Almost two decades after a corrupt FBI agent helped him avoid capture, reputed crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger is starting a trial that may shed new light on a shameful period for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bulger, 83, is accused of 19 murders and widespread racketeering while he led an Irish-American organized crime gang in South Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Prosecutors say Bulger was an FBI informant during most of that time, and at least three agents were corrupted by his alleged schemes.
Bulger was captured in 2011 after 16 years on the run, and may spend the rest of his life in prison if he’s found guilty. Potential jurors got their first look at Bulger today as U.S. District Judge Denise Casper started jury selection at a hearing in Boston’s federal courthouse.
“I’m pleased to introduce our client -- this is James Bulger,” J.W. Carney, the accused killer’s attorney, said to jurors as the hearing began. “Good morning,” Bulger said to the group.
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 for bank robbery before rising to dominate much of Boston’s criminal underworld, the FBI has said. His list of alleged victims includes gangsters who crossed him and two young women who were missing for years before their bodies were unearthed in secret mob graves.
The trial is expected to last about three months, court records show. Opening statements by prosecutors and Bulger’s defense team are scheduled for June 10.
“This is a very violent and very dangerous guy who corrupted certain people within the FBI and used those relationships to his advantage,” Mark Pearlstein, a criminal defense lawyer who was a prosecutor in Boston from 1989 to 2000, said in a phone interview.
Families of victims say federal agents wrongfully protected Bulger 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.
The symbiotic relationship came to an end when Bulger vanished in 1994, tipped off about impending charges. The warning had come from his longtime FBI handler, Special Agent John Connolly, who’s now serving a total of 50 years in prison for crimes linked to Bulger, including murder.
Bulger eventually shared a space on the FBI’s most-wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden. The agency described Bulger as one of its “most notorious fugitives,” known for infiltrating the FBI and “sowing seeds of public distrust in law enforcement that remain in South Boston to this day.”
Bulger was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, California, following an advertising blitz by U.S. investigators seeking tips. The FBI had offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Bulger’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig, who had gone into hiding with him, was also arrested. In March 2012, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.
Security at the courthouse will be tight during Bulger’s trial, and hundreds of people are expected to vie for seats in the courtroom. Bulger’s family members will have five reserved seats, according to court officials.
Bulger’s brother William, the former longtime president of the state senate, was forced out as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003, after he admitted he spoke to his fugitive brother in the 1990s and didn’t help law enforcement capture him.
Bulger, who denies he was an FBI informant, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and claims he struck an immunity deal with the U.S. Justice Department years ago that protects him from prosecution. Carney, his lawyer, hasn’t explained why Bulger would have an immunity deal if he wasn’t an informant.
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.
Carney declined to comment on the allegations when reached by e-mail before the trial started.
Prosecutors listed about 70 witnesses who may testify against Bulger, including several of his closest associates who were captured after he fled. They include his longtime partners Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks, and gunman John Martorano, who admitted he killed 20 people, sometimes on Bulger’s orders.
The defense is calling about 30 witnesses, including Richard Stearns, the judge who was removed from Bulger’s case by a federal appeals court after Bulger complained he might be biased because he was once a top prosecutor in Boston. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who will leave in September after 12 years on the job, was also called as a witness.
The trial may unearth new information about the extent of the FBI’s links to Bulger when he was loose on the streets of Boston, according to Pearlstein.
“This is a very high profile trial and any revelation will receive a lot of attention -- it’ll be uncomfortable for federal law enforcement,” Pearlstein said in a phone interview. “I think the FBI probably views this as a form of catharsis.”
The FBI directed questions about the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, where spokeswoman Christina Sterling declined to comment on the agency’s past involvement with Bulger.
Thwarted by Corruption
The trial will be a relief for other law enforcement in Boston whose past efforts to bring Bulger to justice were thwarted by corruption, said Thomas Peisch, a former Boston prosecutor who’s now a white-collar criminal defense lawyer.
“It’s important for the city of Boston, important for the families of the victims and important for honest law enforcement folks who pursued Bulger for years and were stymied by the crookedness in the FBI office,” Peisch said in a phone interview.
