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Memos to FBI HQ Told of Informants' Shady Lives

Crime: Documents show a pattern of collusion involving the Boston field office, its Washington bosses and the mob.


BOSTON — For more than 20 years, FBI headquarters in Washington knew that its agents in Boston were using professional killers and mob leaders as informants and shielding them from prosecution for serious crimes, including murder, the Associated Press has learned.

Until now, the still-unraveling Boston FBI scandal has been portrayed largely as the work of a handful of local agents -- mavericks willing to deal with the devil to bring down a Mafia family.

But documents directly connect FBI headquarters to a pattern of collusion with notorious New England killers.

Twenty field memos from Boston agents to the FBI director's office, along with six replies, show that headquarters was informed about the abuses and condoned them.

The field memos, written between 1964 and 1987, made it clear to Washington that the informants had killed and were likely to kill again, describing one of them as "the most dangerous individual known" in the Boston area. The memos also alerted the director's office that two of the informants were crime bosses, active "at the policy-making level" of criminal enterprises in Boston.

Headquarters also knew that the informants were being shielded from other police agencies by its agents in Boston. It knew, for example, that one informant who masterminded a murder was allowed to go free as four innocent men were sent to prison in his place.

Sometimes, it appears, headquarters was directly involved in protecting the informants. In 1983, for example, Boston agents shielded two of them from questions about the murder of a jai alai operator. Senior FBI officials in Washington gave the order to snuff out the investigation, the deputy chief of the FBI's Boston office at the time said in a recent interview.

J. Edgar Hoover, William S. Sessions and William H. Webster headed the FBI in the years when the field memos about the informants were written. Whether they saw them is unknown.

Cartha DeLoach, an assistant FBI director under Hoover, says his late boss did not always read field memos, adding that he can't remember seeing the Boston memos himself. Webster and Sessions declined to be interviewed.

It is uncertain who at FBI headquarters read the memos, but someone was paying attention. In six responses, all but one unsigned, the director's office welcomed the informants and praised their FBI field handlers.

A spokesman for the FBI in Washington declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing investigations and lawsuits.

The AP found the FBI memos in the files of a congressional committee that has begun investigating the abuses, and in records of related court proceedings.

The roots of the scandal lie in the 1960s, when the FBI -- which had been devoting many of its resources to investigating Communists -- came under pressure to crack down on the growing power of organized crime.

"They were starting to get heat from the country and the media that not enough was being done about the Mafia," said U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the committee investigating the informant abuses. "I think J. Edgar Hoover was sensitive to that."

In Boston, FBI agents responded by recruiting two hit men as informants and by forging an alliance with the Winter Hill Gang -- vicious thugs eager to seize control of the rackets from the Patriarca Mafia family.

The nature of the arrangement, as disclosed in recent criminal proceedings: In return for information about the Mafia, Boston agents looked the other way as the Winter Hill Gang sold drugs, stole and murdered, even tipping them off when the state police and federal drug agents were on their trail.

Both sides got what they wanted. The Patriarca crime family was devastated by federal prosecutions, and the Winter Hill Gang took over Boston-area rackets.

Lawyers representing victims of violence by FBI informers long suspected that Washington played a role in the affair, noting that high-level informants required approval from FBI headquarters. "Either they knew, or they didn't want to know," said lawyer Edward Hinchey.

But until the 26 field memos and replies surfaced, there was little evidence. The memos -- a couple of which have previously been reported -- somehow survived what one Justice Department lawyer called the routine destruction of many FBI documents involving the informants.

The arrangement between the Boston agents and the gangsters remained secret until 1995, when Massachusetts state police and federal drug agents finally built a racketeering case against the Winter Hill Gang. Its leader, James J. "Whitey" Bulger, and his top lieutenant, Stephen J. "The Rifleman" Flemmi, were indicted along with five others.

Tipped off by a Boston FBI agent, Bulger escaped and remains at large. The others were arrested.

Flemmi promptly protested that he and Bulger were FBI informants and that their crimes had been committed under the protection of the agency. Mark L. Wolf, a U.S District Court judge in Boston, held hearings on Flemmi's claim, and the story began to tumble out.

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