Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob
Dick Lehr, Gerard O'Neill
New York: Perennial, 2001
Subject, Methods, Database:
A journalistic account of the scandal surrounding Boston underworld figure James "Whitey" Bulger and his corrupt ties to FBI agents.
In 1975 at age 46, James "Whitey" Bulger was a prominent figure in South Boston's underworld and a member of the Winter Hill gang, the constant rival of Boston's Cosa Nostra family. In a time when tensions between the two groups mounted over the placement of vending machines throughout the region, Bulger was approached by FBI agent John Connolly, who a few years after Bulger had grown up in the same public housing project in South Boston. Connolly made a simple proposal: inform on the Mafia and let the FBI do the rest. Bulger agreed and brought his friend and partner Steve Flemmi into the deal because he had direct ties to leading Cosa Nostra members.
In 1976 Bulger and Flemmi threatened a restaurant owner who refused to repay an outstanding debt to a Boston finance company with links to the Winter Hill gang. The restaurant owner turned to the authorities for help, but when the case was forwarded to the FBI, agent Connolly took care that it would never leave the Organized Crime squad and obtained permission, about a year later, to officially close the case, arguing that the victim was reluctant to testify.
In the years to come, Lehr and O'Neill claim, a similar pattern would emerge. "In the future it would seem like the world was divided between the FBI and Bulger, on the one hand, and all the other police agencies on the other" (p. 35). What the FBI got in return for the protection it provided was, according to Lehr and O'Neill, helpful information but "(m)ost of it amounted to underworld gossip, and it was often flat-out self-serving" (p. 46).
Between 1978 and 1979, Bulger was officially shut down as top echelon informant because he had become the target of another FBI office's investigation into horse race fixing. In practice, however, nothing changed and Bulger was not even told about his putative change in status. Connolly continued his cooperation with Bulger under the protection of the new supervisor of the Organized Crime Squad, John Morris, who engaged in "creative record-keeping" to conceal the relationship.
When the race-fixing case became an imminent danger, Morris and Connolly first met with Bulger, who denied any involvement, and then with chief prosecutor Jeremiah T. O'Sullivan who agreed to drop Bulger and Flemmi from the indictment. This successful intervention paved the way for an increasingly closer social relationship between underworld figures Bulger and Flemmi and FBI agents Connolly and Morris marked by frequent meetings, including dinner invitations to Morris' private home, and the exchange of presents. At the same time, the FBI agents ignored information that Bulger and Flemmi had begun to shake down gamblers, loan sharks and drug dealers who operated in their territory, and that the two, in fact, were allegedly overseeing the majority of sports betting, numbers action, and loan-sharking for the Boston area in a joint venture with Boston's Cosa Nostra.
Following up on this intelligence was the Massachusetts State Police who with the support of a local prosecutor obtained permission to plant a bug in Bulger and Flemmi's new headquarters, a garage on Lancaster Street near Boston Garden. The bug was hardly up and running when Bulger and Flemmi abruptly changed their routine and stopped holding discussions in their office. What the police overheard was Bulger commending state troopers for the great job they did patrolling the Massachusetts Turnpike. As Flemmi later admitted, it was Connolly who tipped them off about the bug.
In June of 1982, Morris attended a two-week training session in Georgia. Immediately he missed his girlfriend and through Connolly asked Bulger to arrange for an airline ticket for her. Shortly afterwards Connolly delivered an envelope with $ 1,000 in cash to Morris' girlfriend.
In 1984 Bulger and Flemmi intimidated a couple into surrendering their newly opened liquor store. The couple contacted a Boston police detective who in turn reported the incident to John Connolly at the FBI Organized Crime Squad. Connolly did not write up a report but instead told Bulger who used his knowledge to further intimidate the former store owners and to convince them not to push the matter any further. Eventually, Lehr and O'Neil note with a bitter undertone, on a referral from John Connolly, the FBI in Boston began buying liquor for its Christmas party from Bulger's liquor mart.
