- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

MIAMI | John J. Connolly was hundreds of miles away in 1982 when gambling executive John Callahan’s bullet-riddled body was discovered in the trunk of his Cadillac at Miami’s airport.

The admitted shooter says he never met Connolly, the disgraced ex-FBI man at the heart of the agency’s sordid dealings with Boston’s Winter Hill Gang.

Yet Connolly will stand trial on murder and conspiracy charges this month as if he had pulled the trigger himself, because prosecutors say he secretly gave information that was crucial in setting up the hit. Jury selection is to begin Monday in a trial that figures to rehash some of the ugliest episodes in the Boston FBI’s handling of the gang, once led by fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger and convicted killer Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi.

For years, both were top FBI informants on rival Italian mobsters. Connolly was their handler - and Connolly made sure they were shielded from prosecution for murder and many other crimes, a service for which he was sent to federal prison.

A congressional investigation concluded in 2003 that the FBI’s relationship with Bulger and his cohorts “must be considered one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.” The scandal spawned several books and was the template for the 2006 Martin Scorsese film “The Departed,” with Matt Damon playing a crooked Connolly-like law-enforcement officer and Jack Nicholson as the Bulger-esque Irish-American mobster.

And it led former Attorney General Janet Reno in 2001 - one of her last acts in office - to install reforms on FBI use of criminals as informants, including better monitoring and accountability.

Mr. Callahan was president of World Jai-Alai, a Miami facility for the sport in which gamblers bet on players who sling a small ball against a wall using wicker baskets. World Jai-Alai was purchased in the late 1970s by Roger Wheeler, a businessman from Tulsa, Okla.

Soon, however, Mr. Wheeler suspected that Mr. Callahan was skimming profits from World Jai-Alai for the Winter Hill Gang. He fired Mr. Callahan and ordered an audit.

On May 27, 1981, Mr. Wheeler was shot between the eyes at a Tulsa country club by hit man John V. Martorano, who has admitted in court to 20 murders.

Mr. Callahan was targeted next because Bulger and Flemmi feared he would finger them for Mr. Wheeler’s killing. Martorano pleaded guilty in 2001 to the shooting.

Connolly, 68, was also indicted by a Miami-Dade County grand jury in Mr. Callahan’s killing. He is already serving a 10-year federal prison stretch for racketeering and other charges from his associations with Bulger and his gang, including tipping Mr. Bulger off about an impending 1995 indictment. Bulger remains at large.

The federal jury that convicted Connolly in 2002 rejected evidence of his involvement in the Callahan killing, although the charge then was obstruction of justice. And Connolly’s lawyer, Manuel Casabielle, said little new has surfaced in the years since.

”Most of what they have comes from two people who have admitted at least 40 murders between them,” he said.

But prosecutor Michael Von Zamft said the state is confident in its case, even with key witnesses of questionable repute.

“I’ve tried lots of cases where jurors have not liked some witnesses personally. But that does not make them not believable,” he said.

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