The colonel and the mobster

Clearwater -

Last summer, Tom Foley sat in the witness stand in Boston federal court for two grueling days as a major prosecution witness at the two-month trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, the man who ruled south Boston’s ruthless Winter Hill Gang and then evaded capture for 16 years even after reaching the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Foley peered across the courtroom into the stoic face of the 83-year-old Bulger. The once muscular, fierce and merciless murderer now appeared as a slump-shouldered, haggard old man. Bulger would ultimately be convicted of 11 murders and 31 other offenses – even that a tiny fraction of the actual crimes he’s suspected of committing during a lifetime of violent crime.

Foley, retired since 2004 when he was a colonel and the highest-ranking officer in the Massachusetts State Police (MSP), met me Foley last week for lunch because the intersection of his career and that of Bulger is intriguing, particularly since both have ties to Clearwater. But to appreciate Foley’s career as an investigator, one must first understand the magnitude of his nemesis, Whitey Bulger.

Bulger is a complicated man with a twisted life who rose from a street fighter and bookmaker — even doing time in the late 1950s at Alcatraz and Leavenworth prisons — to killing his way to the top of a vicious Irish gang before going into hiding in late December 1994. His criminal empire accumulated millions of dollars by shaking down legitimate businesses as well as criminals in exchange for being granted the permission to deal drugs and engage in loan sharking, gambling and other illegal operations in the Boston area. If you didn’t pay up, you often paid with your life.

As if Bulger’s stature as a feared organized crime kingpin wasn’t enough, he also had two brothers of influence: One became president of the Massachusetts state senate and the other a court clerk magistrate.

But Bulger had a bigger ace up his sleeve for staying one step ahead of the law: He was an FBI informant.

Worse yet, then-FBI agent John Connolly served as Bulger’s main handler beginning in 1975 and tipped him off about impending investigations – even disclosing identities of police informants – in exchange for largely lackluster information about the Patriarca crime family operations in north Boston.

This unholy alliance aided Bulger in maintaining a stranglehold over local crime figures while thwarting investigations by the MSP, the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as derailing federal prosecutors. Even the MSP had an inside source feeding information to Bulger’s gang, and Boston police officers on the take did the same.

With the FBI serving as Bulger’s pawn – even Connolly’s boss at the FBI, John Morris, sanctioned the betrayal – it’s little wonder that Bulger got away with murder, extortion, money laundering and a long list of other crimes for over two decades. And while some of the conspirators who obstructed justice, including Connolly, were later convicted, it’s plain to see how the efforts of legit, hard-working investigators like Foley to put Bulger behind bars were stymied at every turn.

Through it all, the murders continued unabated; lives were ruined; families were torn apart; distrust in law enforcement prevailed. Adding to that frustration is the fact that many of those complicit in aiding and abetting Bulger walked away scot-free.

Shortly before Bulger and other gang members were indicted in January 1995 by a joint task force that didn’t include the FBI – by then everyone knew the agency had been compromised – Connolly still got the word to Bulger that he was about to get arrested. Bulger went on the lam, evading capture for 16 years.

Foley’s rendezvous with Bulger and organized crime began as a youngster in Worcester, Mass. The son of a firefighter, Foley’s heritage included a fervent desire to help others through public service. He obtained a degree in criminology and thereafter cut his teeth as a penitentiary guard. Each day on the job keyed his sensitivity to the thug mentality and the survival necessity of teamwork – traits that would prove invaluable when later joining the MSP.

After spending four years as an MSP trooper, Foley’s boss asked him to join the new Intelligence Unit formed to investigate organized crime. Foley’s admiration of the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover grew as he collaborated with them on investigations unrelated to Bulger. Through hard work and taking on tough cases, Foley rose through the ranks to become Deputy Division Commander of Investigative Services and later overall Superintendent.

MSP Detective Lieutenant Steve Johnson worked for Foley during the Bulger investigations and described a key component of Foley’s success.

“You can find lots of good investigators all over law enforcement, but what you rarely encounter is a great case manager who can make tough strategic decisions,” he said. “I had many arguments with Tommy about strategy, but his decision proved to be the correct one every time.

“I don’t think anyone else in law enforcement could have accomplished the very complicated and politically sensitive Bulger case better than him,” said Johnson. “At one point a new directive requested that top department administrators go back into uniform, and Tommy stepped forward to do that so I could continue on the Bulger case. It reveals just what a very self-sacrificing guy he is.”

Foley and his wife began visiting the Clearwater area in the early 1990s and have owned a condo here since his retirement from the MSP in 2004. Unbeknownst to Foley, Bulger bought a condo in 1993 at Bayside Gardens II on Sand Key. The hunter and the hunted were both undoubtedly in Clearwater at the same time on occasion. After Bulger fled Boston, he drove to Clearwater and obtained cash and fake ID from a safe deposit box at a local Barnett Bank.

The FBI finally did catch up to Bulger in June 2011 by tracing his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, to an apartment complex in Santa Monica, Calif. He’s serving two life sentences plus five years, meaning he’ll die in prison.

Foley co-authored a book, “Most Wanted: Pursuing Whitey Bulger, the Murderous Mob Chief the FBI Secretly Protected,” that was published last May.

Now in his late 50s and staying in shape with rounds of golf and beach walks with his wife, the ex-lawman is understandably pleased that Bulger is finally behind bars.

“They’re about to make a movie based on Bulger, and I hope they don’t sensationalize him,” said Foley in his distinctive New England accent. “He’s in reality a sadistic sicko who enjoyed killing people – he should be recognized as evil and depraved rather than some sort of Robin Hood.”

With the U.S. Attorney’s Office relegated to the role of the FBI’s puppet during Bulger’s reign of terror and the Boston FBI itself under Bulger’s thumb, it’s obvious that the betrayals could not have occurred without the complicity of the top people in the Department of Justice. Even FBI turncoat John Connolly’s boyhood ties and friendship with Bulger were well known from the outset.

How does the whole putrid affair with the FBI-Bulger mishandling in Boston sit with Tom Foley these days?

“I’m a big supporter of the FBI, but there needs to be a change of culture in law enforcement agencies everywhere with informant control,” he said. “You can’t have the bad guys calling the shots instead of investigators, otherwise what happened with the Whitey Bulger case can happen again.”

To be great, and to do great things, is not given to many men. Thank goodness for honest cops like Tom Foley who have the integrity to withstand the pressure to take the easy way out by looking the other way. It just goes to show that not all of the good guys go bad.

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