A former cocaine dealer, offering the first evidence of James “Whitey” Bulger’s involvement in the drug trade, testified Monday that he relinquished a share of his lucrative business to Bulger’s crew decades ago in exchange for the gangster’s protection.
Taking the stand at Bulger’s racketeering trial in US District Court, Joseph Tower, 59, testified that he sought Bulger’s help in the early 1980s when a dangerous ex-con, Tommy Nee, was shaking down drug dealers in South Boston.
As they cruised around in Bulger’s blue Malibu, according to Tower, the South Boston crime boss peppered Tower with questions about his drug business, which extended north and south from Boston. Then he proposed that Tower partner with the gangster’s friend, Billy Shea of South Boston, and promised that if he did, according to Tower, “there would be no problem. Nobody would bother you.”
Tower said he accepted Bulger’s offer, and business boomed as they began buying about a kilo of cocaine a week, at a cost of $28,000 to $34,000, from Colombian suppliers in Boston and Florida, then cut the drugs with solvents to double the size and increase street sales.
Tower told jurors that Bulger collected a weekly share of the profits because “he’s the one who set me up with Mr. Shea. He was the protection.”
When asked to identify Bulger in court, Tower pointed at him, smiled, and said, “Hello Jim.”
“Joe,” said Bulger, nodding politely at the tall, tanned, white-haired man, who now lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and makes custom guitars.
Tower’s testimony was the latest blow to Bulger’s carefully cultivated image as the protector of South Boston who kept drugs from the streets. In opening remarks last month, one of his lawyers acknowledged for the first time that Bulger made millions of dollars in the drug trade.
Bulger, 83, is charged in a sweeping racketeering indictment with participating in 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s; extorting drug dealers, bookmakers, and businessmen; money laundering; and stockpiling guns.
Prosecutors had predicted the trial would last into September but are now saying it could finish sooner.
Earlier in the day, disgraced former FBI supervisor John Morris, testifying for the third day, became tearful and apologized to the family of one of Bulger’s alleged victims as they stared at him from the spectator section.
“I do want to express my sincere apology for things I may have done and things I didn’t do,” said Morris, addressing the widow and three sons of Michael Donahue, who was giving a ride to Bulger’s alleged target, Edward “Brian” Halloran, when both men were gunned down in 1982 along the South Boston waterfront.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t pray that God gives you blessing and comfort for the pain you suffered,” said Morris, who was granted immunity from prosecution. “I do not ask for forgiveness, that’s too much. But I do acknowledge it publicly.”
Morris admitted taking $7,000 in bribes from Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, both listed as longtime FBI informants, and warning their handler, FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr., that Halloran was cooperating with the FBI and had implicated the two gangsters in slayings.
Morris insisted he did not deliberately try to get Halloran killed, but admitted he may have played an indirect role because Connolly passed his tip about Halloran to Bulger and Flemmi.
It was Bulger’s lawyer, Henry Brennan, who triggered the apology — the first ever to the Donahues from any current or former FBI employee — while cross-examining Morris.
“I’m appalled to even listen to him go up there and try and do an apology years after, knowing all the things he did to cover it up,” said Donahue’s son, Tom, outside the courthouse. “It’s unbelievably hard for my family. . . . We want Whitey Bulger to go to jail, but we have to rely on Whitey’s lawyers to get us the truth? That’s appalling. The government should be getting us the truth.”
Prosecutors allege Bulger and an unidentified accomplice gunned down Donahue and Halloran but have not identified or charged the second triggerman.
Brennan implied that Morris, who was cheating on his wife with an FBI secretary for years before getting divorced in the 1980s, tried to enlist Bulger to go after his wife, but Morris denied it.
“Do you remember Mr. Bulger telling you he’d have nothing to do with it?” Brennan asked.
“Absolutely not,” Morris said. “There was no such conversation.”
Bulger, who insists he was never an FBI informant but instead paid corrupt FBI agents for information, swore at Morris last week while he was testifying. But his mood changed when Tower took the stand.
The gangster even erupted in laughter when Tower cursed while recounting how Bulger interceded during a tense standoff between Tower and a Wakefield customer who refused to pay a drug debt.
Speaking so fast that US District Judge Denise J. Casper had to ask him to slow down, Tower said the wife of the customer said her uncle would create “a serious problem” for Tower if he tried to collect the debt. But she called back and told Tower to come to a Lynn bar to collect the money.
Tower said he dispatched his brother to pick up the cash, then received a call warning, “We got the money and your brother. . . . I’m going to kill your brother.”
Tower said he yelled, “you piece of [expletive]” and warned that he was protected by people from South Boston. He chided the caller for asking on the telephone if he was referring to Boots, a nickname for Bulger because of his fondness for cowboy boots.
The standoff was resolved by Bulger, Tower said.
Tower said he was convicted of drug charges in the 1980s and Bulger’s crew sent him $1,000 a week while he was in prison for about a year but cut him out of the drug business once he was released.
“They don’t fool around,” said Tower, adding that he knew better than to challenge the decision.Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com; Milton Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @shelleymurphand @miltonvalencia.