BOSTON — James “Whitey” Bulger, 83, is no longer the feared man who swaggered around South Boston and later became one of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives. The bright platinum hair that earned Bulger his nickname is all but gone, and his reputed status as the leader of a violent gang has passed.
But with Bulger’s long-awaited trial due to get underway Monday, it’s clear that the passage of time has done little to diminish Boston’s fascination with him.
“He’s a survivor. He’s had a very long shelf life in a profession where that is not typical,” said Dick Lehr, who has co-written two books about Bulger, including the biography “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss.”
“The many faces of Whitey make him intriguing,” Lehr said.
Those faces include his early image as a modern Robin Hood and harmless tough guy who gave turkeys to his neighbors at Thanksgiving and kept drug dealers out of the neighborhood. That image was crushed when authorities began digging up bodies.
Bulger, who headed the Winter Hill Gang and its loan-sharking, gambling and drug rackets, would eventually be charged with playing a role in 19 murders but fled in late 1994 after FBI agent John Connolly Jr. tipped him off that he was about to be indicted. He remained a fugitive for more than 16 years before finally being captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011.
Bulger’s trial, set to begin this week with jury selection, promises to have all the glamour and gore of a TV mob drama. Prosecutors plan to call a collection of infamous mob figures, including Bulger’s former partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, who is now serving a life sentence for 10 murders and admitted pulling the teeth of some of the gang’s victims.
Former hit man John Martorano, who admitted killing 20 people, will also take the stand, as will Kevin Weeks, a former Bulger lieutenant who eventually led authorities to half a dozen bodies.
Bulger’s attorneys have made it clear that they will attack the credibility of men they describe as “once-reviled criminal defendants” whom prosecutors have transformed into “loyal government witnesses.”
“The government now offers these men as witnesses against James Bulger with no apparent regard for their complete lack of credibility,” attorneys J.W. Carney Jr. and Hank Brennan wrote in a recent court filing.
After Bulger went on the run, the public learned that he had been working as an FBI informant for years, providing information on the New England Mob — his gang’s main rivals — even while he was committing a long list of crimes, including murder, prosecutors say.
The revelations of the corrupt relationship embarrassed the FBI and led to Connolly being convicted of racketeering.
Law enforcement officials who felt thwarted for years as they investigated Bulger say the trial may give them a long-overdue sense of justice. “We were frustrated because he was being protected by the FBI, but we didn’t know to what extent,” said retired state police detective Bob Long, who investigated Bulger in the 1970s and ’80s.
Bulger’s attorneys planned to use an immunity defense at his trial, arguing that federal prosecutor Jeremiah O’Sullivan, now deceased, granted Bulger immunity from prosecution for his crimes.
But Judge Denise J. Casper rejected that request, finding that any purported immunity agreement is “not a defense to the crimes charged.”
Bulger’s lawyers have also denied that he was an FBI informant. They have said Bulger will testify in his own defense.