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If arrogance has a face, it may well be the tanned visage of former FBI Special Agent H. Paul Rico, whose pockmarked, jowly, leathery countenance tells the story of years of hard living and exposure to the Florida sun.

Yet it was the things missing from that face — things like regret, remorse or contrition — that so outraged members of the U.S. Congress on the 5th of May, 2001, when the 76-year-old ex-agent testified before the House Government Reform Committee in Washington, D.C. In short, what the lawmakers wanted, and what they weren't getting, was anything that would give the impression that Rico was sorry for the things he had done during his years as an FBI agent in Boston and as an executive of World Jai Alai, a Miami-based sports gambling company.

The congressmen peppered Rico with questions about recently discovered secret FBI documents that appeared to show that in order to protect a Mafia informant, he had knowingly sent four men to prison for life in 1968 for a murder they didn't commit. Two of the men died behind bars, but a third, Joseph Salvati, had been freed. Both he and his wife, Marie, had wept when they testified earlier in the day about their attempts to keep their family together during his 30-year imprisonment.

Rico squirmed in his seat some as he ducked and wove through their questions, but that may have been more due to his ill ­fitting navy blue suit than nerves, because the ex-agent managed to maintain a smirk and a steady flow of wisecracks throughout most of his three hours at the witness table. Finally, Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut had had enough.

"I've been watching you all day, and I'm going to tell you what I think," Shays snapped. "I think you worked for the FBI, then you went to work for organized crime at Jai Alai and you sent an innocent man to jail. If I were you, I would get down on bended knee before the Salvati family and ask for eternal pardon ... and you just don't give a shit."

"Is that on the record?" Rico shot back. Shays then asked Rico what he thought about the suffering and loss the Salvati family must have experienced over three decades of forced separation.

"It would probably be a nice movie," he snorted.

Later, when another Congressman pressed the point, it was Rico who had had enough.

"What do you want from me? Tears?" he asked incredulously.

That retort, widely reported on national newswires and network newscasts, came briefly to symbolize the FBI's stubborn attitude toward the case and a much larger scandal unfolding about the Bureau's use of informants during its 30-year war on the Italian-American Mafia. As Massachusetts Congressman Democrat William Delahunt put it: "It was like what you'd expect to hear from an S.S. guard in a Nazi death camp. I was somewhat prepared for the lack of moral responsibility. But what's stunning is just how twisted the depravity is and how deep it reaches."

Rico's statement was even more telling coming at a time when the FBI was in the middle of the deepest crisis of public confidence of its 84-year history. In just the last few years, the FBI has faced not only a congressional inquiry over informants, but mounting criticism over its handling of evidence in Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's case, an alleged 15-year Russian spy in their ranks named Robert Hanssen, the alleged mistreatment of accused Chinese spy Wen Ho Lee and the botched sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

Rico's most defiant statement, though, may have been the fact that he testified at all.

Journalists, legal pundits, and law enforcement officials had for weeks predicted that he would refuse to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Even his lawyer, William Cagney, told him to do so.

After all, at the time Rico was still the subject of a Tulsa Police murder investigation into the death of World Jai Alai's owner, Oklahoma businessman Roger Wheeler. The Tulsa Police had all but said already that they wanted him indicted for conspiring in the 1981 killing of Wheeler, who was gunned down execution-style after a round of golf at Southern Hills Country Club.

By brashly ignoring his lawyer's advice, Rico seemed to be thumbing his nose at the city of Tulsa and the family of Roger Wheeler, who believe that even 20 years after his murder, justice is still being denied in what may well be one of the most incredible and disturbing homicide cases in U.S. history. Yet the Wheeler family is also at the center of an extraordinary effort to make sure that no one else has to suffer the same fate.

A moral bankruptcy

Thanks to a bizarre coincidence of timing, David Wheeler, Roger Wheeler’s son, was not in Washington that day to feel insulted by the smirking Rico. Neither was his brother Larry, Sgt. Michael Huff of the Tulsa Police Department’s Homicide Squad, or Boston Attorney Frank Libby, Jr. a former federal prosecutor. Rather, the four men were, of all places, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court building at Second and Boulder in downtown Tulsa.

