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Friday, November 21, 2003

Former FBI Agent Arrested in Mob Hit

A former FBI agent who handled high-ranking mob informants was arrested Thursday and charged with murder for allegedly helping to set up a 1981 mob hit on an Oklahoma businessman.

H. Paul Rico, 78, was arrested at his home near Miami in the slaying of 55-year-old Roger Wheeler, who was shot in the head at a Tulsa, Okla., country club after a round of golf.

Rico's arrest was the latest turn in a long-running scandal over the cozy relationship between the Boston FBI and its underworld informants. Last year, a former FBI agent was convicted of protecting gangsters, including James “Whitey” Bulger, who is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.

Investigators said Wheeler's slaying was linked to his purchase of World Jai Alai and his suspicion that money was being skimmed from the Florida company. At the time, Rico was retired from the FBI and was the head of security for World Jai Alai.

Investigators said Rico provided John Martorano, a hit man for Boston's Winter Hill Gang, with information on Wheeler's schedule so he could be killed. Martorano admitted pulling the trigger and is awaiting sentencing.

The New York Times reported that Rico asked Martorano to carry out the hit because gang members believed Wheeler had learned $1 million a year was being skimmed from the jai alai operation.

Rico “flat-out categorically denies this,” said his attorney, William Cagney III. “He never assisted the Winter Hill Gang in trying to get inside information so they could ... do away with people.”

Rico was jailed in Florida. Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the Boston FBI, declined to comment. Rico spent 24 years with the FBI, specializing in organized crime cases in Boston in the 1960s and '70s. He cultivated mobster Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and others as informants.

Bulger, the boss of the Winter Hill Gang, Flemmi and Martorano were all charged in Wheeler's murder in 2001 by Oklahoma prosecutors. District Attorney Tim Harris of Tulsa has said he planned to seek the death penalty against Bulger and Flemmi.

Prosecutors in Florida followed with an indictment charging all three in the 1982 slaying of World Jai Alai executive John “Jack” Callahan in Miami. Investigators said they believe Callahan was killed to keep him from telling authorities about links between World Jai Alai and the mob.

A congressional panel is investigating the Boston FBI office's ties to its mob informants, including Bulger, who fled in 1995 after being tipped off by then-agent John J. Connolly Jr. that he was about to be indicted on federal racketeering charges.

During Connolly's trial, prosecutors said Bulger and Flemmi were left untouched by law enforcement for decades because they were informing for the FBI on the New England Mafia, which is separate from the Winter Hill Gang. Connolly is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

In 2001, Rico testified about another case before a congressional committee. He denied that he and his partner helped framed an innocent man for a 1965 gangland slaying, but acknowledged that Joseph Salvati wrongly spent 30 years in prison for the crime.

Republican Rep. Christopher Shays accused Rico of feeling no remorse for his role in the conviction of four innocent men in that case. Rico replied, “What do you want, tears?"

Salvati's lawyer, Victor Garo, predicted that Rico's arrest will split the Boston FBI scandal wide open, exposing more government wrongdoing in Boston and Washington. "He was the inside man of the Boston office of the FBI in dealing with informants like Steve Flemmi and others,” Garo said. “I would imagine that right now many people are concerned about what he knows and what he will say. ... He knows about all the skeletons in the closet.”

Wheeler's son said he was pleased with Rico's arrest. “It's something I've wanted for years,” said Larry Wheeler, who said he believes Rico played a role in his father's murder.

The ongoing scandal has also damaged the career of one of the state's most legendary politicians, former state Senate president William Bulger, who is the brother of Whitey Bulger. Bulger resigned as president of the University of Massachusetts in August, following months of mounting pressure over his role in the federal investigation of his fugitive brother.

The departure came just two months after UMass trustees expressed confidence in Bulger even as a storm of protest swirled around him and his testimony before a congressional committee investigating the FBI's ties to its mob informants.

He testified under immunity before the panel in June about brother Whitey. While admitting he had spoken to his brother once since he fled, Bulger said he has no idea of his whereabouts and said there is little he could have done to steer him from a life of crime. William Bulger also said he thought the FBI investigators were trying to get his brother killed when they leaked to the media the fact that Whitey Bulger had been an informant.

Bulger's critics said his testimony was evasive and questioned how he could be so ignorant of his brother's criminal activities.

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