Dick Lehr, Gerard O’Neill

FBI and Irish mobsters: a match made in hell

By Patrick Sullivan

WHAT IF YOU opened your front door one night and three notorious mobsters ushered themselves inside? What if these stone-cold killers sat around your kitchen, playing with guns as they offered you a paltry sum for your brand-new business? And what if they threatened the life of your daughter, just to emphasize that this was the kind of offer you couldn’t refuse?

You might turn to the FBI. But that might be a big mistake. Just ask Stephen Rakes, a Boston liquor-store owner in exactly this situation who discovered that organized crime in his city had a special advantage.

Sure, the Irish mob in Boston, led by the ruthless James “Whitey” Bulger and Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, employed the usual band of thugs and leg-breakers. But for decades, this murderous pair also had ringers in their roster.

Key agents in the Boston office of the FBI were deep in Bulger’s back pocket, a scandal detailed in Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob (Perennial; $14).

Written by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass reveals that the FBI helped Bulger and Flemmi get away with everything from racketeering to murder. They even helped Bulger take away Rakes’ liquor store.

Maybe this doesn’t come as a big surprise. After all, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has weathered scandals galore, with the latest black eye coming in the McVeigh case, in which the bureau illegally withheld evidence from defense attorneys. And, let’s face it: things have never been exactly hunky-dory over at our nation’s most high-profile law enforcement agency, which J. Edgar Hoover ran much like the Gestapo.

But the Boston case knocks the props out from under one of the FBI’s most cherished myths–that G-men can’t be corrupted. Indeed, as Lehr and O’Neill reveal, agents sometimes come pretty cheap: the mobsters bought off one FBI supervisor for decades with $7,000 and a few cases of wine.

The affair began with good intentions and acres of ambition. Desperate to strike a blow at the Italian Mafia in Boston, a young FBI agent named John Connolly saw a chance to create a special informer relationship with Bulger. With Bulger and Flemmi’s help, the FBI brought down La Cosa Nostra, sending its leaders to prison and shattering its influence in the city.

Meanwhile, as the relationship between Bulger and Connolly deepened, the Irish gangster became untouchable. His underworld rivals were often eliminated by arrest. And even when Bulger used murder to get his way, he could count on his pet FBI agent to quash any inquiry by law enforcement. Connolly seemed willing to go to almost any lengths to protect his informants, and he had plenty of help from other agents.

This cozy relationship, which allowed Bulger and Flemmi to operate a lucrative web of criminal enterprises, lasted until other law enforcement agencies finally did an end run around the FBI in the mid-’90s and built a bullet-proof case against Bulger’s mob. Unfortunately, Bulger never went to trial–the mobster fled town after getting an inside tip about his impending arrest. He is still at large today.

What’s to be learned from this unholy mess? You could chalk the problem up to human fallibility: FBI agents can go bad, just like anyone else. But critical observers of the agency say the Bulger-Connolly affair deserves a longer look. They wonder how many other John Connollys are out there.

Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill discuss ‘Black Mass’ on Thursday, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. at Murphy’s Irish Pub, 464 First St. E., Sonoma. For details, call Readers’ Books at 707/939-1779.

From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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