The Martyrdom of John Connolly
In a Miami maximum-security prison, John Connolly spends 23 hours a day alone in a 10-by-11-foot cell. The former FBI agent writes endlessly on yellow legal pads, the penmanship shaky because guards, viewing pen shafts as potential weapons, allow inmates only thin, flexible ink cartridges. His letters run to 30 pages and are fairly damp from the bile. When letters aren’t enough, he calls collect, his voice rising at the mention of his enemies: federal prosecutors, the cops who investigated him, and the mobsters who took deals to testify against him. Connolly calls them all "liars" and "bastards."
"I am a prisoner of war," he writes.
He entered that war enthusiastically, when breaking up the Mafia was a national priority. A product of South Boston’s projects, with contacts in the Irish underworld, Connolly was the greatest of G-men, bringing down Boston’s Italian mob in the 1980s nearly by himself, or so it would seem from the acclaim Connolly received from the media—appearing always with coiffed black hair, stylish suits, and French-cuff shirts—and from FBI headquarters in DC.
But a decade after it was won, that war, or at least Connolly’s starring role in it, turned out to have been dirty. He developed and handled two secret informants: Irish mobster James "Whitey" Bulger and Bulger’s partner, Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi. In May 2002, a federal jury convicted Connolly of racketeering and obstruction of justice—of being part of Bulger’s mob—and of tipping Bulger and Flemmi to their secret indictment in 1994. (Flemmi claims he and Bulger gave Connolly $235,000 for his services, all told.)
Bulger fled Boston before the cops came with arrest warrants. Flemmi didn’t get out in time. When it became clear that no one in the FBI or Justice Department could protect him, Flemmi finally agreed to talk in 2003. But Connolly never has. And because he didn’t cut a deal—like so many mobsters who testified against him in exchange for lighter sentences—because he "refused to lie," he says, as the Justice Department wanted him to, Connolly is serving a maximum sentence of 10 years.
"The Department of Justice threw him under the bus," says Bob Fitzpatrick, the commander of the FBI’s organized-crime squad and Connolly’s former boss.
The charges he was convicted of, however, pale in comparison with those he faces today. This month Connolly is scheduled for trial on a claim that in 1982 he plotted and committed murder in the first degree, by telling the Bulger mob that if a potential witness sang they were all going to prison.
At Connolly’s last pretrial hearing in July, the black hair had gone gray, the face was puffy, and the once-flashy wardrobe was reduced to a rumpled red jumpsuit. Under the judge’s questions, he showed none of his trademark arrogance or the anger he lets slip during collect calls. Connolly instead nearly entreated the judge to see things his way. "I’m innocent. I’m pleading not guilty."
Connolly says he’s being framed by the same justice system that once commended his work, which is also the same justice system that failed to prosecute the misdeeds of his fellow agents. This trial, like the last, will hinge upon one corrupt supervisor, but also career criminals who have dealt themselves out of the death penalty or long prison sentences by agreeing to testify. If convicted, Connolly is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. And yet the mobsters who’ve become partners in his prosecution collectively account for about five dozen murders and are, with one exception, out on the street or headed there soon. It appears John Connolly must atone for the sins of everyone: the mobsters, the Justice Department, and the FBI.
I picked up the Whitey Bulger beat as a television reporter at WGBH in 1988.
At the time, I was reporting the case of 75 State Street, in which real estate emperor Harold Brown alleged in court papers that Thomas Finnerty, a lawyer, had used his relationship with his law partner, former state Senate President William Bulger, to extort money. Brown later dropped his accusation; rumors attributed the decision to fear of violent retaliation by William’s brother, Whitey. Even if the rumors were groundless, they spoke to the terror Whitey could inflict.
Covering organized crime and corruption in the FBI had the feel of theater; our motto at WGBH was "We don’t cover murders. We cover assassinations." I claimed the same beat after I moved to Channel 5 in 1991, in part because none of the other reporters had assembled (or cared to assemble) the stash of wiseguy files needed to tell the difference, say, between "Jimmy the Weasel" and "Jimmy Blue Eyes." Ask me about the murder of Teddy Deegan in 1965 and I could tell you about the whole menagerie: Joe the Seagull, Ronnie the Pig, Jimmy the Bear, Romeo the Goat, Joe the Horse.
Along the way, I spent so much time with cops that I started acting like one. I did surveillance, tracked Bulger associate Pat Nee after he got out of prison, figured out his daily schedule, and ambushed him outside his house with my cameraman early one morning in April 2000. I asked him about the recently discovered remains of Bulger victims. I said, "John McIntyre’s brother wants to know what you did with his fingers and toes." Nee never answered my question.
But Frank Salemme did. The former head of the New England Mafia was thought to be in the witness protection program; I found him at the Busy Bee diner in Brookline in 2004. I followed him for a week, learned his comings and goings, and then introduced myself on-camera one day as he left the Bee. Over several days and many meals, he talked to me about his "clips," as if we were two gardeners pruning roses. Salemme touted his public service of testifying in late 1999 against Connolly, a move that, ultimately, lessened his own prison time.
Breaking stories and sitting with Mafia dons had an electric thrill, but the deeper I got into the landscape, the more squalid it became. Over the years I’ve seen the broken bones of young men and women unearthed at once-secret burial grounds, spoken with the families who buried what was left, and talked to old gangsters and government witnesses who did the killing. The value in reporting all this, I told myself, was how much of it traced back to dirty deals, dirty prosecutors, and dirty cops. I kept waiting for the full acknowledgment of what went wrong in Boston. I am still waiting.