For two decades, the FBI protected gang kingpin Whitey Bulger from prosecution. Former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick tried to halt a disaster in the making, but no one listened.
He told his story in a gripping 2012 memoir:
In June, former mob boss Whitey Bulger goes on trial for his role in 19 killings in the 1970s and 1980s, when he headed the notorious Winter Hill Gang in Boston. At the time, Bulger was allegedly an FBI informant—a fact which he denies; but his lawyers will likely claim, at trial, that the Department of Justice promised Bulger immunity from federal prosecution.
Former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick grew up in those same Boston streets and dreamed of joining the agency. He went undercover in the 60s South to fight white supremacist groups and played a leading role in the ABSCAM corruption sting in the 70s. He trained young agents in the subtle art of cultivating informants.
But when Fitzpatrick met Bulger in 1981, he foresaw disaster: He suspected that Bulger’s handler John Connolly and Connolly’s supervisor John Morris were compromised and that a sociopathic Bulger was manipulating them to stay in power and continue his crime spree unchecked.
When Fitzpatrick’s superiors ignored his warnings, he tried to make his own case against Bulger. But his informants’ identities were leaked, and they were murdered. Demonized as a whistleblower, Fitzpatrick resigned.
A decade later, agents tipped off Bulger that he was being investigated. The crime lord went on the lam for 16 years before being captured in 2011.
If you think that sounds complicated, check out Fitzpatrick’ explosive memoir, Betrayal, which details the astonishing matrix of agents and officials who conspired to protect Bulger, and whose corruption may constitute, in the words of a U.S. Congressional report, “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.”
Fitzpatrick’s warnings have long been proved correct; but his greatest vindication may lie ahead, when he’s called to testify at Bulger’s trial this summer.
That story remains untold. But Fitzpatrick’s labyrinthine tale of corruption at the highest levels of government makes a compelling read and offers a rare look inside the FBI, through the eyes of a veteran who knows how things should be…and feels a duty to reveal how they really are.
Fitzpatrick kindly agreed to answer a few questions:
What’s the latest?
There’s a lot going on with the Whitey Bulger case right now. His trial is slated for June of 2013 in the U.S District Court (in South Boston’s Seaport district), barring any crazy stuff appearing in the media.
Bulger’s defense, sort of, is that he claims he was never an FBI informant. He also proclaims that he had immunity from the organized crime strike force (that investigated him) under the aegis of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston.
The real crime is that Bulger, an alleged serial murderer and arch criminal, was allowed to commit crimes and claims that he deserves a “pass” in future prosecutions.
What were your initial impressions when you met Whitey Bulger and learned that he was an FBI informant?
I interviewed Bulger in 1981, as a veteran FBI agent assigned as second in command to the four-state office (ME, MA, NH, RI) headquartered in Boston. My mission was to identify FBI agents and others who were suspected of leaking classified information to the media and others.
The leaks—a federal criminal offense—were ostensibly about Whitey Bulger’s role as an FBI informant, whose job was to furnish confidential information about criminals, specifically the New England mafia. Bulger’s association with the FBI was supposedly a secret, but it was an ill-kept secret.
One problem that came out was that Bulger was outed as the head of the Irish mob, a group called the Winter Hill Gang. He, along with his associate, Steve (the rifleman) Flemmi were simultaneously warring with the Italian mob—called the “LCN,” or “La Casa Nostra.”
When people in law enforcement and the media learned that Bulger was clandestinely working with FBI agents, they anticipated that this association would stain all who participated as “rogue” or “bad” agents. The Mass State Police suspected that agents John Morris and John Connolly were criminally involved with Bulger.
In an effort to set the record straight, my first assignment was to assess Bulger and ascertain if he was suitable to be an FBI informant. My job had also been to uncover the “leakers” and prosecute them. No one could prove Bulger’s informant status until the Globe Spotlight team broke the story—with Morris leaking it to them.
I found that my boss, the SAC, leaked Federal Grand Jury information revealing one of our informants, who was subsequently murdered. Of course, Morris and Connolly were accused of leaking along with others. That story remains largely untold.
When I reported this to FBIHQ I was taken off the cases and endured retaliation. I subsequently prevailed, but the damage was done. Today, we are finally uncovering the true extent of corruption at the highest levels of government.
As a veteran agent and FBI trainer, what warning signs did you see that the Bulger arrangement was going to be problematic?
After initially interviewing and interrogating Bulger, I was skeptical. As a veteran FBI agent with lots of major case, instruction, and teaching experience (organized crime, terrorism, hostage situations, death investigations etc.) at the FBI Academy, and as and resource chief for major cases, the warning signs became evident.
In interviews, Bulger stated that he was the leader of the Winter Hill gang in Boston, an Irish mafia organization. This was against informant rules and regulations. Bulger also said that he would not testify in court. I wondered, Why use him as an informant if he won’t testify? Furthermore, he insisted that he wasn’t an informant. He said he had his own informants and wouldn’t name them. Again, this created a loss of trust and demanded closure.
