’s contributions were embellished, in cases that included solving bank robberies, saving agents’ lives, and even in bringing down Boston Mafia boss Gennaro Angiulo.
There was, for example, the report Connolly wrote in connection with the famous bank robbery of Depositors Trust in Medford over Memorial Day weekend in 1980.
Connolly and Bulger discussed the robbery afterward; a few months later Connolly credited Bulger with being the “First source’’ to provide the names of the robbers.
But that wasn’t so.
The names of suspects were flying around the morning the bank job was discovered. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t get it from Whitey Bulger,’’ former Medford police chief Jake Keating recently said about early leads. The morning after, said Keating and others, callers to police identified the suspects. The case against them took a few years to put together, but their identities, Keating said, were “common knowledge.’’
To be sure, no one doubts that Bulger, once he signed on with Connolly in 1975, served as a proactive informant; along with sidekick Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, he offered the FBI a stream of inside information about both the Mafia and many of their own gangland associates. Connolly, meanwhile, scoffs at anyone who challenges his handling of Bulger and Flemmi.
But the claim Connolly made in the Medford case is not an isolated instance of hype. In Connolly’s hands, Bulger seemed always to turn to gold. And padding Bulger’s worth proved an effective parry to those inside and outside of the FBI who began questioning the relationship.
Indeed, the starring role for Bulger that Connolly cultivated held center stage throughout the 1980s. It was endorsed by the FBI chain of command and received a crucial boost from Connolly’s immediate supervisor, John Morris. Morris regularly seconded Connolly’s exaggerated praise for Bulger.
But a number of key claims Connolly made early on -- assertions that helped cement an official view within the bureau of Bulger’s premium worth as a snitch -- crumble when measured against the testimony of other FBI agents and other government records.
Then last spring Morris disclosed his own motivation for wanting to maintain smooth sailing with Bulger. Morris confessed he’d taken payoffs from Bulger and Flemmi and leaked information to help them outmaneuver other investigators. But in addition to wanting to keep his own corruption hidden, Morris testified he’d also become intimidated by the brash Connolly, who regularly flexed his closeness to both Bulger brothers -- the gang leader, Whitey, and Bill, then the state Senate president.
“He was much more influential than what you would normally think an agent to be,’’ Morris testified. “He was a very connected person inside the bureau, outside the bureau, and I did not want to place myself in a position where I was in any strong opposition to him.’’
State police suspect a leak
The ‘80s began in crisis for the FBI.
State Police officials were developing strong suspicions about the deal Bulger had with the FBI, and had gone so far as to accuse the bureau of tipping off Bulger and Flemmi.
While not confirming the informant relationship to the State Police, the top FBI agent in Boston at the time, Larry Sarhatt, nonetheless initiated an internal review of Bulger.
Connolly went to work. By employing a variety of techniques, he took raw nuggets of Bulger information and made them glitter. Like the Medford robbery, he embellished Bulger’s role in cracking other cases. In addition, Connolly padded Bulger’s file with information that actually came from Flemmi. Recently, retired FBI supervisor Robert Fitzpatrick testified that during this time another FBI agent angrily accused Connolly of stealing material provided by his informants and crediting Bulger with it. Connolly has denied that claim, insisting he has done no wrong.
But between late 1980 and early 1981, Connolly produced two “justification memorandums’’ that touted Bulger’s value in exaggerated terms; nearly every item Connolly cited was distorted in Bulger’s favor, according to a Globe review.
The crown jewel of claims was attributing the FBI’s successful bugging of Mafia headquarters in the North End to Bulger and Flemmi, an embellishment that was examined yesterday in Part 2. The other claims run the gamut from the Medford bank heist to solving murders and saving two agents’ lives.
In his Bulger memo of Dec. 2, 1980, Connolly credited Bulger with breaking open a murder case four years earlier. Until Bulger offered a helping hand, wrote Connolly, the FBI had had “no positive leads’’ in the 1976 slaying of Joseph Barboza Baron in San Francisco. Baron was gunned down Feb. 11, 1976, and three months later, Connolly wrote, Bulger told him that a wise guy named Jimmy Chalmas had set up Baron.
