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Kin must estimate value of lives lost to Bulger

Families of 19 murder victims have been told by the US Attorney’s office that if they want restitution from James “Whitey” Bulger, they must estimate how much their slain fathers, husbands, sisters, and daughters would have earned if they had lived.

In a letter to the families this month, the US attorney’s office said that when Bulger is sentenced in November, the judge has the authority under the federal restitution law to order the gangster to pay the families of his slain victims for their lost income and funeral-related costs.

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“If you seek restitution please include specific loss amounts in your written victim impact statement,” the letter says.

“I think it’s lousy that it’s coming down to that,” said Tom Donahue, whose father, Michael, a 32-year-old truck driver from Dorchester, was shot to death by Bulger in 1982 while giving a ride home to a friend who was the gangster’s intended target. “I think the government should have taken care of this a long time ago.”

The Donahues were awarded a $6.3 million judgment in 2009 by a judge who found the government liable for Donahue’s slaying because of the FBI’s corrupt relationship with Bulger. But an appeals court overturned the judgment, ruling that the Donahues filed their claim too late.

Tom Donahue said it is frustrating that his family must now try to estimate his father’s net worth in a bid to collect money from Bulger. In the civil case, a judge estimated Michael Donahue would have earned $734,000 had he lived, but his son said the family believed he stood to make more than double that in his lifetime.

“To try to put a dollar value on someone’s life is ridiculous,” Donahue said. “I’d rather have the money that was originally awarded to us.”

Since restitution is based on lost income, the amounts sought by Bulger’s victims are expected to vary greatly. They include a Tulsa millionaire who operated a variety of profitable companies, a Dorchester man who owned two barrooms, a Boston accountant, and the unemployed girlfriend of a Bulger associate.

Even though the families have been asked to put a dollar value on lost lives, it’s unclear how much, if anything, each family will be paid when US District Judge Denise Casper resolves a legal battle between the government and some of Bulger’s victims over how the gangster’s assets should be distributed.

Prosecutors are seeking a $25.2 million forfeiture judgment against Bulger that would allow the government to seize his assets — including $822,000 seized from his California apartment — and any profits he might make from selling his life story in order to satisfy the judgment.

They have pledged to distribute the money among all of Bulger’s “innocent” victims or their families, yet have not provided details of how they would do it. And it’s unclear whether Bulger would be ordered to make restitution before or after his assets are forfeited to the government,

Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly said, “The restitution versus forfeiture issue is complicated, but the bottom line is we want the money to go to the victims’ families.”

Bulger, 84, was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in June 2011 after more than 16 years on the run. In August, a federal jury in Boston convicted him of participating in 11 murders and numerous extortions of businessmen, bookmakers, and drug dealers while operating a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s through the 1990s. Jurors found prosecutors failed to prove Bulger participated in seven other slayings, and could not reach a verdict on whether he killed 26-year-old Debra Davis in 1981.

Casper must decide whether the families of all 19 murder victims are entitled to restitution, or only the families of the 11 victims that Bulger was convicted of killing. In addition, some of Bulger’s surviving victims could seek restitution, including two businessmen who testified that Bulger threatened them at gunpoint, forcing one to pay $400,000 and the other to pay $200,000.

“We’re in uncharted waters right now,” said Milton lawyer Paul J. Griffin, who has filed claims on behalf of Davis’s family and the heirs of Edward Connors, who was gunned down by Bulger in 1975. “How the judge is going to handle this and who is included and who is excluded is up in the air.”

Several families have urged the judge to reject prosecutors’ request for a forfeiture judgment, arguing that the government has failed to disclose all of the assets it seized from Bulger and should not be trusted to fairly distribute them. They have asked the judge to appoint a special investigator to track Bulger’s assets and distribute them among victims.

In another twist in the case, a lawyer representing a woman whose South Boston liquor store was extorted by Bulger in 1984 has urged the judge to turn the $822,000 over to his client, arguing that a lien she has against the monies trumps all claims by the government and other victims.

Boston lawyer Anthony Cardinale said in a motion that his client, Julie Rakes Dammers, has sole claim to the $822,000 and that the government should be legally barred from forfeiting Bulger’s assets because of its “egregious misconduct” with respect to the FBI’s relationship with Bulger.

But Griffin said the families of victims who were murdered should be compensated ahead of any other victims.

Boston lawyer Frank Libby, who represents the family of Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler, whose 1981 slaying was orchestrated by Bulger as part of a bid to seize his company, World Jai Alai, said, “There is a great difference between what the government can do and should do. It has to be completely sensitive to the families and their losses. It really has to put a premium on being fair.”

The families of many of Bulger’s victims filed wrongful death suits against the government after it was revealed that Bulger and his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, were protected from prosecution by corrupt FBI agents who took bribes and leaked them information because they were prized informants against the Mafia.

Most of the suits were dismissed for being filed too late. A handful went to trial, resulting in judgments against the government.

New Hampshire lawyer William Christie won a $3.1 million judgment for the family of John McIntyre and a $2 million judgment for the family of Edward “Brian” Halloran, only to see the Hallorans’ award dismissed on appeal on statute of limitations grounds. He said the Justice Department refused requests by several judges over the last 13 years to set up a fund to compensate Bulger’s victims.

“There’s been no justice from the Department of Justice in their treatment of the victims in these cases and this is their opportunity to do something,” Christie said.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at Shelley.Murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.
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