Neil J. Welch, 90, who during a storied career in the FBI clashed with J. Edgar Hoover, oversaw the infamous Abscam public corruption investigation, and ran the bureau's Philadelphia field office, died Friday in Nebraska after a short illness.
Over three decades in the bureau, he built a reputation as a fearless, independent field agent with a particular animus against organized crime and corrupt politicians. He headed several of the FBI's field offices, and after his retirement he ran a small law firm, contracted as an investigator, and served on the commission investigating the MOVE bombings in Philadelphia.
Mr. Welch was born in St. Paul, Minn., and grew up in Omaha, Neb. He joined the Navy at 17, straight out of high school, in 1944, and served on a battleship in the South Pacific. He was present at Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered a year later, and came home to Nebraska, where he went to Omaha University on the G.I. Bill, earned a law degree at Creighton University, and, like many young men of his era interested in law enforcement, joined the FBI shortly after graduation in 1951.
On assignment in Bangor, Maine, a few years later, he met his wife, Geri, whose aunt was renting her spare room to the young agent. The two married in 1955.
He rose through the ranks to serve as Special Agent in Charge of the Buffalo, Detroit, and Philadelphia field offices, and as Assistant Director in Charge of the New York field office. In Buffalo, Mr. Welch tracked Winston Moseley, the convicted killer of Kitty Genovese — the Queens woman whose screams for help were infamously ignored by some neighbors — after he escaped from prison in 1968. Moseley had raped a woman and taken several hostages by the time Welch caught up to him in an apartment complex south of Niagara Falls.
"Moseley had him at gunpoint, just the two of them in the room," said David Marston, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who would later work closely with Mr. Welch when he headed the field office in Philadelphia. "And Neil talked him down. Moseley had nothing to lose, he was already going to prison for life, and eventually, at the end of about an hour, Neil said, 'Put that gun down.' And he did. Just incredible courage and bravery."
Though he was developing a reputation as a tough, thorough investigator with arrest numbers that impressed the statistics-obsessed Hoover, Mr. Welch nonetheless butted heads with his boss, namely over his insistence on investigating organized crime — which he said Hoover disdained — and over the COINTELPRO investigations aimed at harassing political activists, including major civil rights figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He told the New York Times in a 1979 profile that he had refused to let his agents work on COINTELPRO cases.
In Philadelphia, working with Marston, Mr. Welch investigated police brutality and ensnared several Pennsylvania politicians in corruption cases, including the former speaker of the state House of Representatives, Herbert Fineman. Welch had, by then, developed an enduring focus on political corruption. An agent in the office told the Times in 1979 that his coworkers had nicknamed him "Jaws" for his hard-charging approach.
"He would throw agents at an investigation to be sure he had adequate manpower," Marston said. "A normal special agent in charge would put one or two agents on a case. Neil would put 10 agents on the case."
When Marston, a Republican, was fired by President Jimmy Carter, raising questions of political retribution, Mr. Welch told the Department of Justice that his colleague should stay in office — because Philadelphia was "a cesspool of corruption."
But it was while running the New York field office that Mr. Welch would score the biggest political corruption case of his career: the investigation known as Abscam, in which the FBI worked with an informant to set up a fake company owned by a fake sheikh looking to invest in the U.S. Originally designed to go after art thieves, the project expanded when a mark told an informant that the "sheikh" should look into investing in Atlantic City, where, they said, the mayor of Camden could grease the wheels for a gaming license — for a fee. That tip led undercover agents to six congressmen, a senator, and several Philadelphia City Council members, all of whom were eventually convicted for taking bribes from the "sheikh's" businessmen, undercover agents working at Mr. Welch's behest.
The Abscam case, which broke into the news in February 1980, was controversial, and opened a debate in the courtroom, in national conversation, and in the halls of the Justice Department over the handling of the investigation, and whether the agents had engaged in entrapment. In the courtroom, at least, judges ultimately dismissed those arguments.
The case, Marston said, was "classic Neil. It was all his idea. He was convinced a large percentage of politicians are corrupt."
Mr. Welch retired from the bureau in May 1980. He served a stint as Kentucky's secretary of justice before retiring again, with Geri, to Sarasota, Fla.
"My dad was a very energetic person," his son, Brien Welch, said. "He didn't like to sit around, he liked to do things, and so he studied up for the Florida bar."
He passed, and ran a small law practice there for years. But he maintained his ties to Philadelphia. In the wake of the 1985 MOVE bombings, which killed 11 people, he was appointed to serve on the commission investigating the city's decision to bomb the MOVE house on Osage Avenue. The commission called for a grand jury to investigate the "unjustifiable homicide" of the five children killed in the house, and said Mayor Wilson Goode and city officials had displayed "grossly negligent" conduct and "reckless disregard for life and property." No city officials were charged in the incident.
In private, Brien Welch said, his father could be reticent with his family about the cases he helmed — "I wouldn't say he brought his work home," he said. "He was a great dad; if you needed him, he'd be there." In his spare time, he read historical books and mystery novels, and took up bike riding and international travel in his retirement. Both his sons became lawyers like their father.
With Marston, he coauthored a book, Inside Hoover's FBI, about his time in the bureau.
"I feel lucky to have worked with him," Marston said. "He was the model of what an FBI field agent would be — what we all had in our imaginations. The ideal of a g-man."