The name of Patrick Nee, a self-described former criminal who wrote a book on mob life, has repeatedly surfaced in the James “Whitey” Bulger trial as a person involved in drug and gun crimes, someone who helped bury a body, and served as an accomplice to murder.
So why has Nee not been charged in those crimes? That question will be in the air this week as Bulger’s lawyers attempt to call Nee, once a well-known figure in Boston’s underworld, to testify in the gangster’s racketeering trial.
Nee has said through his lawyer that he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, even though Bulger’s lawyers say they will ask questions that will not implicate him. US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper is considering how to handle him as a witness.
“I think there’s argument Mr. Nee has exposure to murder charges,” Casper said Monday.
What is clear is that Bulger, 83, has ensnared Nee in his world once again, the latest chapter in their long, mostly contentious relationship.
“He’s an eyewitness to many of the core allegations in this case,” Bulger’s lawyer, Hank Brennan, said during a recent hearing. “If the government doesn’t want to call an eyewitness, we will.”
Federal prosecutors have said that they could not charge Nee in Bulger’s racketeering case because the statute of limitations had expired, an explanation that frustrates some.
Murder charges have no such time limit, and prosecutors acknowledge the possibility that Nee could be charged later, after Bulger’s trial. But no one is talking openly about such a plan.
“I don’t know how many times Pat Nee’s name can be brought up,” said Tom Donahue, who listened closely during the trial while people, including Bulger’s lawyer, named Nee as the second alleged gunman in Bulger’s car when Donahue’s father, Michael, was gunned down in May 1982.
Bulger’s former partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, said that Nee told him the day after the shooting that the gun jammed.
Nee has not admitted to the alleged crimes, and it is possible he could be charged in state court if he testified about them on the stand in Bulger’s trial.
His lawyer, Steven Boozang, said his client will not testify in Bulger’s trial and wants “no part of the dog and pony show,” what he called “Whitey’s con.”
“Whitey is a professional con artist,” Boozang said. “He’s trying to bring him down because Pat went on with his life and became a productive member of society.”
Nee served two prison terms for gun-running and an attempted armored car heist. Since getting out in 2000, he has not shied away from the public eye. Nee has appeared at events for Marines and veterans, at fund-raisers, and holds court at a restaurant in South Boston. In a promotional video for his book, he dotes on his grandchildren and plays harmonica at the restaurant.
He is also set to be featured on “Saint Hoods,” a Discovery Channel reality show that will document three crews of Boston bookmakers. Nee is head of the largest crew, from South Boston, a role that some of Bulger’s alleged victims say will only glamorize an alleged accomplice to murder.
Bulger and Nee have long been at odds. Nee was a former member of the rival Mullens gang; they became associates at the end of a gang war.
In interviews, Nee has said he never liked Bulger, even tried to kill him several times. Nee has openly asserted that Bulger had gay encounters. He derides him in his book, “A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Boston Mob-IRA Connection.”
Some of the animosity could be explained by the fact that Nee cooperated with investigators looking into the 1981 slaying of businessman Roger Wheeler in Oklahama, according to Globe reports. Bulger was later charged in that state. Boozang said, however, that Nee “never cooperated with the government, was never debriefed, never went before a grand jury, and nor would he, in any jurisdiction.”
Bulger, who spent 16 years on the lam before his arrest in June 2011, apparently knows some of what Nee has been saying about him: He had Nee’s book in his Santa Monica apartment at the time of his arrest.
The two gangsters have committed crimes together, according to the testimony in Bulger’s trial. Bulger was also allegedly involved in the notorious, ill-fated attempt to ship 7 tons of weapons to the Irish Republican Army in 1984.
Nee, a leader in the scheme, pleaded guilty in 1987 and served two years in prison. He was then convicted in the 1991 attempted robbery of an armored truck in Abington and served another nine years.
Bulger, meanwhile, fled Boston just before he was first indicted in 1995; he was later charged in 2000 in a sweeping indictment alleging he took part in 19 murders. The indictment alleged Bulger had been able to carry out his crimes for so long because he was secretly working as an FBI informant and was protected by his corrupt handlers.
Assistant US Attorney Brian Kelly, head of the public corruption unit, has said in court that prosecutors could not charge Nee in that racketeering case because the statute of limitations requiring a crime be committed within five years of a conspiracy had expired by the time they built the case against Bulger. Nee had been in jail for several years by then.
“I certainly remember his name having come up, and it was someone they were looking at, and all I can say is if there was any way he could have been charged based on the evidence at the time, he would have been charged,” said Donald Stern, former US attorney, who was in charge of the office at the time. “I remember there being a hard look at him.”
State investigators could pursue state murder charges, which are not subject to a statute of limitations.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said the prosecutor would be open to prosecuting any murder but could not comment on a case against Nee.
“We’re always looking for ways to investigate and prosecute murder in Suffolk County, but we have to defer comment while this federal trial is unfolding before the jury,” Wark said.
Legal observers argued, however, that it would be difficult for any prosecutor to build a murder case based on the testimony in a separate trial, especially based on the testimony of Flemmi, an admitted murderer, and in the case of Bulger, Boston’s most notorious criminal.
“The bottom line is, prosecuting people for murder based on the testimony of witnesses is an untrustworthy basis to bring an allegation of that gravity,” said Martin Weinberg, prominent Boston attorney, who has represented some of Bulger’s associates. “It’s not just saying someone did something, you’ve got to prove it, and if Flemmi is the witness, he’s not the most trustworthy for a state murder conviction.”
While Nee has been living freely, his appearance on “Saint Hoods,” which the Discovery Channel says is a dramatization of the bookie lifestyle, has outraged some family members.
“Shame on the Discovery Channel,” Tom Donahue said.
Christo Doyle, executive producer of the show, said that producers knew Nee had a history with Bulger, but that the extent of it was not known until the trial.
He said the channel was not trying to capitalize on the Bulger trial, and he would not comment on reactions of some of Bulger’s alleged victims.
“We are staying clear of the specifics of the trial,” he said. “We are following Pat Nee and his crew, and the things we’re following have nothing to do with the specifics of the Whitey trial,” he said. He added, “The fact that the trial is heating up and that Pat has been mentioned has been purely coincidence.”
The show will be upfront about the characters’ criminal backgrounds, Doyle said.
“We are not portraying them as anything other than what they are.”
The show, set to air this week, will not be the first time that Nee’s history of crime has been made public. He talks about it in his book and in a promotional video, in which he documents “A Day in the Life of Pat Nee”: Shoveling snow, working out at a boxing gym, and speaking at Hesser College, talking to a class on “Corrections, Policies, and Procedures” about how he shot the man who killed his brother.
“I try not to romanticize the criminal lifestyle,” he says in a narration at the end. “I give it to these kids straight. Spending 11½ years in prison will teach you that. I like this kind of work. I feel like I’m giving back. The only thing I don’t like is everyone making me out to be a good bad guy.”Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo that ran with an earlier version of this story about Patrick Nee, whose name has come up during the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, was a picture of his son, also named Patrick Nee.