The court hearing they were attending was about bankruptcy all right, but the moral variety, not the financial kind. Relatively few people have the simultaneously fascinating and horrifying experience of seeing a bona fide mass murderer in the flesh.

"It is something that you have to do. But it's heavy lifting, heavy work to get through a day like that. You cannot hide from it, you cannot run from it, you have to face it. I did not enjoy a minute of it," bearded, soft-spoken David Wheeler said later about watching his father's killer, self­ confessed underworld assassin John "Johnny'' Martorano, consummate his extraordinary deal with federal and state prosecutors in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Florida.

Under a plea agreement reached in 1999, Martorano admitted to murdering 20 people in exchange for a total of 12 1/2 years in federal prison. It was an amazing bargain for the 60-year-old hit man — a little over seven and a half months per corpse. Martorano’s lawyer could broker the deal because his client had something the prosecutors found extremely valuable, a willingness to testify against the two other Boston mobsters, James “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, who prosecutors have charged with ordering many of the executions — including Roger Wheeler’s — during their rise in Boston’s underworld in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Martorano's cooperation became the cornerstone of an unprecedented prosecution effort that has resulted in nearly two dozen cold murder cases being solved. That prompted several more of Bulger and Flemmi's ex-henchmen to cut their own deals to testify and, thanks to those other new witnesses, at least one FBI agent, John Connolly, being charged alongside them as a co-conspirator in a federal racketeering case.

It also brought national attention to a once-secret program that for 37 years authorized FBI agents to recruit Mob murderers as informants for the Bureau's war on the Mafia and to look the other way as they committed the worst crimes imaginable-as long as their valuable information kept flowing in.

Curly-haired, barrel-chested and sporting a fancy tie and a double-breasted blue suit, Martorano did not look at the members of the Wheeler family as he walked into the marble-tiled bankruptcy courtroom, a site chosen for security reasons by the U.S. Marshals Service, under whose watchful eyes Martorano is a protected witness. He spoke very little, saying only "yes, sir" and "no, sir" to the judge as he went through the formality of a guilty plea and sentencing. His only admission came in a written plea form submitted to the court.

"I pointed a pistol at the victim. The weapon discharged. The cylinder fell out of the weapon to the ground. The victim died as a result of the weapon's discharge," the form stated.

For the Wheeler brothers, who were also sitting with their sister, Pamela Norberg, and their mother, Patricia Langholz, it was both a disturbing and an oddly anti-climactic way to mark a milestone in the 20-year search for justice in Roger Wheeler's murder.

"My God. What a nightmare," David Wheeler thought to himself as he looked at Martorano's doughy, impassive face. "That's the last guy my father saw alive."

Making things right

Martorano's plea was particularly bittersweet for the family because of the knowledge that Paul Rico had not been charged with any crime, despite what Tulsa Police Department investigators believed was sufficient evidence for an indictment.

The lack of a full measure of justice, even after 20 years, less than a week later prompted the Wheelers to take the first of what could be several extraordinary steps to make things right themselves.

On Friday, May 11, attorney Frank Libby, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot, was back in Boston. Late on a sunny spring afternoon, he and his partner Paul V. Kelly (another former Assistant U.S. Attorney) rode the elevator of 1 Center Plaza to the 6th floor. After checking in with a receptionist safely ensconced behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass, they were ushered in to see the head of the Boston FBI Field Office, Special Agent in Charge Charles Prouty. Prouty had been alerted that they were coming, but it is likely he was still stunned by what the two lawyers handed him — a wrongful death demand under the Federal Tort Claims for $861 million for the death of Roger Wheeler. (Early news response had listed a preliminary figure of $500 million.)

"Each surviving family member has suffered severe, deep and lasting emotional distress, which no person could reasonably be expected to endure, as a direct and natural result of the extreme and outrageous nature of Mr. Wheeler's horrific murder," the claim stated. "This conduct, for which the Agency bears responsibility, was plainly beyond all possible bounds of decency, utterly intolerable in a civilized community."

When news of the claim was reported in the press, the sum seemed to many people to be astronomical, maybe even a joke. Members of the Wheeler family, including David Wheeler and his mother, cut themselves off from the media after it was filed. Friends of the family say the Wheelers are concerned that their actions would be misinterpreted as simple greed rather than a search for justice.

