FBI rivals buoyed by arrest of Bulger cronies

Era of suspected tip-offs comes to end

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / November 22, 1999
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For years, as FBI agents protected prized informant James "Whitey" Bulger by tipping him off to investigations, other law enforcement agencies who dogged the South Boston crime boss saw their efforts continually thwarted.

When they bugged his car, Bulger found the hidden microphone, pulled it out, and taunted the federal drug agents who had planted it. And just after State Police put a bug in the North Station garage where Bulger and his cohorts conducted business, the Winter Hill Gang suddenly stopped meeting there.

That is why last week's arrest of longtime Bulger associates Kevin Weeks and Kevin O'Neil brought such a sweet sense of vindication to frustrated investigators in the State Police, the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and local police departments who tried and failed to break the back of Bulger's gang.

The sense of satisfaction was even keener because it was the State Police, the DEA and the IRS that arrested Weeks and O'Neil, the final blow to what's left of Bulger's criminal organization.

The FBI was given just a passing mention in the press release issued by federal prosecutors announcing the arrests and the sweeping racketeering indictment that established what many in law enforcement had struggled for years to do: link Bulger directly to drug trafficking in South Boston.

"I think it's vindication because we took a lot of heat over the whole thing," said Boston Police Detective James Carr, who helped Suffolk County, the DEA, and the IRS launch a joint assault on Bulger that culminated in the 1990 indictment of 51 people for cocaine trafficking in South Boston - but not Bulger.

Over the years, a lot of detectives and federal agents "were trying to do the right thing," Carr said, "And they got burned."

The 29-count racketeering indictment unsealed Thursday against Weeks and O'Neil alleges that between 1975 and this year, the "Bulger Group," as it is newly called, extorted tribute from drug dealers and bookies, laundered money, and distributed cocaine and marijuana in South Boston.

The indictment charges Weeks, 43, and O'Neil, 51, both of Quincy, with racketeering, money laundering, and extortion for a group led by Bulger and his criminal sidekick Stephen Flemmi beginning around 1975 - the year Bulger became an FBI informant. By then, Flemmi had been an FBI informant for a decade.

Bill Chase, assistant special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Boston office, said the FBI assisted other agencies in the investigation, but "it was their case, they worked it. That's the bottom line. We weren't frozen out."

US Attorney Donald K. Stern also said that the FBI wasn't cut out of the Weeks-O'Neil investigation, noting that the FBI played a key role in the January 1995 racketeering indictment of Bulger, who has been on the run since.

It was during pretrial hearings in that case last year that the FBI's cozy relationship with Bulger and Flemmi was first exposed, including the stunning revelation by a former FBI supervisor that he had taken $7,000 from Bulger and Flemmi and that the pair had been tipped off to investigations.

During the course of the lengthy hearings, other current and former agents testified that information linking Bulger to drug trafficking, extortion, and murder failed to result in any charges and, in some instances, weren't even investigated.

Flemmi himself testified that he and Bulger were told by former FBI supervisor John Morris that they could commit crimes, as long as they didn't kill anyone. Morris, who testified under a grant of immunity, denied that.

"Damage was done to relations by some mistakes we made, but we admitted those and now we're trying to get by them, too," Chase said.

A team of FBI agents is now targeting Bulger's former handlers and has been presenting evidence to a federal grand jury. The FBI has listed Bulger as one of its top 10 fugitives and oversees a multiagency task force assigned to track him.

"Obviously there are still hard feelings, but I think everyone is trying to work past those and I think as time goes on they will go into the background," Chase said. "We're moving forward and as we have more successes, we'll put this behind us."

But for some of the investigators who tracked Bulger throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the indictment of Weeks and O'Neil reopened old wounds.

The indictment alleges that Bulger's organization distributed cocaine and marijuana in South Boston throughout the 1980s. And it charges that Weeks and O'Neil demanded a share of profits from a number of the drug dealers convicted in the 1990 case, including Paul Moore, John Cherry, Thomas Cahill, and John "Red" Shea.

During that probe, Cahill confessed to undercover DEA agent Bonnie Alexander that Bulger "controlled everything" in South Boston and drug dealers who refused to give him a cut of their profits "ended up dead."

In another case, federal prosecutors rebuffed efforts by Boston police, the DEA, and the IRS to subpoena South Boston broker Tim Connolly to a grand jury in 1990.

Years later, Connolly - who said he was threatened at knifepoint by Bulger in 1989 - emerged as a key witness in the indictments against Bulger and Weeks.

"I think they killed our case, there's no doubt about it," said retired Boston Police Detective Kenny Beers, a member of the Suffolk County Organized Crime Unit that worked that case with the DEA. "We went as far as some people wanted us to go and no further, that's my opinion."

Retired Boston Police Sergeant Detective Francis Dewan, who also worked the case, said, "A lot of good policemen took a lot of heat over trying to chase Whitey Bulger."

John Gartland, the special agent-in-charge of the DEA's Boston office, and Colonel John DiFava, superintendent of the State Police, both dismissed any notion of a rift with the FBI, praising Barry Mawn, the current head of the Boston office.

"Whatever we do, they are certainly privy to," said Gartland.

"We have to work together," said DiFava.

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