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Neil J. Welch, 90, leading FBI official made his mark in Buffalo

Aug. 9, 1926 – June 29, 2017

In his four years in Buffalo in the late 1960s, Neil J. Welch made his mark as one of the nation’s foremost crime fighters.

As special agent in charge of the Buffalo office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he defied agency protocol and brought down criminals in two high-profile cases that echoed the tactics of Prohibition Era lawman Eliot Ness.

In 1968, on a couch in an apartment on Grand Island, Mr. Welch sat face to face for 58 minutes across from gun-toting escaped convict Winston Moseley, the killer in the sensational Kitty Genovese case in Queens. Mr. Welch persuaded Moseley to release his hostages and surrender. Hailed for his courage, he was named a Buffalo Evening News Outstanding Citizen.

Two years later, he and a hand-picked team of unconventional undercover agents, who wore their hair long and drove flashy cars, broke up a major organized crime operation run by underworld boss Stefano Magaddino from his funeral home in Niagara Falls. Mr. Welch arrested Magaddino in his bedroom in Lewiston.

That earned him promotions to head the FBI office in Detroit and then in Philadelphia, where he tackled police brutality and political corruption cases. A leading contender for the bureau’s top job in 1977, he was passed over by President Jimmy Carter, who instead chose a federal judge, William H. Webster.

Mr. Welch wound up in the bureau’s No. 2 post, leading the FBI's largest office, in New York City with a staff of 800 agents.

With Thomas P. Puccio, head of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force for the Eastern District of New York, he oversaw the Abscam investigation, which resulted in convictions that included six members of the House of Representatives and New Jersey Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. for accepting bribes from undercover agents posing as wealthy Arab sheikhs and businessmen.

Mr. Welch died June 29 in Bellevue, Neb., a suburb of Omaha, after a short illness. He was 90.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., Neil John Welch grew up in Omaha and was an Eagle Scout and a pitcher on his high school baseball team. He enlisted in the Navy straight out of high school and served on a battleship in the South Pacific during the final months of World War II. He was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.

Returning from service, he attended Omaha University, now the University of Nebraska, Omaha, on the G.I. Bill. He went on to earn a law degree from Creighton University in Omaha.

He joined the FBI in 1951 and worked in New Haven, Conn.; Boston, Mass.; and New York City before becoming assistant agent in charge in Tampa, Fla. In 1964, he was made assistant special agent in charge of a new office in Jackson, Miss., where he helped lead a crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan following the murder of three civil rights workers.

Moseley, who died in prison last year, was serving a life sentence at Attica Correctional Facility in March 1968 when he cut himself so badly with a juice can that he was taken for surgery at Meyer Memorial Hospital, now Erie County Medical Center. There he slugged a corrections officer and escaped.

In three days that followed, he broke into a home on Dewey Avenue, where he held two people hostage, raped a woman, and stole a car and a gun. He finally holed up in an apartment on Whitehaven Road on Grand Island with two women and a baby as hostages.

Mr. Welch and his men commandeered a diaper service truck so they could approach the apartment unnoticed. After a failed attempt to lure Moseley out, the convict agreed to let the agent inside. As they talked, Moseley kept his gun pointed at Mr. Welch, cocking and recocking the weapon. Mr. Welch wearing an overcoat and holding a small, snub-nosed revolver in the pocket.

The tension broke when the phone rang. Mr. Welch answered it. It was a television reporter, wondering how long the showdown was going to continue.

“I hung up the phone, walked over to him, stuck out my hand and said, ‘Give me that gun, Winston. Now’s the time,’ He looked at me and handed over the gun,” Mr. Welch wrote in his memoir, “Inside Hoover’s FBI: The Top Field Chief Reports,” written with David W. Marston.

For the Magaddino investigation, Mr. Welch assembled a dozen agents and based them at an Army Reserve Center in Amherst, keeping their mission secret not only from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but also from other agents in the office and the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force, which had been launched here.

“We were breaking every FBI rule in the book,” he told Buffalo News reporter Anthony Cardinale following the publication of his book in 1984.

This became the model for other FBI undercover operations in the following decade, including Abscam.

Considered a maverick, he clashed with agency leadership over their preference for intelligence operations instead of prosecuting organized crime.

In the wake of Abscam and a controversy about leaks to the press, Mr. Welch retired in 1980, leaving as he neared the mandatory retirement age of 55. For the next two years, he was justice secretary for the State of Kentucky, overseeing several law enforcement agencies.

Later he contracted as an investigator, served on the commission investigating the MOVE bombings in Philadelphia and practiced law in Maine, Washington, D.C.; and Sarasota, Fla., where he retired.

In 1955, he married the former Geraldine Ellen “Geri” McLeod, whom he met on an assignment in Bangor, Maine, where he rented a room from her aunt. She died in Sarasota in 2013.

Survivors include two sons, Brien and Neil Jr., both lawyers; a brother, Jerome; and six grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial was offered July 3 in St. John Catholic Church at Creighton University, Omaha.

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