After weeks of observing a fairly passive James “Whitey” Bulger at his federal racketeering trial, jurors saw a starkly different side of the gangster Tuesday when they heard recordings of him bantering with relatives in jail last year about murder, gunplay, and funneling cash.
“Pa-pa-pa-pa-pow,” whispered Bulger, during the recorded conversation last Oct. 13, as he mimicked the sound of machine gun fire while describing what happened to “the guy in the phone booth.” Bulger was referring to Edward Connors, a tavern owner who was gunned down in a Dorchester phone booth in 1975, one of 19 people Bulger is accused of killing.
“Somebody threw my name in the mix,’ ” he went on to say in the phone conversation with his niece and nephew, the children of his brother William, former president of the Massachusetts Senate.
“As usual,” said Bulger’s nephew, William Bulger Jr. The gangster’s niece, who was not identified, can be heard giggling.
The pair were visiting him in jail, speaking by telephone through a glass partition in the visiting room at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. The call was recorded by prison officials, who warn inmates they are being monitored.
The conversation, one of three played for jurors in US District Court in Boston on Tuesday, provided rare audio of the former South Boston crime boss.
Recordings of Bulger’s voice, which is higher than the baritone of mobsters commonly depicted in movies, were made public once before, during the FBI’s hunt for the fugitive.
Prosecutors presented the recordings in an effort to link Bulger to some of the charges he faces.
Bulger, 83, was captured two years ago in Santa Monica, Calif., after 16 years on the run. He is charged in a sweeping racketeering indictment that, in addition to the murder charges, includes extortion of drug dealers, businessmen, and loan sharks; money laundering; and stockpiling weapons.
The recording about Connors’ slaying was played shortly after his daughter, Karen Smith, testified that she was 7 years old when she answered a phone call at their Savin Hill home from a man who asked to speak to her father. He took the call, then said he had to leave.
“I asked if I could go with him,” she said. He told her no.
Connors, 42, went to take a prearranged call at the pay phone on Morrissey Boulevard, where he was ambushed.
Bulger did not admit to the slaying during the recorded conversation, yet the tenor of the call angered Smith and her mother, Evelyn Cody, Connors’s longtime companion.
“It was like it was a joke to him,” Cody said later. “It was like it was nothing.”
Earlier in the trial, hitman-turned-government witness John Martorano testified that Bulger and his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, killed Connors because they heard he was talking about their role in another slaying.
Prosecutors presented several of Bulger’s jailhouse conversations through Ken Brady, an investigator for the Plymouth County sheriff’s office who identified Bulger’s voice.
During a Dec. 11 conversation with his youngest brother, John, Bulger laughed while recounting how he and Flemmi scared three men who came into their South Boston liquor store “gettin’ ready to stick the joint up.”
“So I picked up a shotgun and I’m aimin’ it at them. . . . And I put one in the chamber,” said Bulger, adding that Flemmi had a .45 caliber gun and was “waiting for them to make a move.”
Bulger said the would-be robbers quickly fled.
A third recording related to a money laundering charge against Bulger, who is accused of funneling $10,000 cash to Martorano in 1996, while Bulger was a fugitive.
During the Sept. 25 conversation, Bulger and his brother John, a former clerk magistrate of the Boston Juvenile Court, discussed how they used two associates to deliver money to Martorano.
In other testimony Tuesday, a former drug dealer portrayed Bulger as a key player in South Boston’s drug trade.
William Shea, 74, testified that he began extorting marijuana dealers in the late 1970s, with the blessing of Bulger, who took a cut of the profits but told him “he didn’t want his name attached to being involved in drugs.”
Initially, Shea said, he sold poor quality marijuana, dubbed “gangster weed,” then Bulger vouched for a new supplier who provided “Colombian gold.”
In the 1980s, Shea said, he moved into the cocaine business, with Bulger’s support and protection, because it was more profitable. He said he was working with Bulger’s associates and Bulger’s weekly profits climbed from $4,000 to $10,000.
When Shea’s cocaine supplier moved, he testified, Bulger recruited Joseph Murray of Charlestown to supply them with $175,000 worth of cocaine and invested $75,000 of his own money.
Shea said he made about $100,000 a week, then looked at Bulger and said, “I’m thinking Jim’s looking at me saying, ‘son of a bitch, you made that kind of money?!’ ”
Asked to identify Bulger, Shea pointed, saying, “He’s the young fellow there.”
Bulger chuckled as he nodded at Shea.
Despite their congeniality, Shea described how Bulger turned menacing when he tried to quit the drug business around 1987 and retire to Florida.
During a meeting at Triple O’s bar in South Boston, Shea said, Bulger mentioned one of his alleged victims, saying, “You remember what happened to Bucky Barrett?”
Shea said he refused to back down, and later Bulger led him to the basement of a vacant housing development. “I think he took me down there to frighten me or whack me,” said Shea. “He mentioned trust.”
Shea speculated that Bulger realized he could trust him because he had remained loyal after an earlier drug arrest.
“All of a sudden he relaxed, the tension went out of his face,” said Shea, adding that Bulger told him, “let’s go.”
Shea retired from the drug business.