A man who had waited decades to testify against James “Whitey” Bulger for allegedly stealing ownership of his South Boston liquor store was found dead Wednesday in Lincoln in what people familiar with the investigation are calling a suspicious death.
While an autopsy found no trauma to the body of Stephen “Stippo” Rakes, 59, authorities believe that he may have died elsewhere and that his body was dumped near a popular walking trail off Mill Street, where it was found, say several people familiar with the investigation.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Lincoln police Chief Kevin Mooney said Thursday that they have yet to determine the cause of Rakes’s death and are awaiting toxicology results, which generally take several weeks to complete.
“I can assure you my ex-husband did not commit suicide,” Rakes’s former wife, Julie Dammers, said during a brief telephone interview Thursday, responding to reports that he was despondent after being told by prosecutors earlier this week that they no longer planned to call him to testify against Bulger.
She said that she and her three adult children had no idea how Rakes had died. “We have more questions than answers,” Dammers said tearfully. “We are just in limbo right now. We’re all in complete shock.”
Investigators were trying to determine Thursday how Rakes, who was not carrying a wallet, ended up in Lincoln, say those familiar with the investigation. His body was found by a jogger. The retired MBTA worker and South Boston native was living in Quincy.
Boston attorney Paul V. Kelly, who represented Rakes in a civil suit filed against the government, said, “I know you have to let the facts come out and give authorities a chance to do work, but the timing, the circumstances, and knowing what I do about him, it leaves a lot of questions.”
Rakes was one of the most determined of Bulger’s alleged victims, still furious at the South Boston gangster and his allies, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and Kevin Weeks, for allegedly extorting his store from him at gunpoint in 1984, while Rakes’s two young daughters were in the same room.
Rakes has been a constant presence at US District Court in Boston where the 83-year-old Bulger has been on trial for the past six weeks. Rakes had been listed as a government witness.
But Steve Davis, whose sister Debra was allegedly killed by Bulger, said Rakes told him Tuesday that he was devastated because prosecutors had just informed him that they no longer planned to call him to testify. A spokeswoman for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz declined to comment.
Davis said Rakes felt he was being robbed of the opportunity to refute the testimony of Bulger’s former protege, Weeks, who told jurors that Rakes initially offered to sell them his store for $100,0000, then tried to back out of the deal in what appeared to be an attempt to get more money.
Weeks, who pleaded guilty to extorting the store, testified that Bulger was furious at Rakes’s change of heart. Weeks said he put a gun on the table, briefly letting the store owner’s daughter play with it, and Bulger forced Rakes to go through with the sale.
Later, outside the courthouse, Rakes vehemently disputed Weeks’s account, telling reporters, “My liquor store was never for sale, never, never, never. . . . You know, he’s got his day up on the stand, and then I’ll have my day.”
In a 2001 interview with the Globe, Rakes said Bulger, Flemmi, and Weeks showed up unexpectedly at his home and Flemmi pulled his 1-year-old daughter onto his lap, let her spin a gun on the table like a toy, and said, “What are you going to do?”
Rakes said Bulger clicked a switchblade, told him they were taking his store, and warned, “I’ll [expletive] kill you.” He said they gave him an envelope stuffed with $67,000 in cash.
A Boston police detective, who was the uncle of Rakes’s daughter, Julie (Rakes) Dammers, went to FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. seeking help. But Connolly, who listed Bulger as one of his most prized informants, told the uncle, now deceased, there was nothing he could do since the Rakes were too afraid to testify.
Rakes was so fearful, he lied to two US grand juries that targeted Bulger in 1991 and 1995. He was convicted of perjury, then spared a prison term after finally agreeing to tell authorities about the extortion.
Later, Rakes and Dammers sued the government for failing to prevent Bulger from forcibly taking their store because he was an informant, but a judge dismissed the suit in 2005 because it was filed too late.
Kelly, who represented Rakes in that case, said he was disappointed in the dismissal, but took it in stride, and more than anything he wanted to see Bulger held accountable. “Having waited this long, he would have wanted to see this through,” he said.
Jim Sullivan, a teacher at South Boston High School and a longtime friend of Rakes, described him as “a clean living guy” who did not drink and was physically active. He said he had collaborated with Rakes on a book about his life about a decade ago, but it never materialized. “I hope they get to the bottom of this thing with Steve,” Sullivan said. “It’s suspicious.”
Rakes’s death has hit hard among relatives of Bulger’s victims, including Patricia Donahue, whose husband was allegedly slain by Bulger.
“I feel so bad,’’ she said. “You sit here every day with these victims and they become part of your life. He seemed so spirited. He had a lot of spirit.”Brian R. Ballou, John R. Ellement, and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.