U.S. News

08.13.13

Hey, Whitey Bulger: They Tried to Make Me Snitch, Too

The Boston mobster was found guilty, but the seedy relationship between cops and informants lives on. Mansfield Frazier on what it looks like from the inside.

After the guilty verdicts were delivered in the trial of Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, Michael D. Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who investigated some aspects of Mr. Bulger’s activities, called it “the worst case of corruption in the history of the FBI. It was a multigenerational, systematic alliance with organized crime, where the FBI was actively participating in the murders of government witnesses, or at least allowing them to occur.”

In street parlance Bulger, had a “license” to commit crimes, and it allegedly was granted to him by law enforcement. And anyone who thinks Bulger was the only criminal in America given such tacit permission to break the law should disabuse themselves of the notion. It still goes on today.

The theory behind cooperation between cops and robbers is simple: Without snitches providing information, police couldn’t find their own asses with both hands. So law enforcement routinely gets in bed with criminals—supposedly to catch other criminals. While this practice might sound logical on paper, how it plays out in the real world is another matter.

During my almost three decades as a counterfeiter and all-round ne’er-do-well, I was arrested 15 times on felony charges and convicted and sent to prison five times. And in virtually every instance I was offered a chance to “help myself” by providing information to authorities—which is a reasonable tool of law enforcement.

But this is where it gets ugly.

By way of example, once, when I was busted in my hometown of Cleveland (where I rarely plied my nefarious trade), instead of being asked who my co-conspirators were—or which gold dealers and jewelers knowingly allowed me to repeatedly use bogus credit cards to purchase bullion…these were known as “juice shots,” where there was absolutely no risk involved in the transaction—the cops instead asked me if I could provide them with information in regards to a well-known black politician whose hot rhetoric via a radio show he hosted made him an acute thorn in the side of the establishment.

There are more than a few federal agents wearing a Rolex that was seized from me.

Again, nothing wrong with asking, but when I replied that I’d only met the man on one occasion and knew nothing about him, one of the officers questioning me left the room and the other then proceeded to inform me that I really didn’t have to know anything truthful…as long as I could make something up that a jury would believe. I was being suborned to commit perjury, and this happens more times than anyone outside of law enforcement or the criminal underworld might imagine.

The problem, at its core, is, in part, how policing is carried out in America. Promotions, commendations, and medals are not given out based on how much crime is prevented, but on how many criminals are caught. Add into the mix laws on forfeiture and seizure of assets, and the brew can, and often does, become toxic. Lines easily become blurred as a mentality of “burning down the village to save it” often pervades law enforcement efforts and supplants sound, legal policy.

In his brutally honest book False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent, former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro (who, by the way is a Republican, and a former county prosecutor) details how law enforcement often plays dirty tricks with the truth. One glaring example is when police feel they have the right suspect in custody for a major crime like murder, but don’t have the evidence to prove a case. They will often put a paid snitch in the cell with the person, and in a day or so their “confidential informant” exits the cell telling them just what they want to hear: The target confessed.

And the scary part of American justice is that these snitches are then put on the witness stand, and no one seems to questions why a person whose freedom (or in some cases even their life) hangs in the balance would confess to a person they met only the day before. And everyone in law enforcement, from the police, to the prosecutor, to the judge, manages to keep a straight face during the proceedings.

Granted, most law enforcement officials in America are straight arrows, but with that said, there’s more than a few federal agents walking around with a Rolex on their arm that was seized from me during an arrest but never showed up on my property list when I was booked.

In my case I was somewhat fortunate due to the type of criminal activity I was involved in. It took relatively sophisticated equipment to make counterfeit credit cards, so I was always able to broker a lighter sentence by having someone drop off the tools of my trade. Agents knew that taking such equipment off the streets actually earned them more brownie points than simply arresting me and sending me off to federal prison. Again, a bargain fairly struck.

While few in law enforcement would engage in the murderous type of activities that is being alleged in the Bulger case, drug dealers are routinely allowed back on the streets and allowed to sell more drugs if they are cooperating as snitches. And most mid- and high-level drug dealers would tell anyone willing to listen that quite often the amount of drugs or money displayed on the table when agents go in front of the TV cameras to take credit for making Americans safer is lower than the amount seized from them.

While Attorney General Eric Holder would never acknowledge the fact, part of the reason he is proposing a scaling back of the war on drugs has to do, in part, with the corrupting effect the war has had on law enforcement at various levels.