BOSTON (Reuters) - Jurors hearing the murder and racketeering trial of James “Whitey” Bulger on Thursday saw weapons including machine guns that prosecutors alleged Bulger’s gang used in crimes including shaking down smaller-time crooks.
One probe into the “Winter Hill” gang started in 1990 by working with suspects who ran illegal gambling rackets, which officials said Bulger’s gang extracted cash payments from, a former top Massachusetts State Police official said at Boston’s waterfront federal courthouse.
“We decided that the best way to attack the organization was through the bookmakers,” said retired Colonel Thomas Foley, adding that extorting bookmakers, who ran gambling rings, was an important source of revenue for Bulger’s gang.
“As a result of my years working organized crime, we had a lot of information ... about the activities of James Bulger,” Foley said.
Bulger, now 83, has pleaded not guilty to all charges including racketeering, money laundering and 19 murders he is accused of committing or ordering in the 1970s and 80s. If convicted he faces the possibility of life in prison.
During the trial’s opening on Wednesday, defense attorney J.W. Carney cast the suspect as a mild-mannered gangster who ran highly profitable loan-sharking, gambling and drug operations. He said Bulger’s former criminal associates blamed murders they had committed on Bulger in exchange for more lenient sentences.
Bulger’s story began in a largely Irish working-class neighborhood. He became one of Boston’s most powerful and feared criminals and disappeared for 16 years, evading arrest even as his name was listed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. His story has fascinated Boston for years and large crowds of onlookers have packed into court to catch a glimpse of what is expected to be a four-month trial.
It also stood as a black mark on Boston law enforcement as Bulger for years worked with FBI agents who were more focused on breaking gangs made up of ethnic Italians than criminals who shared their Irish ancestry.
Under cross-examination by Bulger’s attorney Henry Brennan, Foley said that he believed his investigations into Bulger had been undermined by the FBI and Justice Department, and said he had been surprised at being thwarted by fellow law enforcement officials.
Foley told a trial being heard by U.S. District Judge Denise Casper that his investigation focused on bookmakers that Bulger’s gang forced to pay a fee to operate on their turf, particularly around the largely Irish neighborhoods in South Boston. People who did not pay, Foley added, faced consequences “from being put out of business, to taking a beating to, at times, being killed.”
Foley also described a January 2000 search of the home of Bulger associate Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, where searchers found a hidden storage unit that held ammunition, handcuffs, a blue light of the type police typically used on unmarked cars and a largely empty gun rack.
Flemmi’s house was located across the street from the home of Bulger’s brother William, who became the powerful speaker of the Massachusetts State Senate.
In 2001, police searched the house of Flemmi’s son and dug up weapons including pump-action shotguns, a Thompson machine gun and several rubber masks with beards, moustaches and cartoonish expressions.
Another search turned up machine guns including an M-16 military rifle and multiple German-made MP-40 automatic machine guns, which prosecutors showed in court on Thursday.
Foley said that his searches turned up no weapons, masks or ammunition at Bulger’s house and noted that none of the weapons seized had Bulger’s fingerprints or DNA on them.
Earlier, jurors heard from former Massachusetts State Police Lieutenant Robert Long who identified Bulger in black-and-white surveillance video shot in 1980 at a Boston garage the “Winter Hill” gang had used as an office. The video showed Bulger as he spoke with several alleged associates, including Flemmi, who appeared entering and leaving the garage and using pay phones.
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.
His story inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning movie “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a character based on Bulger.
Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott, David Gregorio and Bernard Orr