The unholy alliance
'Black Mass' tells how the Mob tied in with the FBI, and how right and wrong
were blurred in the process
By William Bratton, 8/13/2000
Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal
By Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill
Public Affairs, 381 pp
I always knew I wanted to be a cop. I wanted to be one of the good guys. As
a young kid growing up in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, in the blue-collar
Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester (or "Fieldsie," as we called it), I
was always a cop when we played cops and robbers. My image of policing was as
black-and-white as the characters on the TV shows that shaped it - Jack Webb
on "Dragnet," Broderick Crawford on "Highway Patrol," and Paul Burke and
Horace McMahon on "Naked City." There was never any doubt who the good guys
When I finally became a cop, joining the Boston Police in 1970, I quickly
learned that the real world was much more gray and ambiguous. Yet even today,
after all I've seen in 30 years, it is still difficult and unsettling for me
to understand just how twisted the role of the cop and the criminal can
become. I am anything but naive about my profession, but I was deeply angered
by the revelations in a great nonfiction book that I only wish were a novel.
"Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal," by Boston Globe
reporters Gerard O'Neill and Dick Lehr, is the deeply disturbing true story
of a world of law enforcement that was not only blurred but turned upside
down. It tells of the unholy alliance between two FBI agents and two of
Boston's most vicious thugs, and of the war they jointly waged not only
against the New England Mafia, but also the Massachusetts State Police, local
police, and district attorneys. Just how dangerously confused the roles had
become is summed up in the words of the more famous of the thugs, James
"Whitey" Bulger. During a confrontation with federal agents, he baffled them
with his comment, "We're all good guys. You're the good good guys. We're the
bad good guys."
The book is a great read - it reels you in and holds you. O'Neill and Lehr
have the remarkable ability to put you in the room and on the street where the
action takes place. The dialogue is vital, gutsy, down and dirty - it reminds
me of the writing of the late George V. Higgins. Recalling another TV show
from the 1950s, "You Are There," "Black Mass" introduces you not only into
the usually close-mouthed and insulated world of the cops and the mob, but
into the tight-knit and parochial world of South Boston, where much of the
story takes place. These worlds were so tightly bound by their mistrust of
outsiders that the words "South Boston boy, Your Honor," uttered on behalf of
a defendant in the South Boston courthouse, implied that a deal could be made
among all the worlds, cops and prosecutors and victims and defendants. It was
important to take care of one's own.
To outsiders like me - assigned to Southie frequently as a police officer
during the school busing years, and then permanently in 1975 to the old
Station Six on D Street as a newly promoted sergeant - it was a world never
totally understood, appreciated, or penetrated. Lehr and O'Neill poignantly
describe Southie's self-imposed isolation and its suspicion of all outsiders
when they write, "Their cohesive neighborhood was separated from downtown
Boston by the Fort Point Channel and a singular state of mind."
The authors could probably never have created a work of fiction more
compelling than the real world they describe, the one occupied by the four
main characters, or the web of corruption, deceit, and mayhem that revolved
around them. Two of them, Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly Jr., are Southie
born and raised; with the assistance of Connolly's boss, John Morris, and
Bulger's chief lieutenant, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, the two Townies
seemingly conspire against everybody, cops and robbers alike, in their
relentless drive for power and influence in their respective worlds.
Connolly, who took an oath to uphold the law, continually
bent it to meet his unending need for promotion, power, and notoriety, the
book recounts. Bulger, in his relentless drive to rise to the top of the Irish
Mob and eliminate his competitors, particularly the North End's Italian Mafia,
continually broke the "Code of Silence" so cherished by the underworld by
ratting on friend and foe alike to Connolly for 20 years.
