At 78, Rico dies under guard: Former G-man was to be tried for murder
By J.M. Lawrence
Sunday, January 18, 2004
H. Paul Rico, the retired Boston FBI agent who created Stephen ``The Rifleman'' Flemmi's double life as an informant in 1965, died yesterday at a Tulsa Hospital while awaiting trial on charges he conspired with his ex-informants to commit murder.
Tulsa police said no cause of death has been determined for the 78-year-old Rico, a Belmont native, who died alone around 12:30 a.m. with jail guards outside his room, according to a source.
``It's not the closure desired or expected by law enforcement,'' Tulsa County District Attorney Timothy Harris said. ``But life holds different turns and I don't think anyone could have expected this.''
Police launched an investigation into Rico's death and were forced to retrieve his body from a funeral home yesterday. His body should have gone directly to the medical examiner's office, sources said.
A judge on Friday had put the case on hold until Rico faced a competency evaluation following reports he suffered an assault by other inmates in December in Miami and hallucinated visions of snakes.
Rico was accused of conspiring with Flemmi and James ``Whitey'' Bulger to kill World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler in 1981 in a bid to take over Wheeler's gambling frontons. Two other men connected to the case also were murdered by the mob in 1982.
``I'm about to join the grassy knoll club myself here,'' said Frank Libby, attorney for the Wheeler family, yesterday.
Libby speculated guilt killed Rico, though the ex-G-man entered a plea of innocence from his wheelchair on Tuesday in the Tulsa jail infirmary.
``You can't discount the notion the body is driven by the mind,'' Libby said. ``He and Roger Wheeler were just about same age in 1981. Wheeler gets grotesquely murdered and Rico goes on to enjoy another 23 years of life and then the long bony arm of justice grabs him. That's gotta do something to you.''
Hospital officials said Rico died of natural causes, but Tulsa police called the statement ``premature'' until an autospy is performed.
Rico's attorney, Garvin Issacs, and family members told a judge on Friday that Rico suffered from congestive heart failure and had lost 53 pounds since his October arrest but was lucid and eager to go to trial.
Issacs could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Former FBI colleagues of Ricoreacted to his death with anger and blamed Tulsa law enforcement for pursuing a case on the testimony of Flemmi and hitman John Martorano. Flemmi pleaded guilty to Wheeler's murder and nine other killings in October, while Martorano testified in 2002 that Rico gave him details about Wheeler's habits.
``It's an atrocity,'' said retired FBI agent Mike McPheters of Moses Lake, Wash., who last saw Rico days before his arrest at his Florida home. ``He was doing fine. This whole thing just precipitated his death. He had to die for something that no one knows he ever did.''
Tulsa officials dismissed a brotherhood of 25 retired FBI agents who wrote letters to the court on Rico's behalf as blind loyalists. ``They don't know what the case is,'' Harris said. ``They have a friend who was charged and it's valiant they stand by him.''
Sgt. Michael Huff, who began his investigation of the Wheeler case almost 23 years ago, said citizens deserve to hear all the evidence now.
``We wanted our day in court, too,'' Huff said. ``This wasn't a guy that had one bad day that he made a slip up and somebody wound up dead. This was something much more complicated. The conspiracy was much deeper.''
Harris declined comment on details of the murder case, citing Tulsa's outstanding warrant in the Wheeler murder for Bulger, the notorious FBI informant now on the Top 10 Most Wanted list and a fugitive since 1995.
Rico's death cancels a raft of subpoenas for testimony that could have shed more light on the Boston FBI's use of murderous informants and Rico's bond with Flemmi and Bulger after his 1975 retirement from the FBI, according to Huff.
``The axis of the story was Rico,'' Huff said. ``Rico's the one who tied everything together. He bridged the gap from the 1960s Boston gang wars through the Wheeler murder and beyond.''
During his FBI years, Rico won accolades for turning hitman Joseph ``The Animal'' Barboza against the Mafia, but then withheld exculpatory evidence, leading to wrongful convictions against four men for a 1965 mob murder. Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone spent three decades in prison before charges were dropped in 2001, while two others died in prison.
``He was not the only person who took part in cover-ups and the framing of innocent people,'' Salvati's attorney, Victor Garo, said. ``There is no doubt that many people feared what Paul Rico might have said if he ever became talkative.''