WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- In Santa Rosa, Calif., during the summer of 1970, Joe "The Animal" Barboza murdered small-time thug Clay Wilson, while under the protection of the federal witness protection program.
As this was the 26th murder committed by Barboza that the FBI knew about, two FBI agents and a U.S. Attorney were dispatched from Boston -- where Barboza had been a key witness in three major organized crime trials -- by the U.S. Attorney General to help with the Wilson murder trial. But the agents came to help with the defense.
Everyone involved admits it was an airtight case against Barboza -- at the time using the alias Joe Baron. The prosecutors had detailed witness statements and the testimony of a jailhouse informant that Barboza had admitted to the crime. The details of the murder supplied by the informant turned out to be completely accurate.
And with the help of character testimony and consultations from the federal agents -- FBI Special Agents H. Paul Rico and Dennis Condon and then-U.S. Attorney Edward F. Harrington -- for the defense, Barboza was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to five years to life for the murder. He was later paroled in just over three years and released from a minimum-security prison.
Adding to the debacle of sentencing a man to three years for his 26th murder, while the federal government actively assisted the defendant, investigators now suspect that much of his original testimony -- which earned him the loyalty of federal law enforcement -- was false and led to four innocent men being sentenced for a 1965 murder. Two men received the death penalty -- later commuted to life -- and died in prison. Two others served 30 and 34 years respectively before being released.
Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., of the House Government Reform Committee is convinced that not only did the FBI and federal prosecutors assist Barboza in his defense on the Wilson murder charges, but also knowingly allowed Barboza to falsely testify on several occasions and send men they knew were innocent to jail.
"Joe Barboza went on trial for murder in 1971," Burton said in a hearing last week. "Here you have a known mob hitman. The FBI believed that he'd already committed 26 murders. The evidence against Barboza in the 1971 trial was overwhelming. The detectives and even Barboza's own lawyer testified that it was a slam-dunk capital murder case. And the FBI pulled out all the stops to try to help get Joe Barboza off. They flew out to California They worked with the defense team. They testified on Barboza's behalf."
Over the course of two days of hearings, the committee heard testimony on the case against Barboza in the 1971 murder case from Martin Miller, the public defender for Barboza during the trial, Edwin Cameron, the Sonoma County District Attorney's office investigator who assisted in making the state's case, and Tim Brown, a detective with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.
On the second day of hearings, the committee called retired FBI agent H. Paul Rico and Edward Harrington, now senior federal district judge in Massachusetts. Rico refused to testify, citing his constitutional protection against self-incrimination. Harrington discussed the process by which the federal government decided to testify on behalf of a multiple murderer.
Rico and Condon are at the center of a Justice Department taskforce investigating a slew of allegations about the FBI's handling of informants in New England and California. Rico is also a target of an investigation into corruption at World Jai Lai, a company that he joined as head of security after his retirement from the FBI in the mid-1970s.
Cameron testified about the effect that Condon, Rico and Harrington's testimony on Barboza's behalf had on their case, which he claims forced them to offer the lenient plea bargain to Barboza.
"The FBI at the time was considered pretty sacrosanct," he said. "They had damaged our case to the point that we didn't think the jury would give us a first degree murder verdict," because "having the FBI there and the color of their authority painting him as honest and truthful."
Miller recalled the FBI agents and Harrington explaining their motivation for coming to the aid of Barboza, whose previous testimony had helped convict several topflight mobsters in New England -- including Raymond Patriarca, head of the New England crime empire.
"They were worried that if Barboza were given death (for the Wilson murder) that he'd recant his previous testimony (against Patriarca and others)," he said. "So they would help him in anyway they could."
"The better they treated informants in the witness protection program, the more people would join them," he added. "This they made perfectly clear to me at the time."
Brown testified that, ironically, the sheriff's office had requested help itself during the case from the FBI, because of information that the Mafia might be looking to kill Barboza and others in their county during the trial.
"We were told that people had been sent from the East Coast to Santa Rosa to kill our witnesses," he testified. "We sought help from the FBI, but no help ever came."
When federal law enforcement did arrive in California, the witnesses testified that they were all shaken to discover that they had come to help protect Barboza, not to convict him. Miller testified that the agents and Harrington actually met with his client before meeting with local law enforcement and insisted that the defense attorney not be present when they met with his client.
When asked by the committee if he found this unusual, he was clear that such behavior had never occurred before in a trial, but that he had been convinced that the agents were there to help him.
"I would have gone out of my mind (normally), but they seemed so intent on keeping him from the death penalty that I figured they wouldn't hurt (my case)," he said.
Harrington testified that his testimony came at the request of the U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell for three reasons: Barboza had been promised that his cooperation in the previous cases would be brought to the attention of judges during sentencing, that protecting Barboza would help develop the new witness protection program and because the government wanted to show potential informants that they would be protected in exchange for testimony.
Despite no evidence that the Wilson murder was in any way connected to Barboza's previous testimony as an informant, Harrington pushed his superiors to be allowed to testify -- along with Rico and Condon -- on Barboza's behalf. Prosecutors and even Barboza's own attorney had testified that Barboza killed Wilson to steal $250,000 worth of bonds and other valuables that Wilson himself had recently stolen.
In a Justice Department memo obtained by United Press International, Harrington urges his superiors to allow the testimony on the hitman's behalf.
"It is my judgment that the federal officials involved should respond to (Barboza's) subpoena as it is essential that the government fulfill its commitment to Baron to do all within its power to insure that he suffers no harm as a result of his cooperation with the federal government," the memo says.
Other Justice Department documents from the period that show the instructions given to the three men in regards to their testimony were released by the committee. In them, Mitchell grants permission to testify, under the condition that the testimony cannot reveal the identity or information of other informants, or any other information from Justice Department filed without expressed permission from the attorney general. The testimony was limited to warnings the FBI had given Barboza about Mafia efforts to kill him, and the arrest of two presumed Mafia figures from Boston, who traveled to the San Francisco area in January, 1970, presumably to kill Barboza. No mention of testifying to Barboza's honesty and character were made in the memos.
As the testimony unfolded, Burton accused the Justice Department of ignoring the threat Barboza posed as a killer and as an unreliable witness.
"Joe Barboza was a cold-blooded killer," he said. "They gave him a new identity. They put him in the middle of an unsuspecting community. They put him on the payroll. And he killed again. At that point they should have locked him up and thrown away the key. They did just the opposite. They did everything they could to get him back on the street. Joe Barboza was murdered himself in 1976. I have to wonder, if he hadn't been killed, how many murders would they have let him commit before the Justice Department decided to reign him in?"