The Hartford Courant

 

Avenging Angel' Takes On FBI

 

 
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
January 28, 2001

 

BOSTON - John H. Durham looked impatient, distracted and, odd as it might seem in the circumstance, privately amused by the spectacle of it all - which is to say, he looked pretty much like he usually looks.

 

He was in the cavernous new federal courthouse, off to the side of the podium, pinned down by reporters. Heavier hitters in law enforcement – drawn from their offices like moths to television lights - were looking serious and trying not to embarrass themselves while taking questions about Durham's newest case. It involves nothing less than systemic corruption of an FBI office.

 

That Durham could have better explained his own case to the press is not to suggest that he is retiring. He is not. In a courtroom, prosecuting a defendant, he sometimes looks ready  lunge at defense lawyers - if a 50-year-old lawyer trapped 16 hours a day in a cramped office can still lunge. He'll clinch with anyone, anywhere. One year in Connecticut, as an assistant U.S. attorney, he put a third of New England's mafia in jail. He has never lost a case.

 

He just doesn't like attention.

 

That is making for an interesting turn of events. The driven, if publicity averse, Durham has become the white knight in what is emerging as one of the country's worst law enforcement scandals.

 

So far, as a special prosecutor in Boston, Durham has identified enough potential grand jury targets to become something of a full employment service for the defense bar. Defense lawyers, having belatedly reached the conclusion that his investigation is for real, are now scrambling to figure him out.

 

Will he be able to run out all his leads or will Department of Justice higher-ups cap the investigation at what they decide is a politically manageable point? Can Durham protect his task force from the brutal rivalries among the city's police agencies? And what kind of lawyer is it anyway who sneaks out a side door when he could be lecturing the TV crews out front about the moral superiority of his position?

 

"I was surprised at first that he got the appointment because he is not political," said John R. Williams, a defense attorney in New Haven. "And then, frankly, my one thought when he went up there was: Jesus Christ, are they going to eat him for breakfast?"

 

Two and one-half years ago, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet C. Reno appointed Durham to explore allegations that, for three decades, FBI agents and police officers in Boston have been in bed with the mob. In particular, he is looking for crimes committed by agents working with James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, two murderous gangsters who served as FBI informants for a combined 50 years.

 

What Durham has found to date is nothing less than sensational, judging from what has become part of the public record.

 

Among other things, he has accused a decorated FBI agent of setting up at least three murders and he is examining evidence suggesting that a second agent might have participated in another - the execution of a former owner of World Jai Alai Inc., once one of the country's leading parimutuel businesses. What's more, he has charged state and local police officers in Massachusetts with secretly helping Bulger and Flemmi. A half dozen bodies have been unearthed from secret graves scattered around the city.

 

Last month, Durham gave defense lawyers secret government memos suggesting that unscrupulous FBI officials – probably with the knowledge of ex-Director J. Edgar Hoover – framed four men for a 1965 murder. State prosecutors, after 30 years of intransigence, immediately began steps to drop charges against the four - two of whom died of old age in prison.

 

To say Durham has been turning heads in Boston's clubby legal community is an understatement. That's nothing new in Connecticut, where Durham has compiled one of the most successful prosecutorial records in the country.

 

"You underestimate Durham at your own peril," said Hugh Keefe, a New Haven defense lawyer.

 

Successful prosecutors often leave embittered defense lawyers and alienated witnesses in their wakes, victims of a win-at all-costs mentality. Durham, by all accounts, is a refreshing departure. A colleague, struggling for the right description, recently caught himself short and confessed: "I don't want to get maudlin here. But he really is a good person." Even defense lawyers known to attack prosecutors reflexively have little criticism.

 

"There is nothing negative that I can say," Boston lawyer Anthony Cardinale said. "So if you're looking for that, I'm not in that mode."

 

Cardinale would seem like a shoo-in for the negative, having been one of a half-dozen lawyers who squared off against Durham in Hartford in the early 1990s in what then was the biggest mob trial in the country. His client, Louis "Louie Pugs" Pugliano, got life without parole. So frustrated was Cardinale, who has defended clients in some of the country's more notable organized crime trials, that he nearly got himself jailed for contempt.

 

"He's obviously a very fierce competitor," Cardinale said. "But he's not a zealot. And he does it by the rules. He is very professional. He is courteous. I've been up against them all over the country and I'd put him in the top echelon of federal prosecutors. He's such a decent guy you can't hate him. That can make it hard to get motivated."

