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John J. Connolly Jr. (center) after his conviction.
John J. Connolly Jr. (center) after his conviction. (Globe Staff File Photo / David L. Ryan)

Saying he coaxed confession, fallen agent turns informant

This article was reported and written by Globe Spotlight Team reporters Francie Latour and Michael Rezendes and editor Walter V. Robinson.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- By the time he left Massachusetts in shackles 27 months ago, John J. Connolly Jr. was a pariah -- a fallen FBI agent, a consort of his underworld informants, and a symbol of the corrupt kinship between the FBI and organized crime.

But to the band of felons he joined at the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., he was something else. He was a celebrity, a street-smart wiseguy admired for his confident air and for his richly publicized role in helping Boston mob boss James ''Whitey" Bulger escape arrest and disappear in 1995.

''You would have thought he was Italian. They thought he was the mob," said Robert L. Rankin, a convicted drug dealer who arrived at the prison the same day as Connolly. ''Everyone gravitated to him."

Among those who did was Cornelius Anderson, a convicted drug dealer and feared gang leader inside prison walls. He befriended Connolly. He sought Connolly's legal advice. And, Connolly says, he began to confide in him, sometimes with Rankin present.

Anderson boasted about his Louisville drug ring, with its large shipments of cocaine from Chicago. Eventually, say Connolly and Rankin, he told them he had ordered the 1996 executions of two potential witnesses against him, one of them a federal informant shot dead in front of her 9-year-old daughter.

That's when Connolly says he took a fateful step, one freighted with irony: Imprisoned for protecting his own murderous informants, he turned informant himself, coaxing a jailhouse confession from Anderson that could help solve the murders of the two people, killed with as little mercy as Bulger's victims were afforded.

Connolly says he elicited incriminating details from Anderson in encounters in prison corridors and the prison library. Rankin says he was there for two critical conversations, including one in which Connolly asked Anderson whether he regretted having the woman killed.

''Hell, no," Anderson said, according to Connolly. ''Gettin' the [woman] had to be done."

Connolly prepared memos of some of the conversations and sent them to one of his Boston lawyers, E. Peter Mullane. Rankin also sent a lengthy memo to his own lawyer in Illinois. Mullane alerted federal authorities in Louisville.

As a result of Connolly's efforts, a murder case that has cast a dark shadow over Kentucky law enforcement agencies for years has been reopened. In April 1996, Gail Duncan, a federal informant, was getting ready to testify in a major drug conspiracy trial against Anderson when she was gunned down as her daughter watched. Yet, nearly 18 months after Connolly began working with a homicide detective who considers his information highly credible, prosecutors in Kentucky have yet to bring an indictment.

Thomas E. Clay, an attorney who represented Anderson at trial, said he was not aware of an alleged confession by Anderson. ''I never had any information from Cornelius or anyone else that he was involved in those shootings," he said.

Coaxing details about the murders from Anderson was risky. In November 2003, convinced that Anderson had become suspicious of Connolly and Rankin, federal officials spirited them out of Lexington. Connolly was transferred to a low-security federal prison in North Carolina, and Rankin to a state prison in his native Illinois.

Inevitably, jailhouse confessions raise questions about the motive and credibility of inmates who claim to have heard them. Connolly would be no exception: His crimes include lying to a federal agent and persuading an informant to lie to a federal judge. And he freely admits that he hopes his informant work will win him a reduced sentence; otherwise, the 64-year-old faces eight more years in prison.

But the Louisville detective investigating the two murders says he finds the former agent highly credible.

''The bottom line is, the man's not lying, and he's not wrong," Detective Anthony L. Finch said. ''As far as this case goes, he has been nothing but helpful. He has been nothing but professional. And he has taken a lot of risks to his own life."

All this comes at a critical moment for Connolly. Soon, he is expected to seek a new trial, now that Francis Salemme, one of the mobsters who testified against him, faces criminal charges that he lied to federal agents. At the same time, Connolly's former criminal defense team is concerned that he may face new conspiracy and murder charges himself, growing out of his dealings with Bulger.

Connolly says that regardless of what happens in his own case he felt compelled to inform on Anderson, to help right a terrible wrong.

He was once one of the heroes of Boston law enforcement, the agent who, with the aid of tips from Bulger, helped bring down the region's Italian Mafia. Today, the knowledge that even many of his friends view him as corrupt weighs heavily on him.

''I knew that if I didn't do something, I would just be reinforcing what people thought of me," Connolly said.

