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Robert Kirkpatrick & Jon Land – Betrayal – Interview
Robert Kirkpatrick is the FBI agent who, as the title of his book Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down states, fought to bring down the criminal boss and murderer, Whitey Bulger. Robert was also the FBI agent who supervised the ABSCAM sting operation that got several targets, including Senator Harrison Williams, to implicate themselves on tape.
Jon Land, who cowrote the book with Robert, is a well-known bestselling thriller author. He’s written many great thrillers, though he might be best known as the author of the fifth generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series of novels.
Together, they have crafted a superb True Crime book that reads with the page-turning style of a thriller novel. I am proud and honored that they have both agreed to do this interview with me. It’s not often that a person gets the chance to interview both an American hero and one of the best thriller authors at the same time. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I did conducting it, if not more!
Douglas R. Cobb: Robert, Jon, it’s great to be interviewing both of you! Jon, if you don’t mind, first I’ll ask Robert a few questions, then get to ones you both can answer.
Robert, in the book you mention some details about your experiences growing up that led to your choosing law enforcement as your career. For our readers, could you please tell us what those influences were?
Robert Fitzpatrick: Well, I grew up in an orphanage called Mount Loretto on Staten Island and one of the nuns would play her radio loud enough for us to listen at night. My favorite show was This is Your FBI and from the first time I heard it, becoming an FBI agent became my dream. Every time we played cops and robbers, I was the FBI agent. Now the home could be a pretty cruel place, especially the counselors who seemed to relish their brutality. Once, to smoke out a suspected snitch, they had us little boys hang from the steam pipes that pumped heat into these old buildings in the winter. Fall and you got beaten up. They were bullies; they had the power and they used it. As much as anything, I think I joined the FBI to give bullies like those counselors what was coming to them. And now that I think of it Whitey Bulger was really no different at the core.
ABSCAM is one of the most famous undercover sting operations in the history of the United States. I remember it, but many of our readers might not, or weren’t even born then. Could you please get into what it was about, and why there were so many government officials, like Senator Williams, involved in it? In your
opinion, was Oliver North a fall guy?
ABSCAM started out as a Group I Undercover Operation to sting art crooks who were stealing paintings from museums and art stores in Miami. I obtained an undercover boat from Customs, a US government agency involved in gun running and drugs. For giving a Hostage Negotiation lecture to Customs they signed over a 65 foot Choi Lee, a multimillion dollar luxury boat. We refitted the boat to look like a ‘drug boat’ and parked it in the Baja Rio boat slip. The word got out and the sting took over. Every thief, it seemed, was unloading stolen objects to include gold, precious jewels, art and other luxury items stolen by various groups. It got so big we had a top informant join our group. He brought in stolen paper instruments like certificates of deposit (CDs), letters of credit, phony bank notes, etc. In a short period of time we had recovered over one million dollars in stolen or phony money instruments. Soon, the word spread and politicians from New Jersey, New York and other states were involved in political corruption. The biggest of these was Senator Harrison Williams from New Jersey who was trying to sell illegal immigrant ‘green’ cards. My boat was rigged for wire and sound and photographic surveillance cameras. Senator Williams was convicted on his own corruption to sell the green cards. He was convicted in Federal Court and sent to prison.
What first brought to your attention the Winter Hill Gang, and its leader, Whitey Bulger? How/why did he get away with his various criminal activities for so long, with the knowledge of the Massachusetts Police Department and the FBI that he was a crime boss?
The Winter Hill gang was part of my management in handling non-traditional organized crime violations. Howie Winter was convicted on drug charges and Whitey took over as the titular head of WHO (Winter Hill Organization). I advised FBIHQ that as the head of WHO, Whitey might be seen as taking direction from the FBI. His status as a FBI informant was a closely guarded secret and became an alleged ‘cover’ to hide his informant status. I interviewed him as soon as I was living in Boston upon transfer from FBIHQ. I tried to shut him down as an informant because he was untrustworthy and refused to tell the FBI about wiseguys and other criminals seeking criminal ventures in the illegal enterprise. The Massachusetts State Police complained to the FBI about Bulger and his sidekick, Flemmi AKA the rifleman. During my tenure I tried to put Whitey in jail for murder but was stymied by inside and outside prosecutive protection.
Why did certain members of the FBI place a greater importance on prosecuting the Italian mob in Boston, compared to the Irish mob, and how did that lead up to a hit being placed on the bookie Richie Castucci?
The importance of the Mafia takedown was a FBI priority and Whitey by FBIHQ standards was the informant who allegedly would give information for the takedown. He did not give substantial information leading to the takedown. In fact, my information was that he was lying, withholding information and warning other criminals. Those who got in his way, like Castucci, were murdered based upon leaked FBI information. In other words, the FBI informant Bulger was killing other FBI informants leaked to him by FBI agents. Castucci literally never knew what hit him. The Hitman John Martorano, a pal of Castucci, was shot in the back of his head while believing he was helping Bulger. Other informants killed experienced the same deception.
Now, I’ll ask you questions either/both of you can answer. What was the experience like working on the book about Whitey Bulger together? Jon, had you ever collaborated with someone else before?
Robert Fitzpatrick: It was a pleasure working with Jon. My experience translated into great stories and Jon’s writing ability helped immensely with ‘narrative’. I was a government-like writer and found it difficult to express myself in the manner of professional writers. This was a first for both of us. And, a really enjoyable one.
Jon Land: The short answer is, no, I’ve never collaborated on a book with someone else. As a fiction writer, I’ve always seen the process as intensely solitary and personal. But branching out into nonfiction forced me to readjust my thinking as well as my creative process. The experience overall was extremely positive because Bob Fitzpatrick is such an easy guy to work with. The tougher part was fashioning his experiences into a structured narrative; since I’d never done it before it was kind of like on the job training and the result was far more drafts than what I’m used to. That said, each draft was substantially better than the last one and I really believe the final product is off the charts and couldn’t be prouder by what we accomplished together.
