James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s trial opens in Boston

The trial of longtime fugitive and accused Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger began in Boston Wednesday with opening statements from a federal prosecutor and Bulger’s attorney:

Prosecutor Brian Kelly told jurors that Bulger headed the violent Winter Hill Gang that “ran amok” in Boston for nearly three decades, killing 19 people, extorting millions from drug dealers and other criminals, and corrupting police and FBI agents. ¶ “At the center of all this murder and mayhem is one man — the defendant in this case, James Bulger,” Kelly said.

Associated Press

The trial could be the denouement to a long and lurid tale of criminality:

Bulger’s rise as the city’s brutal organized crime leader was aided and abetted by corrupt FBI agents, who brushed off Bulger’s racketeering and violence in exchange for his help as an informant to bring down the local mafia, according to a lengthy ruling by a federal judge and other investigations.

A 2004 report on FBI informants by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found “no doubt” that law-enforcement personnel, including FBI officials, were aware that informants, including Bulger, “were committing murders.”

Bulger’s FBI handler, John Connolly, grew up near Bulger in a hardscrabble South Boston housing complex. They hooked up as adults with a shared interest in bringing down the New England Mafia — Connolly, because of the FBI’s obsession with Italian organized crime, and Bulger, because it was his primary competition. . .

Although the FBI had been accused of not wanting to find Bulger, perhaps for fear he would disclose more corruption, the agency renewed efforts to find him several years ago.

There had been alleged sightings around the world, but it turned out Bulger and one of his longtime girlfriends had been living the life of retirees in Santa Monica, Calif. He was turned in by a former a neighbor, an ex-beauty queen from Iceland. She received a $2 million reward. . .

Bulger was living under an assumed name, with false identification and dozens of weapons — and $800,000 in cash — stashed in the walls.

Michael Rosenwald

In the years he has been at large, the neighborhood he used to control has changed:

Four decades after Bulger first rose to power, South Boston is no longer the neighborhood of Bulger’s heyday. This once blue-collar, Irish-Catholic stronghold is now an ethnic melting pot that has been invaded by young urban professionals, pricey condominiums and upscale coffee shops.

“Southie,” as it’s been called by generations of natives, is now called “Sobo” by newcomers who live there. . .

Now, the neighborhood is dotted with expensive condominiums snapped up by professionals who are attracted to its waterfront district and its proximity to downtown Boston. Some people who grew up in South Boston can no longer afford to live here. . .

Billy O’Brien, whose father, William O’Brien, is one of the men authorities allege was killed by Bulger and his gang, says while he was growing up, groups of kids would play street hockey or hang around together on street corners every night. Now, he said, he rarely sees kids outside, and spontaneous street games have been replaced by organized kickball or Frisbee leagues.

“The yuppies have invaded. It’s totally overrun by yuppies,” said O’Brien, 40, a lifelong resident. “I got nothing against them, but back then you knew the people when you were walking down the street. I don’t know anyone anymore.”

Associated Press

For Melinda Henneberger, Bulger’s trial will also be an opportunity to examine the FBI’s methods:

The bureau will be on trial here, too, in the court of public opinion, anyway. At a time when its officials stand accused of both trampling civil liberties and blowing off intelligence that the Russians claim could have headed off the Marathon bombings, it might be easier to find 12 jurors and six alternates with an open mind about Bulger, a man accused of killing two 26-year-old women with his bare hands.

Melinda Henneberger

Bulger faces 32 criminal counts in the trial, which is expected to last several months.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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