The Hartford Courant

Sordid Story Of Irish Mobster And The G-Man

By EDMUND MAHONY

July 24, 2000

For five years, the most fascinating or - depending on one's perspective - horrifying mob story in the country has been unfolding, bit by bit, in Boston's federal courthouse.

It has all the mob's usual trappings: buried corpses, lurid threats, a bullet-riddled stool pigeon with a dime on his chest. But this story has something that all the others lack.

That is James "Whitey" Bulger, the cold-blooded killer who became the most successful and powerful criminal in New England because for 20 years he was protected and nurtured by agents of the FBI, the very people who should have crushed him.

Perhaps because Bulger's tale is as complicated as it is compelling, it has gotten little play outside Boston. Three television networks - CNN, NBC and CBS - attacked it but were overwhelmed by the story's scope. The reporters limped out of town, scratching their heads in disbelief at the place where the police and criminals meet in Boston's brutal and tribal underworld.

Happily for readers of real-life cops-and-robbers books, the sordid and convoluted story of how Bulger and his Winter Hill gang duped the vaunted organized-crime squad of the FBI's Boston Division has finally been set down in one place.

The result is the finely written and meticulously reported "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil's Deal" by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, two award-winning reporters at the Boston Globe who have been chasing the Bulger story since the late 1980s.

Close readers of Boston's two dailies, where Bulger and his minions have lived on the front pages for long stretches in recent years, will find much of the narrative familiar. But the book is a lot more than a body count of Bulger's victims.

The devil's deal with the FBI that made Bulger Boston's top thug started in the city's deep, Irish subculture, and Lehr and O'Neill take their reader there. In particular, the story winds through insular South Boston, where the children of immigrants live in their dead parents' houses, respect the "code of silence" and don't need help from anyone north of Fort Point Channel to solve their problems.

If the book has a weakness, it is that the authors write too little about the simmering ethnic tension that has produced Boston's colorful cast of criminals. But there is enough to give the reader a taste of a place where it is not all that odd for one set of parents to produce a policeman, a priest and a gangster.

In that regard, the Bulger family was wildly successful rather than atypical. Bulger grew up in an all-white public housing project in Southie with younger brother Bill, a classically educated altar boy who became the longest serving speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the state's most powerful politician.

James Bulger was on track to become the state's most powerful gangster in his teens. By the time he had become a young man, he was serving time in Alcatraz for bank robbery. That was the last time he went to jail.

His criminal career really took off in the 1970s, after he teamed up with Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, the man who would become his longtime partner. Flemmi had been a confidential informant for the FBI since the 1960s, and in 1975, on his advice, Bulger decided to do the same.

The decision was a pivotal moment for New England law enforcement and is the essential element of "Black Mass."

Bulger was recruited one night during a secret meeting on dark and deserted Wollaston Beach by another Irish immigrant son of Southie's segregated public housing projects, the FBI agent John Connolly. As it turned out, Bulger might have recruited Connolly. Connolly, for reasons that remain a mystery, had always maintained a childish respect for the legendary Bulger.

As boys, the two had known one another. The slightly older Bulger rescued Connolly from a neighborhood beating one time and treated him to an ice cream cone another time. As Lehr and O'Neill demonstrate, Bulger and Connolly, as adults, had a deep need for one another.

Connolly was the product of a bureau culture that valued convicting members of the traditional Italian Mafia over almost everything else. In Bulger he had a notorious gangster who swaggered freely through Boston's criminal circles, someone who could keep him abreast of who was planning what in the underworld.

Bulger had a dizzying array of criminal enterprises, ranging from extorting bags of cash from liquor store owners to skimming money from the jai alai industry. At any moment he might have a half-dozen police agencies breathing down his neck, and he needed someone to protect him from arrest.

Bulger began giving Connolly tips about the Mafia in Boston's North End. Connolly began warning Bulger when his crimes looked like they might get him caught. But almost from the beginning, the informant-agent relationship became terribly perverted.

As time passed, Bulger bribed or co-opted Connolly and his boss. Connolly began thinking of Bulger as "a good bad guy." "Black Mass" makes an overwhelming case for the argument that Bulger provided the FBI with a small amount of information. In return, he used the FBI to systematically pick off his underworld rivals and become Boston's most powerful criminal.

Using a rich court record and follow-up interviews, Lehr and O'Neill show again and again - in rich detail - how the informant arrangement went wrong.

At one point, a South Boston leg breaker named Edward Brian Halloran begged the FBI to let him join the witness-protection program. In return, he told the bureau he could help prove Bulger was behind the murder of World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler.

Halloran had no idea he was snitching out the FBI's top snitch. Connolly told Bulger about Halloran. Not long afterward, Bulger gunned down Halloran on the South Boston waterfront. There still hasn't been a conviction in the Wheeler homicide.

Unfortunately, the numbingly long list of FBI misbehavior that Lehr and O'Neill present makes the Halloran hit just another murder.

Along the way, the reader learns that Connolly and his FBI colleagues were Bulger's enablers as much as his protectors. They allowed him to commit crimes and prevented other police agencies from catching him. Boston is still littered with victims of Bulger and the FBI.

The one thing "Black Mass" is missing is a proper ending. But that's because the Bulger story is still unraveling. John Durham, an assistant federal prosecutor from New Haven, has been dispatched to Boston to figure out which FBI agents broke the law in their treatment of Bulger.

Last Christmas Eve, Durham arrested Connolly on racketeering charges. More indictments are expected. Flemmi is in jail awaiting trial on racketeering charges.

Bulger is in the wind.

Tipped off to his impending indictment by a friend in the FBI, he disappeared.

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