Connolly, a decorated FBI agent assigned to the Boston office's Organized
Crime Squad in the 1970s, had grown up in South Boston and had known Bulger
most of his life. He had recruited him as an informant in the mid '70s as part
of the Bureau's all-out effort to dismantle the New England Mafia. With the
active assistance of Morris, the book tells how he effectively immunized
Bulger and Flemmi from prosecution for their continuing and expanding criminal
activities and shielded them from investigation by other law enforcement
organizations for almost 20 years. As was ultimately disclosed, these
activities included multiple murders. In the process, while Connolly and
Morris achieved recognition and promotion within the Bureau for their success,
like the New York cops in Robert Daly's acclaimed "Prince of the City," the
book outlines how they became hopelessly corrupted themselves. Connolly and
Morris were ostensibly the "control agents" for Bulger and Flemmi, but "Black
Mass" makes it clear it became difficult to determine who was controlling whom
as Bulger continually manipulated Connolly to protect his powerful Irish
Mafia from the State Police and other local and federal authorities.
The suspicions of those frustrated pursuers of Flemmi and Bulger, the
whispers that they were being protected, were finally confirmed over nine
months of unprecedented discovery hearings before US District Judge Mark
The web of deceit had begun to unravel in 1994, after Connolly's retirement
and Morris's transfer, when a new team at the US attorney's office and the
Bureau assembled a strong racketeering indictment against Bulger, Flemmi, and
others. Bulger - allegedly tipped off by Connolly - fled and remains on the
FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list (though there are many in Massachusetts law
enforcement who feel the Bureau has him number one on its "least wanted"
list). Flemmi and the others were arrested. The attorney for another defendant
persuaded Wolf that a special hearing was warranted to look into possible FBI
subterfuge in obtaining the racketeering indictment against his client. On
Jan. 6, 1998, Wolf's inquiry into the tangled worlds of the FBI and Bulger's
Over a year later, Wolf issued his 600-plus-page Memorandum of Fact, in
which he assailed the FBI for its handling of informants Bulger and Flemmi.
Going further, he implicated 18 FBI agents and supervisors for wrongdoing
related to the case. Morris had been given immunity from prosecution in
exchange for his testimony. Connolly refused to testify, asserting his Fifth
Amendment rights. He is now under indictment, awaiting trial.
The sordid story will continue to unfold in the months ahead. The sequel to
this book will undoubtedly concern the fate of Connolly (and Bulger, if he is
ever found). Connolly's trial will be one of the show trials of the 21st
century in Boston.
Connolly's ultimate defense is forecast by O'Neill and Lehr. He will point
out that the government makes its case against him on the word of killers and
liars. And indeed, shady characters like John Martorano and Kevin Weeks will
testify against him. (Like such other infamous witnesses as Sammy "The Bull"
Gravano, they are despicable thugs making the best deal they can with
prosecutors.) The primary witness will be his former supervisor, Morris,
testifying under a grant of immunity. Morris will blame Connolly; Connolly
will blame Morris. But a large part of the blame lies with a federal
bureaucracy that was willing to look the other way while crimes were
committed, a bureaucracy whose operating motto seemed to have been "the end
justifies the means."
The book helps me to understand, but never excuse, how Connolly fell, with
his Southie roots and his need for fame and publicity. Morris is another
story. The tight-lipped, holier-than-thou FBI supervisor, who allegedly took
thousands of dollars in bribe money, accepted cases of wine, and solicited
plane tickets for his mistress (and subordinate), is a character less
sympathetic than Connolly. He tried to ruin the career of Norfolk County
District Attorney Bill Delahunt (now a congressman) with his jealousy and
hypocrisy. While he was on the take himself, he went after Boston Police
detectives in a highly publicized case in the 1980s, attacking corruption
ranging from cups of coffee and Christmas gifts to money. These cops, wrong as
they were, can't hold a candle to Agent Morris when it comes to corruption.
Finally, as I think about Connolly and the story told in "Black Mass," I
can't help thinking back to the 1980s, when our career paths briefly crossed.
Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, a Southie native himself, was looking for a new police
commissioner. I was reportedly one of four candidates. Paul Evans and Francis
"Mickey" Roache, both from Southie, were also being considered. Flynn finally
chose Roache, whom I succeeded in 1993. In 1994 I was succeeded by Paul Evans,
who still serves in that position.
John Connolly was the fourth candidate.
William Bratton is the former police commissioner of Boston and New York City.
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 8/13/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.