When Whitey Bulger was captured last year, he'd spent close to 20 years on the run — and on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
Bulger was the head of an Irish gang terrorizing the streets of South Boston. The Massachusetts State Police wanted him gone, but curiously couldn't touch him.
Why? Bulger was a confidential FBI informant, and the bureau shielded him for years.
Robert Fitzpatrick, the author of Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down, says Bulger was widely known to be an unsavory character.
"He's a stone killer, has been known to be a hit man for the Mafia out of Providence, and he's also known to be the head of the Winter Hill gang, a bunch of Irish guys trying to take over the rackets, extortion and the drug stuff up in Boston," Fitzpatrick tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
Fitzpatrick was a young FBI agent with a solid track record when the bureau sent him to Boston to sniff out corruption in the office. One of his first tasks was to evaluate Bulger, who was supposedly providing information on Mafia activities in New England.
"I put out my hand to shake his hand, and he kind of turns on his heel and walks away," Fitzpatrick says. "He's evasive, he's not answering the questions, he's going all over the place, and so I make a mental reservation that I'm going to end this thing, I'm going to cut it short."
Fitzpatrick decided to "close" Bulger, to end his informant status with the FBI. But he found himself stymied at every turn by Bulger's handler, John Connolly, and higher-ups in the bureau.
Several witnesses approached Fitzpatrick with information tying Bulger to a murder. When two of them were killed, Fitzpatrick says he began to suspect there were leakers in the FBI's Boston office. But what he never suspected was that the leaks were coming from Bulger's handler, Connolly, and Connolly's immediate supervisor, John Morris.
"That's not within my ken, at that time," Fitzpatrick says.
Fitzpatrick never managed to bring down Bulger. Eventually, he left the bureau.
Bulger went on the run in 1994, tipped off by Connolly. He was captured last year and is awaiting trial.
"Primarily, John got ego" out of being associated with such a famous gangster, Fitzpatrick says.
"I think in his own mind, he wanted to do good. And he began to disregard the information that was hurting the citizens, hurting the people. And he got too ingrained. He became one of them."
But Fitzpatrick says he believes that while the FBI certainly helped Bulger become a criminal kingpin, the crime boss himself was brilliantly able to corrupt the criminal justice system.
"This is a guy who co-opted the FBI, the United States' Attorneys office, the Boston police, the state police, the probation department and the Coast Guard. That's a failure of the entire system," Fitzpatrick says. "He beat them at the game."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz. When the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger was captured last year in Santa Monica, California, he'd spent close to 20 years on the run and on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Bulger was the head of the Winter Hill gang that terrorized the streets of south Boston in the '70s and '80s, and Massachusetts State Police had been after him for years but curiously, they couldn't touch him.
Why? Well, Whitey Bulger was also a confidential FBI informant, and the Bureau protected him even as he murdered some witnesses to his crimes. Our book today is called "Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down." Author Robert Fitzpatrick was a young FBI agent in 1981 when he was sent to the agency's Boston office to take care of a bitter rivalry between the Boston FBI and state police.
And he says already by that point, Whitey Bulger was widely known as bad news.
ROBERT FITZPATRICK: He's a stone killer, has been known to be a hit man for the mafia out of Providence, and he's also known to be the head of the Winter Hill gang, a bunch of Irish guys who were trying to take over the rackets, extortion and the drug stuff up in Boston.
RAZ: So you arrived to the FBI office in Boston charged with the task of figuring out what's going on. You learn that Whitey Bulger actually has an FBI handler, an agent...
FITZPATRICK: Right. John Connolly.
RAZ: John Connolly. Tell me about John Connolly. Who - what was he like?
FITZPATRICK: Connolly is on a squad called the Organized Crime Squad. He is an agent who handles informants. Bulger was his guy, and his job, Connolly's job, was to get information from Bulger about the crime in Boston, particularly the mafia.
RAZ: Essentially, the problem from his perspective, and the perspective of many FBI agents in Boston, was that the problem was the Italian mafia, not Irish crime syndicates.
FITZPATRICK: That was the priority, Guy. The Italian mafia, the LCN, La Cosa Nostra and so forth, was the number one priority throughout the FBI, the bureau.
RAZ: So you make a deal with the devil, as probably happens all across the country every day, you sort of lay off Whitey Bulger. That was the deal that was struck, even before you arrive, in exchange for information, right?
RAZ: And Connolly is the guy that is his liaison in the FBI. One day, you write, Connolly says to you, listen, I want you to meet Bulger. You know, you're going to like this guy. He's a really great guy. You go and meet him. What's your impression of him?
FITZPATRICK: Well, let me just say this, Guy. The state police thinks that Bulger's a thug and should be brought to justice. The FBI can't tell them he's an informant and they want to keep him. My job is to go out there and assess him, to find out whether or not the information he's giving is good information, and how am I going to rectify, how am I going to settle this situation?
So I go out and I interview him. I put out my hand to shake his hand, and he kind of turns on his heel and walks away. I'm looking at my hand, you know, empty hand, I'm saying to myself, hmm, so this is our friend. This is the guy I'm going to like, and this is the guy that's going to give me everything.