Yet Libby and Kelly, their lawyers, even though the amount is much higher than most other wrongful-death claims, at the same time that it is much more accurate. The reason, the lawyers say, is in large part due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Roger Wheeler's death and the long FBI effort to hide the role that two of its valuable informants played in his murder.

In most successful wrongful death cases, the lawyers said, the victim's relatives generally sue those responsible within a year or two. The case then goes to trial or is settled within another couple of years.

In order to estimate the damages suffered by the family, specially trained accountants are called in to estimate how much the deceased would have earned during their lifetime. If the victim was a

47-year-old male, for example, given the average life expectancy of 70-odd years, a normal wrongful-death case requires that the accountants look 25 to 30 years into the future in order to make those calculations. In short, shy of help from the Psychic Friend Network, the forward looking estimates are really just guesswork.

The Wheeler case stands those rules on their head. Roger Wheeler died 20 years ago. His life expectancy runs sometime next year, meaning that the family's number crunchers aren't trying to predict the future, but instead are dealing with the hard, factual past for 95 percent of their calculations. They know, for example, exactly how much Roger Wheeler’s 1.3 million shares of Telex Corp. stock were worth just by looking at its historic record on Wall Street. And there is another bit of history that makes Roger Wheeler so interesting — he was a high-tech power broker who — had he lived — could likely have capitalized on the two technology booms of the 1980s and 1990s.

"He was like a colossus straddling Rhodes. He was poised to be a billionaire, " Libby said.

The big legal hurdle instead for the Wheelers and their lawyers, Libby and Kelly, will not be to predict the future, but to uncover the past. In order to get past the statute of limitations for a federal wrongful death claim against the FBI, they will have to show that the family could not have filed the claim earlier because the Bureau attempted to hide its wrongdoing since the 1981 murder, making it impossible for the family to bring a lawsuit earlier.

That means exploring the history of the FBI's Top Echelon Program in Boston, a program that according to FBI records, started in the early 1960’s with none other than agent H. Paul Rico.

Tracking the Mafia

The roots of the Top Echelon Informant Program go back a bit further, to the 1950s and J. Edgar Hoover's reluctance to let his FBI agents go after the Italian­American Mafia. According to accounts written by former agents, Hoover hated organized crime investigations because they used up too much manpower and resulted in too few arrests. Hoover, after all, built the modern FBI in part by taking gaudy statistics of arrests made and cases solved up to Capitol Hill and using them to secure funding for more agents and wider jurisdiction for the Bureau. For years, in fact, he insisted that there was no such thing as the Mafia in America.

That changed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had seen the Mafia's growing influence firsthand working as a staff lawyer for the McClellan Committee's national investigation of labor racketeering.

He began pressuring Hoover to get the FBI into the fight. Kennedy had the backing of the president (his brother John F. Kennedy), and finally pushed Hoover over the edge by putting a Mafia turncoat, Joseph Valachi, on national television to tell all about the American Mafia.

"I never saw such skullduggery," Hoover fumed to one of his aides, Cartha Deloach, who later wrote a book about his years in the FBI.

Finally trapped into fighting the Mafia, Hoover had no choice but to try to live up to the image he had worked so hard to create for his beloved Bureau — that of the country's most professional and effective law enforcement agency. That meant getting a lot of information about the Mafia — fast.

First, the Bureau tried a series of illegal wiretap and bugging operations at suspected Mafia headquarters around the country. Lyndon B. Johnson, by now president, feared a scandal and ordered the bugs pulled out, according to William Roemer, a former agent who helped plant one of the bugs in Chicago.

Hoover's next idea would come to be known as the Top Echelon Criminal Informant Program. It was also a short cut, and was striking in both its audacity and its absence of morality. According to recently unsealed FBI memos, unearthed as part of hearings into FBI corruption in U.S. District Court in Boston, Hoover decreed that high-ranking members of organized crime were to be recruited as informants to provide valuable information on the leadership of the Italian­ American Mafia.

What was left unsaid was the reality that, in order to recruit and retain the mobster-informants, agents would be forced to look the other way as "their" mobsters went about their criminal and often-murderous business. It was the only way to keep them on the street and ensure that their valuable information kept flowing in — a killer who stopped killing would lose the trust of his fellow criminals and access to the underworld secrets the FBI so desperately wanted.