 

The view from within law enforcement is even less complicated.

 

"There is no more principled, there is no more better living, there is no finer person that I know of or have encountered in my life," said Richard Farley, a former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's New Haven division.

 

Or, Farley might have added, anyone who pays such close attention to detail.

 

 

In 1989, someone fired a .22-caliber bullet into William "The Wild Guy" Grasso's brain and dumped his body in a thicket of poison ivy near the Connecticut River. That, in turn, provoked a frenzy of court-authorized, electronic bugging because, at the time of his death, Grasso was under-boss of New England's Patriarca crime family.

 

The bugs resulted in horrible recordings because gangsters have learned to turn up the radio while they whisper. Poor recordings became stacks of lousy transcripts riddled by the parenthetical word "unintelligible." Normally, senior prosecutors do not concern themselves with transcribing FBI audiotapes. Durham does.

 

"John is a perfectionist," said Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin, a former prosecutor who worked the Grasso case with Durham.

 

"Sometimes he'll look over a transcript and he won't be satisfied," Devlin said. "Of course, the agents say he can hear grass grow. He does have, actually, remarkable hearing. It's like Ted Williams seeing the seam on the ball turn."

 

By deciphering a phrase that had been written off as unintelligible, Durham turned up a piece of evidence supporting the critical prosecutorial contention that mobsters in Connecticut and Rhode Island were working together.

 

With mobsters around New England linked, Durham could build a regional racketeering case against those eventually arrested for Grasso's murder. He ultimately convicted mobsters elsewhere of crimes committed by associates in Connecticut.

 

Somehow, Durham has remained cynicism-free over a quarter century of jailing professional felons. The man who remarked that his four sons can attend college wherever they choose  so long as the school has a "Cross" in its name - once fired off an angry note to a Connecticut bishop after a priest appeared in court as a character witness for a Ku Klux Klansman.

 

He likes to hunt ducks, work trout with a fly rod and still looks fit. He has thinning hair, steel-framed glasses and probably a closet full of gray suits. He has a tart sense of humor and, despite a daunting professional schedule, is a fixture at wakes and retirements. He takes Lent seriously and rarely misses Mass on Sunday.

 

But there are few glimpses of his private life. Asked if he would cooperate with a journalist writing about him, he volunteered to make available "all the information to which members of the fourth estate are entitled under freedom of information laws." Pressed, he said: "You know, I'm not the only person working on this case. Why don't you write about the others. They deserve credit."

 

Friends say he studied at Colgate University and was a fashionably long-haired member of the school baseball team. After receiving a law degree at the University of Connecticut, he volunteered as a social worker on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

 

Back in Connecticut, he found work as a prosecutor in the newly created chief state's attorney's office. Before long, he was recruited by then-New Haven State's Attorney Arnold Markle, who had a grant to organize a groundbreaking unit dedicated to prosecuting career criminals.

 

Durham moved on to the U.S. Department of Justice's super secret organized crime Strike Force. When the strike forces were folded into local U.S. attorney's offices, Durham became chief of the criminal division in New Haven. In the 1990s he was promoted to deputy U.S. attorney.

 

Through the 1980s and '90s, Durham prosecuted or supervised every organized crime case in Connecticut. His team contributed critical evidence to the conviction in New York of Gambino crime family boss John Gotti. He conceived the strategy that put Connecticut's big cities a decade ahead of those in neighboring states in eradicating violent urban crack gangs - a strategy that was later adopted elsewhere in the country. He demoted himself to assistant U.S. attorney about two years ago - guilt, friends said, over spending too much time in Boston.

 

"John was given that thing in Boston, I am quite convinced, because he has a reputation for being above the fray, of being absolutely incorruptible and of absolutely calling things the way he sees them," said Ira Grudberg, a defense lawyer in New Haven. "Despite the fact that he can be a hard ass about certain things, I believe he is a real straight shooter."

 

Durham has built a career on the presumptive integrity of the criminal justice system. Criminals are supposed to know that their punishments are just because the system operates without bias. Durham was sent to Boston as a special prosecutor to investigate signs that the system had failed.

 

Evidence produced during a federal criminal trial in the late 1990s suggested that a group of senior FBI agents, over a 30 year period, established a bizarre alliance with what was arguably New England's most ruthless criminal outfit.

