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From the Archives | January 5, 2005

Judge tosses suit against FBI in Bulger extortion

Says couple didn’t file soon enough

This article is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on January 5, 2005.

A federal judge dismissed a $120 million lawsuit yesterday against the FBI, ruling that a South Boston couple forced at gunpoint to sell their liquor store to gangster informant James “Whitey” Bulger had waited too long to file their suit.

Chief US District Judge William G. Young concluded that it’s too late for Stephen Rakes and his former wife, Julie Dammers, to sue the government for failing to prevent Bulger from forcibly taking the store in 1984. Rakes and his former wife alleged that former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. knew of the extortion but was more worried about protecting Bulger, his longtime informant, than following the law.

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But Young wrote that he was compelled to dismiss the lawsuit because the couple didn’t notify the government about their claim until May 11, 2001, more than two years after the FBI’s corrupt relationship with Bulger had been made public.

Young said he had to follow a decision handed down by a federal appeals court last May that rejected a similar suit against the FBI over its handling of Bulger and his sidekick, Stephen Flemmi. The decision set standards for when people should know that they have a claim against the government.

Nonetheless, the judge noted the FBI’s “special relationship” with Bulger and Flemmi that protected the pair from prosecution and encouraged the liquor store extortion and other criminal activities. In his 76-page opinion, Young found that Connolly was on a “negligently long leash” and probably violated FBI guidelines by failing to tell his supervisors about the liquor store extortion, even though he’d been told about it at the time.

Boston lawyer Paul V. Kelly, who represents Rakes, said it was unfair that the government could avoid a trial in the case by raising technical defenses.

“What went on here and the conduct of the FBI is shocking,” Kelly said. “The entire theme of the defense of these cases by the Department of Justice has been delay, obstruct, and use technical defenses to keep people who have suffered genuine harm from having their cases heard.”

Kelly said he plans to appeal Young’s ruling.

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, which has de fended the FBI against more than a dozen suits involving its handling of Bulger and Flemmi, declined to comment on Young’s decision, citing ongoing litigation.

The Federal Tort Claims Act requires plaintiffs to file claims against the federal government within two years of being injured or within two years of when the plaintiffs knew or should have known that they had been injured.

Young cited a decision last year by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which stated that plaintiffs have a duty to inquire into the possibility of bringing a claim once certain facts become public.

In his ruling, Young found that due to widespread press coverage of federal court hearings in 1998 about the FBI’s relationship with Bulger and Flemmi, the couple should have known that they had a possible claim against the FBI, yet they waited three years to file a claim, which precedes a civil lawsuit against the government.

Although Rakes and Dammers both said they hadn’t read the news articles, Young concluded that they should have been aware of them.

It’s been a long odyssey for Rakes, who was prosecuted on perjury charges by the federal government after he was called before federal grand juries and denied that Bulger forced him to sell his liquor store on Old Colony Avenue.

Facing possible prison time, Rakes began cooperating in 1999 and received probation.

Rakes told investigators that after he and his wife transformed a dilapidated service station into a thriving liquor store, Bulger, Flemmi, and another associate, Kevin Weeks, paid a threatening visit to his home in December 1984 while he was home with his two young daughters.

Rakes said the gangsters put a gun on the table and threatened his children when he refused to sell. He said Bulger tossed him a bag stuffed with $67,000 in cash and said, “Now we own the liquor store.”

In a 1998 interview with the Globe, Connolly admitted that Dammers’s uncle, Joseph Lundbohm, a Boston police detective, told him about the extortion shortly after it happened. Connolly said he didn’t report the extortion to his FBI supervisors or launch an investigation because the Rakeses “did not want to get wired up and they did not want to be witnesses.”

Young cited that Globe story and other news articles written in 1997 and 1998, saying that they should have alerted the Rakeses to their possible claim against the FBI.

Connolly was convicted of racketeering charges, but was found not guilty of helping Bulger and Flemmi in seizing the liquor store. He is serving a 10-year prison term.

The lawsuit also named Bulger, Flemmi, Weeks, Connolly, and John Morris, a former FBI supervisor. Despite yesterday’s ruling dismissing the case against the government, Kelly said he believes the suit remains intact against the individuals.

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