And so I go through my spiel. I start asking him different questions, and right away, he interrupts me, and he says: Hey - he says, you don't understand. I've been in Alcatraz. I've been in Leavenworth. I've been in this prison and that prison and basically, you know, I'm a tough guy.
And at that point, you know, I look at him, I says, well, you know, Whitey? That's all well and good I says, but I'm here to find out what you're doing for me. What are you doing for the FBI?
RAZ: And what was he doing?
FITZPATRICK: You know, he's evasive. He's not answering the question. He's going all over the place. And so I make a mental reservation that I'm going to end this thing, and so I cut it short.
RAZ: You eventually tell Connolly, look, I'm going to close Bulger. I'm going to end his status as an informant. He's not worth it to us. Connolly says...
FITZPATRICK: No, you're not.
RAZ: ...you're not going to.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: So what happens at that point?
FITZPATRICK: It's not the way an agent talks to his boss. And of course, I get a little angry over that and brace them - actually, I brace Morris, his boss, and I said, you know, what the heck's going on here? And so we do have some skirmishes right up front. And for a new guy coming in, you know, three months or so, this ain't good.
RAZ: Was there a kind of a protect-our-own mentality in that office, a kind of, sort of an unspoken oath to protect other Irish guys?
FITZPATRICK: You're talking about loyalty.
FITZPATRICK: In this regard, the Organized Crime Squad was conceived to be or thought to be an elite squad. They handled the priority stuff. They worked with the baddest guys. And so Connolly was the cock of the walk. You know, he's the guy that has the biggest informant. He's the guy getting the most information. And I just didn't see it that way, so in that regard, the loyalty - particularly John's loyalty, Connolly's loyalty - was, as I found out, was not to the FBI. It was to Southey and to this guy Bulger, apparently.
Let me say this too. My job, prior to coming to Boston, was as a special agent in charge of transfers. In other words, I was the unit chief who transferred virtually everybody in the bureau.
One of my precepts was you don't send people back to where they came from in a short period of time. And I think that was the basic problem in Boston, that there were people who went back to Boston, transferred to Boston too soon. And Connolly, I believe, was one of those guys.
RAZ: Was there enough evidence to arrest Whitey Bulger from the time that he no - he was no longer an informant or officially an informant, you know, to the time when you left the FBI, which was in the late '80s? Did you...
FITZPATRICK: Very good, Guy. What happens after I interview him, we get a murder case. A guy is shot out in Oklahoma, a fellow by the name of Wheeler. And I won't get into the names, but basically, an informant comes in, a guy by the name of Halloran, tells us, look, the guy who shot the guy out in Oklahoma was a part of a gang that Bulger is in charge of. In fact, Bulger sent the guy out there to kill him.
So we're getting all this information from Halloran, who's a protected informant now, and now instead of closing him, I now open up a murder case on the guy, and what we're going to do is we're going to get him for murder.
RAZ: You're going to get Bulger for murder.
FITZPATRICK: And I got a witness. I got this guy Halloran. Well, the attorney's office, the strike force chief, won't let me put him into a witness protection program, and then he's whacked. He's been killed.
RAZ: Halloran is killed. Who...
FITZPATRICK: He's killed. He's machine gunned on the street.
RAZ: Who tells Bulger that Halloran is an informant?
FITZPATRICK: At the time, of course, I have no idea that Morris and Connolly are snitching and, you know, furnishing out this information.
RAZ: But essentially, it's two FBI agents are going back and telling...
RAZ: ...Bulger, hey, this guy just came into the FBI office and he's ratting you out.
FITZPATRICK: Right. It's an incredible story, Guy. I mean, you've got two leakers right under me, you know, that are giving the information out as I'm developing it.
RAZ: Aren't you suspicious? I mean, aren't you thinking, hang on. There must be a rat inside the FBI.
RAZ: And what did you do about it?
FITZPATRICK: Well, I complained, obviously, and I'm actively engaged in trying to find out who the leakers are.
RAZ: You must have suspected that Connolly was involved. He was Bulger's handler.
FITZPATRICK: Yes, but not in a way that I could bring him to justice or do anything because basically, that was his job. I mean, his job is to talk to this guy. Now, it's a stretch, really, and it sounds ridiculous now, but it's a stretch to think that he was also diming my informants. That's not within my ken at that time.
RAZ: Robert, what was in it for John Connolly? What did he get out of it? Was he - did he get rich? Did he get money?
FITZPATRICK: Primarily, John got ego. Secondly, I think in his own mind, he wanted to do good, and I think he began to disregard the information that was hurting the citizens, hurting the people. And he got too ingrained. He became one of them.
RAZ: Do you think that Whitey Bulger was brilliant, or do you think that his success was due to the fact that the FBI essentially had his back?
FITZPATRICK: He corrupted the criminal justice system. This is a guy who co-opted the FBI, the United States Attorneys' Office, Boston police, the state police, the probation department and the Coast Guard. That's a failure of the entire system. And now, is that smart? Is that intelligent? Yeah. He's a con man, an intelligent con man, and he beat them at the game.
RAZ: That's former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick talking about his new book. It's called "Betrayal," and it's about how the Boston FBI protected the mobster Whitey Bulger for more than two decades. Robert, thanks.
FITZPATRICK: Well, thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.