By this time, however, Chalmas’s possible role was old news. Chalmas was a prime suspect from the start. Baron had been shot outside his apartment, and homicide detectives had interrogated Chalmas that night. Three months later, after the Bulger session, the FBI confronted Chalmas, who had worked previously as an informant; Chalmas agreed to resume that work. But from the moment Baron died, Chalmas was a hot lead.
A big hole in the paperwork
Next came perhaps the most intriguing of all the claims Connolly has made in promoting Bulger -- the assertion that Bulger had saved the lives of two FBI agents who’d worked undercover in two separate cases in the late 1970s. News of a plot to kill a federal agent is always alarming to law-enforcement officials. Twice, according to Connolly’s memo, Bulger had provided the FBI with a lifesaving heads-up.
But ample evidence exists to suggest that while Bulger may have kept his ears open for possible trouble and may have passed along warnings, the circumstances in these cases were not as dramatic as Connolly later said. By the mid-1980s, even Connolly’s new FBI supervisor harbored doubts about the claims.
From the start, there was a massive hole in Connolly’s record-keeping about these emotional events: At the time they happened, he did not bother to document the vital information he later credited Bulger with providing. Throughout his years as Bulger’s FBI handler, Connolly filed official reports, known as “209-inserts,’’ documenting fresh underworld intelligence from the gangster -- tips ranging from important policy-making meetings to the trivial, such as a change in the betting line used by bookies. But, with agents’ lives supposedly hanging in the balance, Connolly did not write up 209-inserts outlining the help he would later say proved so pivotal in protecting Nick Gianturco in 1978 and Billy Butchka a year earlier.
To explain the omission, Connolly has since said he had no reason to write up the tips, and that once he received them he passed them along. But Morris, his former supervisor, testified recently that documenting assistance of this type would have been required as basic FBI procedure.
Only at crunch time did Connolly start a written chronicle -- in 1980 when he was ordered to write a justification for keeping Bulger allied with the FBI.
In his memo, Connolly wrote that back in 1978, Bulger had disclosed that a crew of truck hijackers from Charlestown “was thinking of taking Giarro out.’’ This tip, wrote Connolly, enabled the FBI to “take steps to insure the safety of Special Agent Nicholas D. Gianturco, aka Nick Giarro.’’
And back in 1977, continued Connolly, Bulger told him of a plan to kill agent Butchka, who was posing as a buyer of stolen paintings and jewelry from a burglary ring. Bulger, “on his own, was successful in preventing the prospective hit men from taking any action against Butchka.’’
The two agents in question back up Connolly.
“I will verify I was working undercover and that I did receive a call that someone was going to hit me, and later I was told it was attributed to one of John Connolly’s informants,’’ said Butchka. “This was basically all I knew about it.’’ But he said he could no longer recall the name of the agent who warned him or the names of the thieves he was told were after him.
In federal court recently, Gianturco testified that late one night in October 1978, Connolly called him and persuaded him not to meet with the truck hijackers. “He said they were going to kill me,’’ Gianturco said. “I was kind of glad that Mr. Bulger and Mr. Flemmi were kind of watching out for me.’’
Over time, Connolly’s retelling of these Bulger moments has grown more inflated. In a follow-up memo, Connolly wrote that Bulger had provided the information to protect FBI lives, “at great personal risk to source’s life,’’ a claim not documented in any reports.
“They saved one of my friends’ life,’’ added Connolly in a recent interview. “You can’t be around those guys for 15 years and not like them. You had a common enemy.’’
But the lifesaving scenarios Connolly has described to bolster Bulger’s profile within the bureau are contradicted by key officials who participated in each investigation. They do not recall any specific death threats -- and to a person they said they would not likely forget a plot to kill an agent. The plots, they said, would have triggered internal alarms and would have been documented at the time, not in a memo two years later.
Moreover, hard evidence of a murder plot could have been raised against the defendants charged in the truck hijacking and burglary ring during a bail hearing or, upon conviction, at sentencing, if not pursued outright as a charge. But none of that, they said, occurred in either case.
“I don’t remember him [Butchka] ever being threatened,’’ said Michael Collora, the former federal prosecutor who oversaw prosecution of the burglary ring infiltrated by Butchka. Collora, now in private practice and representing Morris, the former supervisor, added in a recent interview: “I would have known about any threat because we would’ve had to make a decision whether to pull him off, and that was never done.’’
