Mortal friends

FBI agent details betrayal in his efforts to bring down Whitey Bulger


It was a long time in coming but it did come. On a dismal morning in January 2000, retired FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick stood at the rim of a gully in Dorchester and watched as forensic excavators carefully removed the remains of three victims of James “Whitey” Bulger that had been moldering in a shallow grave beside the Southeast Expressway in Boston, more than 15 years after they died and almost 20 years after Fitzpatrick warned his superiors at the FBI that Bulger was a dangerous and unreliable informant who should have been “closed” by his handlers in the FBI years before.

“As I stood on the lip of the dirt pile, looking down at the assemblages of bagged-and-tagged pieces of what had once been a man, the war I’d waged against organized crime and my own associates in the FBI for that entire period hit me hard and fast,” Fitzpatrick recalled in his recently published memoir, "Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down."

That entire period was not something Fitzpatrick was anxious to remember. What you can sense, as you read through the astonishing history of one of the biggest blunders in the history of law enforcement, is that Fitzpatrick revisits – it’s tempting to say, regurgitates – the frustration of his Boston bureau days with the knowledge that the body they were carefully excavating would not have been there if they “closed” Bulger when Fitzpatrick recommended it.

Instead, his superior officers either chose to ignore or actively stymie all his attempts to shut down the privileged status Bulger had maneuvered himself into, with the help of his “mortal friend” John Connelly, the agent who brought Bulger into the agency’s stable of informers and systematically protected from prosecution, even as Bulger was killing rivals or witnesses on his way to the top of the Boston underworld. Very few people have not heard at least part of the Whitey Bulger story, but to refresh:

James “Whitey” Bulger was an organized crime figure in Boston especially known for his viciousness and cunning. He parlayed a childhood friendship with a kid from South Boston who became an FBI agent assigned to the Boston office. He renewed his friendship with Whitey when he got back and then fell prey to what Fitzpatrick calls “mortal friendship,” a peculiar syndrome where an agent forgets why an informant was recruited and actively becomes friendly and loyal to the informant and forgets his loyalty to the agency. It would be easy to say that could happen to any agent but it was far too easy for Connelly.

Fitzpatrick says he knew very early on that Connelly was not your typical FBI agent. There was too much swagger, too much arrogance in Connelly’s make-up to make an effective or even harmlessly incompetent law enforcement officer. But the true picture of the pernicious consequences of Connelly’s lack of morality and the real shame that he would bring to the FBI was years away. It was a picture that got so ugly as it came into focus that no one above Fitzpatrick’s rank in the agency was willing to look at it. Fitzpatrick saw it the first time he met Whitey, to determine if he would recommend keeping him as an informant. Fitzpatrick’s specialty in the agency was that peculiar art of psychological profiling. He had been doing it for years.

“I observed countless subjects who had been adjudged psychopaths,” wrote Fitzpatrick. “I knew I was looking at a psychopath now.”

After that meeting, the agent who drove Fitzpatrick to the meeting and assured him he was going to “like this guy,” asked him what he thought of Bulger as soon as he got back in the car. Fitzpatrick said he didn’t like him and said, “We’re going to close this guy.”

“Without missing a beat, and suppressing his surprise, Morris responded, ‘No, you’re not.’”

Fitzpatrick, who outranked Morris, was surprised that he would say that to his boss. Unfortunately, Morris was right. Just about every other honest cop in the state knew that someone in the FBI office was tipping off Bulger and his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi about every move that was being made against them, by their rivals and other law enforcement agencies, including the impending indictment on racketeering charges that prompted Bulger to notoriously flee Boston in 1995. The colonel of the Massachusetts State Police met with the new Special Agent in Charge of the Boston office in a suburban restaurant and complaints that the audio surveillance equipment they had so carefully planted in Bulger’s headquarters went silent, within hours of the trooper task force that placed them told the FBI about it. The new bureau chief called Fitzpatrick in to look into the leaks. The FBI was after the New England “mafia” and Fitzpatrick, fresh from the successful ABSCAM investigation in Florida, was the man to call.

“Jerry Angiulo was the underboss of the New England LCN [La Cosa Nostra], presiding over sixteen ranking members who reported to him,” wrote Fitzpatrick. “Everything about these wiseguys was steeped in their own bloody traditions, such as the initiation ceremonies that offered a sense of code and moral backing to their actions, as loathsome and reprehensible as they were. 'The Godfather' movies and 'mafia' pulp fiction glamorized the culture, enticing wannabes to emulate the fictionalized images.”