A mother is slain
The morning of April 11, 1996, broke clear and cool over western Louisville. On the 800 block of South 39th Street, Gail Denise Duncan -- a Bible study regular, a former addict, and now an informant set to testify in a federal drug case -- sat in her idling hatchback.

She could see her 9-year-old daughter, Lindsey, traipsing out the door of their red brick home, down the steps of the front lawn, and toward the street. It was spring break, and Duncan, 42, was going to drop the girl off at her grandmother's.

Then came something unexpected, police say: A car pulled up alongside her driver-side door and stopped. It pulled up so close that it boxed her in. Inside the car were two people; at least one of them wore a mask. There were no license plates on the car.

What Duncan's family and local police say happened next marked her killing as one of the coldest the city had seen in years: Duncan screamed for her daughter to flee. And as the girl ran, she saw the masked gunman shoot her mother in the head and neck, five shots in all, according to an autopsy report. Duncan, a woman who had once stood in her house of worship to say she had beaten back drugs, and who had worn a wire to inform on a violent cocaine ring, lay face down over the front seat of her car.

Doris Jeffries, Duncan's 70-year-old mother, was the first person Lindsey called once she got to safety. In an interview, Jeffries said she knew nothing of her daughter's undercover work. ''I would have gone down and begged for her life, to get out of that situation, if I had known what she was doing."

According to Finch, the Louisville police lieutenant, federal agents had been worried about Duncan's safety, worried enough to offer her temporary relocation and protection. But she rejected the offer, saying she didn't want to be away from her family. Just days before the murder, Duncan received a phone call threatening her life, Finch said, but took no steps to protect herself.

Jeffries said detectives would not let her see her daughter's body when she arrived at the crime scene. Duncan was identified later, her mother said, by two other relatives.

Even as family members claimed Duncan's body from the coroner, the significance of her death was clear to federal law enforcement officials: In a major drug trafficking case against Anderson and three associates -- a case just about to go to trial -- the person whose secret recordings provided damning testimony for the prosecution had been slain.

But even in death, Duncan would play a leading role in the case against Anderson and Zelner Hamilton Jr., his codefendant. Prosecutors won a ruling allowing them to introduce her written statements, as well as the undercover recordings she made, as dramatic evidence at trial.

The jurors never learned that Duncan had been murdered. At the time, there was no evidence linking Anderson or Hamilton to her death, and the court ruled that disclosing Duncan's homicide might prejudice the jury against the defendants.

The slain mother of two helped convict two drug traffickers, but in the eight years since her death, her murder has gone unsolved. For much of that time, it didn't even seem to be a law-enforcement priority, with only one detective assigned to the case.

That only changed after John Connolly entered a Kentucky prison and settled in for a 10-year sentence.

More than prison talk
As he walks toward the conference room at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., Connolly looks like just another forlorn figure among the hundreds of khaki-clad inmates in white sneakers, so far from home that his wife and three teenage sons have not seen him since July.

His appearance has changed little since his public downfall in Boston two years ago. He is grayer now, and slimmer from a workout schedule that is as much a part of his life behind bars as the legal papers he pores over in the prison library. He hasn't lost his signature swagger, or his insistence that he is the innocent victim of rogue prosecutors.

The 27 months he has spent in prison have only toughened him, not broken him, Connolly said. ''You either do the time," he said, ''or the time does you."

Sitting in a jailhouse meeting room, with a guard posted outside, Connolly talked about the ''ruthless, remorseless" way in which he says Anderson described the killings. And he scoffed at the suggestion that he might have undertaken his risky informant work -- ''no gun, no badge & no backup," as he described in one letter to Finch -- just in hopes of a reduced sentence.

''I would have done this because it was the right thing to do, period," Connolly said. ''If leniency had been my motivation, I wouldn't have risked my life without getting a promise in writing."

Connolly's talk of altruism might ring hollow to relatives of Bulger's victims, who reacted with disbelief in 2002 when Connolly was acquitted of the toughest charges he faced -- that he played a part in three of Bulger's many murders. Still, Connolly's latest crusade has underscored a side of the former agent that both friends and foes would recognize: combative, charismatic, and still at war with the law enforcement world where he once was a star.

It was Connolly who cultivated Bulger and other mobster informants whose tips helped the FBI dismantle Boston's Italian Mafia in the 1980s. But his association with Bulger was also his undoing. In 2002, more than a decade after he retired, Connolly was sentenced to federal prison after being convicted of protecting his informants and tipping off Bulger, Salemme, and another mob associate, Stephen Flemmi, that they were about to be indicted on federal racketeering charges. Salemme and Flemmi were caught and convicted; Bulger fled in 1995 and has not been found.

