The retired FBI agent walked to the witness stand, still looking the part of a G-man. Gray suit. Nondescript tie. Silver hair. Eyes straight ahead.
Then came the questions that made him squirm, questions about a past he really didn’t care to talk about.
Had he, John Morris, former chief of the FBI’s Boston organized crime unit, exchanged Christmas gifts of books and liquor with mobsters James J. “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi?
Yes, answered Morris.
Had he, John Morris, taken upward of $6,000 from Bulger--one of Boston’s most notorious tough guys--including $1,000 to bring his girlfriend to a 1982 Drug Enforcement Administration conference in Georgia?
Yes, Morris admitted, he had.
Had Morris and other agents shielded Bulger and Flemmi from prosecution for 20 years because they were the most prized secret FBI informants in New England history?
Yes, Morris told the judge.
The agent testified for hours, then days, bearing witness to the fact that the FBI in Boston had protected some gangsters and sacrificed less powerful thugs in the pursuit of inside information.
While scores of other mobsters went to prison over the years, Bulger and Flemmi emerged from FBI stings unscathed. And Morris said he was taking cases of French Bordeaux and envelopes stuffed with cash from Bulger and Flemmi.
Agents even turned the other way when one squealer tried to tell them Flemmi and Bulger offered him money to kill an Oklahoma businessman, according to testimony. That squealer later took a bullet. A lot of bullets.
The relationship between the FBI and Bulger and Flemmi is at the center of long pretrial hearings in a racketeering case in federal court in Boston.
The case began with the arrest of Flemmi, reputed local boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme and other top mobsters on charges of racketeering and extortion. But the case was thrown into chaos with the disclosures that Bulger and Flemmi had been informants for most of the years they were making headlines as bad guys.
Now, before the mob trial can even begin, a judge is trying to decide if the relationship invalidates the case, and perhaps other prosecutions like it.
At the heart of the matter is Flemmi’s claim that he and Bulger were told by the FBI they could do anything short of “clipping someone” without fear of prosecution. If Flemmi can prove he was promised immunity, a judge could toss out the 1995 racketeering indictments against him and Bulger.
And it wouldn’t stop there.
Defense attorneys want get-out-of-jail-free cards handed to dozens of other Irish and Italian mobsters snared by potentially illegal FBI wiretaps--wiretaps that may be tainted by the relationship between Flemmi and his FBI handlers.
A Flemmi victory could overturn New England’s most important federal racketeering convictions of the last 15 years, paving the way for new trials for the likes of New England Mafia boss Raymond “Junior” Patriarca of Providence, R.I, and Boston mob boss Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo, both serving long sentences in federal prisons.
The story of Bulger and Flemmi goes back a long time, back to the bloody gang wars of the 1960s, when they were young, brash punks making names for themselves on the parochial streets of South Boston.
Reared in the projects, Bulger was a tough kid from a large, old-fashioned Irish-Catholic family. While his younger brother, Billy, took the straight road, becoming a state representative and eventually president of the Massachusetts Senate, Whitey Bulger walked a crooked path.
Stolen cars, dope, gambling and finally bank robbery kept him in and out of prison.
He and Flemmi were known to authorities as part of the Winter Hill Gang, a motley crew of hoods of Italian and Irish descent headquartered in the blue-collar city of Somerville just north of Boston. They were renegades, although they had connections with the more established crime families in Boston’s North End.
Nicknamed for his snowy hair, Whitey Bulger was a little guy with a bad attitude, a cagey man photographed so rarely that police complained they had only old mug shots to go by.
It seems police have always been looking for him, and newspaper readers around town liked to speculate over their coffee about where Bulger might be hiding.
For years, Flemmi was running right along with Bulger. But in the late 1970s, the pressure was not coming from the law, but from other local thugs who thought The Rifleman was cutting out a little too much territory for himself.
Things were heating up in the underworld, and at the same time the FBI was trying to recruit Flemmi as an informant.
Then, in 1978, FBI agent John Connolly--one of several agents from Bulger’s South Boston neighborhood--got the phone call that seemed to be the start of a beautiful relationship.
It was Flemmi’s boyhood pal, Bulger, with news that sent a chill down Connolly’s spine: Undercover FBI agent Nicholas Gianturco had been marked for death.
Gianturco, deep undercover on a truck-hijacking case called Operation Lobster, had been found out by a gang of Charlestown leg-breakers, according to court records of the exchange.
The thugs, Bulger said, planned to kill Gianturco that night when he dropped by a deserted Hyde Park warehouse to see some stolen jewelry.
