Bulger Being Blamed for Others’ Crimes, Lawyer Tells JuryJanelle Lawrence and Erik Larson
James “Whitey” Bulger, the former fugitive who ran a criminal gang in South Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s, was found guilty in a racketeering and murder conspiracy by a federal court jury.
Bulger, 83, who was captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, California, after hiding from authorities for 16 years, was convicted today by a jury in Boston. He faces spending the rest of his life in prison.
Bulger, dressed in jeans, white sneakers and a long-sleeved crewneck shirt, showed no emotion and stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read. After the jury was dismissed, Bulger gave the thumbs up sign to two of his nieces who attended almost every day of the trial.
Family members of victims cried in court. The widow of one victim, Patricia Donahue, openly wept and hugged her three sons.
Prosecutors said Bulger was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation during most of the time he was leading an Irish-American organized-crime gang and that at least three agents were corrupted by his schemes. Bulger, who denied he was an informant, declined to testify at the two-month trial, telling the judge at an Aug. 2 hearing that the proceeding hadn’t been fair.
The trial raised questions about the extent to which federal agents wrongfully protected Bulger from local and state authorities for years before he disappeared, letting him kill and steal in exchange for tips about a bigger FBI target that he was associated with, the Patriarca Family organized crime group.
Bulger was charged with 48 racketeering charges, one of which included allegations he was involved in 19 murders. The claims include extortion and possession of machine guns and other firearms used in crimes. The jury of eight men and four women deliberated for 32 hours over five days. U.S. District Judge Denise Casper set a Nov. 13 sentencing date.
Of the 19 murders included in the racketeering count, Bulger was convicted of 11 murders and acquitted of seven -- Michael Milano, Al Plummer, William O’Brien, James O’Toole, Al Notorangeli, James Sousa and Francis Buddy Leonard.
The jury made no finding on the murder of Debra Davis, who was the girlfriend of Stephen Flemmi, a former Bulger associate who testified Bulger strangled Davis because she learned they were informants for the FBI. Flemmi claimed Bulger killed Davis and Flemmi removed her teeth and wrapped her body in a tarp for burial in a secret grave.
The jury found that Bulger murdered Paul McGonagle, Edward Connors, Thomas King, Richard Castucci, Roger Wheeler, Brian Halloran, Michael Donahue, John Callahan, Arthur Barrett, John McIntyre and Deborah Hussey.
Among the witnesses against Bulger was Patricia Donahue, whose husband Michael, 32, was a bystander gunned down by Bulger during a 1982 hit on Halloran, a former gang associate. Prosecutors said 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 during the trial that 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.
“I have very mixed emotions,” Donahue said today after the verdict. “After 31 years after a lot of FBI cover ups, schemes and lies they finally found someone guilty in the murder of my father. It’s a good feeling without a doubt. My heart goes out to the other families. I think they got robbed of that closure.”
J.W. Carney, Bulger’s lawyer, said he will appeal the verdict.
“The lead issue will be the ruling that prevented him from presenting his immunity defense,” Carney said.
The judge had barred Bulger’s defense team from telling the jury about his claim that he struck an immunity deal with the U.S. Justice Department years ago that protected him from prosecution in exchange for protecting the life of a prosecutor.
Before the trial, the U.S. argued the deal was a fantasy, and that no government official can confer what amounts to a “license to kill.”
“Jim Bulger was very pleased at how the trial went and even pleased by the outcome,” Carney said today. “It was important to him the government corruption be exposed.”
“Mr. Bugler knew as soon as he was arrested he was going to die behind the walls of the prison or on a gurney being injected,” Carney said. “The trial was never about Jim Bulger being set free.”
Outside court today, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston said that “many people’s lives were so terribly harmed by the criminal actions of Bulger and his crew. Today’s conviction does not alter that harm or lessen it. However, we hope they find some degree of comfort that today has come and Bulger is being held accountable for his horrific crimes.”
In order to “generate money and maintain dominance among other criminal enterprises, Bulger and his associates engaged in numerous illegal activities such as loansharking, extortion of local business owners and bookmakers, trafficking of narcotics and firearms, and murder,” Ortiz said in a statement. “Bulger and associates under his direction used violence, threats, and intimidation to carry out these illegal activities.”
