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Brian T. Kelly’s work as a federal prosecutor is done, now that his decades-long crusade to bring James “Whitey” Bulger to justice is over.

A month after Bulger, 84, was sentenced to two life prison terms, Kelly, who played a critical role in the gangster’s conviction, has left the US attorney’s office to become a partner in Nixon Peabody, a prominent Boston law firm.

“It was important to finish the case and see him held accountable for what he did,” Kelly said in a telephone interview. “At this point, it’s a good time in my life to make a change, try something different.”

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Kelly, 52, resigned Friday as chief of the US attorney’s public corruption and special investigations unit.

Nixon Peabody announced Monday that Kelly will be a partner in the firm’s government investigations and white collar defense practice, beginning in January. He will represent clients in government investigations, regulatory compliance, white collar criminal defense, and health care fraud, the law firm said.

“Brian has the depth of experience few lawyers in the white-collar defense bar can match, given his role in some of the highest-profile public corruption and racketeering cases brought by the US attorney’s office,” said Andrew I. Glincher, chief executive and managing partner of Nixon Peabody.

Kelly is following the path of two high-profile figures, former US senator Scott Brown and former Middlesex district attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., who joined Nixon Peabody earlier this year.

The opportunity to move from a government job to the private sector also comes as Kelly, a father of three, is facing mounting college tuition bills.

“With two kids in college and a third on the way, it’s a good transition time for me,” he said.

One of six children raised in Medway, Kelly said he was 11 when a teenage friend was brutally murdered by another teenager. The 1972 slaying sparked Kelly’s interest in the law. He said he was outraged that the young killer served only a year in prison.

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“That was my first brush with the criminal justice system,” Kelly said. “I thought the criminal justice system needed to be a little more responsive to the rights of victims and take crimes like murder more seriously.”

After graduating from Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Kelly worked as a defense lawyer and federal prosecutor in San Diego before joining the US attorney’s office in Boston in 1991. Shortly after his arrival, Kelly joined fellow prosecutor Fred Wyshak and a team of investigators from the State Police and Drug Enforcement Administration to build a case against Bulger.

The case dragged on for decades as Bulger fled to avoid a 1995 racketeering indictment and remained a fugitive for more than 16 years while his associates were prosecuted, federal court hearings exposed the gangster’s corrupt relationship with the FBI, and the hidden graves of Bulger’s victims were unearthed.

Wyshak said he and Kelly had to fight the institutional interests of the FBI and the Justice Department in the 1990s while initially pursuing the case against Bulger, a longtime FBI informant.

“At that time, the major concern was that pursuing the Bulger case might damage the FBI’s informant program and reduce their ability to develop informants,” Wyshak said. “We thought it was more important to pursue that case because of the nature of the criminal allegations involved than to try to protect that institutional interest.”

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When Bulger was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., Kelly and Wyshak immediately began preparing for trial. A third prosecutor, Zachary Hafer, joined the prosecution team.

In August, after an eight-week trial, Bulger was convicted of participating in 11 murders while running a sprawling racketeering enterprise from the 1970s through the 1990s.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz described Kelly as a passionate, talented prosecutor and said it was “very beneficial” to the office that Kelly was in place when Bulger was captured because of his familiarity with the investigators, the families of the victims and the witnesses.

She said it is not uncommon for the US attorney’s office to lose prosecutors to the private sector, since the government can not keep pace with the higher salaries. Federal prosecutors make a maximum salary of about $155,000.

While Kelly is best known for his prosecution of Bulger, he has been at the center of many high-profile cases. He has overseen efforts to recover $500 million worth of artwork stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

Kelly and Wyshak prosecuted financial fraud involving Boston’s Big Dig project and recovered more than $500 million for the government. As head of the public corruption unit, Kelly supervised the investigations and prosecutions of former Massachusetts House speakers Salvatore F. DiMasi, and Thomas M. Finneran, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, and former Boston city councilor Chuck Turner.

Boston attorney Anthony Cardinale, who has represented clients who were prosecuted by Kelly, said: “He can be really harsh when he has to be. He can be very biting . . . a dangerous, dangerous opponent. . . . I wish him all the best. Frankly, I’m glad to know that I’m not going to have to face him.”

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Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum, said Kelly was totally committed to trying to recover the stolen artwork and often accompanied the FBI on interviews, and visited the museum frequently.

“He’s helped advance the case so much that when we get them back, his work will never be discounted or diminished,” Amore said.

Kelly, who worked with the FBI for six years on the Gardner investigation, says his one regret is that they did not solve the heist. But he said he believes the artwork will be found. “Sometimes you need a little luck.”


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.