BOSTON (AP) – A former FBI agent who handled high-ranking mob informants was arrested Thursday and charged with murder for allegedly helping to set up a 1981 mob hit on an Oklahoma businessman.

H. Paul Rico, 78, was arrested at his home near Miami and charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the death of Roger Wheeler, the 55-year-old chairman of Telex Corp., who was shot in the head after playing a round of golf at a Tulsa, Okla., country club in May 1981.

Investigators have said Rico provided John Martorano, a hit man for the Boston-based Winter Hill Gang, with Wheeler’s schedule so he could be killed.

They said the slaying was linked to Wheeler’s purchase of the Florida-based World Jai Alai – a sport in which betting is involved – and his suspicion that money was being skimmed from the company.

At the time of Wheeler’s killing, Rico had retired from the FBI and was working as the head of security for World Jai Alai.

“He flat out categorically denies this,” Rico’s Florida attorney, William Cagney III told The Associated Press. “He never assisted the Winter Hill Gang in trying to get inside information so they could … do away with people.”

The arrest was the latest turn in a long-running scandal over the cozy relationship between the Boston FBI and its underworld informants.

Wheeler’s son said he was pleased with Rico’s arrest.

“It’s something I’ve wanted for years,” said Larry Wheeler, who said he believes Rico played a role in his father’s murder.

Rico spent 24 years with the FBI, specializing in organized crime cases in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s. He cultivated mob associate Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and others as informants.

Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, Flemmi and Martorano were all charged in Wheeler’s murder in 2001 by Oklahoma prosecutors.

Prosecutors in Florida followed with an indictment charging all three in the 1982 murder of World Jai Alai executive John “Jack” Callahan in Miami. Investigators said they believe Callahan was killed to keep him from telling authorities about links between World Jai Alai and the mob.

Martorano, who admitted pulling the trigger in both killings, agreed to testify against Bulger and Flemmi to get his charge reduced to second-degree murder.

District Attorney Tim Harris of Tulsa has said he planned to seek the death penalty against Bulger and Flemmi.

Harris could not be reached for comment Thursday. His office issued a statement saying it would have no immediate comment.

Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the Boston FBI, declined to comment on the arrest of Rico.

Cagney said he expects Rico will appear before a Miami-Dade County judge within the next two days for an extradition hearing. He said he had not spoken with his client since his arrest and did not know if he planned to waive extradition to Tulsa.

Rico is being held at the Miami-Dade County jail, Cagney said.

During the trial last year of former FBI Agent John Connolly Jr., prosecutors said Bulger and Flemmi were left untouched by law enforcement for decades because they were acting as FBI informants, ratting on the separate New England Mafia.

Flemmi is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 20 in U.S. District Court in Boston on a federal racketeering indictment in which he is charged in 10 murders.

Bulger fled in 1995, just before he was indicted, after receiving a tip from Connolly, his former FBI handler. Connolly is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison.

For more than two years, House Committee on Government Reform has been investigating the Boston FBI office’s ties to its mob informants. In 2001, Rico testified about another case before the Congressional panel.

He denied that he and his partner helped framed an innocent man for the 1965 gangland slaying of Edward “Teddy” Deegan, but acknowledged that Joseph Salvati wrongly spent 30 years in prison for the crime.

After U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., accused Rico of feeling no remorse for his role in the conviction of four innocent men in the Deegan case, Rico replied, “What do you want, tears?”

Rico denied claims that he and other FBI agents hid evidence in the case to protect informants.

Salvati and three other men were sent to prison based in part on the testimony of another top FBI informant, Joseph “The Animal” Barboza.

Salvati’s lawyer, Victor Garo, predicted that Rico’s arrest might split the Boston FBI scandal wide open, exposing more government wrongdoing both in Boston and Washington.

“He was the inside man of the Boston office of the FBI in dealing with informants like Steve Flemmi and others,” Garo said. “I would imagine that right now many people are concerned about what he knows and what he will say. … He knows about all the skeletons in the closet.”

AP-ES-10-09-03 1750EDT

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