By Kelly Kurt, The Associated Press
TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- The sun had yet to rise over Miami Shores, Fla.,
but the Oklahoma lawman at H. Paul Rico's front door wasn't waiting
any longer. After 22 years, it felt good to interrupt the retired FBI
agent's sleep with a knock.
"I'm Sgt. Mike Huff," the detective told Rico before informing him he
was under arrest for the 1981 murder of a Tulsa businessman.
After decades of pursuit, neither one needed the introduction.
Huff's mustache had gone salt-and-pepper since he was first assigned
the case and his marriage had buckled under the strain. But the
tangle of false leads, wrecked vacations and outside efforts to
thwart him had finally come undone that day in early October.
If it hadn't been him, Huff says, some other Tulsa police detective
would have trailed Roger Wheeler's murder into the depths of the
Boston underworld and its cozy relationship with the FBI.
Huff's tenacity, however, has stood out, even as mobsters and
corruption stood in the way.
"Mike was a bulldog," said Robert Fitzpatrick, a former assistant
chief of the FBI's Boston bureau. "He never let this go."
Tulsa Police Chief Dave Been believes Huff and the threat of
Oklahoma's death row helped break mob kingpin Stephen "The Rifleman"
Flemmi, who pleaded guilty last week in 10 murders, including that of
"Sgt. Huff just kept the pressure and kept the pressure," Been said.
"I think that's what made Flemmi roll over."
Spared the possibility of lethal injection, Flemmi is cooperating
with investigators and has told them Rico and others wanted Wheeler
killed. A confessed triggerman said Rico, who denies any involvement
in Wheeler's death, aided the hit by providing information about
On May 27, 1981, kids in the pool at a Tulsa country club heard the
shot from the parking lot. Wheeler, the 55-year-old chairman of Telex
Corp. and owner of Miami, Fla.-based World Jai Alai, had been shot in
the head after playing a round of golf.
Huff was 25 and undaunted when his supervisor told him the
investigation into that afternoon's murder likely would change
everything he'd thought about police work.
"Damn, I wish I hadn't been on duty that day," Huff would later say,
after the case had consumed his life.
The investigation Huff led went cold at the start. Investigators
eventually focused on Wheeler's suspicions that money was being
skimmed from World Jai Alai. Rico, who retired from the FBI in 1975,
was the company's chief of security.
In 1982, a member of Boston's Winter Hill Gang was gunned down after
reportedly telling the FBI that he'd rejected an offer to kill
Wheeler. Another person of interest to Huff, World Jai Alai executive
John Callahan, was found dead in the trunk of a car.
"We were chasing leads all over the place," Huff said. "We very
naively thought that as far as the Jai Alai angle, the FBI would
bring us into the loop."
A year after Wheeler's murder, though, Huff's naivety was wearing
off. He began to suspect Rico, who had cultivated Flemmi as an
informant in 1965 when Rico was a rising star in the Boston FBI's war
on the Mafia.
As the investigation went on, federal agents accused Huff of jumping
to conclusions, he said. Tulsa detectives were led on wild goose
chases when Boston FBI reports validated false leads, Huff later
Former Boston FBI Agent John Connolly was convicted last year of
protecting gangster informants, including James "Whitey" Bulger, a
fugitive since being tipped off to his pending indictment in 1995.
Huff delivered 60 pounds of documents in 1995 to East Coast
authorities investigating the Winter Hill Gang, warning them they
were "stumbling into a load of corruption."
Five years later, he named Flemmi, Bulger, confessed triggerman John
Martorano and Rico in an affidavit in Tulsa County. District Attorney
Tim Harris brought murder charges against all but Rico, wanting more
evidence to take to court.
"When you see somebody who is clearly in your sights, it's very
nagging," Huff said of his frustration. "But in retrospect, the case
(against Rico) is much better with Flemmi."
Huff interrupted vacations to chase leads. He called Wheeler's son,
David, sometimes in the early morning hours. His dedication gave
Wheeler's family hope that someone would eventually be brought to
"He defines the word 'relentless,"' David Wheeler said.
Meanwhile, Huff led a homicide division in making arrests in more
than 90 percent of Tulsa murder cases, a figure that compares with 62
Still, the stress of the unsolved Wheeler case wrapped tighter around
him, and Huff's marriage fell apart.
When the 78-year-old Rico opened the door in his undershorts Oct. 9,
Huff found the moment bittersweet.
"What I was really thinking," he said, "was `Can I get past this and
reclaim some normalcy?' "
Rico and Huff, who'd met face to face many times over the years,
exchanged words, but Huff won't say what they were.
Even with Flemmi's plea and Rico's arrest on a charge of first-degree
murder, the Wheeler murder investigation isn't over. Bulger remains
at large, and the detective says without elaborating that Flemmi's
confession "has opened a can of worms."
Rico, meanwhile, is being held in Florida and faces an extradition
hearing. No trial date has been set in Oklahoma.
"It always comes down to the last man standing," said David Wheeler.
"Rest assured, Mike Huff will always be the last man standing."