James “Whitey” Bulger, the reputed crime boss on trial in Boston for 19 murders, called criminals who helped the authorities “rats” even though he was secretly one of the biggest informants in town, a prosecutor said.
Bulger gave tips to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while he led an Irish-American organized crime gang in Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly told jurors today during opening statements in federal court in Boston. Bulger, 83, also corrupted several FBI agents and compromised probes into his activities, Kelly said.
“It’s a case about organized crime, public corruption and all sorts of illegal activities, ranging from extortion to drug dealing to money laundering to possession of machine guns and murder -- 19 murders,” Kelly said. “At the center of all this murder and mayhem is one man -- the defendant James Bulger.”
Bulger was captured in Santa Monica, California, in 2011 after being on the run for 16 years, sharing a space on the FBI’s most-wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden. The FBI described Bulger as one of its “most notorious fugitives,” known for infiltrating the agency and “sowing seeds of public distrust in law enforcement that remain in South Boston to this day.”
Bulger’s lawyer, J.W. Carney, admitted in his opening statement today that Bulger was a drug dealer and loan-shark. Bulger, who pleaded not guilty to murder charges, is being blamed for the crimes of others, Carney said.
Carney said the lack of federal charges against Bulger before 1995, just after Bulger went on the run, is proof of FBI corruption rather than evidence that Bulger was an informant.
“I tell you this story so you will know the depth of corruption in federal law enforcement that occurred during this period,” Carney said. “This is how James Bulger was able to do illegal gaming, make illegal loans and be involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and never ever be charged -- and on top of that make millions upon millions of dollars.”
Carney said his client actually paid a corrupt FBI special agent, John Connolly, for inside information about wiretaps and searches. Connolly lied and told his superiors that Bulger was an informant to justify their meetings, Carney said.
Bulger may spend the rest of his life in prison if he’s found guilty following what is expected to be a three-month trial, which is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Denise Casper.
Carney is using a “confession and avoidance” tactic, said Walter Prince, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston from 1976 to 1980, when Bulger was active in the city. “If you confess to the smaller things, you might be able to avoid conviction on the larger issues.”
Today’s hearing is a chance for both sides of the case to “get control of” the 12-person jury and exert early influence with their opposing sets of facts, said Prince, now a litigation lawyer at Prince Lobel Tye LLP in Boston.
The first prosecution witness was retired State Police Lieutenant Robert Long. He testified about a 1980 investigation he led into truck hijackings called “Operation Lobster” in which his team staked out the garage headquarters of Bulger’s gang.
Witnesses set to testify for the prosecution include several of Bulger’s closest associates who were captured after he fled. They include his longtime partner Stephen Flemmi, who pulled out the teeth of murder victims to thwart identification and is now serving a life sentence, Kelly said today.
“Clearly, Flemmi is a vicious killer,” Kelly said. “But just as clearly, evidence will show he was James Bulger’s partner for many years” and was also an FBI informant.
Kevin Weeks, another longtime partner of Bulger, and gunman John Martorano, who admitted he killed 20 people, sometimes on Bulger’s orders, will also testify.
Carney said Flemmi and other witnesses are telling prosecutors what they want to hear in exchange for cash and lenient sentences for the crimes they committed. They’re also blaming Bulger for their own wrongdoing, Carney said, because they never expected him to be captured.
“So many years had gone by, it’s fair to say Stevie Flemmi never thought James Bulger was coming back,” Carney said. “Stevie Flemmi decided to start blaming Bulger for crimes Stevie Flemmi had carried out.”
Martorano served 12 years in prison for murder and was given $20,000 from the government upon his release, Carney told the jury. The former hit-man also kept the proceeds of book and movie deals worth more than $250,000, he said.
Families of victims say that before Bulger went on the run, federal agents wrongfully protected him from local and state authorities for years, letting him kill and steal in exchange for information about a bigger FBI target that he was associated with, the Patriarca Family organized crime group.
Bulger disappeared in 1994 after receiving a tip from Connolly, his longtime FBI handler, that he would soon be charged with racketeering, prosecutors have said. Connolly is serving a 50-year prison term for crimes linked to Bulger, including murder.
Before his capture in 2011 in Santa Monica, the FBI believed Bulger was living overseas when he was at large, describing him as a meticulous planner who spent almost two decades preparing for life as a fugitive.
Bulger, who grew up in the predominantly Irish-Catholic housing projects of South Boston, became involved in serious crimes at a young age, including rape, and spent three years in the Alcatraz federal prison in San Francisco for bank robbery before rising to dominate much of Boston’s criminal underworld, the FBI has said.
Bulger’s victims included gangsters who crossed him and two young women who were missing for years before their bodies were unearthed in secret mob graves, according to prosecutors.
Bulger claims he struck an immunity deal with the U.S. Justice Department years ago that protects him from prosecution.
The U.S. said in court filings that Bulger’s immunity deal is a fantasy, and that no official can confer what amounts to “a license to kill.” Casper ruled on May 2 that Bulger’s lawyers can’t tell the jury about the alleged immunity.
Among the other witnesses against Bulger is Patricia Donahue, whose husband Michael, 32, was a bystander allegedly gunned down by Bulger during a 1982 hit on a former gang associate, Brian Halloran. Prosecutors allege Halloran was targeted because he had agreed to become an informant against Bulger.
A federal judge found the FBI responsible for Donahue’s and Halloran’s deaths and awarded the families $8.5 million, though an appeals court threw out the award on the grounds the claim was filed too late.
Prosecutors have said Bulger strangled Debra Davis, 26, a former girlfriend of Flemmi, in 1981 when she tried to leave Flemmi. He’s also accused of killing Deborah Hussey, 26, who was Flemmi’s stepdaughter, in 1985 when she accused Flemmi of sexual abuse.
Connolly, who grew up in the same housing project as Bulger, was convicted in 2002 on federal racketeering charges and again in 2008 on state charges for his role in the 1982 slaying of World Jai Alai executive John Callahan.
John Morris, Connolly’s supervisor at the FBI, was also implicated. He got immunity from prosecution by admitting he accepted cash from Bulger in exchange for protecting him. Morris agreed to testify against Connolly and will also testify against Bulger, according to court records.
Another former FBI agent, H. Paul Rico, who helped develop Bulger as an informant, was charged in 2003 with helping him carry out another murder in 1981 in Oklahoma. Rico died in custody in 2004 while awaiting trial.
The case is U.S. v. Weeks, 99-cr-10371, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
To contact the reporters on this story: Erik Larson in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org; Janelle Lawrence in Boston federal court at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at firstname.lastname@example.org; John Pickering at email@example.comAn agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, adjusts a poster featuring crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger along with his companion Catherine Greig before a news conference to discuss the arrest of Bulger and Greig at the Los Angeles Federal Building on June 23, 2011. Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images