The jury acquitted Connolly on charges that he told Bulger and Flemmi about three other mobsters who were giving the FBI information about Bulger's activities. All three were killed.

By the time Connolly arrived at the Kentucky prison in September 2002, his relationship with the Mob had already received top billing in a ''Dateline NBC" broadcast. And in July 2002, just before Connolly was sentenced, he and Bulger were treated as all but gangster peers in a CBS ''60 Minutes" segment.

''They knew who I was when I hit that compound," Connolly says.

Early on, Anderson and Connolly were thrown together: Both were assigned to the same prison job, working side by side in the prison industry's accounting department. In their spare time, they found a common bond elsewhere, researching case law in the prison library. Both were convinced that federal judges had added years to their sentences to punish them for crimes for which they were never convicted.

Anderson was as feared in prison as he had once been on the streets of Louisville, where, in the mid-1990s, he helped run a drug gang that bought an estimated 30 pounds of cocaine a month, converted it to highly addictive crack, and sold it on the street.

Anderson, who is 38, has 16 years left on a 28-year sentence for drug dealing.

''Over time, Cornelius started to talk to me. Like a lot of gang members, he was fascinated with the Mafia and Mafia culture," Connolly said, adding with a laugh: ''He thought I was someone who penetrated the FBI for the Mafia. I tell you, if they showed the movie 'The Godfather' in here, it would be a sellout."

By early 2003, Anderson was telling Connolly more about his criminal background: ''He told me about his crew, about the drug deals, how he was a major guy, how they worked with guys from Chicago," Connolly said. ''He was trying to convince me that he was a serious gangster."

Connolly, after a career of handling violent gangsters, was hardly impressed. But soon, Connolly said, Anderson shared something that got his attention.

According to the handwritten notes of conversations that Connolly and Rankin sent to their lawyers, Anderson early last year allegedly confided that he and Hamilton, his associate, had Gail Duncan killed because they believed her testimony would have resulted in a life sentence for Anderson.

In an April 15, 2003, memo to his lawyer, Connolly, using the shorthand ''CA" to refer to Anderson, described Anderson's alleged confession to Duncan's murder. ''We got her when she was on her way to drop her (I think he said daughter) at school," the memo quotes Anderson as saying. The memo continued: ''(CA) said she needed to go because she was the only witness the [government] had at the time who put him (CA) directly in the drug case, and she was going to be a witness against him. (CA) said he had no choice."

The second murder Anderson confessed to, according to Connolly, was a hit on a member of his own gang.

On July 26, 1996, three months after Duncan's death, 20-year-old Deron Cole was shot as he answered a knock at his apartment door. Cole, a codefendant of Anderson's, had just agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges in return for a reduced sentence.

Cole wasn't required to give testimony in exchange for the plea bargain deal, but Anderson and Hamilton worried that he might. ''So they decided to take him out, too," Connolly said in the interview.

At the time of both murders, Anderson was under house arrest, his movements restricted by an electronic bracelet. Anderson, Connolly recalled, told him that ''the government is my best witness. I was at home on a bracelet. The US government is my alibi."

Hamilton, the man Connolly says Anderson identified as his coconspirator in ordering the murders, died of natural causes two years ago in a federal prison in Virginia. He had been serving a life sentence for his role in the drug ring.

Disgusted by Anderson's bragging about the hit on Duncan, Connolly said, he became determined to learn details of the murders. ''It was all 'prison talk' until he told me what he had done to Gail Duncan. That's when everything changed for me," Connolly said.

Rankin, who befriended Connolly soon after he entered the prison, said he listened in on the April 15 conversation, after which both men produced detailed notes. Later on, Rankin said, he and Connolly were in the prison library with Anderson when the subject of Cole's murder surfaced.

According to Rankin, Anderson said he and Hamilton were concerned that Cole had turned on them. ''They didn't know for sure if he was going to cooperate, but they weren't willing to take the chance," Rankin says.

Both Connolly and Rankin were interviewed several times by Finch, the Louisville homicide detective, in person and by telephone. But while Finch said there is substantial evidence to corroborate Anderson's involvement in Duncan's murder, he said last week that he does not believe enough evidence exists to bring an indictment for Cole's murder.

