BOSTON — Testimony in the murder and racketeering trial of James “Whitey” Bulger will shift on Friday to some of the small-time Boston bookmakers from whom the accused mob boss’s gang demanded tribute payments.
His trial on charges including murder and racketeering represents the conclusion of one of Boston’s longest-running crime dramas, which saw the alleged leader of the “Winter Hill” gang flee the city almost two decades ago as the FBI closed in on him and avoid arrest for 16 years.
Bulger, now 83, has pleaded not guilty to all counts, with his lawyer in opening arguments this week painting the man who once featured prominently on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list as a mild-mannered criminal who engaged in illegal gambling, loansharking and drug dealing but not murder.
In the first two days of the trial, former Massachusetts State Police officials said they had built a case against Bulger by going to the bookmakers who were forced to pay tribute money to the “Winter Hill” gang, which also included Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Kevin Weeks and John Martorano.
Those three men are scheduled to testify against Bulger, saying they committed murders alongside their accused former chief.
Witnesses on Friday are expected to include James Katz and Richard O’Brien, both of whom authorities say were shaken down by Bulger’s violent gang.
Police focused on bookmakers as their best initial leads in developing information on Bulger, retired State Police Colonel Thomas Foley told the court on Thursday.
“We had a lot of information and some informants out there that were giving us extensive information about the activities of James Bulger,” Foley said.
Bulger’s attorneys have raised questions about the reliability of the testimony of Flemmi, Weeks and Martorano, saying the three men fingered Bulger for murders he did not commit in exchange for lesser sentences for their own crimes.
Evidence at the trial, which so far has included grainy black and white 1980 surveillance video of Bulger and associates meeting at the downtown garage they used as an office, hearkens back to a grittier time in Boston’s history.
Some of the 19 murders Bulger is accused of committing or ordering happened within a few blocks of the waterfront U.S. District Court building where the trial is attracting overflow crowds of victims’ families, onlookers and journalists.
Bulger’s story inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning film “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a character based on Bulger.
Prosecutors said Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from a corrupt FBI agent. He avoided arrest for 16 years before FBI officials tracked him down in June 2011, living with his girlfriend in a seaside apartment in Santa Monica, California. (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)