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Bulger verdict puts end to historic saga

83-year-old South Boston gangster will spend rest of his life in prison; some victims’ relatives say they were denied justice

A federal jury Monday found that James “Whitey” Bulger participated in drug trafficking, 11 murders — including strangling a young woman — and assorted other crimes, a verdict that sends the aging gangster to jail for life and punctures the “good bad guy” myth he cultivated over decades.

Bulger, 83, stood passively in US District Court on the same South Boston waterfront where he committed some of his crimes, as a clerk repeatedly proclaimed “guilty” to 31 of the 32 counts with which he had been charged. As he was led away, he turned and gave a thumbs-up sign to his family members, before he was heckled by a relative of one of his many victims.

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The verdicts mark not just the certain end to Bulger’s freedom, but a theatrical note of finality to the story of a crime lord who has been chronicled in Hollywood movies and analyzed in best-selling books, and who rose to near legendary status as he held a virtually permanent spot as one of America’s most wanted fugitives during his 16 years on the run from 1995 to 2011. It also files a piece of Boston’s dingy past, and the FBI’s complicity in it, on the shelves of the city’s sometimes sordid history.

“This day of reckoning for Bulger has been a long time coming,” US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said to a barrage of reporters outside the courthouse following the verdict. “So many people’s lives were so terribly harmed by the criminal acts of Bulger and his crew. . . . We hope they find some degree of comfort in the fact . . . that Bulger is being held accountable for his horrific crimes.”

The jury found prosecutors proved Bulger participated in 11 of the 19 murders he was accused of in the 1970s and 1980s. Those included the strangulation of Deborah Hussey; the assassination of Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler; and the slayings of Paul McGonagle, Edward Connors, Thomas King, Richard Castucci, Brian Halloran, Michael Donahue, John Callahan, Arthur “Bucky” Barrett, and John McIntyre.

JANE COLLINS/REUTERS

James “Whitey” Bulger stood between his lawyers as the verdicts on 32 counts were read in US District Court in Boston Monday.

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Not all families of Bulger’s alleged victims were pleased with the trial’s outcome.

Jurors found prosecutors failed to prove Bulger was involved in the slayings of seven others: Michael Milano, Al Plummer, William O’Brien, James “Spike” O’Toole, Al Notarangeli, James Sousa, and Francis “Buddy” Leonard. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on whether Bulger was involved in the strangulation of another woman, Debra Davis, in 1981.

The judge said she would not release the names of jurors until Friday. But a juror told WBZ radio that there was some disagreement during deliberations, and that about five jurors felt the government had not proved that Bulger strangled Davis, the girlfriend of his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi. The juror, Scott Hotyckey, said some jurors doubted the credibility of Flemmi, who implicated Bulger in Davis’s murder.

“People kept saying that you can’t believe what he says,” Hotyckey said.

The verdicts provoked tears of relief and anger among the families who had waited for years for justice.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” one of Leonard’s daughters gasped as the clerk announced “not proved” when she came to her father’s name.

Patricia Donahue, whose husband, Michael, was gunned down by Bulger while giving a ride home to his intended target, quietly sobbed as her son held her close. “I am happy,” she said afterward. “But I was sad for the other families.”

US District Judge Denise J. Casper scheduled a three-day sentencing hearing for Nov. 13 to 15, and said she will probably set aside at least one day for the victims’ families to give statements.

Bulger still faces murder charges in Oklahoma and Florida, both states that have the death penalty. He is charged with orchestrating the slaying of Wheeler in Tulsa in 1981 because the businessman refused to sell his company, World Jai Alai, to a Boston businessman who fraternized with members of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang.

Bulger is accused of ordering the slaying of businessman John Callahan in Florida the following year, after his FBI handler warned him that the FBI was seeking Callahan for questioning and he would probably implicate Bulger and Flemmi in Wheeler’s slaying.

Prosecutors in Florida and Oklahoma said Monday that they would not decide until after Bulger is sentenced in Boston whether to prosecute him.

Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft said Bulger is expected to be sentenced to life in prison for his federal conviction and “if that happens, then of course we might have to, given his age, . . . consider whether it’s advantageous to try him or let him negotiate something.”

On his way out of the courtroom Monday, Bulger smiled and gave the thumbs-up sign to his brother, John, and two nieces — the children of his brother William, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate and the University of Massachusetts.

The gesture outraged Cheryl Connors, whose father, Edward, was gunned down by Bulger inside a Dorchester telephone booth in 1975.

“Rat-a-tat Whitey!” Connors yelled from the gallery. Later, she said she was referring to a taped conversation played at the trial, in which Bulger mimicked the sound of machine gun fire as he mentioned her father’s slaying to his nephew and niece when they visited him at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility.

One of Bulger’s lawyers, J.W. Carney Jr., said Bulger will appeal his conviction, arguing that he should have been allowed to present his claim that a deceased former prosecutor promised immunity from prosecution decades ago for all crimes, including murder.

He said Bulger was “very pleased” with the outcome of the trial because he felt the case had exposed more government corruption. “Mr. Bulger knew as soon as he was arrested that he was going to die behind the walls of a prison . . . or be injected with a chemical that would kill him,” Carney said. “This trial was never about Jim Bulger being set free.”

Bulger, who was captured in June 2011 as he was living in a rent-controlled apartment two blocks from the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., had dubbed his trial “the Big Show” and vowed in letters from jail to take the stand to refute that he was an informant and deny that he ever killed women.

Instead, he called his trial “a sham” and told the judge he would not testify because she refused to let him present his claim that Jeremiah O’Sullivan, former head of the New England Organized Crime Strike Force, promised him immunity. O’Sullivan died in 2009. Casper had ruled that Bulger had provided no evidence or affidavit to support his claim, and that even if O’Sullivan had made such a promise, he did not have the authority to do so.

The defense spent much of the trial trying to persuade jurors that Bulger was not an informant, despite a hefty FBI file indicating that he was an informant from 1975 to 1990. His lawyers argued Bulger paid corrupt FBI agents for information and his so-called handler, John J. Connolly Jr., fabricated his file to cover up their corrupt relationship.

Prosecutors called 63 witnesses, including three of Bulger’s former associates — Flemmi, John Martorano, and Kevin Weeks — who all implicated Bulger in murder and admitted their roles as well. All three cut controversial deals with the government.

Bulger’s other lawyer, Hank Brennan, said the jury’s verdict, finding Bulger was not involved in seven slayings, indicated it rejected the testimony of Martorano or found the plea deal he made with the government was “so offensive the jury didn’t want to dignify it with a conviction.”

The jury of four women and eight men deliberated for 32½ hours over five days before reaching its verdict. They only had to find that prosecutors proved that Bulger committed two of 33 racketeering acts that occurred within 10 years of each other to find him guilty of the racketeering count, which included 19 murders.

The only charge Bulger was acquitted of was the extortion of Kevin Hayes, a former bookmaker who said he had been extorted by Weeks.

Flemmi testified during the trial that he and Bulger were longtime FBI informants, who paid Connolly more than $230,000 over a decade. He said Connolly warned them when other informants were cooperating against them, prompting them to kill Castucci, Halloran, and McIntyre.

Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak, who began targeting Bulger in the early ’90s, said the conviction was vindication for the prosecutors and investigators.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “And I think justice prevailed.”

Martine Powers, Jonathan Saltzman, Milton J. Valencia, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@
globe.com
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