AFTER 16 years on the run, an alleged gangster stood in court yesterday accused of 19 murders as boss of a criminal empire aided by US federal agents.
James “Whitey” Bulger, now 83, “did the dirty work himself because he was a hands-on killer”, state attorney Brian Kelly told a jury at the first day of the trial in Boston.
He said Bulger, captured in California in 2011, had joked as he murdered and was allowed to operate with impunity because he was an FBI informant.
“It’s a case about organised crime, public corruption, all types of illegal activities and 19 murders,” Mr Kelly said.
Bulger is said to be the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s mob boss character Frank Costello in the film The Departed.
He faces a 32-count indictment that alleges he ran a racketeering operation that dominated Boston’s underworld for four decades and had tentacles running through the city’s political hierarchy.
Mr Kelly opened the trial by projecting the faces of those he said were Bulger’s 19 victims on to a screen in front of the jury.
One of them, he said, a safe-breaker called Arthur “Bucky” Barrett, was killed after he was tortured by Bulger and made to reveal the whereabouts of $40,000 snatched in a bank robbery in 1980.
The prosecutor said that Bulger and a sidekick called Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi retrieved the cash from Barrett’s home then returned to the house where another henchman, Kevin Weeks, had tied up the victim.
Bulger, Mr Kelly said, led Barrett to the basement and shot him in the head, joking to Weeks about how “Barrett is going downstairs to lie down a bit”.
His other victims, among them two women, were killed elsewhere, including Florida and Oklahoma, Mr Kelly said. They included FBI informants he thought were about to implicate him in conspiracies. Yet as “one of the biggest informants in Boston” in his own right, Mr Kelly added, Bulger enjoyed a charmed life.
He built a strong and long-lasting relationship with his FBI handler, John Connolly, the prosecutor said, with the federal agent tipping him off in December 1994 when he was about to be indicted on drugs charges and allowing him to flee.
Despite apparent sightings in London and later in several states across the US, Bulger enjoyed more than 16 years as America’s most wanted criminal with his girlfriend Catherine Greig, whose father was from Glasgow.
An FBI taskforce, which dubbed him a “sociopathic killer”, offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his capture. It prompted a tip-off in June 2011 that he and Greig were living in Santa Monica, California. Agents lured him outside and arrested him, then raided the flat where they found $800,000 in cash and numerous weapons, along with Greig who was last year sentenced to eight years in jail for harbouring a fugitive and identity theft.
Bulger’s defence lawyer Jay Carney admitted to the court yesterday that his client had profited from criminal enterprise but was no killer.
“He made millions and millions of dollars” from extortion, loan-sharking and gambling rackets, Mr Carney said, and only fled when he heard on the radio that he was wanted, not because the FBI had tipped him off.
He added that the real killers included Weeks, Flemmi, who he said dodged the death penalty by agreeing to testify against Bulger, and another mob associate named Johnny Martorano, an enforcer Mr Carney said “would kill people as easily as we would order a cup of coffee”.
The trial is expected to last into September.