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100 FBI retirees defend disgraced Boston agent

Agent John Connolly was convicted of tipping off his informants and taking payoffs as they continued to kill people. One hundred retired FBI agents say he got a raw deal and want him freed.

May 08, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • One hundred FBI retirees are campaigning to exonerate former Agent John Connolly, who ran a major operation of informants in the Northeast but was convicted of taking payoffs and tipping them off to imminent arrests. His colleagues say he got a raw deal.
One hundred FBI retirees are campaigning to exonerate former Agent John… (Peter Andrew Bosch, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — One hundred retired FBI agents, many long past their crime-fighting days, are rallying this spring in an effort to exonerate a disgraced former agent from Boston who ran one of the bureau's most controversial informant operations.

They call themselves the Former FBI Agents for Justice for John. Among them are two retired FBI deputy directors and another who became associate attorney general in Washington.

Twice-convicted Agent John J. Connolly Jr. discredited the FBI. A son of South Boston, he turned the leaders of the Irish criminal underworld into government informants on their Italian American counterparts, and then was convicted of tipping them off to imminent arrest as well as taking payoffs from them even as they continued to kill people.

Next month, he will leave federal prison after nine years in custody. But he goes straight to Florida to begin a 40-year sentence for precipitating a gangland slaying in Miami.

Richard Baker, a leader of the retirees, believes his former colleague is innocent and points out that for a 70-year-old man, 40 years is a "death sentence."

"I have no problem doing this," Baker said, defending the agents' support of a man who dishonored the FBI they spent their lifetimes building up. "John was wrongly convicted. And he'll be dead after just two years in that Florida system. He'll be shanked or killed once they figure out he was an FBI agent."

Connolly has always maintained that his superiors at the bureau told him to protect gangsters James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi of the infamous Winter Hill gang despite their crime rampage because they were useful informants against their rivals in the Italian American mob in New England. Bulger vanished in 1995 and remains on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

But Justice Department officials, state prosecutors and relatives of victims have a starkly different view.

"John Connolly wore a badge," said Michael Von Zamft, who prosecuted Connolly in Florida. "He was an FBI agent, and he swore to uphold the law. And yet he became one of the criminals and, maybe worse, he was hiding behind that badge."

Von Zamft also was critical of the former agents' support for Connolly.

"I don't know why 100 agents are rallying around him. The man's been convicted by two juries. Not one, but two," he said.

The former agents, including former FBI deputy directors Weldon L. Kennedy and Bruce J. Gebhardt, have made no headway with Washington in trying to get the federal conviction overturned. They have now turned their focus to Florida, where Connolly is being transferred June 28.

Connolly was charged with first-degree murder in the killing of World Jai Alai President John Callahan in 1982. Connolly had warned Bulger and Flemmi that Callahan was likely to implicate them in a previous murder. John Martorano, working for Bulger and Flemmi, killed Callahan and stuffed his body in the trunk of a Cadillac and left it at Miami International Airport.

Connolly's supporters have made an issue of the disparity in the prison terms for Connolly and the hit man, Martorano, who confessed to killing 20 people and served 12 years.

Today, Martorano hangs out in Boston's Back Bay, and in the mornings at a bar called Daisy Buchanan's. "I'm not biased either way," the killer said about the disparity in sentences. "Whatever happens, happens."

In March, a three-member panel of state appellate judges ruled against Connolly without issuing a written opinion, and Connolly is now appealing to the Florida Supreme Court.

"We need to get a good opinion out of that Florida appeals court," said Willie Reagan, who served as an undercover agent infiltrating the mob in New England. "If they refuse, we're essentially dead in the water."

From his cell in Butner, N.C., Connolly wrote a series of emails to The Times. "It's the worst cover-up in the modern annals of the Justice Department," he wrote.

Connolly, who was the basis for the role played by the actor Matt Damon in "The Departed," the Oscar-winning film about law enforcement corruption loosely based on Connolly's story, said he had been "deliberately framed" by perjured testimony from mobsters he was investigating and FBI superiors who were on the take. As for the slaying in Florida three decades ago, Connolly dismissed it as a "time-lapsed murder I had nothing to do with."

Frank Keating, an FBI agent who rose to associate attorney general and governor of Oklahoma, is bothered that Connolly remains in prison while Martorano walks free after killing 20 people, including a friend of Keating's wife's parents.

"John Connolly scraped his knees and there's no excuse for his behavior," Keating said. "But a killer of other human beings walking around in order to get a dirty FBI agent? That's just mind-boggling. Do you catch a minnow with a shark? I'd rather go after the shark."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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