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BOSTON (Reuters) - 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.
The 83-year-old suspect's lead attorney, J.W. Carney, said Bulger had been a gangster but denied he was a cold-blooded killer. The three prosecution witnesses expected to provide key testimony in the murder charges, he said, were violent men willing to say anything to reduce their time in prison and avoid execution.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all 32 criminal counts, which include racketeering, money laundering, extortion and gun charges as well as murder. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted in a trial at U.S. District Court in Boston.
Prosecutors began by recounting their version of the July 1983 murder of Arthur "Bucky" Barrett, a reseller of stolen jewelry. They said Bulger invited Barrett to a house in Boston, where he and associate Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi interrogated Barrett until they learned where he kept his money. They then told him to walk down the basement steps.
"Bulger made a joke, 'Barrett's going downstairs to lie down for a while,'" Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly told the jury. "As Barrett walked down the stairs, this man over here, Bulger, shot Barrett in the back of the head, killed him."
Barrett's body was buried in the house's dirt-floored basement, Kelly said.
He described that attack as typical of the approach Bulger's gang took in extorting criminals and legitimate businesses.
"Part of the success of Bulger's criminal enterprise was due to its fearsome reputation," Kelly said. "He did the dirty work himself. He was a hands-on killer."
The case stands as 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 tips on rival gangs to law enforcement officials.
Defense attorney 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.
"Bulger is a person who had an unbelievably lucrative criminal enterprise in Boston. He was making millions and millions of dollars," Carney said. "To protect this business, he wanted to pay for information and receive it from corrupt law enforcement officers."
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.
Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica, California, where he was living with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, in a house stocked with guns and more than $800,000 in cash.
The character played by Jack Nicholson in the Academy Award-winning movie "The Departed" was loosely based on Bulger.
Both sides focused on three witnesses described by prosecutors as criminal associates of Bulger: Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for murder, as well as Kevin Weeks and John Martorano, both of whom pleaded guilty to committing murders but have completed their sentences.
Prosecutor Kelly said Martorano had helped to solve several crimes when he pleaded guilty to 20 murders, fingering Bulger in several of them. He served 12 years in prison.
"He did confess and he did cooperate and he did help solve crimes that had been unsolved for three decades," Kelly said.
Defense attorney Carney said Martorano had implicated Bulger in an attempt to get his sentence reduced.
"This process may be a pretty good recipe to get testimony, but it's an unreliable recipe to get the truth," Carney said.
He directly addressed two of the murders Bulger is accused of - Debra Davis, Flemmi's girlfriend, and Deborah Hussey, Flemmi's stepdaughter. Debra's brother, Steven, was among the family members of Bulger's alleged victims present in court on Wednesday.
Carney contended that Bulger would have had no reason to kill either woman - and alleged that Flemmi had acted alone.
"Even though James Bulger had absolutely no motive to kill Stevie Flemmi's girlfriend, Flemmi's going to say to you, 'Oh I didn't kill her. James Bulger did,'" Carney said.
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Andrew Hay and Douglas Royalty