 

For years, rumors flew in Boston that some criminals were committing murders and obstructing justice with FBI protection. It was suspected that men were wrongly convicted of crimes because the real criminals worked for the FBI.

 

The bureau dismissed the rumors as fantasy. Defense lawyers struggled futilely to prove them. Detectives from states as disparate as Connecticut, Oklahoma and Florida worked a series of murders connected to the jai alai industry and wound up with nothing but shared suspicion of the FBI and bitter knowledge that their cases dead-ended in Boston.

 

All that is changing and, like him or not, Durham is the reason. A specially selected task force of investigators from around the country, operating under his direction, now appears on the way to succeeding where earlier investigations failed. Collectively, allegations in the string of indictments Durham has obtained so far present an incredible picture: Two supposed FBI informants put law enforcement to work for them. There is evidence that agents set up men for gangland murders for as little as a diamond engagement ring and a few thousand dollars.

 

Not surprisingly, the task force has met with resistance. It has come from FBI officials interested in protecting themselves and Massachusetts detectives afflicted by law enforcement's peculiar institutional jealousies. But longtime associates describe Durham as determined to push on, even if he is increasingly put off by what his task force is finding.

 

"Given what he is seeing and how corrupt, small fee, the whole system was, it's really a terrible job," said a federal judge who knows Durham well. "But somebody has to do this job. And I think that he understands that more than anybody. I know this is tearing him up. But on the other hand, would you want him after you? He may be getting no pleasure out of it. But he's like an avenging angel."

 

Durham is winning converts in Boston.

 

"I think he is going to leave here with a tremendous reputation, the guy who came in from outside and cleaned up a terrible situation," said a senior official in the Suffolk County district attorney's office - the office that, in 1968, used bad evidence from the FBI to convict four apparently innocent men of murder.

 

This is no big surprise for the army of Durham loyalists in Connecticut law enforcement.

 

FBI agents - and their bosses - get promoted when they win cases and that is pretty much a guarantee when Durham is prosecuting. By the 1990s, not only was the bureau in Connecticut submitting investigations of sensitive matters for Durham's supervision, it was breaking bureau rules by, in effect, permitting him to assign agents.

 

In the early 1990s, a scrap of paper containing Durham's home address was found in the wing of the Hartford jail holding a group of mobsters judged sufficiently ruthless to be denied bail. Durham supervised their indictments and was preparing their prosecution.

 

Word moved quickly through the law enforcement grapevine. Heavily armed officers converged on the home and Durham was greeted in his own driveway by a shotgun-carrying agent.

 

But there are limits to what even the most heavily starched agent can take, and a prosecutor who insists on separate checks for coffee sometimes needs to be brought up short.

 

When a foursome of detectives won Red Sox tickets at a law enforcement golf tournament, but couldn't make it to Fenway Park, they gave the seats to Durham, whose deepest flaw may be the Red Sox. This occurred at a time when Foxwoods Resort Casino was experiencing a run of bad press after a couple of gangsters were trying to insinuate themselves into casino operations.

 

Durham snatched the tickets, took his sons and spent the found money on overpriced sweatshirts.

 

Back at work, there was a letter in his box - a forgery, it turned out, on filched stationery - from a high casino executive. The casino was thrilled, the letter said, that the man who would supervise any casino case could use its complimentary seats. In the future, they were his for the asking.

 

The big laugh the detectives planned ended up as a frantic search through outgoing mail at the U.S. attorney's office. Durham had mailed a check and apologetic letter to the casino before anyone could spring the joke on him.

 

While his demands for separate checks drive waitresses mad, Durham is not an over-the-top Puritan. In federal prosecutions in Connecticut, he is invariably the first prosecutor called by defense lawyers who believe they have clients with a special claim to leniency.

 

"While he is very tough and aggressive," Williams said, "I've never noticed that he ever thought he had a halo. He's able to respect opposing points of view. And that makes him very special and very, very good at what he's doing."

 

Williams' concern about whether Durham succeeds arises from questions about whether lawyers used to playing by Connecticut rules can prosper in Boston's dog-eat-dog arena.

 

After two years, there is no need for concern.

 

At the press conference, Durham finally couldn't avoid a question.

 

"Does the Department of Justice have the stomach to pursue this investigation to its conclusion?" one of the reporters asked, meaning will the government find some excuse to shut down the case to prevent further shredding the FBI's credibility?

 

It was the only question Durham answered.

 

"The government absolutely has the stomach," he said.


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