Connolly thanked Whitey, hung up the phone and pulled Gianturco off the case.
That tip, the agents still believe today, saved Gianturco’s life and drew Bulger and Flemmi into the FBI fold. An amazing 20 years followed.
As time passed, Bulger and Flemmi grew more valuable as informants and friends to agents like Gianturco, Connolly, Morris and H. Paul Rico, the guy who had recruited Flemmi as an informant.
Sometimes Gianturco or another agent would have dinner parties and Flemmi and Bulger would stop by with bottles of chardonnay.
As Bulger and Flemmi cemented their relationships with the FBI, agents made sure the informants were kept out of prison, according to testimony.
In 1979, FBI officials were said to have arranged to have Bulger and Flemmi dropped from an indictment for fixing horse races; a decade later, the agents warned Bulger and Flemmi to steer clear of the offices of a Roxbury bookmaker under FBI surveillance for police bribery.
The bookie was arrested. Bulger and Flemmi were free to go about their business.
The mob hearings, going on in Boston for months now, have provided so much sensational testimony about the fine line between good and bad that it is hard to keep all the accounts straight.
One that stands out is the killing of Jai Alai promoter Roger Wheeler, who was shot between the eyes outside a Tulsa, Okla., country club in 1981.
The execution-style hit came after years of business disputes among Wheeler and his associates over expansion out of South Florida and legalized gambling in Connecticut.
In 1982, Edward Brian Halloran, a cocaine addict and former Winter Hill member, announced to the FBI that he wanted to provide evidence Flemmi and Bulger had offered him the contract on Wheeler’s life. He said he had turned down the job.
But the agents decided Halloran was unreliable, denied him a spot in the Witness Protection Program and kicked him out the door. Word got out that Halloran had tried to snitch.
Weeks later Halloran and a friend were sitting in a car outside the Topside Bar in South Boston. They were shot. With his dying breath, Halloran named the gunman, who was arrested but never convicted.
For the FBI, protecting Flemmi and Bulger was paying off.
Using insider information, agents were able to persuade a judge to allow a wiretap of local mob boss Gennaro Angiulo’s North End headquarters on Prince Street in 1981.
After two years, Connolly and a pack of other agents had enough secret tapes to arrest Angiulo as he sat down to a plate of pork chops at his favorite Italian restaurant. He and several associates were sent to prison for racketeering.
No one outside the FBI would have guessed that Bulger and Flemmi had provided the tips in that case and many others.
By 1989, the feds were setting their sights on an upcoming Mafia induction ceremony in a Medford home.
Again, FBI agents asked a judge for a warrant to plant a wiretap. And once more, they left out one important part of the story: Their tips came from their friends in the Winter Hill Gang.
The tapes were a triumph, capturing some of the biggest names in the local mob as they mumbled ancient oaths and secret prayers.
But now, those same recordings could be turned on the FBI with severe consequences.
Defense attorneys for jailed Mafia bosses like Angiulo, Salemme and Patriarca are demanding that the wiretaps used against them be thrown out and the men freed.
If the judge had known the truth about Flemmi and Whitey, the lawyers say, the wiretaps would never have been allowed in the first place. Wiretaps are generally authorized by the courts only as a last resort--when they are the only way information can be obtained. It is hard for the FBI to argue that these wiretaps meet this test, defense lawyers say, when the agency had such good sources already on the inside.
Furthermore, the lawyers say, the FBI’s cozy relationship with the informants all but gave them carte blanche to commit crimes.
As years passed, agents like Gianturco, Connolly and Morris retired or were reassigned to other bureaus. Flemmi and Bulger distanced themselves from the new agents, who saw them as clear enemies.
On a January morning in 1995, 66-year-old Bulger was winding up the last leg of a cross-country car trip when he heard that he was about to be indicted on federal racketeering charges.
He kept on driving.
Neither he nor his longtime companion, Catherine Grieg, have been seen since.
Flemmi was not so lucky.
Today Flemmi, 62, along with archrival Salemme, now 64, are incarcerated in the same cellblock in the Plymouth County House of Correction.
The snitch and the snitched-on make the daily trips to the federal courthouse in Boston, shackled side by side in a van.
In court, details of the relationship keep pouring out, and the odd juxtaposition of the good guys and the bad guys continues.
When Rico, the former FBI man now in his 70s, took the stand in January, Flemmi smiled and waved to his old friend from the jury box.
Rico smiled faintly and waved back.