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 Callahan's 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, because, prosecutors say, he secretly gave information that was crucial in setting up the hit. Jury selection is to begin today in a trial that figures to rehash some of the ugliest episodes in the Boston FBI's handling of the gang, once led by 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 eventually sent to federal prison.
The scandal spawned several books and was the template for the 2006 Martin Scorsese award-winning film The Departed.
And it led then-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.
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., who liked the fact that former Boston FBI agent Paul Rico was part of the security team.
Soon, however, Wheeler suspected that Callahan was skimming profits from the operation for the Winter Hill Gang. He fired Callahan and ordered an audit.
On May 27, 1981, 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.
Callahan was targeted next because Bulger and Flemmi feared he would finger them for Wheeler's killing. Martorano pleaded guilty in 2001 to shooting Callahan and, with the help of an associate, stuffing the body into the trunk of Callahan's Cadillac.
Authorities found the car at Miami International Airport, with a dime placed on Callahan's body as a warning to potential informants not to "drop a dime" or rat out associates.
Rico, Connolly's former FBI colleague, was charged in Wheeler's murder, but he died in 2004 before going to trial.
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Connolly, 68, is already serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison. Bulger fled before he could be arrested and remains a fugitive.
The FBI has checked out hundreds of tips regarding his whereabouts, including Spain, Italy, Portugal, Mexico, Great Britain and Germany. Last week, the agency marked his 79th birthday by doubling the reward for a tip leading to his capture to $2-million.
Prosecutor Michael Von Zamft said the state is confident in its case, even with key witnesses of questionable repute.
Martorano, the self-described hit man, is among the star witnesses. The gist of Martorano's testimony, according to court documents, will be that it was Bulger who told him that Connolly was involved setting up the Callahan slaying.
Martorano served 12 years in prison for murder and dozens of other crimes under a plea agreement requiring him to testify in numerous cases, including Connolly's.
During his FBI career, Connolly won numerous commendations and awards and is credited with making key arrests of Italian Mafia chieftains in Boston. His supporters have unearthed evidence indicating that senior Justice Department and FBI officials tolerated the criminal exploits of Bulger and Flemmi because of their value as mob informants.