Informants: Deal with the Devil
The Federal Courthouse in Boston has been busy with the trial of the man on top of the FBI’s “most wanted” list for sixteen years. He is Whitey Bulger, mob boss, dope dealer, gambling racketeer, serial killer … and FBI informant.
Whitey was head of the Winter Hill gang, a South Boston Irish mob in competition with Patriarca’s traditional Italian Mafia based in the North End. Both gangs were in drug dealing, gambling, loan-sharking, prostitution, and other traditional gang businesses; and they were in violent, bloody competition with each other. For about twenty years, Whitey had a deal with the Boston FBI office in which he gave them information about and access to the Patriarca gang and they gave him money, did not prosecute him for federal crimes, and even informed him about state investigations, and prevented state acquisition of evidence against Whitey’s crimes – including murders the FBI knew he committed. Ultimately, when the story came out, several FBI agents were sent to prison for long terms for their involvement with Whitey. And gang activity was just as strong as it had been before: use of this informant did nothing to suppress crime or protect public safety.
The Bulger case would look like an aberration if the case of Gregory Scarpa in New York during the same time period follow the same path. Scarpa was associated with the Five Families of the New York mafia, and had a similar relation with the FBI. The major differences were that Scarpa personally killed over forty people to Bulger’s more than twenty, Scarpa received over a million dollars from the FBI as direct payments, and Scarpa’s FBI handler escaped prison when the evidence at his trial was compromised.
While these cases are epic in scale, they reveal elements common to all informant cases from the smallest five-dollar drug buy to the multi-million sell-outs by Mexican Cartel killers.
In every informant case, the police insure that a known criminal is returned to the community to continue his crimes. These crimes are known and their costs can be estimated to a reasonable degree of accuracy. On the other hand, the police only have hopes that the informant will be useful in stopping other criminals, but that hope is grounded only loosely in reality.
Does an informant ever tell the truth? One who is being paid for information makes sure to supply what the customer wants. Somewhere, some time, in the long history of the world, a paid informer may have told the truth, but if so, that event has not made its way into the record. Countless wrongful convictions rest on the lies of informants.
With every informant, the question arises: is the informant helping the police or is he using the police to bolster his own business? The Bulger and Scarpa cases stand out, not because they are different, but because they are bigger, lasted longer, and present more complete records. In both cases, just like the five-dollar street buy, the information the informants selected to share was information that disadvantaged their competition more than it aided the police; and they routinely suppressed information incriminating their employees, bosses, and allies.
The real problem with informants is the effect they have on police. The police start out by condoning the informant’s crimes. They then move to assisting: they provide five dollars to make a street buy or a gram from the evidence locker to make a sale. The next step is to protect the snitch from other police – and then to actively concealing his crimes. From there, a short step moves to participating in those crimes. Soon the cops are little more than members of the game.
Making an informant is surely a Deal with the Devil; only evil can win. Not only does it leave a criminal on the street, it empowers him to commit more, and more dangerous crimes. It encourages perjury and its concealment, leading to false convictions and innocent suffering. Worst of all, it corrupts law enforcement and weakens belief in the justice system.
Now is the time to say: “Get thee behind me, Satan”. Refuse to accept the testimony of informants or of the cops controlling them in court and pressure your representatives to write informants out of the laws. Justice by crook is no justice at all.
I took my title from Deal with the Devil, a report of the career of Gregory Scarpa, Sr., by Peter Lance. For more on Whitey Bulger, read Whitey Bulger by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, long-time Boston Globe reporters, or Most Wanted by Thomas J. Foley, long-time head of the Massachusetts State Police.