Sitting in an unmarked sedan car in South Boston, John Connolly had his binoculars trained on a scene just a block away. It was a gruesome spectacle: a man who had just delivered guns and ammunition to the IRA by ship, was being tortured to death by Boston's most notorious gangster on suspicion of being a snitch for the FBI.
As the murder was playing out, it is alleged Connolly, a leading FBI agent, communicated by walkie-talkie with the torturer, James "Whitey" Bulger, as he first pulled out the victim's tongue and teeth and then tried to strangle the gun-runner, John McIntyre, with a ship's rope.
The FBI man's complicity in this particular murder has never been proved but his betrayal of his badge – proved in two other cases – is one of the most shameful episodes in the agency's history. The macabre incident, worthy of a scene fromThe Sopranos, has nonetheless drawn attention to an extraordinary double standard in which the FBI allowed a notorious Irish-American gang to commit murder and mayhem in Boston for more than a decade, in return for information that would eventually break the back of the Mafia.
Connolly's career would eventually inspire Martin Scorsese's 2006 movie, The Departed, in which the loyalties of an undercover agent become hopelessly compromised. The movie, like his career, is set in south Boston where the federal law enforcement agency is waging war on Irish-American organised crime. Connolly's character is played by Matt Damon.
The long arm of the law has finally caught up with Connolly, now aged 68. He was convicted last month of a 1982 murder and has been called to court for sentencing. A decision is likely within weeks. In dramatic courtroom scenes this week, he angrily shouted out his innocence. His many supporters maintain that the FBI is at fault for encouraging him to turn a blind eye to crimes throughout the 1980s.
Nobody knows quite when Connolly decided on his betrayal but it is assumed to have been in the 1970s and bribes had a lot to do with it. As a decorated FBI man, Connolly certainly had access to the most classified information. He learned that the IRA gun runner John McIntyre intended to testify against his fellow gun runners. So, it is alleged, Connolly passed the information on to "Whitey" Bulger, the infamous head of Boston's Winter Hill Gang who was behind the IRA arms shipment.
McIntyre and a friend were lured to a safe house where the gruesome torture began. At one point, Bulger asked his victim if he wanted a bullet to the head, to which McIntyre replied, "Yes, please". He was then shot multiple times and his body later dumped on waste ground.
The gang has now scattered, Bulger himself is still on the run and is America's second most wanted fugitive (after Osama Bin Laden) but some of its members have escaped prosecution by giving evidence. They have also made small fortunes turning their exploits as mobsters into books and screenplays.
But if Bulger and his deputy Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi were the feared enforcers on the streets of south Boston (Bulger was a "leg breaker, drug dealer, scumbag," in the words of Eddie Mackenzie, one of his ex-accomplices) Connolly acted as a big brother figure.
Back in the 1980s, Special Agent Connolly was a towering giant in the FBI's anti-Mafia unit. He had already spent two decades cultivating informants among New England's mob bosses. As a young undercover agent he walked the streets of New York with the FBI agent Joseph Pistone, who documented his own undercover life in the book Donnie Brasco later made into a film with Johnny Depp.
Pistone however, is not there for Connolly in his current hour of need. As the sentencing hearing of the former FBI hero got under way, Pistone refused to take the stand because the judge refused his request to testify anonymously.
The US courts recently concluded that, in the name of catching ever-bigger Mafia fish, FBI agents were encouraged to let Irish-American gangsters rivals of the mafia, run amok. The policy led to serious breakthroughs against the Mafia but also countless murders and the ill-fated shipment of guns to the IRA. But former FBI agents have also testified on Connolly's behalf and there is even a sophisticated website proclaiming his innocence. When he showed up to be sentenced for his role in facilitating yet another gruesome murder by James "Whitey" Bulger this week, he wept tears for the family of the victim John Callahan. The bullet-ridden body of Callahan was found in the boot of a Cadillac parked at Miami International Airport in 1982. "It's heart-breaking to hear what happened to your father and your husband," Connolly told the family.
In an emotional prison interview with The Boston Globe this week, Connolly still proclaimed his innocence. "I never sold my badge. I never took anybody's money. I never caused anybody to be hurt, at least not knowingly, and I never would."
As a member of the elite anti-Mafia squad for more than 20 years, Connolly's speciality was cultivating informants against New England's mobsters. His accomplishments led to the FBI's Boston office being lionised. Connolly himself became a near legendary figure for his role in a secretly recorded Mafia initiation ceremony complete with blood oaths and prayers and the incineration of an image of the Virgin Mary in the palms of newly made members. He was the first outsider to penetrate the Mob's holy of holies and his coup led to numerous prosecutions of leading members. But somewhere along the way he began taking shortcuts. With the full knowledge and approval of his FBI bosses he started offering protection to members of the Winter Hill Gang in return for leads.
The FBI adamantly denies turning a deliberate blind eye to years of bloody mayhem, murder and gunrunning and maintains that Connolly was merely a rogue agent. But, two months ago, a federal judge slapped the Bureau down and ordered it to pay £1.8m compensation to the 80-year old mother of the murdered John McIntyre.
A damning verdict stated: "The (FBI's) attitude at least reflects a judgement that Connolly's at-the-edge conduct could be tolerated for the greater good of bringing down La Cosa Nostra."
The FBI's successes against the Mafia were matched by its failures against Whitey Bulger's gang. When the Feds finally got around to arresting him in 1995, he was tipped off by a phone call from Connolly. Bulger now has a price of more than $1m on his head, his face on posters in every airport in America, but the likelihood seems that the 71-year-old is lying low in a west of Ireland village.
It now seems that Connolly actually became a member of Bulger's gang, a well-paid partner in crime, very early in their relationship in the late 1970s. He was full-time member of the Irish Goodfellas. It all started back in south Boston (or Southie) a landing pad for generations of working class Irish immigrants. It is a tightly knit place of hard working construction workers and armchair Irish republicans where at the height of Northern Ireland's troubles every bar seemed to have a collection box for IRA "prisoners of war."
Connolly and Bulger grew up in the same block of public housing in the 1940s where the few career options included becoming a cop on the beat, a fireman or a mobster. In his 25-year reign as head of the Winter Hill Gang, Bulger committed as many as 90 murders.
He had other high-powered connections, however. Billy Bulger, his younger brother was for years the head of the Massachusetts state Senate before becoming president of the University of Massachusetts from which he was recently forced to retire. Billy was also a childhood friend and a mentor to Connolly, creating a tangled knot of alliances that went all the way from the Massachusetts state house to the FBI and an untold number of back street torture and murder scenes to which Connolly routinely turned a blind eye.
Connolly was well rewarded of course. "We're taking real good care of that guy," Bulger once said of Connolly. For protecting extortion rackets the agent was reportedly lavished with thousands of dollars and diamond rings in bribes.
When the FBI's internal affairs unit finally turned Connolly over after Bulger's disappearance, they found dozens of uncashed salary cheques and proof that he owned a fancy suburban house. There was also a holiday home among the jet setters of Cape Cod and a £30,000 fishing boat.
Connolly is now facing up to33 years in jail for the 1982 Callahan murder. But his FBI career is one the agency would prefer was forgotten by the public. It promises to haunt the US law enforcement agency for many years, however, as more victims come forward seeking compensation for murders that took place while Connolly and other FBI agents deliberately looked the other way.