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The Boston Globe

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To many, Bulger trial is the biggest show in town

As the three sisters walked from the courtroom, where they had just watched the opening arguments in the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, they were followed by a young woman, a law student, who walked briskly to catch up.

The sisters were emotional. Their brother, Paul McGonagle, was one of the 19 people allegedly murdered by Bulger. When the court took a short recess, they went looking for fresh air and a snack.

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The young woman caught up to them. “Excuse me,” she said. “I was just wondering if you were the relatives of one of the victims.”

They told her they were.

“Cool,” she replied.

As the trial of Bulger got underway Wednesday at the Moakley federal courthouse, it did so to a mixed audience, one that illustrated the clash between the Bulger mythology and reality. Some in the audience were the families of his alleged victims. Some were staff of the legal teams. Many were members of the media. And many more were simply gawkers, those who had come to lay eyes on the man Jack Nicholson resembled in “The Departed.”

As the young woman walked away from the McGonagle sisters, they were in agreement that her comment had been highly inappropriate.

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“It’s not a show. It’s not a movie. It’s our life,” said one of the sisters . “Our brother was buried on a beach for 26 years before they found him. I go to bed every night and I say my prayers, and I pray that Whitey continues to live a long healthy life so that he can suffer in prison.” The sisters declined to give their full names to avoid excessive publicity.

The day began quietly, when Bulger’s armed motorcade arrived at 7:30 a.m. Police had to chase a street sweeper from the small street alongside the courthouse so that the motorcade could pull in. Outside, a few reporters were waiting, a far cry from the frenzied circus that awaited Bulger’s arrival for his arraignment in 2011 after being captured in California.

But as the morning grew, so too did the crowds, including those who clamored to get the 10 spots available to the general public in the main courtroom. Some had been in line since 6 a.m. A second courtroom was showing the trial on closed circuit, but that quickly filled and the courthouse staff opened the large jury pool room to accommodate the overflow.

Two of those who made the cut into the main courtroom were Ruth Fisher and Maryann Hichar, both retired teachers from Melrose. Fisher and Hichar are big fans of legal drama, and since 2008 they have watched the entirety of 13 of the most high-profile trials in the state, with defendants from Sal DiMasi and Neil Entwistle to Tim Cahill and the “Craigslist killer.” Hichar keeps a list of them in a small notebook in her purse.

The two have been at every one of Bulger’s court appearances, have gotten to know some of the victims’ families, and say they have grown fond of the Moakley courthouse.

“Woburn has better parking, but this courthouse has a better cafeteria and a better view,” Hichar said as she gestured to the grand wall of glass that offers sweeping views of Boston Harbor.

They were excited about the opening arguments, but what they were really looking forward to was the testimony of the big players, especially from Bulger.

“I’m dying to see Whitey testify,” Hichar said. “I’m hoping someone will ask him the question: So what did you do for a living?”

Outside the courthouse, as the media horde clamored for interviews with the victims’ families, it became tough to figure out who was who because so many people were going inside to watch. Several passersby asked journalists if there were any seats left inside.

As the morning came to a close, so too did the opening arguments and, for many of the gawkers, the excitement. As the prosecution called its first witness, beginning the arduous trial process that is expected to take months, the crowd watching the trial on the closed-circuit feeds began to thin.

Those who stayed watched the prosecution slowly pick through an old video allegedly showing Bulger and his associates at a downtown garage.

“It’s going to be a long summer,” one of them griped as the video footage was slowly scrutinized.

He left soon after.

The victims’ families stayed until the end.

Brian Ballou of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @billy_baker.

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