BOSTON — Federal prosecutors described accused Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger as a “hands-on killer” in the opening statements Wednesday in his long-awaited trial on 19 murders he is said to have committed or ordered in the 1970s and 80s.
In a story that has fascinated Boston for decades, the accused head of the “Winter Hill” crime gang fled after a corrupt law enforcement agent tipped him off in 1994 that arrest was imminent. He lived in hiding for 16 years, most of them while on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.
“It’s a case about organized crime, public corruption and all sorts of illegal activities ranging from extortion to drug dealing to money laundering, to possession of machine guns to murder,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly in his opening statement. “While he started out as just one member of the enterprise, eventually he took control, he became the leader. And he was no ordinary leader because he did the dirty work himself. He was a hands-on killer.”
Bulger’s trial at U.S. District Court in Boston is expected to run about four months and feature more than 100 witnesses, including alleged victims, criminal associates and law enforcement personnel.
Charges against Bulger, 83, include extortion and racketeering in addition to murder. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
His case stands as something of a black mark on Boston law enforcement as investigators who shared his Irish background worked with Bulger while they focused their efforts on taking down the Italian mob. Prosecutors described Bulger as an informant who provided law enforcement officer with tips on rival gangs.
Defense attorney J.W. Carney on Wednesday denied that Bulger had ever served as an informant, instead maintaining that his client met with a former top Boston FBI agent to pay him money to protect what Carney described as a criminal bookmaking, loan-sharking and drug-trafficking operation.
“James Bulger was involved in criminal activities in Boston … in order to protect this business, he wanted to pay for information and receive it from corrupt law enforcement officers,” Carney said. “If he ever was going to be indicted, he wanted a heads-up so he could leave town. That’s what he was paying for.”
Bulger has lost the bright blond hair that earned him his nickname in his youth and has shaved the beard he wore at the time of his arrest in a seaside California town two years ago. He sat quietly in court during Wednesday’s proceedings.
His attorneys have argued that Bulger was granted immunity for his crimes by a now-deceased federal prosecutor, although U.S. District Judge Denise Casper has said such a deal would not be legally valid.
It took the court more than a week to work through a pool of more than 800 potential jurors to build a jury of 12 members and six alternates who said they could be impartial on one of Boston’s most notorious criminal cases.
Bulger’s story inspired Martin Scorsese’s 1996 Academy Award-winning film “The Departed.” Several scenes from the movie were shot within blocks of the waterfront federal courthouse where Bulger is being tried.
The trial drew an overflow crowd of onlookers, reporters and families of some of Bulger’s alleged victims, including Steven Davis, whose 26-year-old sister, Debra, was one of Bulger’s alleged victims, and Patricia Donahue, widow of Michael Donahue. (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Andrew Hay and Douglas Royalty)