As a profiler, I assessed him as a liar and psychopath. I told my boss he was manipulative and untruthful. He was leader of the Irish mob; we had numerous reports of his violent nature, which subsequently resulted in my opening murder cases against him. Bulger could not remain an informant and be the subject of an FBI investigation according to FBI/DOJ rules.
I recommended Bulger be closed or terminated as an FBI informant following my assessment and suitability review. To my surprise and astonishment, others didn’t accept my assessment, which created a firestorm and crisis situation that exists to this day.
What happened when you tried to warn your superiors?
When I tried to warn my superiors about the dangers of using Bulger as a criminal informant (CI) and especially as a TEI (top echelon informant), virtually all agents involved criticized my decision to “close” Bulger and apparently resented my recommendation.
Despite my findings, Bulger was kept open as an informant. I was threatened with ‘insubordination’ if I continued. I did continue! Retaliation ensued and the cover up continued.
You characterize the protection of Bulger as a “conspiracy.” How far reaching was this campaign to shield him from prosecution, and what, in your opinion, was the motive for it? What were the repercussions?
In court testimony after Bulger’s outing and prosecution, I would characterize the criminal justice system’s protection of Bulger as a conspiracy of sorts. I spelled out the dangers as a far-reaching campaign to shield Bulger from prosecution across a wide range of federal agencies: DOJ, FBI, USA etc.
The individual motives, explained by representatives in the criminal justice system, were that Whitey Bulger was helping take down the New England mafia. Bulger had been elevated to a position called TEI, or “top echelon informant.” Furnishing info on organized crime in Boston and New England was a very high priority for the FBI and Department of Justice in Boston and even at FBIHQ in Washington, DC.
I became a “lone wolf” in defending my assessment: that Bulger was not to be trusted; that he said he wouldn’t testify; that he was the head of a major Irish gang; and that he actually claimed that he was not an informant. Repercussions were quick and furious. I was cast as a “traitor,” disloyal to the FBI informant program.
I protested that my oath required me to tell the truth and to try to stop Bulger’s continued violence. I opened criminal cases on Bulger for alleged conspiracy in the murders of other FBI informants. Bulger remained an informant despite my warnings and protests.
When finally charged, Bulger went on the lam for over sixteen years. He was captured in Santa Monica with his longstanding girlfriend, who was prosecuted and is now incarcerated. Bulger is in Pilgrim Prison and awaits trial at USDC Boston in June of 2013.
Who are the villains in this story, and why did they act as they did? Who are the heroes?
Upon reflection and after years of testimony, I find there are no villains or heroes in this saga.
What prompted you to write your book, Betrayal, and what message did you hope to get across in it?
My story and book, Betrayal, tries to explain the need to uphold my oath and to protect the criminal justice system and the rights of ordinary citizens.
What don’t people (and the press) understand about Bulger and the story of his collaboration with the FBI?
People have a difficult time understanding the FBI’s protection and administration of the Criminal Informant Program. The base understanding is that the program helps to prosecute gangsters and fight “fire with fire.” The mantra is that “one cannot use altar boys” against violent criminals like Whitey Bulger and other mafiosi. This may be true, but adherence to established rules and regulations is paramount.
What made you want to join the FBI? What motivated you—idealism, curiosity, belief in justice, desire to help people/do something good and useful?
I joined the FBI to help in the fight for justice and fairness in the criminal justice system. As a young boy, I dreamed of joining an elite force in law enforcement promoting protection and service to all good citizens. In Betrayal, I spell out my work against the mafia in New Orleans, against white supremacists in Mississippi, in white collar crime in Florida through ABSCAM and undercover assignments.
I thoroughly enjoyed my work “on the boards” instructing law enforcement personnel nationally and internationally: hostage negotiations, terrorism, death investigations, profiling, serial murders to name a few. I traveled all over the country and abroad to teach and learn about advanced methods of law enforcement.
It was great! I guess my youthful idealism motivated me along with the quest to continue learning more to help and assist my associates and professionals in the law enforcement field. In imparting new ideas about crime prevention, I hoped, ultimately, to stop crime.
Did your experience with the Bulger story disillusion you with the FBI and/or with the criminal justice system?
As I near the Bulger trial in June, I will be called to testify once more. I’m not disillusioned by my FBI experience, because along the way I investigated cases that epitomized my ideals.
Yes, the criminal justice system in America can use some adjustment. We need more accountability and fairness in the system and proper training in this regard. We need more circumspection about the potential of trampling people’s rights, and we need to reaffirm that people are innocent until proven guilty. That’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes, because crimes and violence are difficult to comprehend; particularly as they pertain to constitutional rights.
Click here to learn more about Fitzpatrick’s memoir, Betrayal.
For detailed coverage of the ongoing Bulger saga, visit Boston.com