In Finch's mind, both Connolly and Rankin were at risk from the moment they spoke to authorities about Anderson, whose prison network was extensive, Finch said.

''If Cornelius had any idea that [Connolly] was talking to me, or if . . . he even started to get the perception that Connolly was talking to anyone, he and his guys would have killed him without a second thought," Finch said. ''Absolutely, they would have beaten him to death."

'Always an FBI agent'
Nearly 18 months have passed since Connolly brought his information to Louisville law enforcement in May 2003. And every day that goes by without an indictment against Anderson feels like an affront because of the risks he took to obtain the confession.

At first, Mullane said, Finch had encouraged Connolly to continue gathering information on Anderson, knowing the danger to Connolly's safety. Now all of that risk ''appears to be for naught," Mullane said. ''Nothing has happened. It's been a waste of John's time and an unnecessary risk for him to take."

But if the cases have ground to a halt, Mullane said, the fault doesn't lie with Finch but with federal law enforcement officials, who, Mullane and Connolly believe, have their own reasons for letting the cases stall.

''Someone in higher authority than Tony Finch has made a decision that nothing should get done," said Mullane.

Now, as in 1996, Finch has been virtually the only law enforcement official actively involved in investigating Duncan's death. Inside a spare interview room of the Louisville Metro Police Department's homicide unit, he fanned out photographs of Duncan from the crime scene, taken moments after the shooting.

''The only thing I care about is Duncan and that little girl," he said, explaining why, when Connolly approached him, the disgraced former agent's own record was immaterial to him.

Why the investigation into the murder of a federal witness has been left principally in the hands of an overburdened local homicide detective remains one of the unresolved questions in the case.

Finch was among the first officers at the murder scene. Even after it was apparent why Duncan had been killed, the bulk of the detective work was left to him.

And his mostly solitary role continued after Mullane, in May 2003, contacted Assistant US Attorney Philip C. Chance, who had prosecuted the Anderson drug case, to alert him to the evidence Connolly had gathered. According to Mullane, all Chance did was tell him to contact Finch, saying that Finch knew the most about Duncan's murder.

Contacted by telephone, Chance declined to answer any questions, saying he could not discuss an ongoing investigation. Marisa J. Ford, the chief of the criminal division in the US Attorney's office in Louisville, said in an interview that federal law enforcement officials were ''aggressively" involved in the original 1996 investigation, and remain committed to seeking Duncan's killers.

Ford acknowledged, however, that her office had not been made aware of the evidence developed by Finch. ''We would very much like to see that evidence," Ford said.

Several former federal prosecutors said they would find it inexcusable for federal authorities to allow such a high-profile murder investigation, especially of one of their own witnesses, to be controlled by a local detective.

''If one of your witnesses gets whacked, that is a very big deal," said David L. McGee, a former federal prosecutor in Florida who handled major drug cases. ''This is in your face, it's personal. Those cases tend to get handled a little bit differently. Typically, all hell would break loose."

Connolly, ever pugnacious, has placed part of the blame for the inaction in Kentucky on a federal prosecutor in Boston, who he believes is acting out of animus toward him. The prosecutor, he contends, has sought to stall the Anderson investigation and deny Connolly a chance to gain credit for his informant work behind bars. But the Globe could find no evidence to support that allegation, and even the two criminal lawyers who until recently handled Connolly's defense say there is no merit to the accusation.

The prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Fred M. Wyshak Jr., said he would never do such a thing.

As a rule, he said, prosecutors encourage inmates to help solve crimes.

''If the person does the right thing, they are eligible to get a reduction in sentence," he said. ''Nobody in the government would want to discourage anyone from assisting in solving unsolved criminal activity."

Wyshak declined to comment on Connolly's situation, saying he is unaware of the details of Connolly's involvement in the Duncan case.

For his part, Finch said no one has sought to impede his investigation into the evidence Connolly gathered. To the detective, the only issue that matters is whether Connolly's information will hold up in front of a jury and be corroborated. Finch believes it will.

Although many details about the murders were included in news accounts in 1996, Finch said the level of detail Connolly was able to obtain fit with information known only to investigators.

''He was able to touch on a lot of those things in a way that no random federal prisoner from Boston would ever be able to do," Finch said, ''unless he was told by the killer."

As for Connolly, he sums it up this way: ''I didn't do anything that any other FBI agent wouldn't have done. Once an FBI agent, always an FBI agent. I have never forgotten my oath."

Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Spotlight contact information

 The Boston Globe Spotlight Team can be reached at (617) 929-3208.

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