Bulger’s defense team will seek to undermine the U.S.’s case by portraying their witnesses as “unsavory characters” who are willing say anything to get a deal, according to Pearlstein.
Bulger’s defense “will lacerate them on cross examination,” Pearlstein said. “Some will be murderers or people who were involved in the very crimes that Bulger stands accused of committing.”
Mike Kendall, who as a Boston prosecutor for eight years helped generate early evidence for the case and later represented the family of one of the murder victims, said the trial could be especially embarrassing for the FBI if Bulger decides to take the stand.
“The interesting question is what will Bulger do to frustrate the prosecution and embarrass his enemies?” said Kendall. “Can he do things to delay or derail the prosecution? Will any more government agents be embarrassed?”
Among the 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’d agreed to become an informant against Bulger.
Tom Donahue, who was 8 years old when his father was killed, said his family still doesn’t have a full account of the murder and believes Bulger may have had an accomplice whom the government decided not to prosecute as part of a plea agreement.
“These guys with their sweet deals they got were able to pick and choose who they rat on, which is pretty disgusting,” Donahue, who is an electrician, told reporters last month outside the federal courthouse. “Only the trial will bring that truth out.”
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 say 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.
Bag of Cash
Stephen Rakes, a former South Boston liquor store owner, is another prosecution witness. Rakes said he’s been waiting for justice ever since the night in 1984 when Bulger allegedly forced him at gunpoint to sell his store to him for a bag of cash. Rakes’s $120 million lawsuit against the FBI, which accused the agency of ignoring the extortion and protecting Bulger, was thrown out by a judge in 2005, because it was filed too late.
“The best revenge is getting on the stand and looking him in the eyes,” Rakes said in an interview inside Boston’s federal courthouse on May 22. “It’s going to be a great day.”
Bulger’s trial is also the last chance at justice for the family of an Oklahoma murder victim, Roger Wheeler, the World Jai Alai gambling magnate who was killed in the parking lot of a Tulsa country club. A lawsuit by the Wheeler family against the FBI seeking $850 million in damages was thrown out in 2003 after a judge ruled it was filed too late.
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 another World Jai Alai executive John Callahan.
John Morris, Connolly’s supervisor at the agency, 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, court records show.
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 prison in 2004 while awaiting trial. His former lawyer, William Cagney III, is listed as a government witness.
In 1999, then-Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Special Prosecutor John Durham to investigate wrongdoing involving the FBI’s ties with Bulger. While the probe led to Connolly’s conviction, the Justice Department never made the report public.
At the time of the report, Durham said the statute of limitations prevented authorities from filing additional charges against any other law enforcement personnel.
Flemmi, one of Bulger’s former associates, avoided a federal death penalty by pleading guilty in 2004 to 10 murders and is serving a life sentence. Federal courts threw out an attempt by Flemmi to claim immunity as an informant.
Weeks, who turned against Bulger in 1999 after learning he’d been an FBI informant, became a key witness against Connolly and led investigators to the hidden graves of eight people. Weeks also admitted to various roles in five Bulger gang murders and served five years in prison. He was released in 2005.
Martorano, the hit man, admitted to killing 20 people from the 1960s to 1982 under a controversial plea agreement. He served 12 years and was released in 2007.
Bulger’s alleged crimes earned him a total of $10 million to $30 million, some of which he stashed in foreign bank accounts in the U.K. and Ireland, the FBI said.
Before his capture, 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. He stashed money all over the world and left no paper trail, paying only in cash, the FBI said.
Bulger’s trial had been scheduled for Nov. 5, 2012, and was delayed after Bulger’s lawyer argued prosecutors inundated him with 580,000 pages of documents and 921 tapes of secret wiretaps related to the 48-count indictment.
Tom Donahue, the man whose father was allegedly killed by Bulger, said no one should be fooled by Bulger’s appearance now as a pale, frail senior citizen.
“That old man you see in there is an absolute animal,” Donahue said. “He’s a demon in disguise.”