Mob Rules


Last September, when FBI agent John Connolly was sentenced to 10 years for racketeering, the story of how he allied the bureau with Boston’s notorious Winter Hill gang was reported as a dark if heartwarming buddy story of two kids from Southie. Connolly stuck by his gangster friend James “Whitey” Bulger through nearly two decades of informing, extortion, and murder. (Not surprisingly, Hollywood has optioned the Winter Hill gang story.)

But for Professor Elin Waring, the saga involves more complex patterns. “Part of the thing of organized crime is, how do the lists of co-offending networks fit into other non-criminal networks—like families, like neighbors?” asks Waring. A sociologist at CUNY’s Lehman College in the Bronx, Waring makes a living pondering crime. The term co-offending network (coined by Albert Reiss Jr., Waring’s mentor at Yale) refers to any group that gathers to break the law. In her latest book, Crime & Social Organization (Transactions Publishers, 2002), Waring and her co-authors show that such groups—whether Enron executives, Russian outlaws, Mafia dons, or FBI agents—share certain behaviors. Committing a crime with someone requires trust that usually comes from knowing them personally. That seems basic, but the idea of mining these networks for social motives marks a sea change from the concept of organized crime as a corporate hierarchy. And by being stripped down, the social network idea lets you see shared features of different-scaled crimes.

Waring grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, where her mother was a sociologist. That of course killed Waring’s interest in the field. She started her college years at Swarthmore innocently as a history major. Yet she was always curious about why certain configurations of people worked better than others. In her graduate work at Yale, she crossed into criminology, and her fascination with groups grew into a dissertation. “I noticed that the same issues were present in the illicit sphere,” she says.

Until recently, criminologists tended to view organized crime using a corporate model with its roots in the 1960s. (Think of the acres of desks in the opening of Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment.) FBI documents still refer to the Mafia by the corporate-sounding LCN, for La Cosa Nostra. But as companies modularized and decentralized, even corporations outgrew the corporate model. So did organized crime. In place of a row of boxes under a CEO, Waring outlines a messier and more sophisticated tangle of personal contacts. In the three earlier books that she co-wrote, Waring examined networks in white-collar crooks and Russian organized crime, often challenging accepted wisdom. She debunked the notion of a tight-knit Russian mafia, finding instead a scattering of loosely affiliated individuals.

In her book, Waring makes the case that the network concept can help dissect crimes ranging from a crack deal to WorldCom’s financial shenanigans. In a recent phone conversation with the Voice, she analyzed a low-level encounter in the Patriarca family’s New England Mafia. One August night in 1986, four men gathered at a garage behind a modest house in Hamden, Connecticut (just minutes from Yale, where Waring was at the time): Richard Beedle, a locksmith, who lived there; William Grasso, a silver-haired businessman from nearby New Haven; Mickey Caruana, a slick salesman from Boston; and Jack Johns, a working-class guy from Hartford. (A fifth man, Salvatore “Butch” D’Aquila, stayed out front as a lookout.)

News reports later would lump them as “Mafia associates,” led by Grasso, the Patriarcas’ Connecticut underboss. But what united them was less structured than that. Caruana was an independent drug-runner, and Beedle’s only connection to the group was that he leased his garage to Grasso for $30 a month. Caruana had called Grasso that day because he trusted him for what was needed: to clean up a murder. Caruana had kidnapped his kids’ hockey coach, who was having an affair with his wife. Caruana allegedly tortured the coach for hours, strangled him, wrapped him in plastic, then called Grasso.

Grasso made some calls. In the garage, Beedle had a hole already dug through the concrete floor. Together the four men stripped the body, dropped it in the hole, and poured in sacks of lime. They grabbed shovels and refilled the hole. Beedle commented that every time he did this, there was dirt left over. They laughed. They finished the task at hand. As Caruana drove off, Grasso watched the Cadillac leave and noticed that a taillight was out.

Suddenly, Grasso grew furious. “Look at this fucking guy,” he said. “Driving down the street with a body in the trunk with a broken light.”

Caruana disappeared soon after that; investigators later believed that his broken taillight got him killed by Grasso. (Some speculated he ended up with the hockey coach, beneath Beedle’s garage.) What infuriated Grasso so much? Waring suggests that, more than Caruana’s carelessness with the taillight, it might have been the way that Caruana put all of them at risk for a murder that had nothing to do with their shared “business.” Grasso felt betrayed.

That small-time episode doesn’t get a footnote in books about the Patriarcas and the FBI Boston scandal. But Waring’s approach helps you analyze behavior up the line from Grasso’s idea of teamwork, to the Patriarcas’ downfall, to how Connolly got the FBI tangled up with gangsters.

