Break seen in fight on corruption
By Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe Staff,
He was unrepentant and arrogant with a congressional committee investigating the case of four men jailed for decades for a murder they did not commit. The stunning injustice, the congressmen charged, was orchestrated by FBI agents to protect the real killer: a prized informant.
"What do you want, tears?" sneered retired FBI agent H. Paul Rico, when asked how he felt about the wrongful imprisonment of one of the four, Joseph Salvati, for more than 30 years.
For decades, his critics have said, Rico was able to work around and above the law during the time he was a decorated recruiter of underworld informants for the FBI and later an executive at a Miami gaming company, World Jai Alai. In fact, he was able to quip and smirk his way through years of grand jury appearances, congressional subpoenas, and criminal investigations that tried to link him to the sort of crimes he once swore to fight.
Yesterday, however, the 78-year-old Belmont native was arrested at his Florida home, on murder and conspiracy charges in the 1981 slaying of Roger M. Wheeler, a Tulsa, Okla., businessman who owned World Jai Alai. In a situation rich with irony, the charges against Rico were made possible by a deal struck by one of his most valuable and murderous former informants: imprisoned gangster Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, law enforcement officials said.
The arrest, said those who have sought for years to bring Rico to justice, is a significant step toward closure in the long investigation of the Boston FBI's use and misuse of criminal informants, a scandal that one congressman labeled the worst in the history of US law enforcement. For many of those who investigated the scandal, Rico's role was perhaps the most central: He personified the place where the line between crime fighter and criminal was blurriest.
Rico was arrested by Miami-Dade and Tulsa police officers yesterday at his Miami Shores home, a modest two-bedroom, two-bath, ground-floor condominium with a patio overlooking Biscayne Bay. Neighbors said they often saw Rico's wife, Constance, but little of the former agent, who was living the quiet life of a retiree, a participant in local bridge tournaments.
It was a life in sharp contrast with his gritty career.
Rico graduated from Boston College with a history degree in 1950 and joined the FBI. During his 20-year career in the bureau, he became one of its foremost recruiters of informants in Boston, trolling for underworld sources among skittish and trigger-happy gangsters.
Two of those sources were the Flemmi brothers, Stephen and Vincent. To FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's newly declared war on the Mafia, Rico also recruited a star witness during that time, notorious Mob hitman Joseph "The Animal" Barboza.
The collaboration between Barboza and Rico, FBI critics in Congress have charged, resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of four men for the 1965 murder of Edward "Teddy" Deegan. Two of the men, Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco, died in prison. Salvati and the fourth man, Peter Limone, were both freed in recent years after decades in prison.
Secret FBI documents uncovered in recent years suggested that Rico and the FBI were aware that Barboza and others had probably killed Wheeler, and indicated that they even knew about the crime beforehand and did nothing to stop it.
"This is one of those cases where justice has been delayed for many years," said Victor Garo, Salvati's attorney, about Rico's arrest. "It just shows that we were right. . . . But this isn't a happy day for anybody."
Rico retired from the FBI in 1975 and went to work as an executive for World Jai Alai, a pari-mutuel wagering company in Miami. When gambling regulators blocked its expansion plans by alleging that the company had been infiltrated by organized crime -- Somerville's notorious Winter Hill Gang -- the company went looking for clean ownership and found it in 1975 with Wheeler, who had made his fortune in computer parts, metals, and minerals.
Alarmed that the company's revenues seemed to be mysteriously disappearing, Wheeler ordered an audit in early 1981. A short time later, he was shot in the head as he stepped into his Cadillac after a round of golf at Tulsa's Southern Hills Country Club.
John Martorano, a Flemmi associate and prolific admitted hitman, has testified that Flemmi and fellow crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger ordered the Wheeler murder and that Rico supplied the intelligence on Wheeler's actions and whereabouts.
Without corroboration, however, law enforcement officials were unwilling to indict Rico based on Martorano's word. With the criminal investigation stalled, Rico scoffed at his critics and pursuers, making his infamous "tears" comment in May 2001 during a congressional hearing into FBI corruption.
Flemmi has now provided that corroboration, law enforcement sources told the Globe yesterday.
||Truth in Justice