A South Shore businessman testified in federal court Tuesday that only weeks after his friend was killed in 1982, James “Whitey” Bulger lured him to a dingy, South Boston bar and ordered him at gunpoint to pay $400,000 that Bulger claimed the friend owed.
“We want our money,” Michael Solimando said Bulger told him. “He pulled a revolver out and stuck it in my face and told me how disappointed he was that I hadn’t come to him sooner.”
Solimando, who runs a construction business, told the jury in Bulger’s racketeering trial that he had been close with John Callahan, a Boston businessman who fraternized with organized crime figures, and had invested in a building project with him. But Solimando said he had no idea that Callahan owed Bulger money. Nor did he know that Callahan had been making deals with him.
Solimando said he disputed the debt, but ultimately paid, out of fear for his life.
“It was either that or get killed,” said Solimando. “I was sufficiently scared, I’ll tell you that.”
He said Bulger told him, “If you’re going to go to law enforcement . . . we’re going to know the minute you open your mouth.”
Still, Solimando said he considered going to an FBI agent he knew from high school. But, “there were too many people dead in Boston for working with authorities, too many bodies.”
Jurors appeared to be at the edge of their seats during his testimony. Bulger, looking slightly flushed, stared at Solimando.
Bulger, now 83, is charged in a sweeping indictment with participating in 19 murders, drug dealing, money laundering, and extortion.
Prosecutors say he was allowed to carry out his crimes in the 1970s and 1980s because he was secretly working for the FBI and was being protected by corrupt agents.
After 22 days of testimony, prosecutors said they are nearing the end of their case and by Thursday could call a key witness, Bulger’s former partner Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi.
As the prosecution’s case comes close to wrapping up, Bulger’s lawyers submitted a witness list that includes 37 people, but later said they would drop one witness and could drop more.
They did not say whether Bulger would take the stand, though they have previously said he would.
In letters written to a friend last year and shared with the Globe, Bulger vowed to testify and said he most wants to refute the claim that he was an FBI informant, and the charges that he killed two young women.
In his testimony, Solimando told jurors that he met Callahan at Chandler’s, a Boston bar owned by James Martorano — the brother of Winter Hill Gang member John Martorano, whom he had known since childhood.
Solimando said he knew Callahan as a businessman who was former president of World Jai Alai.
The two men partnered in a February 1982 construction project on High Street in which Solimando invested $150,000.
But during that time, according to other testimony, Callahan had been a criminal: He was skimming profits from World Jai Alai.
He later asked John Martorano to kill the new owner of World Jai Alai in Oklahoma, fearing he would uncover the theft, according to testimony.
Martorano testified earlier in the trial that he killed the businessman, Roger Wheeler, and that Bulger and Flemmi sanctioned the 1981 hit.
Solimando described an encounter in 1982 between Callahan and Bulger.
They had a private conversation at a bar. Callahan’s mood had changed.
“I noticed his demeanor . . . he’d shut off, he’d become sullen, very introspective,” Solimando said. When he asked what was wrong, he said, Callahan told him, “Whitey and Stevie don’t think I’m going to stand up.”
Callahan did not explain.
Soon after, in August 1982, Callahan was killed in Florida.
Solimando said he went to Callahan’s funeral and helped settle Callahan’s affairs. A few weeks later, Flemmi asked him to come to the bar Triple O’s in South Boston. “A few friends want to get together,” Flemmi told him, according to Solimando.
Solimando was ushered upstairs where Flemmi was with Kevin Weeks and Bulger, who was sitting at a card table. The room felt uncomfortable, he said. Filthy shades were pulled down.
Bulger, according to Solimando, put the revolver in his face, and shoved a machine gun at his crotch, claiming Callahan owed them $400,000 from the High Street construction project.
After three meetings, Solimando agreed to pay. He obtained $250,000 that Callahan had stashed in a Swiss bank account.
And he and his business partner sold their belongings, including jewelry and a car, to come up with the rest of the money.
Solimando testified that he later lied about the encounter to a grand jury in Miami that was investigating Callahan’s murder.
“I was afraid for my life,” he said.
In a hearing Tuesday after jurors were dismissed for the day, defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr. asked that prosecutors be prohibited from telling jurors that Bulger had $822,000 in cash and 30 guns hidden in the walls of his California apartment when he was captured in June 2011. He said it would be “unfairly prejudicial and piling on the defendant.” But, Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafercq said the money and guns show “consciousness of guilt” by Bulger, who was determined to evade capture, and that the cash clearly was from criminal profits since Bulger has never “held a legitimate job in his life.” Judge Denise Caspercq said she would consider the matter.
Mobile users unable to see the video, click here.Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.