Likewise in the truck-hijacking case, which was run jointly by the FBI and the State Police, the FBI’s own internal reports -- monthly “airtells’’ that updated higher-ups on the case’s progress -- made no mention of any alarm over Gianturco’s safety.
“I absolutely never heard of it,’’ said Robert Long, a retired State Police official who had coordinated the probe. “Nor did the colonel of the State Police overseeing the operation hear about it. Nor did any of the troopers permanently assigned to the project. Nor did my counterpart in the FBI.’’
If a hijacker was planning to kill an agent, continued Long, “wouldn’t you want to monitor the suspect’s movements? Because if he didn’t succeed that day, there would be another day, another time, and he’d keep trying.’’
Eventually, even one of Connolly’s FBI supervisors voiced skepticism about Connolly’s lifesaving claims. Retired agent James A. Ring testified in June that after taking over the organized-crime squad in 1983 he began to assess Bulger and “Mr. Connolly was saying to me -- discussing the value of Mr. Bulger and Mr. Flemmi -- that they had saved Nickie Gianturco’s life.’’ Soon after, said Ring, he sought out Gianturco.
“I asked him what was the story?’’ testified Ring. Gianturco, said Ring, described the case and how he’d gotten a “warning’’ from Connolly not to go to a meeting.
Testified Ring: “I think what I was saying to him was: ‘You didn’t answer my question. My question was: Are you reporting to me that you believe that these two people saved your life? And I’m not sure that I can sit here and say that I ever got an answer. It’s a matter of interpretation.’’
But in a crucial 1980 FBI memo, Connolly said it did happen, citing the foiled assassination attempts in a menu of Bulger accomplishments he argued justified sticking with the crime boss. Last spring, Morris, while rejecting the notion that Connolly’s reports contained lies, did concede, “We were trying to put them [Bulger and Flemmi] in their best light.’’
In the end, this early crisis passed. Bulger was kept on. Throughout the 1980s, other challenges arose. There were even times when Bulger was closed down for a spell. But Connolly was able to fight off the critics and remain the anointed chronicler of Bulger for the FBI.
A knack for storytelling
Besides his special memos, Connolly had a knack for embellishing Bulger’s doings in routine FBI filings, sometimes at the expense of Flemmi.
Occasionally, Connolly filed duplicate reports for each -- attributing the same information in the exact same words to both Bulger and Flemmi. The only difference between the two reports was the typewriter used to write them. At other times the wording wasn’t exactly the same, but the information was, and both would get credit.
To explain the overlap, Connolly has said he wasn’t especially careful about how he kept the books, given that he considered them one source. “Oftentimes they blurred,’’ Connolly said in an interview about his late-night meetings with the pair of gangsters. “The information almost came as one.’’
Even so, at key moments Connolly favored Bulger. In early 1981, for example, Connolly apparently manipulated a tip about the Mafia’s interest in a businessman named Harvey Cohen. Initially, he wrote up similarly-worded reports for Bulger and Flemmi: That on March 13, 1981, each provided information that Cohen might have a “serious problem’’ with the mob. Flemmi’s report was slightly more detailed; besides identifying Cohen, the report cited the name of Cohen’s trucking company in East Boston.
The FBI bug that was in operation during the early part of 1981 soon picked up Mafia leader Ilario Zannino referring to Cohen. “This Harvey Cohen, I’m going to kill him,’’ grumbled Zannino to a soldier in the early morning of April 3, 1981.
The FBI then warned Cohen before the Mafia was able to act.
For a handler of informants like Connolly, this was a high-five moment. Tips about the Mafia on the verge of violence are highly valued by the FBI. But in a second justification memo, Connolly singled out Bulger for glory, not Flemmi. The Cohen matter had erupted at a time when Connolly had been ordered to justify his ties to the controversial Bulger, and in the second memo he stressed Bulger had “advised that the Mafia is going to kill a Jewish guy named Cohen.’’ In a memo he filed for Flemmi, Connolly did not mention Cohen at all.
Last year, Flemmi himself drew attention to the Connolly practice of giving Bulger credit for information that had come from him. In a sworn affidavit, he noted that in 1984 he’d given Connolly a tip about an underworld figured named Robert Daddieco. However, wrote Flemmi, Connolly later “apparently recorded the essence of it in an insert to the Bulger informant file, but not in mine.’’