In Boston, the first, and most prolific, Top Echelon Informant recruiter was H. Paul Rico, a Boston College graduate who had worked mostly on bank robbery cases, including the infamous Brinks robbery of 1950. Rico himself has admitted in court that he had a gift for relating to gangsters and for recruiting them as informants.

His first big project was an up-and ­coming gangster and former U.S. Army paratrooper named Steven "The Rifleman" Flemmi. There is no doubt that Rico knew of Flemmi's reputation as a killer. A Feb. 8,

1967 memo written by Rico to J. Edgar Hoover (which is currently on file in Boston's U.S. District Courthouse) states that Flemmi "is suspected of possibly being involved in gangland slayings." But Flemmi was also friendly with Ilario "Larry'' Zannino, a high-ranking member of the Italian Mafia in Boston, and Rico successfully petitioned to have him officially adopted as a Top Echelon informant

Over the next several years, according to Rico's own FBI memos, Flemmi provided the FBI with valuable information on the workings of the New England Mafia. His value as an informant may well have been the chief reason why Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone spent more than 30 years in prison.

Before Johnny Martorano, Boston's most prolific underworld hit man was Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, a huge bear of a man who admitted to killing more than two dozen men. His best friend was another killer, Vincent J. "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi, Steve Flemmi's brother, who was also one of Rico's informants. Using information supplied by the Flemmis, Rico successfully had Barboza arrested on gun charges and convinced him that the Italian Mafia — which had hired him for numerous contract killings — now wanted him dead. In return for protection and a new identity, Barboza agreed to become the Boston FBI's first­ever blockbuster Mafia witness.

For the FBI, the Barboza dividend was incredible. Based almost solely on his testimony, murder cases were brought against the top three men in the New England mob — boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca, consigliere (chief advisor) Henry Tameleo of Providence, Rhode Island, and underboss Gennaro "Jerry'' Angiulo of Boston. All but Angiulo were convicted and sent to prison.

The only problem was that — as the documents that have so enraged Congress show — the case against Tameleo and his co-defendants Salvati, Limone and Louis Greco in the March 12, 1965 murder of small-time hoodlum Edward "Teddy'' Deegan was a lie and Rico knew it.

Two days before Deegan was shot to death in an alley in the small harborside city of Chelsea, Rico filed a report quoting one of his informants saying that Barboza and Flemmi were planning the murder and had even made a "dry run." There is no indication in the FBI's records that Rico did anything to stop the killing, even though it was Bureau policy to prevent violence whenever possible. Instead, he filed another report the day after the murder, which quoted the same informant saying that Barboza, Flemmi and three other men had committed the crime. The report did not mention Tameleo, Salvati, Limone or Greco.

Yet three years later, after Barboza had agreed to become Rico's witness against the Mafia, the FBI's version of the crime had suddenly changed. Instead of a garden­variety underworld rubout, the Deegan murder was suddenly a Mafia assassination and although Barboza admitted his own involvement, Rico's informants, the Flemmi brothers, were never mentioned in the case. Rico's reports were never turned over to the defense in the case and the four men were convicted in 1968. Limone and Tameleo were actually sentenced to death, but were saved from "Old Sparky," the electric chair in Massachusetts' infamous Walpole State Prison, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment a few years later.

In 1970, his work on the Mafia cases largely done, Rico accepted a transfer to the FBI office in Miami. His replacement as the Boston FBI's chief informant handler in the early 1970s was John Connolly, a brash young agent from South Boston, who inherited Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi and another informant Rico had laid the groundwork for recruiting, a rising star in the South Boston mob named James "Whitey'' Bulger.

Like Flemmi, Bulger was a prolific killer. In fact, federal and state prosecutors now allege that he either participated in or ordered 18 murders during the time he was being recruited and serving as a Top Echelon informant. Bulger (whose brother William was the president of the Massachusetts state Senate and is now president of the University of Massachusetts) actually told the FBI that his fearsome reputation was an asset to his work as an informant against the Italian Mafia. Once, when FBI officials warned him that his secret might be out, he shrugged it off.