In 1989, an internal war between Patriarca factions left Grasso with a gunshot in the back of the head, his corpse found on the banks of the Connecticut River. The FBI exploited the rifts by recruiting top-level informants from the battling factions. Ever since the 1960s, the Mafia had remained the FBI’s public enemy number one. Whitey Bulger, the Winter Hill gang’s leader, funneled information to Connolly that helped build a case against his rivals, the Patriarcas. Another informant, Steve “the Rifleman” Flemmi, was valuable because he was what Waring calls a “connector,” able to move between both groups. In exchange for information they gave him, Connolly shielded Bulger and Flemmi from other investigations and from prosecution. With their help, federal prosecutors convicted the Patriarcas’ Connecticut gang in 1991. Soon after, Winter Hill moved in on the Patriarcas’ rackets there. The following year the top Patriarca was convicted with evidence from Connolly’s snitches. The way was clear for Whitey Bulger to lead New England organized crime.

Meanwhile, Connolly had made his way up the FBI ladder. He was regarded as that rare agent who can manage gangster informants for usable information. Connolly had been handpicked to manage Whitey Bulger, by virtue of his legit contacts within the FBI and his Southie background, which he shared with gangsters like Bulger. Which brings us back to Waring’s comment on how legitimate and criminal networks overlap.

Waring sees that intersection vividly in another episode. In 1983, Connolly got a new boss for organized crime in FBI-Boston, James Ring. Ring wanted to see firsthand how Connolly handled his key informants. On the appointed evening Connolly picked Ring up, saying they would have dinner with Flemmi and Bulger. “Stevie’s mom and dad are fixing dinner,” he said. Connolly introduced his boss to Bulger, Flemmi, and Flemmi’s parents over red wine and Italian food in the elder Flemmis’ South Boston kitchen. (The agents left as William Bulger, the gangster’s brother and then-Massachusetts senate president, walked in and handed Whitey some photos.) It was a classic Connolly ploy: Bring everybody together over dinner and have them get friendly. With an informal meal, Connolly snared his supervisor in a way that strengthened Winter Hill’s leverage. Ring later admitted the evening made him unhappy; he evidently felt so embarrassed that he neither reprimanded Connolly nor reported the meeting, as required by FBI policy.

A co-offending network hinges on trust, says Waring. The dinner scene intrigues her because informants rarely introduce agents to their parents; they usually keep those links out of sight. The fact that Flemmi had no qualms about introducing his family to the feds should have told the FBI supervisor that something was wrong in Connolly’s relationship with his informants. Informants usually violate the trust of the groups they belong to, but in this case it was Connolly who violated the FBI’s trust.

Nikos Passas, a criminologist at Temple University, also studies criminal networks, but he disagrees that trust is key. Fear, he says, can grease the gears just as well: If you fear someone will carry out threats against you, who needs trust? Passas agrees that the corporate model was outdated, but notes that it was itself a reaction against the “alien conspiracy” theory, which blamed organized crime on foreigners.

The Connolly case also shows the value of information when a crime network goes bad, says Waring. Usually control of network dynamics—and the ability to avoid punishment—rests with either the linchpin who brings people together or with the manager who can give an overview of the operation. Connolly, the linchpin, held the upper hand. But it was his former boss who informed on Connolly in exchange for immunity. Basically, Connolly lost his leverage for freedom because he was too loyal to Winter Hill.

Some see the Connolly mess as part of a larger pattern of FBI misbehavior—an agency culture of co-offending. How to change that? Waring’s suggestions for breaking the network ties mesh with measures that Attorney General Reno approved just before she left office: shorter time limits on informants’ missions, more staff rotations, and a more diverse staff (the agency now actively recruits women and minorities). After 9-11 the FBI recalibrated its priorities but kept its secrets. Last spring, the Justice Department refused to give Congress documents about the New England Mafia case, with the Bush administration invoking executive privilege. Only when Representative Dan Burton threatened to hold the president in contempt did the department finally release the records.

Critics say that when you’re always looking for networks, you see them everywhere. Marcus Felson, professor of criminal justice at Rutgers, prefers to focus on where criminals gather to commit crimes rather than who gathers. Still, Waring’s approach can telescope from an adulterer’s murder to a federal agency’s misconduct, and shows you don’t need to imagine a conspiracy to withhold FBI documents. What looks like a conspiracy could just be embarrassment over a co-worker’s dirty laundry.

“Sometimes you cover up just to avoid looking bad,” says Waring.