Today, a number of organized-crime investigators and attorneys who have examined Connolly’s once-secret files have concluded that Flemmi was actually the more valuable informant to the FBI. Between the two, Flemmi was the one with long, personal ties to Zannino and the Mafia. Over the years, Zannino, Raymond Patriarca, and other Mafia leaders repeatedly tried to persuade Flemmi to join La Cosa Nostra. Flemmi, not Bulger, had the juice, and was the frequent visitor inside Mafia offices. Over the years Flemmi, not Bulger, drew up diagrams of various Mafia meeting places, providing Connolly with a floor plan and pointing out where each Mafioso sat.
“No question,’’ said one of the attorneys about Flemmi’s superior value to Bulger. Others go so far as to wonder why the FBI ever needed Bulger, since the once-secret bureau files also reveal Flemmi was already on board and had been working on-and-off as an informant since the mid-1960s.
To date, Connolly has invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege rather than testify about his dealings with Bulger and Flemmi. In interviews, he defended his work, saying he’s done no wrong and broken no laws.
Instead, Connolly angrily accused the government of betraying him and breaking a promise to Bulger and Flemmi never to disclose that they were informants.
“The fact they were stone killers and major gangsters has nothing to do with the government’s word,’’ Connolly said. “Those were the people the government chose to go into business with. Those were the people the government benefited from, so the very least they could do is keep their goddamned word.’’
A last hurrah for Bulger hype
Eventually, even John Morris, the corrupted FBI supervisor, had had enough. Jumping off the Bulger bandwagon in the late 1980s, he advised the FBI to cut Bulger loose. But Connolly now had a new champion in the office, the special agent in charge of Boston from 1986 to 1989, James Ahearn.
Not long after his arrival, Ahearn ordered a deputy to review Bulger’s status. In hindsight, the outcome -- to keep Bulger -- was hardly a surprise. In recent testimony, an FBI official said the review consisted largely of looking at Connolly’s files and talking to Connolly himself. Connolly, said the FBI official, believed that Bulger “absolutely should remain’’ an informant.
The high-water mark in the FBI’s peculiar view of Bulger came in 1989, the culmination of more than a decade of often skewed paperwork.
In a secret memo to the FBI director, Ahearn heaped praise on Connolly and his prized informant. Bulger, he wrote, was “regarded as the most important Organized Crime informant for many years.’’ The memo did not even mention Flemmi by name.
This was a last hurrah of sorts in Bulger hype.
That same year Flemmi -- not Bulger -- was the informant who proved indispensable in an FBI coup: the first-ever bugging of an actual Mafia induction ceremony in Medford. Just as Bulger was being called the FBI’s most valuable Mafia informant, the previously secret FBI files now show Bulger had little to no role in the history-making bugging operation.
Instead, the agent assembling the probable cause required to win court approval for a bug relied extensively upon Flemmi’s FBI informant reports. To be sure, Bulger’s reports could have been utilized since Connolly, as was long his style, had prepared reports for Bulger that were mirror images of Flemmi’s. But at crunch time, the FBI turned to Flemmi as the informant more credible about the Mafia.
The worm was turning in Boston for Bulger and the FBI.
In 1988, the Globe disclosed for the first time Bulger’s relationship with the FBI -- which top agent Ahearn said for the record was “absolutely untrue.’’ Soon Connolly himself was preparing to leave the FBI and take a top job at Boston Edison. Before he left, he filed a report suggesting his two informants were calling it a day -- “packing it in and going into various legitimate businesses that they own.’’ Flemmi, for one, had used cash to buy up a slew of real estate in Boston’s Back Bay.
But what Connolly considered retirement, federal prosecutors saw as money laundering. By 1990, a new team had taken over, headed by Fred Wyshak, an aggressive assistant US attorney.
Just a year after Ahearn’s remark about how prized an asset Bulger was, Bulger and Flemmi were closed down for good.
Before the curtain fell, the FBI finally called a halt to Connolly’s home visits. By the late 1980s, testified former supervisor Ring, Connolly was ordered to stop playing host to the two informants at his and other agents’ homes.
“My whole thought was this is just stupid,’’ said Ring. The long-running practice, he had concluded, was “unprofessional.