Ex-FBI agents insist colleague unfairly convicted

By Curt Anderson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 24 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

MIAMI — More than 100 former FBI agents, including the one whose undercover work inspired the movie "Donnie Brasco," are fighting for the release of a colleague convicted of corruption and of helping Boston's Irish mob murder a South Florida gambling executive.

It's a long shot, and maybe the last shot, for 70-year-old John Connolly, who will spend the rest of his life in prison, barring a successful appeal.

The former G-men, who provided documents relating to the case to The Associated Press, say Connolly was prosecuted for essentially doing what his Justice Department superiors wanted: to secretly use Irish mob bosses James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi as informants against Italian-American gangsters in New England.

The retired agents have filed two petitions with Attorney General Eric Holder demanding appointment of a special counsel to investigate Connolly's prosecution, raising a grab-bag of claims spanning many years, some of which have been previously rejected by courts and aired in congressional hearings. They include allegations of questionable tactics by prosecutors, evidence that a key witness lied during Connolly's 2002 federal corruption trial and contentions there was a rigged result in his 2008 Florida murder case.

"I've never seen them go after a gangster like they have John," said former agent Joseph Pistone, whose infiltration of New York's Bonanno and Colombo crime families as "Donnie Brasco" in the late 1970s was made into the 1997 film starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.

"He was dedicated as an FBI agent. He got all kinds of commendations. All of a sudden he goes wrong? That's kind of hard to believe."

Connolly's own saga also made its way to the big screen: It formed the blueprint for the 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed."

Prosecutors say Connolly permitted Flemmi and Bulger, who ran the notorious Winter Hill Gang, to commit crimes, accepted tens of thousands of dollars and other favors from them, tipped them about a pending indictment and, most seriously, passed them sensitive information about snitches in gang ranks that led to several murders. Connolly was convicted of racketeering and obstruction of justice and handed a 10-year federal prison sentence.

In Miami, Connolly was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1982 killing by a mob hit man of John Callahan, the gang-connected president of World Jai-Alai. Connolly did not have any direct role in the slaying, but was accused of tipping Flemmi and Bulger that Callahan was likely to finger them in another slaying.

So far, the Justice Department has refused to act on the ex-agents' complaints, citing Connolly's ongoing appeals of his Florida murder conviction. The ex-agents are pressing Holder to act, particularly with Connolly staring at an additional 40-year prison sentence in the Florida case that would begin as soon as his federal term ends in June.

"I feel John was wrongfully convicted," said William Reagan, a retired agent from San Francisco who posed as a long-haired radical inside the Weather Underground for eight years in the 1960s and '70s. "I don't think it amounted to a malicious prosecution. I simply think he was screwed over."

Prosecutors say Connolly is grasping at straws.

"Connolly had his trial. He got convicted. They attacked it with new evidence, and they lost that one, too," said Michael Von Zamft, an assistant state attorney in Miami who helped prosecute Connolly in the Florida case. "The concept that he is this innocent guy is just ridiculous."

Connolly, in one of several exclusive interviews with The Associated Press from a North Carolina federal prison, said his ex-FBI allies are probably his only hope.

"I'm fighting for my life here," Connolly said. "If it weren't for these ex-agents ...

"Guys who knew me know I never did any of this. I did my job."

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