Confidential informants give law enforcement and intelligence agencies insight into notoriously impenetrable organizations. But what is the cost of that access? In "Deal with the Devil: The FBI's Secret Thirty-Year Relationship with a Mafia Killer," investigative reporter and former ABC correspondent Peter Lance exposes the questionable alliance between the bureau and Gregory Scarpa Sr., dubbed the "Grim Reaper."
Using thousands of pages of previously secret law enforcement documents, Lance exposes the extent of Scarpa's crimes and the FBI's protection of him. Lance recently spoke to U.S. News about Scarpa's career, why the bureau protected both Scarpa and his FBI handler, and the consequences of that relationship. Excerpts:
How bad was this character, Gregory Scarpa Sr.?
He was the most vicious killer in the history of La Cosa Nostra [the Mafia]. I'll give you a quick rap sheet on him. He had a $70,000-a-week drug operation; he was the largest trafficker of stolen credit cards in the New York tri-state area. He had an international auto theft ring. He had about $2.5 million on the street as a loan shark. He had a bank robbery crew that would steal up to $13 million on a given weekend, and he was an epic hijacker. He stole like 1,000 cases of Cutty Sark [whisky]; he stole gold bullion and precious jewels. He trafficked negotiable bonds with half-million-dollar face values. He counterfeited stocks certificates. So he was a Medellin cartel-level earner, and he told his killing partner Larry Mazza that he stopped counting after 50 murders.
Did he serve time in prison?
No, he did 30 days in over 40 years of murder and racketeering, largely because he was protected by the [FBI]. As early as 1960 he was opened as an informant and then briefly closed, and then by 1962, a year and half before [Mafioso turncoat] Joe Valachi sang to the [McClellan Committee Senate hearings on organized crime], Scarpa was opened as a top-echelon criminal informant, and all of his debriefing memos went directly to [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover and every director up to Louis Freeh, who came in when Scarpa was closed. So the brass in Washington had some idea of who he was, but they had no idea, frankly, of how hyperviolent he was. I documented 26 separate homicides from 1980 to 1992.
Was the information the FBI got from Scarpa worth keeping him on the streets?
Well, that's the argument of [former FBI agent] Lindley DeVecchio, Scarpa's last contacting agent. In his book "We're Going to Win This Thing," DeVecchio calls it the championship season because Scarpa did provide much of the probable cause for the Title III wiretaps, which resulted in the conviction of Carmine Persico from the Colombos, Tony Corallo of the Lucchese family, and Tony Salerno of the Genovese family. So the feds would argue that the deal with the devil was worth it. When you consider the entirety of murder and mayhem – the number of people he killed and the amount of money he made (in fact, I calculated he was paid over $1 million in 2013 dollars in taxpayer money), the question is: Was it worth it? In my opinion, absolutely not. There's no doubt that Gregory Scarpa Sr., the killing machine, got the benefit of the deal with the devil.
Are there parallels between Scarpa and the Whitey Bulger case recently in the news?
Absolutely, although this is the Whitey Bulger story on steroids. Whitey was convicted a few weeks ago of 11 murders that were a result of intelligence leaked to him by John Connolly, his contacting agent. Connolly is doing life, and Bulger is going to do life. When [Scarpa's contact agent] DeVecchio was indicted for four counts of homicide in 2006, the feds went out of their way to protect him. The thought was if DeVecchio gets convicted, then those cases related to the Colombo [family] war, perhaps even the Mafia commission cases, will unravel. They protected him at all costs.
How common is it for the FBI to use informants who are violent criminals?
Brad Heath did a fantastic piece several weeks ago in USA Today, and he found out that there are currently more than 15,000 criminal informants working for the federal government across the country. And in one year, they were allowed to commit 5,658 crimes. There were attorney general guidelines that were set up years ago that say no confidential informant can commit more than a misdemeanor to protect their cover. Violent crimes are completely forbidden, and murder is absolutely off the table. And yet, I documented 26 separate homicides, so obviously these rules are being violated with impunity. And even today, we don't know how many of those 5,658 crimes were felonies. Because of secrecy, the public is in the dark.
What surprised you most in your research?
How brilliant Scarpa was. What a Machiavellian strategist he was, what a chess player. If he had gone straight, he would have been the CEO of a major corporation.
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