BOSTON Reputed mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger appeared to be enjoying his federal trial on Tuesday, chuckling genially as a former cocaine dealer who worked for him in the 1980s suggested Bulger might not have gotten his fair share of the profits.
William Shea, who ran a major marijuana and cocaine ring in South Boston, testified that at his height he was clearing at least $100,000 a week and paying Bulger $10,000.
"I'm thinking that Jim's looking at me and saying, 'You son of a bitch, you made that kind of money and I got that end?'" Shea said with a grin. Earlier, he had drawn another smile from Bulger, 83, by identifying him as "that young fella" at the defense table.
Shea had the courtroom riveted with folksy testimony about his ruthless efforts to consolidate all the drug trade in South Boston under Bulger's umbrella. Bulger, he said, made clear that he didn't want to be associated with drug dealing - but did expect a cut.
"One of the things I did learn from Jim - he schooled me pretty good in the beginning - was to create buffers," Shea said. "Basically, I was his buffer with this operation."
Bulger is on trial for racketeering, money laundering, extortion and killing or ordering the murders of 19 people while at the helm of the Winter Hill Gang during the 1970s and '80s. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, but his lawyer has acknowledged that Bulger ran a criminal enterprise that included drug trafficking. The defense chose not to cross-examine Shea.
In a long story that unspooled like a crime novel, Shea told the jury that he wanted to get out of the drug trade in 1986 but Bulger repeatedly told him he couldn't retire. Shea ignored that and went to Florida. When he returned, he said, Bulger and two of his most feared hit men came to his apartment, escorted him to a car and drove him to a deserted housing complex. There, Shea said Bulger told him to walk into a concrete basement.
"I'm thinking he took me down there to frighten me or whack me," Shea said.
Shea said he was so nervous he could barely focus, but he did hear Bulger say something about trust. So he reminded Bulger that he had not ratted out his partners in crime a few years earlier when he was arrested on drug charges. That seemed to settle Bulger, he said, and the tension melted. They left the cellar and Bulger offered him a ride home. Shea said he took a look at the hit men in the car and demurred.
"I said 'No, I can walk,'" he said.
Earlier in the day, former cocaine trafficker Joseph Tower testified that after he teamed up with Shea and Bulger in the early 1980s, his profits soared. He and Shea drove around urging small-time dealers to buy drugs from them at a premium in return for Bulger's protection.
"You were always successful in persuading them?" Bulger attorney J.W. Carney asked.
"Oh, 100 percent," Tower said.
He added that his customers always paid up - and if they didn't, all he had to do was remind them about "the muscle" behind his organization.
Jurors also heard recorded snippets of conversations Bulger had with relatives last year while being held in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. In one, he described the murder of an associate by making the sound of a machine gun spraying bullets. "As usual," he told his nephew.
In another, Bulger joked and laughed with his brother about an incident decades earlier when he audibly loaded a shotgun to scare away three young men he believed were out to rob one of his liquor stores.
The trial will resume Monday after an extended break for the July 4th holiday.
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Toni Reinhold and Douglas Royalty)