“I’m not afraid," Bulger told his FBI friends, according to a report of the meeting.

"No one would ever believe it."

The Jai Alai connection

Detective Sgt. Michael Huff of the Tulsa Police Department keeps a coffee mug on his desk. On one side it says " Huff — Homicide." On the other is a disturbing looking drawing of three Grim Reapers astride galloping horses under a banner declaring: "DEATH IS MY BUSINESS AND BUSINESS HAS BEEN GOOD."

In 1981, business was too good. Tulsa set a record that year for homicides, which included one by a police officer and an honest-to-goodness axe murder. Yet even in that crazy year, the Wheeler case stood out as the biggest case the department had ever seen.

For a long time, Mike Huff was looked at as something of an eccentric when it came to the Wheeler murder. He believed for two decades the most likely explanation for Roger Wheeler's murder had to be that Wheeler was killed because he was about to expose underworld infiltration of World Jai Alai.

For many Oklahomans, it was just too far-fetched. Favorite sons and former presidents of the city's Christian Businessmen's Coalition just didn't get murdered by Irish gangsters from South Boston over gambling investments in Florida.

Huff himself couldn't totally accept it himself for the first couple of years, and pursued several other suspects, including convicted "Dixie Mafia'' leader Patrick H. Early, who was rumored to be in the area. Early was also suspected of murdering the wife of a Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, whose life story was made into the movie "Walking Tall." Huff also pursued a possible Cuban connection to the Wheeler homicide, but as in the case of Early, the leads never went anywhere.

However unbelievable, though, there were compelling reasons to believe that the Wheeler killing seemed inextricably linked to two other murders, both of which had to do with Jai Alai.

Roger Wheeler — already a wealthy man from investments in oil, minerals and computers — purchased a controlling interest in World Jai Alai in 1978. Like many investors lured to gambling enterprises, he was intoxicated by the seeming bottomless cash flow.

World Jai Alai, meanwhile, needed Wheeler to complete its expansion plans.

Jai alai, a game not unlike racquetball but played with a rock-hard pelota hurled at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, originated in the Basque region of Spain. Imported to the New World via Cuba, the game became popular in the 1920s and 1930s among American gamblers from New England and Florida making pilgrimages to pre-Castro Havana. The company, founded by New Englanders, wanted desperately to expand out of Florida and had proposed building a new arena, or fronton, in Hartford, Connecticut, in the late 1970s, but was having all kinds of trouble with the gaming authorities there.

Connecticut gaming officials firmly believed that WJA had never severed its ties to the underworld. Investigation seemed to prove them right — in the mid- 1970s president John B. Callahan was tailed by a combination of Connecticut and Massachusetts State Police troopers partying at the old Playboy Club in downtown Boston with James "Jimmy'' Martorano, Brian Halloran and other known members of the Winter Hill Gang, a group of mixed-ethnic gangsters who had emerged from Boston's bloody gang wars of the 1960s as the only underworld group who could challenge the Patriarca family — New England's own home-grown Italian Mafia — which was based in Rhode Island. In the business community, Callahan was renowned as one of New England's finest "turnaround men," troubleshooting consultants who could be brought into a company, diagnose its problems, and quickly return it to profitability. An accountant by training, he was also known as something of a genius with numbers.

In the nightclubs and taverns, meanwhile, Callahan was a well-known bon vivant and underworld wannabe. Two or three a.m. would often find him at an Irish pub like the Black Rose, arm in arm with one of his Winter Hill buddies, belting out Irish rebel songs in his rich baritone. Callahan also made frequent trips to Switzerland, and it was widely rumored that he laundered money for both Winter Hill and Raymond LS. Patriarca, the New England Mafia boss.

Paul Rico left the FBI in 1975 to work for Callahan at World Jai Alai as chief of security, then later as a vice president of the company. A few years later, Callahan stepped down as president, but recent court papers filed by federal prosecutors in Boston suggest that his influence remained.

According to his sons, David and Larry, it didn't take Roger Wheeler long to figure out something was wrong with Jai Alai. The business, which should have been wildly profitable, wasn't, but it wasn't easy to figure out why.