The Winter Hill Gang, Whitey’s guys, were not part of it. “These Somerville wiseguys were decidedly Irish muffs tagged by the FBI as a nontraditional group of the organized crime element. We knew approximately twenty of these guys were in leadership positions, supervising 300 soldiers and grunts, all under the auspices of Bulger and his right-hand man, Stephen 'The Rifleman' Flemmi,” according to Fitzpatrick. “It was abundantly evident that both groups had their preferred methods of violence and murder. The Irish wiseguys would “frag” [kill] a bunch of people to get their target, while the Italian wiseguys would just garrote the one target and stuff him in the trunk of some car. The Irish were definitely more homegrown, all in all, than the Italian mob, which led them to be even more insular.

“I knew Bulger as a thug, a street enforcer who’d spent a quarter of his life behind bars, including a stretch at Alcatraz and another at Leavenworth in Kansas. I’d heard he prided himself on being a tough guy who inspired fear in allies and enemies alike. Ruthless and brutal, as his rise to the top of the Winter Hill Gang in the wake of Howie Winter’s imprisonment attested. He wasn’t a big guy physically, and word was he wasn’t just street smart; he was smart, period, capable of playing chess while those around him opted for checkers. But he played for real, to which the 43 murders he’s allegedly responsible for more than demonstrate.”

The bureau chief explained that Bulger was a major informant against the Angiulo family and very valuable to the FBI in their efforts to bring down the Italian mob. Bulger himself was not a priority at the time. That was the first hint that Fitzpatrick got that something was wrong. An active head of an organized criminal enterprise is not an acceptable informant. In addition to using information to bring down rivals, that kind of informant, especially one as cunning as Bulger, will garner as much “intelligence” as he gives. At the time, no one higher up in the FBI knew that, as far as Bulger was concerned, his handlers were helpfully giving everything they knew to him.

“We did have a lot of good agents but a lot of them were in the dark about what was going on,” said Fitzpatrick. “A lot of them just didn’t want to believe it.”

"Betrayal" is the story of how Fitzpatrick got to Boston, did his job, told his superiors what was going on and was more or less forced out of his job and slandered for all his efforts. He says now that he has let a lot of the old anger go and got on with his life. After working out of the Providence Branch of the Boston office for a few years, he retired in 1987 and started his own private detective business. With the capture of Bulger last summer, people again came looking for Fitzpatrick.

It took him a while, but after the story of the corruption in the Boston office unfolded in the 1990s, Fitzpatrick finally got some justice for himself and for the victims of that corruption. Once it was learned that agent John Connelly had been telling Bulger about informants prepared to testify against him, the family of one of those informants sued the FBI for the wrongful death of the father, son and brother that was being picked up in pieces from that pit beside the Southeast Expressway. With Fitzpatrick’s testimony and enough corroboration, a judge ruled that the FBI was responsible for the death of John McIntyre.

Judge Reginald Lindsay ruled that it was Connelly who caused the death of McIntyre and the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, saying Connelly, “because Connelly, acting within the scope of his FBI employment, disclosed information to Bulger and Flemmi sufficient for them to identify McIntyre as a government informant, and McIntyre’s death was a foreseeable consequence of that disclosure.”

The book, of course, gives a much more vivid picture of Fitzpatrick, Connelly and Bulger and the frustration of Fitzpatrick when no one looked when he peeled back the scab of corruption that led to all that mayhem.

“Sometimes, even the good guys don’t want to hear about it,” said Fitzpatrick, who continues to teach law enforcement, hoping to prepare future officers for dealing with a world that demands the best of its sworn officers and doesn’t allow for “mortal friendships” to develop.

“I continue to advocate that all police academies require that cadets work in corrections before they become police officers,” said Fitzpatrick, who also noted that disgraced ex-FBI agent John Connelly will probably die in prison. “That will give them a chance to see who and what they are dealing with. They won’t find that very glamorous.”

Fitzpatrick and co-author Jon Land will be featured speakers at a dinner presentation hosted by Westbay Community Action, Saturday, April 14 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Potowomut Country Club, 439 Ives Road. Tickets are $65. For additional information and tickets, call Susan Lewis at 732-4666 x154.


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