Who thought up the idea of you both writing Betrayal together? Also, whose experience of ”betrayal” inspired the title?
Jon Land: Let me answer the second question first because it’s one of the best ones I’ve been asked so far. The simple answer, of course, is to say it was Bob Fitzpatrick who was betrayed and, make no mistake about it, he was. His values, his dedication, his work ethic, his devotion to the FBI during a storied career all ended up getting kicked to the curb. To even consider the Bureau capable of siding with a murderous thug like Bulger over Fitz is simply mind-boggling. But the Bureau had become prisoner of their misplaced mantra to get the Italian mob at all costs. And in that sense they betrayed us, they betrayed the entire country for not safeguarding our interests above all else. Leaving Bulger out there for so long, allowing him to act unimpeded, was a violation of the sacred trust the FBI maintains with the public at large. And let’s not forget that Bulger allegedly killed at least, at least, a dozen people after Bob Fitz recommended he be closed as an informant and arrested. In that sense the FBI betrayed itself and that’s where another layer of the whole tragic episode lies.
As far as who thought up the idea of us working together, some mutual friends found out Bob was writing a book and suggested we meet. I knew five minutes into that meeting I wanted to be a part of this and that we’d make a great team.
What was the writing process like? For instance, did you both write the book in the same room together, or did you, Robert, email maybe a chapter to Jon and have him look it over and possibly “punch it up” some, or what? Also, approximately how long did it take you both to write it?
Jon Land: Fortunately for me, Bob had already written a bunch of chapters. They weren’t publishable as written, but there was enough there to give me both an education on the subject and a base on which to build. Once I revised his work, or supplemented it with additional research and coverage, he reviewed my writing in detail, making the appropriate changes and suggestions. In that respect, this was a true collaboration. We are represented together on every single page.
Who is Stephen Flemmi, and what part did he play in Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang?
Robert Fitzpatrick: Flemmi was both Bulger’s right-hand man and, somewhat, his partner. They shared the dubious distinction of both being informants who provided no actionable intelligence whatsoever in my mind. So often when this whole era comes up, “Bulger and Flemmi” are referred to without distinction since their partnership, and the results of that partnership, came to define the entire era. Flemmi had a much longer crime pedigree than Bulger since both his brother and father were wiseguys, in some ways even worse than him. Flemmi was actually cut loose as an informant years before Bulger went missing but that’s a little known fact.
How/why did Whitey Bulger disappear so successfully in 1994? What lead up to his eventual capture just this past June in Santa Monica, California? How did he manage to elude capture for so long?
Robert Fitzpatrick: Bulger might have been a sociopath and murderer, but he also had a Machiavellian streak about him. He understood power well enough to know that his reign would end someday and, as that time drew closer, that his days were numbered. I think he’d been preparing to flee for as long as a decade, resigned to the inevitability of it. As far as how he evaded capture for so long, well, he’s also a chameleon, capable of blending in at a moment’s notice. And let’s not forget he was in his sixties when he disappeared and people of that age normally don’t draw the second glance it takes to recognize them as a criminal kingpin.
Finally, Robert, do you now feel a sense of vindication that Bulger is in custody? Also, do you know if the FBI has changed the way it works, so that an individual agent’s sense of his reputation or the importance of so-called priorities doesn’t still get in the way of persecuting criminals? Do you think you might both have the chance to work together in the future on another book?
Robert Fitzpatrick: A sense of vindication because Bulger is in custody? Somewhat, but not nearly as much as I did in the trials, especially the McIntyre Trial in which my testimony proved critical to the outcome, where the government, and thus FBI, was found liable for the crimes committed by the criminals they were protecting. This is what I was saying as far back as 1981, but no one was listening. From that point until Bulger’s disappearance, Whitey allegedly killed more than a dozen people—that’s after I recommended he be closed as an informant and targeted. Do I think the FBI has changed the way it works? There’s no simple answer to that. First off, I continue to believe what I always believed: that the FBI remains the greatest crime fighting organization in the world. That said, I also believe the same mentality that allowed the Bulger debacle to happen was behind the false targeting of Richard Jewel in the Olympic bombing, the failure to act on field agents’ reports in the months leading up to 9/11, and apparently targeting the wrong man in the Anthrax investigation. The same culture that allowed Boston to be in the 1980s was behind these as well.
Jon Land: Let me go at the first part of your question a different way. The first time I met Bob, I felt strongly about two things about his story: that it was without question a bestseller and that, unlike most true-life tales, it had a beginning, a middle and an end. And his vindication forms that end. Here you have someone who grew up in an orphanage with a dream to become an FBI agent, realized that dream, and then watched it turn into a nightmare. That’s a great story in itself but what makes it truly special and gripping is the fact it didn’t end there. The fact that even before Bulger was found everything Fitz had been saying all along was proven to be the truth in court, in large part because of his testimony in cases like the one the family of murdered informant John McIntyre brought against the Bureau for being complicit in his killing. Life seldom offers the kind of symmetry and balance you find in a novel but this is one of those cases where it does and I think, to a large extent, that’s why people are responding so strongly, and positively, to Betrayal.
Thanks, Robert & Jon, for doing this interview with me! Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down is a fascinating True Crime account of the efforts of a person whom I consider to be a true American hero (Robert Fitzpatrick) in bringing to justice one of America’s most notorious criminal gang leaders, Whitey Bulger. Check out their book, if you’re a True Crime fan–and right here on BSC you can find my review of it.