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BOSTON (Reuters) - A former top henchman of James "Whitey" Bulger said he pleaded guilty to 10 murders so he could avoid the death penalty after the FBI cracked down on their gang, their boss fled Boston and other gang members started talking to prosecutors.
"However you looked at it, I was dead," Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi testified.
He recalled that in late 1994, a corrupt FBI agent told him and Bulger that authorities were closing in. Flemmi stuck around and got arrested, believing he and Bulger could avoid prosecution since they had spent years informing the FBI about other criminal gangs.
Flemmi said he held out for years, confident he could beat the rap. But he ultimately decided to confess after learning that fellow gangster John "The Executioner" Martorano had begun to talk.
Defense lawyers were questioning Flemmi about why he confessed to the murders, seeking to cast doubt about his five days of testimony against Bulger. Flemmi, the prosecution's star witness, has provided jurors with vivid accounts of several murders he said Bulger committed in front of him.
Bulger, for decades the notorious leader of Boston's Winter Hill gang, is on trial for charges related to 19 murders he is accused of committing or ordering in the 1970s and '80s.
Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence in prison, said he made the plea deal to avoid execution for murders in Florida and Oklahoma, states that have capital punishment.
"I survived an awful lot of things," Flemmi said, but when asked by defense attorney Henry Brennan whether he believed he could have survived the death penalty, he replied, "No."
Flemmi, 79, is among three of Bulger's top henchmen who have taken the stand against their former boss at his federal trial, now in its seventh week. Unlike the other witnesses, Martorano and Kevin Weeks, Flemmi is still in prison.
Martorano and Weeks, who started cooperating with prosecutors before Flemmi did, each served shorter sentences and now are free.
The 83-year-old Bulger, whose story inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed", has pleaded not guilty to all charges, though his lawyer admitted Bulger had been a drug dealer, extortionist and loan shark - in other words "an organized criminal."
For more than a decade, Bulger and Flemmi met regularly with corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, who shared Bulger's Irish ethnicity and a South Boston upbringing. Connolly turned a blind eye to the gangsters' crimes in exchange for information about the Italian Mafia, which was a top FBI target at the time.
Flemmi recalled how Connolly had once kept the heat off him and his boss, sparing them indictment in 1979 when other members of their gang were arrested on charges of fixing horse races.
Fellow gang member Howard Winter was arrested in that sweep, convicted and spent 10 years in prison, Flemmi testified, while he and Bulger continued their crimes with the FBI's knowledge.
Bulger denies being an informant, insisting that he paid Connolly for information but offered none of his own.
Nevertheless, his attorneys had sought to argue that Bulger could not be prosecuted due to an immunity deal with federal authorities. U.S. District Judge Denise Casper did not allow that argument, saying an immunity deal that allowed murder would not be legal.
Flemmi said the 1979 incident convinced him that Connolly could keep protecting him and Bulger from the law. But the corrupt agent was ultimately arrested himself, and is now serving a 40-year prison sentence on murder and racketeering charges.
Bulger's defense has worked to call attention to past lies by prosecution witnesses, and Brennan got Flemmi to concede that when he was arrested in 1994, he did not immediately disclose the relationship with Connolly.
"I was told by John Connolly that he would come forward," Flemmi said. "If I showed that there was a corrupt relationship I wouldn't have had any defense."
The trial has brought jurors back to a different era in Boston history, when Bulger's gang acted with impunity. Some of the murders described took place just blocks from the waterfront site that today is home to Boston's federal courthouse, where the trial is underway.
After fleeing Boston, Bulger spent 16 years in hiding, evading capture even while on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list. Agents arrested him in June 2011 in a seaside Santa Monica, California home where he lived, keeping a cache of guns and $800,000 cash.
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by David Gregorio