Black powder, mobsters, and 'clandestine graves' at URI

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By PHILIP EIL  |  September 18, 2013

ALL ABOUT EVIDENCE Hilliard. [URI photo by Michael Salermo Photography]

“Anybody here take LSD?” Bob Fitzpatrick says.

The retired FBI agent is wearing jeans and a sport jacket and standing in a lecture hall at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus. A crowd of students sits at desks around the room. A few periodic-table banners hang from the walls. The words “THE POST MORTEM OF WHITEY BULGER” are scrawled on the blackboard at the front of the room.

Today is the first day of Chemistry 391 — aka the “Forensic Seminar” — the annual for-credit lecture series that the public is invited to attend at no cost. Fitzpatrick’s mid-lecture LSD question, though it triggers guffaws, isn’t designed make sure everyone’s awake; it’s part of the story of how James “Whitey” Bulger was able to whittle down an early-career prison sentence in exchange for participating in a CIA “brain control” experiment with psychotropic drugs.

Fitzpatrick is no novice when it comes to Bulger, the man he says “literally co-opted the entire criminal justice system.” He’s only weeks removed from testifying at the man’s  trial in federal court in Boston, an experience that plays heavily into today’s labyrinthine story of informants, “leg-breakers,” corrupt agents, machine guns, murder victims, mob bosses, and Fitzpatrick’s memory of arresting mob boss Jerry Angiulo at Francesca’s restaurant in Boston’s North End.

“I walk right over to his table,” he tells the rapt crowd, “and he looked up and he kinda grunted.

“He had a piece of spaghetti on his face,” he continues, “and as I looked at him, I don’t know why, I reached over to move the spaghetti off of his face. And of course he jumped, and of course the three guys with him jumped, and of course then I jumped. But I did calm down; I put my arm on him, I said, ‘Jerry, you’re under arrest.’ ”

In the coming weeks, Chem 391 will host experts on fingerprint analysis, crime scene processing, gunpowder, and “forensic archaeology.” There will be visits from a retired coroner with expertise on both Kennedy assassinations (“He’s the guy out there who will tell you that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t the only shooter,” says Chem 391 co-organizer and director of the Rhode Island State Crime laboratory, Dennis Hilliard) and a presentation titled, “Soil Characteristics that Impact Clandestine Graves & the Use of Ground Penetrating Radar,” from a US Department of Agriculture soil scientist who advised the Providence Police when a human skeleton was discovered in an elevator shaft at construction site in South Providence this summer.

And while they’ll mostly remain offstage, the class is organized by two local forensic celebrities, themselves: Hilliard, who oversees the 5000-some-odd pieces of evidence that arrive at the state lab each year (he’s also an Adjunct Professor of Biomedical Sciences at URI’s College of Pharmacy); and Dr. Jimmy Oxley, an internationally renowned explosives expert and URI Professor of Chemistry.

But a brief word of warning to any course auditors planning on making the trip to Kingston: after a conversation with Hilliard, you may view sitting in a lecture hall for 90 minutes slightly differently.

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