Donald E. Hartnett, retired FBI agent who brought infamous criminals to justice - The Buffalo News

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Donald E. Hartnett, retired FBI agent who brought infamous criminals to justice

Jan. 19, 1928 – Dec. 30, 2013

Donald E. Hartnett of Amherst kept tabs on mobsters and helped bring to justice some of the area’s most infamous criminals over a 28-year career with the FBI.

Hartnett, who retired as a supervisor with the agency in 1979, died Monday in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Amherst. He was 85.

Born in Buffalo, Mr. Hartnett was a 1945 graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.

After a year’s service in the Army, he enrolled in Canisius College on a basketball scholarship.

During his senior year, he became the team’s star center, which won him induction into the college’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1970.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Canisius in 1951, Mr. Hartnett went to work for the FBI and was given successive assignments out of offices in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco before he was assigned to the organized-crime squad in Buffalo.

Mr. Hartnett went on to head the squad two years later, according to an interview he gave to the Canisius College Chronicle in 1993.

“Western New York was the site of one of the 26 Cosa Nostra families, which is the Mafia,” Mr. Hartnett said.

“Their principal source of income was gambling – sports betting, mainly – but they were involved in many other things – extortion, shaking down burglars,” he added.

As a street investigator with the agency, Mr. Hartnett helped to develop cases against organized-crime figures – both locally and internationally – that also aided in the recovery of millions of dollars in stolen property.

His leadership in the Organized Crime Project in the mid-1970s resulted in the indictment of more than 200 people, including some police officers and elected officials.

Former Erie County District Attorney Edward C. Cosgrove praised Mr. Hartnett’s use of informants, physical surveillance and electronic interception once they became legal weapons in the war on organized crime.

“He was one of the first FBI agents … to devise and use the Federal Witness Protection Program to protect informants. He knew how to neutralize the criminal conspirators by playing to their jealousies and greed, resulting often in the neutralization of their criminal activities,” said Cosgrove.

Perhaps one of Mr. Hartnett’s biggest exploits was assisting in the 1976 recovery of a stolen 300-year-old Rembrandt painting, “Le Rabbin.” He was among those recognized by the French government after the painting was returned to the Louvre.

In 1968, Mr. Hartnett and his partner, Neil Welch, also helped to capture notorious criminal Winston Moseley, who was convicted in the infamous 1964 stabbing death of Kitty Genovese in Queens.

Moseley had escaped from what is now Erie County Medical Center after being transferred from Attica and went on to terrorize a couple before he was captured on Grand Island while holding a woman and her baby hostage.

Cosgrove also lauded Mr. Hartnett and his team of FBI agents for their efforts in the identification and prosecution of Joseph Christopher in the .22-caliber homicide investigation of 1980 and 1981.

Upon retirement, Mr. Hartnett went on to teach criminal justice at Erie Community College and also was an investigator for the U.S. Department of State.

He also served as a security representative for both the National Hockey League and the National Football League, which allowed him to accompany the Bills to all four Super Bowls in the early 1990s.

Mr. Hartnett was a member of the Society for the Former Agents of the FBI, of which he was elected president in 1994.

His wife of 60 years, Nancy Sullivan Hartnett, died in 2012.

He is survived by two daughters, Mary Pat Brennan and Kathleen Callahan; four sons, Timothy, James, Thomas and Dennis; and 19 grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9 a.m. Saturday in St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, 200 St. Gregory Court, Amherst.

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