BOSTON — Almost two decades after a corrupt FBI agent helped him avoid capture, reputed crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger is starting a trial that may shed new light on a shameful period for the FBI.

Bulger, 83, is accused of 19 murders and widespread racketeering while he led an Irish-American organized crime gang in South Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Prosecutors say Bulger was an FBI informant during most of that time, and at least three agents were corrupted by his alleged schemes.

Bulger was captured in 2011 after 16 years on the run, and may spend the rest of his life in prison if he’s found guilty. U.S. District Judge Denise Casper, who is overseeing the three- month trial, started selecting a jury Tuesday in Boston, with opening statements scheduled for June 10.

Bulger, who grew up in the predominantly Irish-Catholic housing projects of South Boston, became involved in serious crimes at a young age, including rape, and spent three years in the Alcatraz federal prison for bank robbery before rising to dominate much of Boston’s criminal underworld, the FBI has said. His list of alleged victims includes gangsters who crossed him and two young women who were missing for years before their bodies were unearthed in secret mob graves.

“This is a very violent and very dangerous guy who corrupted certain people within the FBI and used those relationships to his advantage,” Mark Pearlstein, a criminal defense lawyer who was a prosecutor in Boston from 1989 to 2000, said in a phone interview.

Families of victims say federal agents wrongfully protected Bulger from local and state authorities for years, letting him kill and steal in exchange for information about a bigger FBI target that he was associated with, the Patriarca Family organized crime group.


The symbiotic relationship came to an end when Bulger vanished in 1994, tipped off about impending charges. The warning had come from his longtime FBI handler, Special Agent John Connolly, who’s now serving a total of 50 years in prison for crimes linked to Bulger, including murder.

Bulger eventually shared a space on the FBI’s most-wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden. The agency described Bulger as one of its “most notorious fugitives,” known for infiltrating the FBI and “sowing seeds of public distrust in law enforcement that remain in South Boston to this day.”

Bulger was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., following an advertising blitz by U.S. investigators seeking tips. The FBI had offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

Bulger’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig, who had gone into hiding with him, was also arrested. In March 2012, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.

Security at the courthouse will be tight during Bulger’s trial, and hundreds of people are expected to vie for seats in the courtroom. Bulger’s family members will have five reserved seats, according to court officials.

Bulger’s brother William, the former longtime president of the state senate, was forced out as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003, after he admitted he spoke to his fugitive brother in the 1990s and didn’t help law enforcement capture him.


Bulger, who denies he was an FBI informant, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and claims he struck an immunity deal with the Justice Department years ago that protects him from prosecution. His lawyer, J.W. Carney, hasn’t explained why Bulger would have an immunity deal if he wasn’t an informant.

The government said in court filings that Bulger’s immunity deal is a fantasy, and that no official can confer what amounts to “a license to kill.” Casper ruled on May 2 that Bulger’s lawyers can’t tell the jury about the alleged immunity.

Carney declined to comment on the allegations when reached by email before the trial started.
Prosecutors are calling about 70 witnesses to testify against Bulger, including several of his closest associates who were captured after he fled. They include his longtime partners Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks, and gunman John Martorano, who admitted he killed 20 people, sometimes on Bulger’s orders.

The defense is calling about 30 witnesses, including Richard Stearns, the judge who was removed from Bulger’s case by a federal appeals court after Bulger complained he might be biased because he was once a top prosecutor in Boston. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who will leave in September after 12 years on the job, was also called as a witness.

The trial may unearth new information about the extent of the FBI’s links to Bulger when he was loose on the streets of Boston, according to Pearlstein.

“This is a very high profile trial and any revelation will receive a lot of attention – it’ll be uncomfortable for federal law enforcement,” Pearlstein said in a phone interview. “I think the FBI probably views this as a form of catharsis.”


The FBI directed questions about the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, where spokeswoman Christina Sterling declined to comment on the agency’s past involvement with Bulger.

The trial will be a relief for other law enforcement in Boston whose past efforts to bring Bulger to justice were thwarted by corruption, said Thomas Peisch, a former Boston prosecutor who’s now a white-collar criminal defense lawyer.

“It’s important for the city of Boston, important for the families of the victims and important for honest law enforcement folks who pursued Bulger for years and were stymied by the crookedness in the FBI office,” Peisch said in a phone interview.

Bulger’s defense team will seek to undermine the U.S.’s case by portraying their witnesses as “unsavory characters” who are willing say anything to get a deal, according to Pearlstein.

Bulger’s defense “will lacerate them on cross examination,” Pearlstein said. “Some will be murderers or people who were involved in the very crimes that Bulger stands accused of committing.”

Mike Kendall, who as a Boston prosecutor for eight years helped generate early evidence for the case and later represented the family of one of the murder victims, said the trial could be especially embarrassing for the FBI if Bulger decides to take the stand.

“The interesting question is what will Bulger do to frustrate the prosecution and embarrass his enemies?” said Kendall. “Can he do things to delay or derail the prosecution? Will any more government agents be embarrassed?”


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