Ex-FBI agent Paul Rico dies in a Tulsa hospital
Saturday, January 17th 2004, 12:00 am
News On 6
TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ A retired FBI agent accused of helping his former mob informants arrange the murder of a Tulsa businessman died a week after he was extradited to Oklahoma to face charges, a hospital spokeswoman said Saturday.
H. Paul Rico, 78, died late Friday, a few hours after a Tulsa County judge put the murder case on hold pending a psychological evaluation to determine if Rico was competent to stand trial.
The cause of Rico's death was not immediately released. He had been hospitalized since Wednesday.
His family said he had congestive heart failure and had lost 53 pounds since his arrest Oct. 9 in Florida, where he had been living.
Rico was accused of helping arrange the 1981 murder of Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler, chairman of Telex Corp. and owner of World Jai Alai in Florida, where Rico worked as security chief after leaving the FBI.
Investigators say Wheeler had suspected that Boston gangsters were skimming money from World Jai Alai. He died after he was shot in the head at Tulsa's Southern Hills Country Club following a round of golf.
U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, who took over mob prosecutions in Massachusetts in 2000, said he felt sympathy for the Wheeler family and others in Oklahoma affected by the murder.
``They've waited a long time to have all the evidence come out,'' he said.
Rico had a storied FBI career, spending 24 years working on organized crime cases in Boston and, later, Miami. In Boston, members of the Winter Hill Gang had been informants for Rico.
Rico ``was one of the maestros of the informant system in Boston. He devised the system where you play informants off each other, and you protect one at the expense of the other,'' said Gerard O'Neill, co-author of ``Black Mass,'' a book chronicling the Boston FBI's relationship with the leaders of the Irish mob, who were FBI informants on the Italian Mafia.
Rico's reputation was tarnished when he was accused of allowing innocent men to spend decades in prison for a 1960s gangland slaying, rather than give up his mobster informants. In 2001, a defiant Rico denied wrongdoing before a congressional committee investigating the FBI's use of criminal informants.
After U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., accused Rico of feeling no remorse for his role in the conviction of four innocent men in the killing of Edward ``Teddy'' Deegan, Rico replied, ``What do you want, tears?''
Murder charges were filed in March 2001 in Tulsa County against Winter Hill Gang members James ``Whitey'' Bulger, Stephen ``The Rifleman'' Flemmi and John Martorano.
Martorano pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 15-year prison term for carrying out the hit on Wheeler. Flemmi pleaded guilty in October to racketeering charges related to 10 murders, including Wheeler's, and awaits sentencing Jan. 27. Flemmi implicated Rico in connection with Wheeler's death.
Bulger remains at large since being tipped off to a pending indictment in 1995.
During his arraignment Wednesday, conducted by video feed from the Tulsa County jail, Rico sat in a wheelchair and occasionally moaned but said nothing. His attorney, Garvin Isaacs, at one point interrupted the judge, saying: ``I am telling you this man is sick, extremely sick.'' He requested an emergency medical furlough, saying his client was ailing and needed help; the judge ordered the psychological evaluation.
Isaacs said during that hearing that Rico, who had a pacemaker, was disoriented after being beaten Dec. 5 by an unknown assailant in the Miami-Dade County Jail, but that he had recovered his mental competency and ``wants a jury trial to clear his name.''
Tulsa County prosecutors had questioned the assault allegation, saying an improper dose of medication may have been responsible for bruising on Rico's body.
Tulsa Police Sgt. Mike Huff, who had investigated Wheeler's murder from the beginning, said he knew nothing about the alleged assault but any findings by the medical examiner of a suspicious death would be forwarded to Miami-Dade authorities. Rico was under guard at the time he died, Huff said.
``It's unfortunate for people to not get to hear this story and come to their own decisions and conclusions about what happened,'' Huff said.