After decades of myth making and endless accounts from foes and even friends about his duplicity and brutality, on Wednesday, finally, James “Whitey” Bulger sat before judge and jury as his own version of the truth was presented by his lawyer, an unusual defense that included stark admissions of guilt.
“He was involved in drug dealing,” his lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., matter of factly told jurors during opening statements at the long-awaited trial in US District Court, exploding Bulger’s long-held assertion that he kept cocaine and marijuana from his home turf of South Boston. And, yes, Carney told them, he was involved in illegal sports betting and loansharking.
“That’s what he did,” said Carney, conceding that Bulger ran “an unbelievably lucrative criminal enterprise” in Boston that raked in millions upon millions of dollars.
But, Bulger, who is charged with participating in 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s, denied being an informant and did not admit to killing anyone. He specifically denied strangling two young women or orchestrating the slayings of two businessmen in the death penalty states of Florida and Oklahoma.
The prosecution painted a very different picture. It described Bulger as a remorseless “hands-on killer,” who left others to bury his victims while he took a nap and terrorized an entire city while using the protection of corrupt FBI agents.
“He did the dirty work himself,” Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly told jurors, describing how a heavily armed Bulger allegedly lurked over his victims before ending their lives with a bullet to the back of the head or by choking them. Many of the victims were slain while Bulger was “one of the biggest informants in Boston,” Kelly said.
The prosecutor named each of the 19 victims as their photographs appeared one by one on television screens in the courtroom.
Kelly also revealed that witnesses will testify that Bulger, who is accused of demanding tribute from drug dealers, personally negotiated a deal with a drug supplier, then parceled out 50 pounds of cocaine for distribution.
It was a remarkable day, the beginning of a trial that many thought would never happen as Bulger remained an elusive figure for more than 16 years until his capture two years ago in Santa Monica, Calif. Since then, he has made occasional trips to the hospital for a heart ailment and filed a flurry of motions seeking to delay his trial.
The opening statements came on the 38th anniversary of the slaying of one of Bulger’s alleged victims, Edward Connors, who was gunned down in a Dorchester phone booth. His daughter, Karen Smith, said it was “calming” to know the case is finally moving forward. The trial is expected to last through September.
The courtroom was jammed with relatives of some of his alleged victims, law enforcement officials, reporters, and the public. The only vacant seats were in a front row reserved for Bulger’s family, where his youngest brother, John, sat alone for most of the morning. Later, he was joined by one of Bulger’s nieces and a lawyer.
Bulger, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved green jersey, and sneakers, stared ahead during most of the proceedings before US District Judge Denise J. Casper.
Bulger’s relationship with the FBI will be a major theme at the trial. Bulger paid FBI agents and other law enforcement officials for information about wiretaps, bugs, and advance notice of police searches, Carney told jurors.
Former agent John J. Connolly Jr. routinely leaked information to Bulger in exchange for payoffs of as much as $50,000 on one occasion, then falsely classified Bulger as an informant and filled his file with false reports, Carney said.
“The reason Connolly created the file was just to cover up the fact that he was being seen with Bulger so often, that he was meeting with him when Bulger would be providing money,” Carney told jurors. He said Connolly, who grew up in the same South Boston housing development as Bulger, was greedy and used Bulger to fund a lavish lifestyle.
Carney said that Bulger had not provided Connolly with any valuable information and that some of the information in his file had actually come from Bulger’s longtime sidekick, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, a longtime informant.
Connolly was described by Carney as “a rock star” in the FBI’s Boston office, who won raises and bonuses because of his ability to recruit informants in an era when decimating the Mafia was a national mandate for the FBI.
Carney, referencing Bulger’s Irish descent, insisted “the worst thing that an Irish person could consider doing was becoming an informant because of the history of The Troubles in Ireland.”
Connolly is serving a 40-year prison term in Florida for leaking information to Bulger and Flemmi that jurors found led to the 1982 slaying of John Callahan, a Boston businessman. Connolly was previously convicted of warning Bulger to flee in advance of his 1995 indictment.
As for the fugitive years, when Bulger was one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted, Carney said Bulger was not hiding, but rather “living openly in plain sight” until his arrest.
Carney urged jurors not to believe Bulger’s former close associates, who will testify for the government, including: Kevin Weeks, who served five years in prison for being an accessory to five murders; John Martorano, who served 12 years in prison for 20 murders; and Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for 10 murders.
Carney portrayed Martorano and Flemmi as violent psychopaths and told jurors that Flemmi killed two women, Debra Davis and Deborah Hussey, then blamed Bulger for the slayings. And he said Martorano and Flemmi were trying to frame Bulger for the 1981 slaying of Tulsa businessman Roger Wheeler in Oklahoma and Callahan in Florida a year later.
Carney said Bulger was making millions of dollars from his crimes, while protected by law enforcement officials on his payroll, and had “no reason to go out of his comfort zone” and kill someone in Florida.
Stephen Rakes, whose South Boston liquor store was allegedly extorted from him by Bulger and his associates in 1984, sat with the families of many of Bulger’s alleged victims.
“Thirty years ago I’d never look at him, and now I can’t wait to look him right in the eyes,” Rakes said. “Now his day has come. It took a long time, but the theory is good will triumph over evil and that’s why we’re all here today. Let’s put an end to this craziness.”Brian Ballou and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @shelleymurph;
@miltonvalencia; and @globeballou.