The FBI in Boston: Hoover, Lies and Murder

May 13, 2013 - by George Hassett - 0 Comments

May 13, 2013 Special to Crime Magazine

An excerpt from George Hassett’s just released Gangsters of Boston, which is published by Strategic Media Books ( Gangsters of Boston is available at Amazon, bookstores, as an e-book and at special discount price at the Strategic Media Books web site       

by George Hassett

In 1960, when Attorney General Bobby Kennedy launched his historic crackdown on organized crime he had to overcome resistance from the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover. For decades, Hoover had vehemently denied the existence of a national network of gangsters.

Privately, he knew that organized crime investigations made for bad statistics – lots of man hours resulting in a relatively small number of arrests. He also knew that mixing wealthy gangsters with underpaid agents – the FBI starting annual salary in the mid-1950s was a pitiful $5,500 – could undermine his FBI’s cherished reputation of incorruptibility.

But the Kennedy brothers would not let up. They had pressured Hoover to fight the Italian mob since John F. Kennedy was senator. Now that he was president and named Bobby his attorney general the campaign intensified.

J. Edgar Hoover

The Kennedy’s hated one Mafia don with a particular zeal; Raymond Patriarca had taunted the brothers during congressional hearings, saying, “You two don’t have the brains of your retarded sister.” Soon after, Bobby Kennedy told a friend that he and Jack were “going after that pig on the hill,” referring to the mob boss’ Federal Hill stronghold. The brothers increased the pressure on Hoover – even bursting into his office with information requests during his sacred afternoon naps.

Hoover finally acted. He adapted the dirty tricks he used against suspected Communists in the 1950s – illegal wiretapping, bugging, break-ins, and searches - against organized crime. When that proved troublesome Hoover fired off a memo to all regional offices in September 1963, demanding the recruitment of high-level informants from within organized crime. It was called the Top Echelon Informant Program.

The organized criminal enterprise that dominated Boston for decades - and later included James “Whitey” Bulger - was conceived in this Hoover memo. Decades later, as victim’s remains were being dug up from shallow graves, the full toll of the FBI’s misconduct in Boston’s underworld finally came to light. Almost 50 murders would be attributed to the FBI’s star informants and four innocent men framed by a killer FBI agent for a murder they did not commit.

In the Boston underworld FBI Agent H. Paul Rico was the bureau’s main representative. Born in the Boston suburb of Belmont in the 1920s, he was the son of an Irish mother and Spanish father who worked for New England Telephone. The Mediterranean looks he inherited sometimes led people to believe he was Italian, an assumption he used to his advantage when trying to gain favor with wiseguys. He graduated from Boston College with a history degree in 1950, then joined the FBI. He was first posted in Chicago but was transferred to the Boston office after his father fell terminally ill.

That was when the young agent worked on the Brink’s robbery, his first big case and learned the value of “flipping” or “turning” an informant. Rico worked with agent Jack Kehoe – the agent who got Specs O’Keefe to cooperate with authorities and testify against his former co-conspirators. He also worked with future partner Dennis Condon. In time these two agents would manipulate Boston’s underworld as if they were the kingpins.

The Flemmi Brothers: “A Couple of Bad Kids”

Vincent “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi

Vincent “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi and his brother Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi were introduced to the Boston underworld by notorious kingpin Edward “Wimpy” Bennett. Bennett, who earned his nickname by endlessly munching on White Castle hamburgers, was a treacherous Irish thug who controlled Roxbury and the South End with a cunning attention to underworld politics. Stevie Flemmi, in particular, was said to have learned his devious ways from Wimpy.

“Behind his back everyone called [Wimpy] the fox,” said infamous Boston hit man John Martorano. “He always talked with his hand to his mouth, even when he was inside, so that nobody could read his lips. He said he learned it in prison. Then he would hire lip readers to hang around other wiseguys he was lining up, so he’d know what they were talking about. He was continually looking for an edge.”

Bennett made sure to maintain good relations with the most powerful gangster in New England. For reasons unknown to anyone else, Bennett always called Patriarca “George.” The underworld believed Bennett was “George’s” spy in Boston – one reason he was hated by North End gangsters such as Jerry Angiulo.

In the 1950s the Flemmi brothers were valuable killers in Bennett’s gang. That didn’t mean they were well liked; a Revere wiseguy was quoted in an FBI report describing the Flemmis as “a couple of bad kids.”

Born in 1934, Stevie drifted into the underworld after two tours of duty in the Korean War. On his first eight-man combat patrol he earned the nickname the Rifleman when he killed five enemy soldiers. His brother Jimmy the Bear was just as lethal. By the early 1960s, within months after his release, he murdered two men. He killed a third man while high on Seconal one night. The man’s offense: he bumped into the Bear at a downtown cafeteria.