He thought about selling, but every time he would begin negotiating a deal, profits would take a dip. In early 1981, he started talking to his sons about conducting a full audit of the company and firing Rico's hand-picked president, Richard Donovan. Yet even as plans for the audit were in full swing, Callahan and his friends in the Winter Hill Gang, now being led by FBI informants Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi, were making plans of their own.

According to papers filed in federal court in Boston, Callahan supplied Johnny Martorano with information on Roger Wheeler's schedule and movements, while Bulger and Flemmi put a package of guns to be used in the murder on a bus bound for Oklahoma. Martorano and an accomplice, Joseph McDonald, flew from Florida to Oklahoma City, where they rented a car and drove to Tulsa.

The two killers settled into the Trade Winds West, a motel on the corner of 51st and Peoria, and began plotting the crime. Both the Wheeler home and his office at Telex Corp., which had a security camera, were too risky, they decided. They called Callahan, who suggested Southern Hills Country Club, where Wheeler played golf weekly.

On May 27, 1981, Roger Wheeler was just getting into his car in the upper parking lot at Southern Hills after a round of golf when Johnny Martorano yanked open the door to the blue Cadillac, put a .357 magnum to the bridge of Wheeler's nose, and fired a single shot, killing him instantly. Martorano and McDonald sped off in their own car, quickly disappearing into rush-hour traffic on 61st Street.

A little over a year after Roger Wheeler was killed at Southern Hills, Edward Brian Halloran, a Boston thug who was friends with some members of the Winter Hill Gang — but who was on the outs with Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi — was also murdered. But before he died, he told the FBI all about Roger Wheeler's murder. He told the FBI that he had been approached by Bulger and Flemmi during a meeting at Callahan's condo overlooking Boston Harbor. They offered him $30,000 for the same contract Martorano got to murder Wheeler. Halloran, who probably didn't trust Bulger and Flemmi, with good reason as it turned out, demurred on taking the murder contract, accepting $10,000 in hush money instead.

Some investigators believe Bulger and Flemmi's original plan was to have Halloran commit the Wheeler murder, then to kill him to cover their tracks. It was well known in the Boston underworld how devious Bulger and Flemmi were. On one famous FBI tape of a bugged Mafia headquarters, the Italian mob's brass could be heard vetoing the idea of lending Bulger and Flemmi the services of one of their hit men because it was too dangerous — for the hit man. With the Halloran idea by the boards, they turned to Martorano, their own trusted gun.

After Wheeler was killed, however, Halloran was still a liability. He proved it by going to the FBI, offering to testify against Bulger and Flemmi on the Wheeler murder. But Halloran had another key piece of information for the FBI — he said Callahan told him prior to Wheeler's murder that H. Paul Rico would aid in the killing by helping track Wheeler's movements.

(Rico's lawyer, William Cagney, has denied that his client had any involvement in the Wheeler murder. "Rico has never been to Oklahoma," Cagney said. "I am not too sure what his role could be, because he's never been out there.")

Unfortunately for Halloran, the FBI was in no mood to listen. Branded a drunk and a liar, Halloran was denied access to the federal Witness Protection Program and eventually cut loose. John Connolly, who was the primary beneficiary of Bulger and Flemmi's valuable information, went a step further, according to a federal indictment. Federal prosecutors allege that Connolly leaked news of Halloran's cooperation to Bulger and Flemmi, virtually signing his death warrant. Connolly has denied the charges through his attorney.

That left only Callahan as a loose end. Martorano has admitted to killing him in 1982 and leaving his body in the trunk of a Cadillac at Miami International Airport. Callahan was killed just after Tulsa Police Sgt. Mike Huff had traveled to Boston hoping to talk to him.

TPD: On the outside looking in

FBI documents from the Bureau's own investigation of the Wheeler murder show an internal struggle within the agency whether to pursue Bulger and Flemmi as suspects in a murder case or to protect their valuable informants. The agents who wanted to protect them, the documents show, won out.

Robert Fitzpatrick, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Boston, wrote a memo about a 1981 meeting between the agents assigned to investigate Bulger and Flemmi and the ones, like John Connolly, who wanted to protect them. "It was mutually agreed that agents actively working the Wheeler case would coordinate information with SA Connolly's sources so that this matter can be quickly and effectively resolved," Fitzpatrick wrote.

