BOSTON — A top Massachusetts state police mob expert testified Thursday that some local FBI agents were so consumed with protecting James “Whitey” Bulger that they repeatedly sabotaged state and local police investigations and even threatened the careers of the detectives pushing them.
The testimony by retired State Police Col. Thomas J. Foley pushed to the front of Bulger’s racketeering trial the long-simmering mistrust Bulger and his largely unimpeded criminal career has created between the FBI and the local and state police agencies here, in Connecticut and elsewhere which for decades met with nothing but failure in their pursuit of the crime boss.
“Were you surprised that members of the Boston FBI were trying to circumvent and undercut your investigations?” Bulger lawyer Hank Brennan asked during cross- examination.
“Yes,” Foley replied.
Foley said that beginning in the 1980s, he considered the FBI’s Boston office to be a bigger obstacle to investigating Bulger’s organized crime group, the Winter Hill Gang, than the criminals themselves. Among other things, Foley said he believes FBI agents, supported by some prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, alerted Bulger or his associates to wire taps and tried to have state detectives assigned to other matters.
“I was naive on some things, yes,’’ Foley testified. “I’m not sure at one point we started questioning what was going on.”
The law enforcement bad blood has existed at least since the 1970s, when detectives from Connecticut, Florida and Oklahoma began running down leads in Boston that Bulger and his associates killed three men in an effort to seize control of the pari-mutuel company World Jai Alai.
The out-of-state police had begun to suspect by the early 1980s that a group of Boston FBI agents were tipping Bulger and his partner Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi to investigations and concealing evidence. One of the out-of-state detective said he believes his hotel room was searched during one of several fruitless visits to Boston.
Foley, whose career included two stints in the elite state police division that targets organized crime groups, said he began to suspect around 1984 that some of his opposites in the Boston FBI’s organized crime squad were tipping Bulger and his gang to state police wiretaps and other surveillance.
Disclosures in court since the late 1990s have revealed what state and local detectives long suspected: Bulger and Flemmi were FBI informants for much of the 1970s and ’80s. But a string of subsequent investigations has revealed as well that Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang was paying tens of thousands of dollars to FBI agents — most to now-imprisoned former agent John Connolly — for information about any investigations in which they were targets.
Bulger’s defense denies he was ever an informant. He claims Connolly opened a phony informant file on Bulger to cover his frequent meetings with members of the gang.
His lawyers have argued that Bulger’s prosecution is in some measure the result of a collaboration between corrupt or incompetent federal authorities and three duplicitous former Bulger associates who have become the chief witnesses against him.
While Bulger admits paying off law enforcement officers and making millions of dollars through gambling and selling drugs, he denies committing murder and claims the three witnesses are using cooperation agreements with federal authorities to pin their crimes on him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak called Foley as a witness to describe the efforts by the Massachusetts state police organized crime squad that eventually led to Bulger’s indictment. In 1990, he said squad members focused an investigation of a Winter Hill bookmaker and, using wiretaps, worked their way up through the gang hierarchy.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Foley said his detectives began uncovering a staggering arsenal of weapons that the gang had stashed in hiding places from Boston to Florida.
At least a dozen were fully automatic, military-style machine guns. They also found dozens more shotguns, rifles and handguns. Many of the guns were equipped with silencers and their serial numbers had been obliterated, Foley said.
The sweeping racketeering indictment against Bulger charges him with multiple firearms offenses in addition to 19 murders.