Image: John Connolly
Wilfredo Lee  /  AP file
John Connolly, shown in this Sept. 4 photo, was once a star agent in the Boston FBI office but is now on trial for murder and conspiracy.
updated 9/15/2008 3:01:17 PM ET 2008-09-15T19:01:17

Former FBI agent John Connolly made a corrupt career out of protecting Boston mobsters, including passing along critical information leading to the 1982 slaying of a gambling executive, a prosecutor said as Connolly's murder trial opened Monday.

A hit man for Boston's notorious Winter Hill Gang pulled the trigger that killed John Callahan, but Connolly was equally responsible, prosecutor Fred Wyshak told a jury.

"He gave sensitive information to gangsters, who used that information to protect themselves. And (they) used that information to kill people. One of those people was John Callahan," Wyshak said.

Callahan was a 45-year-old former president of Miami-based World Jai-Alai. His body was found Aug. 2, 1982, in the trunk of his silver Cadillac, parked at Miami International Airport. Admitted hit man John Martorano has pleaded guilty to shooting Callahan and will testify about Connolly's role in the killing, Wyshak said.

Connolly, 68, faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and murder conspiracy charges. The trial is likely to last two months.

Callahan was murdered, Wyshak said, because Winter Hill Gang leaders James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi feared he would tell authorities they were behind the 1981 killing of Tulsa, Okla. businessman Roger Wheeler in a dispute over the jai-alai business. Martorano has also confessed to shooting Wheeler.

Defense attorney Manuel Casabielle said the links are flimsy between Connolly and Callahan, a man he called "a brilliant accountant by day, a gangster wannabe by night." Bulger and his cohorts knew Callahan might talk, Casabielle said, and they made it a practice not to discuss killings with Connolly.

"They never, ever spoke of murder to any law enforcement officer in general, or Mr. Connolly in particular," he said.

Ex-agent already in prison
Connolly is already serving a 10-year sentence for a 2002 federal racketeering conviction stemming from his long association with Bulger, Flemmi and other mobsters. Both men were FBI informants about rival Italian Mafia organizations in Boston with Connolly as their handler — and Connolly was convicted of protecting them in turn.

Connolly had been particularly close to Whitey Bulger's politically powerful brother William Bulger, a former president of the Massachusetts state Senate. Later, Connolly associated frequently with Winter Hill Gang members, taking vacations with gang leaders and accepting about $250,000 from them, Wyshak said.

When he learned that Callahan was the target of investigators looking into the Wheeler murder, Connolly told his gangster friends that he had to be eliminated, Wyshak said.

Connolly said of Callahan, "'This guy is weak. He's not going to stand up,'" the prosecutor said. Martorano was chosen to kill Callahan because the two were close friends and he reluctantly agreed.

Numerous FBI agents who knew and worked with Connolly are expected to testify, along with Flemmi, Martorano and other Boston gangsters.

Whitey Bulger, now 79, is a fugitive on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list; he fled after being tipped in 1995 about an impending federal racketeering indictment. The others will testify that it was Bulger who told them about Connolly providing information leading to Callahan's murder.

Casabielle urged jurors to remember they won't hear testimony from Bulger.

"You will not be able to hear Mr. Bulger confirm that those statements were made," he said.

Martorano has confessed in court to 20 murders and served 14 years in prison after agreeing to cooperate in the Connolly case. Flemmi is serving life behind bars.

Casabielle accused prosecutors of trying to use the long, sordid history of the FBI and the Boston mobsters to convict Connolly of murder without enough evidence.

"It is not fair to take a bunch of mud and throw against an individual and hope some of it sticks," he said. "That is not justice."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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