Obviously, investigators are not usually in the habit of "coordinating" information with people being treated as suspects. Bulger and Flemmi were also interviewed about the case in the same room together — a practice virtually unheard of in law enforcement. When they refused to take lie detector tests, the FBI did not press the issue.

Authorities in Tulsa, meanwhile, were left on the outside looking in. After a promising start in which he learned about Halloran's cooperation, Mike Huff began to get the cold shoulder from the bureau.

The low point came during a meeting in Tulsa that was supposed to be an information-sharing session between the Tulsa Police, the Connecticut State Police, the Massachusetts State Police, and the FBI. Each agency gave a presentation on what it had learned about the Wheeler, Halloran and Callahan murders.

When it came to the FBI's turn, however, the agents had no information to share, just a question — does anyone have anything on H. Paul Rico? The non-FBI agents were so angry that they walked out. That meeting marked the end of meaningful cooperation between the Tulsa Police and the FBI on the case.

Huff, however, never gave up. Over the next 20 years, he became friends instead with the Wheeler brothers, helping David Wheeler, a physicist and computer expert who had moved to Texas, develop a computer software program that helped detectives analyze leads and evidence in complex criminal cases. Other members of the family also moved on as best they could. Patricia Wheeler married Tulsa attorney Robert Langholz and continues as a highly respected civic leader. Larry Wheeler went into the magnesium business like his father. While the shock of Roger Wheeler's death caused lasting strains for the family, over the years a gradual thaw and a growing closeness began to develop.

Huff, meanwhile, continued to pursue leads in the case, picking up the pace after Bulger and Flemmi were finally indicted on federal racketeering charges in 1995 and when their work as FBI informants was exposed two years later. Martorano's confession in 1999 appeared to be the final break in the case that Huff and the Wheeler family had been waiting for. After Martorano's deal was complete, Tulsa Police began putting together a death penalty case against Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi.

Disappointment, however, would visit the family a final time. The Assistant District Attorney who had been working with Huff on the case, Jerry Truster, was forced out in a power struggle with District Attorney Tim Harris and left the D.A.'s office to become a partner at a private firm, Steidly & Neal. Without Truster, Harris' office was forced to rely on federal authorities for advice on how to proceed in the case, and when push came to shove on whether to indict H. Paul Rico, the feds won out. Despite a recommendation in the Tulsa Police affidavit in the case that Rico be indicted, Harris followed the advice of Fred Wyshak, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from Boston, who said there wasn't enough evidence to proceed.

The Wheeler family reaction was shock and disappointment .

"My family doesn't quite know what to make of it," David Wheeler said at the time.

Harris, meanwhile, was quoted as saying that victim families and police "don't make filing decisions. Prosecutors do."

Once again, though, the family and their friends pulled together. Mike Huff has vowed that the criminal investigation will continue until "all guilty parties are charged and convicted." Meanwhile, less than two months after the disappointing news from Harris' office, Frank Libby and Paul Kelly had helped the Wheelers file their federal claim, a prelude to a civil lawsuit that is likely to include both H. Paul Rico and the FBI as defendants.

Of course if he could, David Wheeler said, he would "make the whole thing go away." But since he can't, he and the rest of his family hope to be an "inspiration" for other people who have been the victims of crime and injustice.

"I want people to feel that if we can fight, they can, too. We have tried to get on with things and help other people fight crime and pull together as a family," he said. "This wasn't a great joy to go through. We don't like being here. But we're doing our best." 

Ralph Ranalli is a staff writer for the Boston Globe newspaper. His book on the FBI’s Top Echelon Informant Program, Whitey Bulger and the Roger Wheeler murder, “Deadly Alliance: The FBI’s Secret Partnership with the Mob,” is now in bookstores from Harper Collins.

To learn more:

“Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

“Deadly Alliance: The FBI’s Secret Partnership with the Mob” by Ralph Ranalli.

(1) comment


This issue was one of my proudest moments working on the magazine. Our editor Missy and Jim, the publisher worked with Ralph Ranalli to write the story that would help close the book on a Tulsa murder that had plagued Mike Huff for years. Ralph's engaging story telling wove a narrative around one of Tulsa's most famous crimes. This article earn TulsaPeople its first national award and foretold the amazing work that was to come at the magazine.

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