The best mob story ever told does not involve Al Capone or Bugsy Segal or John Gotti. It involves a mobster few American have ever heard of, Greg Scarpa by name, and his not quite as lethal son, Greg Scarpa Jr., “Junior” going forward.
One reason few people ever heard of Scarpa is that until his arrest in September 1992, he worked as a “Top Echelon Confidential Informant” under the protection of the FBI for the most of the thirty years prior. During that time, Scarpa murdered at least fifty people. Understandably, this is not a story not that the FBI wants told, but author Peter Lance has told it anyhow in his stunningly comprehensive new book, Deal With The Devil.
I have taken a particular interest in this story over the years because of the light it shines, improbably enough, on the destruction of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island in 1996, a subject about which I co-authored the 2003 book First Strike. More on this angle later.
The FBI protected Scarpa, a capo in the Colombo family, because he provided intelligence on New York’s five notorious La Cosa Nostra (LCN) families. Some of the intelligence was accurate. All of it was self-serving. As needed, Scarpa provided other services as well. In 1964, the FBI, under enormous pressure to solve the “MissBurn” case, sent Scarpa to the small Mississippi town of Philadelphia. His job was to interrogate one of the locals who knew what happened to three civil rights workers who had gone missing. The fellow would not talk to the FBI. Armed with a straight razor, Scarpa proved much more persuasive. FBI agents soon found the bodies, as the man told Scarpa they would, buried under an earthen dam. Although this part of the saga did not make the movie, Mississippi Burning, Lance makes a compelling case for its legitimacy. Nor was this the only time the FBI sent Scarpa to Mississippi.
In return for his services, the FBI kept Scarpa out of prison. At the heart of Lance’s book is the contention that the FBI, in the person of agent Lin DeVecchio, did much more, none of it justifiable. Lance argues that DeVecchio lost his moral balance and, at the very least, provided Scarpa with the kind of FBI intelligence that allowed Scarpa to target his enemies.
What has intrigued me most is the activity of New York City’s FBI office in the summer of 1996, the year TWA 800 was destroyed. In April of that year, the office’s assistant director, Jim Kallstrom, sent a memo to the head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, warning that the continued internal FBI investigation of DeVecchio would “have a serious negative impact on the government’s prosecution of various LCN figures.”
In July 1996, the case was still dragging on when Freeh assigned Kallstrom to head up the TWA Flight 800 investigation. For the first five weeks Kallstrom did a credible job before buckling under White House pressure on or about August 22. I have always wondered what combination of carrots and sticks the White House used to misdirect the investigation away from the obvious missile strike to a fully contrived mechanical failure.
Without making the connection directly, Lance suggests a possible carrot. In early September 1996, the Justice Department abruptly closed its thirty-one month long investigation and informed DeVecchio that a prosecution was “not warranted.” By mid-September 1996, Kallstrom had ended all talk of a bomb or missile and pushed through the administration’s “mechanical failure” narrative. Kallstrom would remain DeVecchio’s most prominent champion even during his criminal trial on the same charges.
As an FBI informant, Junior picked up where Scarpa senior left off. Awaiting trial in 1996 in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) on racketeering charges, Junior turned down a 17-year plea offer in the hope that he could finesse information out of a few of his fellow prisoners and trade it for a reduced sentence.
Incredibly, those prisoners included Ramzi Yousef, Abdul Hakim Murad, and Wali Khan Amin Shah Shah, all awaiting trial on what is known as the Bojinka plot, and Eyad Ismail, who was awaiting trial for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center along with Yousef. In January 1995, Yousef’s Manila apartment had caught fire just weeks before he and his co-conspirators were to unleash Bojinka, the plot to blow up a dozen American airliners over the Pacific. He was apprehended a month later.