Bulger on Aug. 9 waived his right to a separate jury trial on the forfeiture of $822,000 in cash and firearms found in his apartment when he was captured. Prosecutors allowed Bulger to keep a 1986 Stanley Cup hockey championship ring found in his apartment because it was a gift, according to a court document made public today.
The name of the gift giver wasn’t disclosed. Prosecutors said they may still seek to seize the ring as an asset in civil forfeiture proceedings. The judge will decide if all of the money seized is the proceeds of his crimes and must be forfeited.
Bulger went into hiding in 1994, tipped off about impending charges. The warning came from his longtime FBI handler, Special Agent John Connolly, who’s now serving 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, which offered $2 million for information leading to his arrest, described him 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.”
John Morris, Connolly’s supervisor at the bureau, was also implicated. He got immunity from prosecution by admitting he accepted cash from Bulger in exchange for protecting him. Morris testified against Connolly and was a witness against Bulger.
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 trial, jurors heard from prosecution witnesses including former allies and friends of Bulger, some still in prison and seeking leniency, who testified they conspired with him in some of the killings. A federal prosecutor told the jury in his closing statement that the evidence showed Bulger “is one of the most vicious, violent, calculating criminals to ever walk the streets of Boston.”
Bulger’s lawyers argued he was being blamed for killings carried out by the government’s star witnesses. The testimony of his ex-associates can’t be trusted because they cut deals with prosecutors to avoid lengthy prison terms or death sentences, Carney told the jury at the end of the trial.
Witnesses at Bulger’s trial included John Martorano, a former gunman who said he killed 20 people, sometimes on Bulger’s orders.
Martorano, who was a fugitive living in Florida from 1978 to 1995, spent 12 years and two months in federal prison under a plea agreement for his crimes. He was released from prison in 2007 and agreed to help in the case against Bulger.
Ortiz today defended the plea agreement with Martorano. Without making a deal with Martorano, the government wouldn’t have convinced others in Bulger’s gang to plead and wouldn’t have uncovered the depth of corruption and the locations of secret mob graves, she said.
“We wouldn’t have been able to find out what happened to people who just disappeared,” she said.
Flemmi told the jury that Bulger conspired with him to kill people who discovered too much about their illegal activities. Flemmi avoided a federal death penalty for his crimes by pleading guilty in 2004 to 10 murders. He’s serving a life sentence.
Kevin Weeks, a former ally of Bulger who testified against the defendant and took the stand in previous related cases, reached a plea deal with prosecutors on drug charges and served five years in prison. He was released in 2005.
“The government is buying their testimony; the witnesses are selling their testimony; the currency that’s used here is how much freedom is the person going to get,” Carney said at trial.
Former Massachusetts State Police Colonel Thomas J. Foley, who investigated Bulger for more than 20 years, said today that the case stands as a painful lesson in the misuse of informants.
“You just sit back and hopefully everybody has learned something,” Foley said after the verdict. “I’m not so sure everybody has. We have to keep pushing the story of Bulger forward, keep talking about it and saying this is not the way to operate out there.”
Bulger, who grew up in the predominantly Irish-Catholic housing projects of South Boston, became involved in serious crime 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. Bulger’s 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.
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’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig, who had gone into hiding with him, was also arrested when Bulger was captured. In March 2012, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.
Drug Enforcement Administration agent Dan Doherty, who along with three Massachusetts state troopers helped build the original 1995 case that brought down the Bulger crew, said today the verdicts should bring comfort to the victims.
“Not all of them realized the verdict they wanted today, but in the general sense they all got the same verdict,” Doherty said. “He is going away for life and that’s the most important thing.”
William O’Brien Jr., son of William O’Brien, whom Martorano testified he shot in 1973 and whom the jury acquitted Bulger of murder.
“My father just got murdered 40 years later today in that courtroom,” O’Brien said after the verdict. “That prosecution dropped the ball. Five minutes they spent talking about his murder. That jury should be ashamed of themselves.”
Defense attorney Hank Brennan told jurors during closing arguments that they could use their verdict to punish the government for the FBI’s dealings with criminals.
“At what point as citizens do we say, ‘You know what? There has to be accountability,’” Brennan said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak said the defense team was wrong to make the trial about government corruption.
“They’re asking you to send some message about how the big bad government needs to learn a lesson from this case,” Wyshak said to the jury. “That would be a violation of your oath.”
The case is U.S. v. Weeks, 99-cr-10371, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).