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Coursey: When the Boston mob came to Santa Rosa

Before there was James "Whitey" Bulger, there was Joseph "The Animal" Barboza.

Or, as he was known when he lived and murdered in Santa Rosa, "Joe Bentley."

The conviction this week of mob boss Bulger completes an arc of more than 45 years of organized crime and law enforcement corruption in Boston, and reminds us of the short period when that city's woes were dumped into the bucolic lap of Sonoma County.

Barboza and Bulger were contemporaries, both earning their stripes as young thugs on the streets of Boston. Barboza worked for the Italian mob boss Raymond Patriarca. Bulger eventually ran the Irish mob that ruled South Boston – "Southie."

Bulger, now 83, was convicted earlier this week of 11 murders, based largely on the testimony of one of his oldest gang associates, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi. Both also were exposed as informants for the Boston FBI. And Bulger has claimed he couldn't be guilty of murder, because the FBI gave him, essentially, a "license to kill."

Barboza, who would be 80 now if he hadn't made so many enemies, pleaded guilty to the 1970 murder of Santa Rosan Clay Wilson. Barboza's plea deal, and brief stint of less than five years in prison, was aided and abetted by the agents of the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, who came to Santa Rosa to testify for the man who was their long-time informant and star witness in a case that sent four New England men to prison for life. Essentially, that testimony gave him a "license to kill."

The only problem was, Barboza the witness was a big a liar as Barboza the hoodlum. The four men convicted in the case had nothing to do with the murder of Edward "Teddy" Deegan. In fact, Barboza was a participant in that killing, along with Vincent "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi, younger brother of The Rifleman and – surprise – another one of the Boston FBI's roster of mob informants.

As valuable snitches, Barboza and the younger Flemmi were protected by the FBI – just like Bulger and the older Flemmi would be protected years later. In Bulger's case, he was warned by an FBI agent in 1994 that he was about to be indicted, and he skipped town and lived in hiding in California for 17 years before his 2011 arrest. In Barboza's case, the FBI allowed him to provide false testimony against other men in the Deegan murder, then they whisked him away to Sonoma County.

It may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But as the title of a 2004 congressional report on using killers as federal informants reminds us, "Everything Secret Degenerates." And just as the FBI's relationship with Bulger was revealed as a murderous disaster at his trial this summer in Boston, the FBI's relationship with Barboza more than 40 years ago also had tragic and costly consequences.

Barboza's reward for his testimony in the Deegan case was to become the first person to enroll in the FBI's witness protection program. Despite being described by the FBI as "the most vicious criminal in New England," he was sent to Santa Rosa with no notice given to local authorities. With his new identity and some cash, he moved in 1969 into a rented house in the Mayette Village neighborhood, enrolled at the old Marine Cooks and Stewards School on Mark West Springs Road and settled into his new life, which looked a lot like his old life.

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