DA says he needed Flemmi to go after ex-FBI agent in Tulsa murder

Wednesday, October 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Cutting a deal with a mob informant gave prosecutors what the hitman in the murder of a Tulsa businessman did not _ convincing evidence to use in court against an ex-FBI agent, District Attorney Tim Harris said Tuesday.

The plea deal with Stephen ``The Rifleman'' Flemmi allowed prosecutors to charge former FBI Agent H. Paul Rico last week in the murder of Roger Wheeler, Harris said.

Flemmi told authorities he had a phone conversation in May 1981 in which Rico confirmed that he and others wanted Wheeler killed, according to an affidavit unsealed Tuesday.

Rico allegedly helped provide personal information about Wheeler to hitman John Martorano, who shot the chairman of Tulsa-based Telex Corp. May 27, 1981, after Wheeler finished a golf game at Southern Hills Country Club.

``It was not until we received this new evidence that I was convinced in my heart that I, in good faith, could present this to a judge and ultimately a jury,'' Harris said.

Along with Flemmi, Martorano and Rico, fugitive Boston-based White Hill Gang leader James ``Whitey'' Bulger is charged in the case. Harris said the investigation continues.

He hoped to return Rico, 78, to Tulsa in 10 days to face murder and conspiracy charges. A decision on whether to seek the death penalty would come after a preliminary hearing, Harris said.

Rico was arrested last week in Florida, and his extradition hearing has been postponed until Friday. Harris said he would fight any effort to allow Rico out on bond.

If Rico fights extradition, prosecutors would have a 90-day window to file paperwork through the governors of both states seeking his move to Oklahoma.

Flemmi pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering charges that implicated him in 10 murders, including the death of Wheeler. The plea deal calls for him to serve life in a federal prison.

In exchange for Flemmi's cooperation in the Wheeler case, Harris said he made ``a measured and calculated decision'' to drop his bid for the death penalty against Flemmi. Florida prosecutors also agreed to remove the death penalty in another mob killing in which Flemmi was charged.

Investigators say Wheeler's slaying was linked to his purchase of Florida-based World Jai Alai and his suspicion that Flemmi and Bulger were skimming money from the company. At the time, Rico was retired from the FBI and the head of security for World Jai Alai.

Martorano admitted pulling the trigger and is awaiting sentencing.

Flemmi told investigators he and Martorano met with Rico in Miami more than a year after Wheeler's killing to discuss money they were promised in the murder. But Flemmi said Rico told him no money was available because a planned purchase of World Jai Alai never happened.

Wheeler's son, David Wheeler, said the fact the trail led to an ex-FBI agent would have been ``something beyond my father's comprehension.'' He called Rico's arrest a milestone in a 22-year quest for justice that had torn his family apart.

``People worked very hard trying to make me out as _ well, to put it lightly _ a fool, misguided, a misfit,'' David Wheeler said. ``Rico was part of that.''

He credited the original police detective on the case, Sgt. Mike Huff, who persisted despite efforts early on by federal authorities to thwart the investigation. Huff had suspected Rico's involvement since 1982.

David Wheeler called Rico's arrest ``a moment when the city of Tulsa stood up and said, `We don't care if you all have more power or have the authority, you're not going to come to this town and kill our citizens.'''

He also urged the government, in light of the FBI's history in the case, to turn over the search for Bulger to federal marshals.