Accounts of Jimmy the Bear’s brutal murders reached Patriarca in Providence. Since the Bear was from Boston, Patriarca told Jerry Angiulo he would have to try to get him under control. Angiulo personally delivered the message to Jimmy that he had to get every murder approved by Patriarca. “The Man says that you don’t have common sense when it comes to killing people,”

Angiulo said quietly. “Jimmy, you don’t kill somebody just because you have an argument with him.”

Meanwhile, FBI Agent H. Paul Rico was plumbing Boston’s underworld for informants but the Bear was interfering. In December 1964 Rico recruited George Ash, a 41 year old ex-con from Somerville. Ash had a long criminal record and knew every wiseguy in the city. Rico thought he had his star informant.

But on the night he was approved by Washington and given his own informant’s identification number, Ash ran into the Bear. They ended up in the South End in a Corvair owned by Ash’s sister. Suddenly the Bear decided to stab and shoot his old friend Ash. After finishing Ash off, the Bear climbed unsteadily out of the car and wandered away without seeing the two Boston police officers watching him from across the street.

The two Boston cops immediately drove to Stevie Flemmi’s store, told him what had happened, and demanded $1,000 not to report the murder. Stevie paid them off and then chewed out his careless big brother saying he was lucky the two officers were friends.

Ash’s murder was a setback for Rico but within a few months he set his sights on recruiting the Bear himself as an informant. Even as Rico was courting him, he was aware that Jimmy the Bear was plotting another murder. Teddy Deegan, a small time burglar, was in the Bear’s crosshairs. At the Ebb Tide Lounge in Revere, the Bear was heard ranting that Deegan was a “treacherous sneak.”

On March 10, 1965, Agent Rico even sent a report to his FBI superiors in Washington stating clearly that Jimmy the Bear Flemmi was about to kill Deegan – “a dry run has already been made and a close associate of Deegan’s has agreed to set him up.” No one in law enforcement thought to warn Deegan he was about to be murdered.

To lure Deegan to the Ebb Tide, he was told that a finance company in downtown Chelsea was a soft touch for a break in. Deegan immediately declared his interest. On March 12, 1965, Vincent “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi was officially approved as an FBI informant.

That night the Bear and his friend Joe “the Animal” Barboza met Deegan at the Ebb Tide and drove to Chelsea for the supposed burglary. They got Deegan into an alley and opened fire, killing him. Within an hour, the Bear and Barboza were back at the Ebb Tide celebrating and drinking cheap scotch. The next day, Agent Rico sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover identifying the killers of Deegan as Flemmi and Barboza. Agent Rico didn’t bother to tell the police investigating the murder.

Joe "The Animal" Barboza

Jimmy the Bear’s old friend, Joe “The Animal” Barboza would one day become the Boston Mafia’s Joe Valachi, the inside guy who told all. But the Mafia liked what they saw when it first recruited the young tough guy in the mid-1950s in state prison.

A second generation Portuguese American, Barboza found trouble early in life. At age 13, he and his older brother were arrested after a vandalism spree. By 1949, the 17-year-old led a gang that broke into homes and small businesses, stealing money, watches, liquor and guns. Sentenced to the Concord Reformatory for five years in 1950, Barboza led a wild break-out in the summer of 1953 that was the largest in the prison’s 75-year history. Barboza and six other inmates guzzled whiskey and popped uppers, overpowered four guards and raced away in two cars. They beat people up, cruised the bars in Boston’s center of vice at the time, Scollay Square, wandered to Lynn and Revere and were nabbed at a subway station less than 24 hours after the escape.

The trip earned Barboza a stay at Walpole, the state’s maximum security prison. It was there that the Mafia took an interest in the young convict and it was for the Mafia that Barboza mostly worked after his parole in 1958. Released from prison, he boxed, worked as a dockhand, a clerk in a fruit store but his only real skill was murder. And during the escalation of Boston’s gang wars he had plenty of opportunity to prove himself. Within eight years of his parole, he earned a reputation as one of the state’s real killers – allegedly killing at least two dozen men.

By January 1966, Barboza was a big shot in the Boston underworld; in court he was represented by the famous criminal lawyer F. Lee Bailey. He was on shaky ground though, the mob’s leadership was growing tired of his reckless behavior. He was on the same probation his pal the Bear was on from Providence: no hits without prior approval.

In October 1966, Boston Police arrested Barboza for illegal gun possession in the city’s Combat Zone. When two Barboza pals raised $82,000 for his bail, Mafia thug Larry Zannino had them set up and murdered. In the Charles Street jail, Barboza went wild and vowed revenge.

FBI agents Dennis Condon and H. Paul Rico were monitoring all of this. They had been combing the Boston underworld for the informants Hoover demanded. Barboza, with his troubles, seemed the perfect candidate. They began to visit the Animal in jail, working to recruit him as an informant.

In June 1967, Barboza began naming names. He implicated Patriarca and Angiulo in separate murder conspiracies. In a third case, he covered for his friend and Agent Rico’s snitch Jimmy the Bear by implicating four innocent men in the Deegan murder. By the time he was through Barboza would become the New England’s Mob Joe Valachi.

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