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Kevin Cullen

Defense sketching out a fantasy land

It wasn’t a tale of two cities so much as a tale of two alternative universes.

In one, outlined by an understated federal prosecutor named Brian Kelly, Whitey Bulger emerges as the most vicious and venal of men, someone who was capable of shooting someone in the head in cold blood and then lying down for a nap. A man who lost no sleep after strangling young women and burying them in shallow graves. A man who, with the protection of a corrupt FBI, robbed and stole and murdered and built a fortune worth millions.

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In the other, a fantasy land sketched by his lawyer, Jay Carney, Whitey Bulger is merely a wildly successful criminal who was a bookie, a loan shark, an extortionist, hell, even a drug dealer.

But, and this is the big but, he wasn’t an FBI informant and he did not kill those two women. And he didn’t kill that legitimate businessman out in Oklahoma, Roger Wheeler, either.

As for those 16 other murders Whitey is charged with, Carney had little to say about that. He was too busy roughing up the prosecution’s star witnesses, a collection of murderers, thugs, drug dealers, and corrupt FBI agents, to spend much time on other matters.

Carney did have one laugh-out-loud line: Whitey couldn’t be an informant, Carney informed us, because he’s Irish, and because of the history of The Troubles in Ireland.

That’s a knee-slapper. Or maybe a knee-capper. I know dozens of Irishmen who were informants during The Troubles. Many of them ended up in ditches in Northern Ireland with hoods over — and bullets in — their heads.

But, as Brian Kelly formally alleged, it was Whitey Bulger who put bullets in people’s heads, including John McIntyre, who was helping authorities investigating the 1984 IRA gunrunning operation on the Gloucester-based trawler Valhalla. Sean O’Callaghan, a senior IRA commander, told me during a jailhouse interview 18 years ago that he was the informant who gave up the gunrunning mission. But, silly me, that can’t be true because, well, Sean O’Callaghan is Irish.

Kelly brought the courtroom to complete silence as he read the names of each of the 19 victims whose murders Whitey is charged with, showing their photographs on a video screen.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Kelly said as the photos faded to black, “is what this case is about. A defendant, James Bulger, who was part of a criminal gang which extorted people, paid off cops, earned a fortune dealing drugs, laundered money, possessed all sorts of guns, and murdered people, 19 people.”

Carney had no similarly poignant moment. It was just a use-whatever-you’ve-got-even-if-you-haven’t-got-much opening statement.

It is obvious the defense strategy is to acknowledge that Whitey was a top echelon criminal but to refute any suggestion that he was a top echelon informant for the FBI who used his status to allow him to murder and maim with impunity.

Of course, that plays to Whitey’s grossly inflated view of himself. He was a millionaire! Admire his asset acquisition skills! He got an FBI agent to feed him information about criminal rivals and honest law enforcement efforts to nail him. Admire how he read Machiavelli and took those lessons to heart!

It’s classic Whitey: I’m the smartest guy in the room, and the rest of you are a bunch of rubes who just fell off a turnip truck.

When Whitey got grabbed, his FBI handler John Connolly thought his ship had come in. All of Connolly’s friends thought Whitey would bail him out of his 40-year sentence for helping set up a guy for murder. But that was a fantasy, too. Whitey threw Connolly under the bus. His defense rests on the premise that Connolly made up those 700-plus pages of Whitey’s informant files. Whitey was never an informant, he just paid Connolly for information, Carney insisted.

And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.

Almost as ridiculous as the Irish-can’t-be-informants line was Carney’s bald assertion that Bulger had no motive, no incentive, to kill Debra Davis, the girlfriend of his partner in crime Steve Flemmi, or Deborah Hussey, the daughter of Flemmi’s longtime paramour.

Of course he had a motive. Both Davis and Hussey were aware that Flemmi and Bulger had an arrangement with John Connolly, their corrupt FBI handler. When Bulger became aware that Davis was leaving Flemmi for another man, he had no intention of letting an ex-girlfriend of Flemmi walk around with information that could land them all in prison.

Similarly, when poor Debbie Hussey, who turned to heroin after Flemmi began sexually abusing her as a teen, started dropping Whitey’s and Stevie’s names around town, she was as good as dead. She knew too much so she had to go.

Now the truth is Whitey can get up there and say Stevie had more motive and killed them and blamed it on him, and in Debbie Davis’s case it’s just Stevie’s word against Whitey’s word. Explaining away Hussey’s murder is much harder. Kevin Weeks, Whitey’s former protégé and gravedigger, has corroborated Flemmi’s account of Hussey’s murder from the get-go, and Weeks had no incentive to throw in an extra murder. He had already implicated Whitey in a half-dozen others.

Weeks saw no difference between the murder of Debbie Hussey and that of Bucky Barrett, the safecracker and jewelry fence who Whitey allegedly shot in the head after taking his money. Weeks didn’t see the murder of a young woman as more heinous than that of Barrett, a middle-aged guy with a wife and kids at home.

Weeks only had to serve five years, something Carney will make a big deal about. But the truth is he wouldn’t have gotten any more time if he didn’t testify about the Hussey murder.

Weeks said he watched as the man he always looked up to, and to this day retains a certain fondness for, wrapped his legs around Hussey’s torso and his hands around her neck and choked the life out of her.

The only thing Carney can do is try to persuade the jury that the prosecution’s witnesses are more amoral than his client.

Good luck, Jay.

But, in the meantime, it is a legal strategy that refutes for all time the nonsense that Whitey didn’t profit from drugs. That is a lie that Bulger sympathizers clung to for decades. Well, now even Whitey’s lawyer admits he made millions off drugs, so that’s a dead horse.

During his opening, Jay Carney essentially copped a plea to a number of predicate acts of racketeering, so Whitey’s more or less admitted they got him. But this was never about getting off, it is about getting even, and it’s about getting his reputation back.

The theory being, if you admit to all these terrible crimes, why would you lie about something like killing two women and a guy in Oklahoma?

The answer is obvious. Whitey would lie about anything.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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