A former senior Massachusetts state police officer testified Thursday that some local FBI agents were so consumed with protecting James "Whitey" Bulger that they repeatedly sabotaged state police investigations and even threatened the careers of the detectives pushing them.
In answers to aggressive questions from Bulger's defense team, retired State Police Col. Thomas J. Foley gave the jury hearing Bulger's racketeering trial a glimpse of the lingering animosity that the mob boss' long and largely unimpeded criminal career has created among law enforcement.
Foley, whose detectives built the criminal case for which Bulger is being tried — after several defeated attempts — said that FBI agents tipped Bulger and his associates in the Winter Hill Gang to wiretaps, hidden microphones and other investigative measures. State and local police agencies in Connecticut and other states have complained similarly since the 1980s that they were intentionally misled by federal law enforcement when chasing Bulger leads in Boston.
"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. "I was naïve on some things, yes. I'm not sure at one point we started questioning what was going on."
Relatively early in his career, following his first assignment to the elite Massachusetts State Police organized crime division in the middle 1980s, Foley said, he concluded that Bulger's Winter Hill Gang was one of the most dangerous organized crime groups in New England and that the FBI's Boston office was a bigger obstacle to investigating it than the criminals themselves.
Foley said he first suspected that the FBI was taking extraordinary steps to protect Bulger and his long-time partner Stephen Flemmi because the two were secretly working as bureau informants, something Foley said that he later learned to be true.
"I think they put a higher priority on protecting their informants than they did on looking at public safety," he said.
Detectives from Connecticut, Florida and Oklahoma investigating four deaths connected to the Bulger gang's effort to take over the parimutuel business World Jai Alai have said that they reached the same conclusion.
Later, Foley said his investigators developed information that Bulger, Flemmi and others in their gang were paying tens of thousands of dollars to FBI agents and others in law enforcement for tips about investigations and potential informants, some of whom the gang killed.
Federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak called Foley, who retired in 2004, as a government witness to describe the genesis of the investigation that ultimately caught Bulger. The FBI was shut out of the joint state police -U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, which is now being prosecuted at U.S. District Court.
Foley also testified at length about how his detectives uncovered a staggering arsenal of Winter Hill weapons once the investigation gained traction in 1999 and 2000, and Bulger associates began cooperating with the government.
The sweeping indictment against Bulger, in addition to charging him with 19 murders, accuses him of five weapons offenses. Foley said that dozens of machine guns and others weapons — many with silencers and obliterated serial numbers — were once stored behind a false wall at a house that Flemmi bought for his mother on a safe, quiet South Boston street. Her next-door neighbor at the time was Bulger's younger brother William, former president of the Massachusetts state Senate and once one of the state's most powerful political figures.
Bulger lawyer Hank Brennan asked little about guns on cross-examination and focused his questions on what sounded through Foley's answers like lingering mistrust of the FBI. At one point, Foley agreed with an assertion by Brennan that FBI agents might have risked the lives of state troopers to protect Bulger and Flemmi.
In their arguments to jurors and subsequent questions to witnesses, Bulger's lawyers appear to be building part of his defense on the theory that some of the charges against Bulger are the result of a questionable agreement between federal prosecutors and the three former Bulger associates who are the government's chief witnesses.
The defense lawyers have characterized federal prosecutors as incompetent or worse and argued to the jury that the three witnesses have been allowed to shift responsibility for at least six murders to Bulger — including two jai alai killings in the death-penalty states of Oklahoma and Florida.
Bulger admits making millions of dollars through industrial-scale drug dealing, gambling and extortion. He denies being an informant. He claims that a corrupt FBI agent, John Connolly, labeled Bulger an informant to avoid suspicion about their frequent meetings. In the indictment against him, part of his success is attributed to his protected status as an informant.
Foley's mistrust of the FBI has been public knowledge for years. He discussed it at length in a memoir published a year ago.