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BOOK REVIEW

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
Illustrated. $26

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 were.

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 Wolf.

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 mob began.

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.



 KEY FIGURES
Whitey Bulger
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Frank Salemme
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1 9 8 8
The Bulger mystique
A look at Boston's famous brothers, William and Whitey.

1 9 9 5
The story of Whitey's fall
How investigators brought down the elusive criminal.

1 9 9 8
Whitey & the FBI
The relationship between Bulger and Boston's law men.

1 9 9 8
Whitey's life on the run
The fugitive mobster's relentless travels across the country.

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