Dogged detective's 22-year hunt leads to ex-FBI agent

Friday, October 17th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ The sun had yet to rise over Miami Shores, Fla., but the Oklahoma lawman at H. Paul Rico's front door wasn't going to wait any longer.

His mustache had gone salt-and-pepper in decades of pursuit. His marriage had buckled under the strain. The tangle of false leads, wrecked vacations and outside efforts to thwart the dogged midwestern cop had finally come undone.

It felt good _ after 22 years _ to interrupt the retired FBI agent's sleep with a knock.

``I'm Sgt. Mike Huff,'' the detective told Rico before informing him he was under arrest for the 1981 murder of Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler.

After years of pursuit, neither one needed the introduction.

If it hadn't been him, Huff says, some other Tulsa police detective would have trailed Wheeler's murder into the depths of the Boston underworld and its relationship with the FBI. He's the first to say he didn't do it alone.

Huff's tenacity, however, has stood out, even as mobsters and corruption stood in the way.

``Mike was a bulldog,'' said Robert Fitzpatrick, a former assistant chief of the FBI's Boston bureau. ``He never let this go.''

Tulsa Police Chief Dave Been believes Huff and the threat of Oklahoma's death row helped break mob kingpin Stephen ``The Rifleman'' Flemmi, who pleaded guilty last week in 10 murders, including that of Wheeler.

``Sgt. Huff just kept the pressure and kept the pressure,'' Been said. ``I think that's what made Flemmi roll over.''

Spared the possibility of lethal injection, Flemmi is cooperating with investigators and has told them Rico and others wanted Wheeler killed. A confessed triggerman said Rico, who denies any involvement in Wheeler's death, aided the hit by providing information about Wheeler.

On May 27, 1981, Huff was 25 and too energetic to be daunted when his supervisor told him, almost prophetically, that the investigation into that afternoon's murder likely would change everything he'd thought about police work.

``Damn, I wish I hadn't been on duty that day,'' Huff would say later in a gentle Tulsa twang after the case had consumed his life and those of his wife and children.

The kids in the pool at Southern Hills Country Club heard the shot from the parking lot that killed Wheeler, the 55-year-old chairman of Tulsa-based Telex Corp. and owner of Miami, Fla.-based World Jai Alai.

The investigation Huff led went cold at the start. Investigators eventually focused on Wheeler's suspicions that money was being skimmed from World Jai Alai. Rico, who retired from the FBI in 1975, was the company's chief of security.

In 1982, a member of Boston's Winter Hill Gang was gunned down after reportedly telling the FBI that he'd rejected an offer to kill Wheeler. Another person of interest to Huff, World Jai Alai executive John Callahan, was found dead in the trunk of a car.

``We were chasing leads all over the place,'' Huff said. ``We very naively thought that as far as the Jai Alai angle, the FBI would bring us into the loop.''

A year after Wheeler's murder, though, Huff's naivety was wearing off. He began to suspect Rico, who had cultivated Flemmi as an informant in 1965 when Rico was a rising star in the Boston FBI's war on the Mafia.

As the investigation went on, federal agents accused Huff of jumping to conclusions, he said. Tulsa detectives were led on wild goose chases when Boston FBI reports validated false leads, Huff later learned.

Former FBI Agent John Connolly was convicted last year of protecting gangster informants, including James ``Whitey'' Bulger, a fugitive since being tipped off to his pending indictment in 1995.

Huff delivered 60 pounds of documents in 1995 to East Coast authorities investigating the Winter Hill Gang, warning them they were ``stumbling into a load of corruption.''

Five years later, he named Flemmi, Bulger, confessed triggerman John Martorano and Rico in an affidavit in Tulsa County. District Attorney Tim Harris brought murder charges against all but Rico, wanting more evidence to take to court.

``When you see somebody who is clearly in your sights, it's very nagging,'' Huff said of his frustration. ``But in retrospect, the case (against Rico) is much better with Flemmi.''

Huff interrupted vacations to chase leads. He called Wheeler's son, David, sometimes in the wee morning hours. His dedication gave Wheeler's family hope that someone would eventually be brought to justice.

``He defines the word `relentless,' `` David Wheeler said.

Meanwhile, Huff led a homicide division in making arrests in more than 90 percent of Tulsa murder cases, a figure that compares with 62 percent nationwide.

Still, the stress of the unsolved Wheeler case wrapped tighter around him, and Huff's marriage fell apart.

When the 78-year-old Rico opened the door in his undershorts Oct. 9, Huff found the moment bittersweet.

``What I was really thinking,'' he said, ``was `Can I get past this and reclaim some normalcy?' ``

Rico and Huff, who'd met face to face many times over the years, exchanged words, but Huff won't say what they were.

Huff and the other investigators allowed Rico to dress, and his wife fixed him a light breakfast so he could take his medication. Then, they took him to jail.

Even with Flemmi's plea and Rico's arrest, the Wheeler murder investigation isn't over. Bulger remains at large, and the detective says without elaborating that Flemmi's confession ``has opened a can of worms.''

``It always comes down to the last man standing,'' said David Wheeler. ``Rest assured, Mike Huff will always be the last man standing.''