CRIME
06/04/2013 09:27 am ET Updated Jun 07, 2013

James 'Whitey' Bulger, Fugitive Mobster, Begins Murder Trial

AP

When James "Whitey" Bulger steps into a Boston federal court Tuesday, it will be easy to see how the now bald, thin, 83-year-old was able to blend in with Santa Monica residents as half of an unassuming retired couple. But the elderly man now taking center stage in the biggest mob trial in years has a biography that's cut from stuff stranger than fiction.

Mob kingpin, FBI snitch, cold-blooded killer, fugitive: these are the well-known allegations forming the core of Bulger's murder trial, set to begin with jury selection on Tuesday.

His larger-than-life story is colored in with odd details. While serving a bank robbery conviction in the 1950s, he was a guinea pig for CIA experiments with LSD. Later, he supplied guns to the Irish Republican Army and once even won a cut of a $14.3 million lottery jackpot. His younger brother, William "Billy" Bulger, just happened to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, serving for 17 years as the state Senate's president.

Federal prosecutors contend that Whitey Bulger, a former head of the Boston underworld, killed or arranged the murder of 19 people between 1973 and 1985. The staggering body count alone provides enough grist to justify wall-to-wall trial coverage.

Expected to last three months, the trial will dredge up the dark, unseemly relationship between the reputed head of Boston's Winter Hill Gang and the FBI, including corrupt agent John Connolly who helped Bulger flee in 1994.

"It touches everything that made Boston run," Boston University law professor David Rossman, a former prosecutor, said of Bulger's reach across organized crime, law enforcement and politics. "There was a triumvirate of extraordinarily powerful people in Boston -- Billy Bulger, John Connolly and Whitey. He was the figure that connected everybody."

Bulger's alleged 19 victims include a broad range of people: criminal associates killed for getting on Bulger's bad side; a girlfriend of Bulger's partner in crime, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, who was strangled because she knew too much, prosecutors say; and an unlucky soul killed during a hit on another man.

"I'd like to see him rot in jail," said Patricia Donahue, whose husband, Michael, was shot dead in 1982, an innocent bystander to Bulger's alleged gunning down of a man who fingered him for another murder.

"My kids would rather see him have the death penalty," she added.

The period of alleged bloodshed covers Bulger's emergence as a dominant hoodlum from Southie, a predominantly Irish-American neighborhood in Boston where he grew up in public housing, to his attempts to maintain his grip on the city's drug dealing, loan sharking, gambling and shakedowns.

The FBI counted Bulger as an informant, for years getting dirt from him to take down his foes in the New England Mafia.

"They [thought] they can get a big fish by letting a little fish get away," said Boston College law professor Bob Bloom of the FBI's interactions with Bulger.

But the partnership led to one of the most indelible stains on the bureau's history. Connolly tipped Bulger off to a looming indictment against him in 1994, giving the wanted man a head start in what turned out to be 16 years on the lam.

For years, Bulger was the second-most wanted man in America, behind Osama bin Laden. Then with the 2011 raid that killed the al Qaeda leader, Bulger suddenly found himself at the top of the FBI's fugitive list. Soon after, he was busted in Santa Monica, Calif., along with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

Attorneys for Bulger claim that a federal prosecutor granted him immunity, though they deny he acted as an informant. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper, however, has ruled that argument can't be made in court.

That's forced the defense team to reshape its strategy, and Bulger's lawyers will apparently now focus on attacking the credibility of government witnesses in the case. Several are convicted killers from Bulger's gang who agreed to testify against their former boss.

"The government now offers these men as witnesses against James Bulger with no apparent regard for their complete lack of credibility," wrote defense lawyers J.W. Carney and Hank Brennan in a recent motion. Carney declined a request for an interview.

In addition to the convicted criminals lined up to testify against Bulger, the prosecution's witness list includes the relatives of his alleged victims.

Bulger is expected to take the stand in his own defense, and some observers suggest he'll use his testimony as an opportunity to air embarrassing details about his alliance with the FBI.

Other defense witnesses include heavy-hitters like FBI director Robert Mueller, who was a federal prosecutor in Boston in the 1980s and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who was a U.S. prosecutor in Boston from 1981 to 1986.

Rossman, the former prosecutor, doesn't expect the trial to end with Bulger walking out of court a free man.

"I doubt you're going to find 12 people from the greater Boston area who will say that it's beyond a reasonablee doubt that Whitey Bulger killed at least one person," he said.

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