Another dimension was added to the complex of events by the fact that "Whitey" Bulger's brother, Billy Bulger, served as president of the Massachusetts State Senate. In the 1980s Billy Bulger figured prominently in a lingering corruption scandal under investigation by the FBI squad overseeing public corruption crimes. Coincidently the squad was supervised by John Morris who some years earlier had been reassigned from the Organized Crime Squad. Morris closed the file but after Massachusetts attorney general James Shannon learned that Billy Bulger had never been questioned he called for a reopening of the investigation. This time Connolly, who considered himself a friend of the senate president, made sure that the investigation would be shut down for ever.
To justify their relationship with Bulger and Flemmi, Connolly and Morris had claimed that the two underworld figures played a crucial role in the bugging of Boston Mafia boss Gennaro J. Angiulo's headquarters in 1981. In the second half of the 1980s, the new Mafia leadership under Vincent M. Ferrara and J.R. Russo became a target of electronic surveillance and again it was Bulger and Flemmi who were given credit for supplying crucial information. In both cases, Lehr and O'Neill note, Bulger's role was insignificant while they do acknowledge Flemmi's contribution to the bugging of Ferrara and Russo's meeting place. The information given by Flemmi provided probable cause for the FBI to win court permission for a hidden microphone, but, as Lehr and O'Neill argue, it primarily served Bulger and Flemmi's own interest. By the time the bug began, Flemmi, tipped off by Connolly, stopped attending the meetings he had previously reported on so that "it was as if Boston was strictly a Mafia town" (p. 223) while Flemmi and Bulger "were moving about the city, flexing their own muscle" (p. 224).
The "special relationship" between FBI and Boston underworld figures Bulger and Flemmi more or less ended in the early 1990s when John Connolly left the Bureau to become head of corporate security at Boston Edison and John Morris moved to Washington and later became assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles office. When Flemmi was arrested by state police in 1995, he realized that he was no longer protected by the FBI. James L. Bulger escaped arrest and remained on the lam as of the writing of the book and as of the writing of this review (in early 2006).
The role of Bulger and Flemmi as FBI informants and the full dimension of their relationship with Connolly and Morris were disclosed in the course of a criminal trial against mob figure Frank Salemme in 1997, years after the Boston Globe newspaper had first reported about the relationship between "Whitey" Bulger and the FBI in 1988.
Authors Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill take clear sides against the two key figures of the scandal within the Boston FBI office, John Connolly and John Morris. The scandal, their detailed narrative suggests, is not so much about criminals undermining the integrity of a law enforcement agency than about over ambitious, thrill seeking agents who grossly violated FBI's informant guidelines to the extent that they provided protection and, by one-sidedly crippling the Mafia, support for a growing criminal empire in the Boston underworld. The fact that Connolly and Morris appear as the main villains in the story may have to do with the authors' own historical role as journalists who once themselves had fallen for the version of the truth presented by Connolly and Morris. They had written an enthusiastic book, first published in 1989, about the bugging of Gennaro Angiulo's office with John Morris appearing as the heroic FBI agent. With this background in mind one may be cautious to follow every conclusion the authors draw in "Black Mass". But this does not diminish the overall value of the book which sheds light on events that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to assessing the role of the FBI in fighting organized crime and the delicate issue of police informants.
"Black Mass" tells the fascinating story of corrupt ties between underworld figures and FBI agents from a not completely impartial perspective. It convincingly shows, however, that police corruption does not necessarily fit the stereotypical image of criminals using money and violence to obtain immunity from law enforcement.
Gerard O'Neill and Dick Lehr, The Underboss: The Rise and Fall of a Mafia Family, New York: St. Martin's, 1989
Christopher Wilson, "Where's Whitey?": Black Mass, ethnic criminality, and the problem of the informant, Crime, Law and Social Change, 43(2-3), 2005, 175-198
© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.