FBI agents listening in on a bug planted in the Providence headquarters of New England Mafia boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca in 1965 overheard two notorious Boston gangsters seeking permission to kill a small-time hoodlum.
Vincent "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi complained that Edward "Teddy" Deegan had been causing trouble at a Revere nightclub frequented by mobsters, according to FBI reports. He was "an arrogant, nasty sneak and should be killed," Flemmi said, according to the reports.
The don told Flemmi and his fellow assassin, Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, that he would think it over.
Two days later, on March 12, 1965, Deegan was shot to death in a Chelsea alley. The same day, Flemmi officially became an FBI informant, like his brother, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, according to court records.
At the time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered the agency to make dismantling the Mafia its top priority, and he had stressed that it was crucial to develop informants among organized crime figures. Both Flemmis were cited in FBI documents as valuable informants against the Mafia.
Deegan's murder remained unsolved until two years later, when FBI agents H. Paul Rico and Dennis Condon recruited Barboza to become a witness in a series of federal and state trials involving local Mafia leaders. He admitted his role in Deegan's slaying and implicated others, but not Vincent Flemmi.
The FBI turned Barboza over to state prosecutors, who used him as the key witness in a 1968 trial that led to the wrongful convictions of Joseph Salvati, Peter J. Limone, Louis Greco, and Henry Tameleo for Deegan's murder. At the time, Tameleo was the reputed consigliere of the New England mob, and Limone was alleged to be a Boston leader.
Salvati and Greco weren't alleged to be members of the mob but had had previous run-ins with Barboza.
Years went by. Limone and Salvati grew old behind bars. Tameleo and Greco died in prison.
Then in 1997, Stephen Flemmi triggered an FBI scandal by publicly revealing after his arrest that he and fugitive gangster James "Whitey" Bulger were longtime FBI informants, whose corrupt handlers accepted gifts and bribes from them, tipped them to investigations, and leaked to them the identities of informants who were cooperating against them.
A Justice Department task force of FBI agents led by special prosecutor John Durham launched an investigation into the agency's handling of informants stretching back to the 1960s. In 2000, the task force uncovered secret FBI documents that indicated Barboza might have framed Salvati, Limone, Greco, and Tameleo, while protecting one of the killers, Vincent Flemmi.
Durham turned the documents over to lawyers for Limone and Salvati, and in January 2001 a state judge overturned their murder convictions, ruling that the documents probably would have helped them prove their innocence at trial. Greco and Tameleo were exonerated posthumously.
"It was more important for the FBI to protect its murderous informants than it was to protect the lives of innocent men and their families," said Medford lawyer Victor J. Garo, who represents the Salvatis.
While testifying before the congressional committee, Louis Freeh, then the FBI director said the bureau's role in the case was "a very sad chapter in the history of this agency." He called it a "great travesty, a great failure."
Defense lawyers for the four men had not been told that other informants revealed to the FBI that Vincent Flemmi had planned Deegan's slaying and that they identified his accomplices as other men, not Salvati, Limone, Greco or Tameleo. They also weren't told that Barboza and Vincent Flemmi had sought permission from Patriarca to kill Deegan just two days before his slaying, undermining Barboza's contention that Limone had ordered the murder months earlier and that Tameleo had sanctioned it.
In his early debriefings with the FBI, Barboza had warned agents that he wouldn't provide any information that would let Vincent Flemmi "fry" for the murder.
A congressional committee that investigated the FBI's handling of Bulger, the Flemmis, and other informants issued a scathing report in 2003. The organized crime informant program, the report stated, was "one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement."
The FBI has declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.
In an interview with the Globe in April, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said, "I think the public should recognize that what happened, happened years ago."
He said the FBI has "put into place mechanisms to prevent this from happening in the future."
The Bulger scandal prompted the Justice Department to adopt new informant guidelines in January 2001 that added more oversight of agents.
Former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. was convicted of racketeering in 2002 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for protecting Bulger and Stephen Flemmi from prosecution and leaking information to them while he was an agent. He is scheduled to stand trial in Miami in September on charges that he helped the pair orchestrate a 1982 gangland murder.
Rico, the agent who had cultivated the Flemmis and helped recruit Barboza as a witness, died in 2004 while he was awaiting trial on charges that he helped Bulger and Stephen Flemmi murder a Tulsa businessman in 1981.