Wearing a long-sleeved green shirt, jeans and sneakers, Bulger sat passively as a prosecutor described his younger, more sinister years as leader of the Winter Hill Gang, including the time he allegedly marched a safecracker named Arthur “Bucky” Barrett to a set of cellar stairs after torturing him in a chair in pursuit of $40,000 from a bank robbery.
“Barrett’s going downstairs to lie down for a while,” Bulger told an accomplice, according to the chilling story federal prosecutor Brian Kelly recounted for jurors Wednesday during his opening statement. Then Bulger shot him in the back of the head, leaving his underlings to dig a grave while he rested on a sofa.
“He was no ordinary leader,” Kelly said. “He did the dirty work himself. He was a hands-on killer.”
Now 83, sitting in a courtroom not far from his old hangouts, Bulger looked like a senior citizen waiting patiently for results from a doctor. His meek return after skipping town in 1994 on the advice of a corrupt FBI agent opens the final chapter in a seemingly preposterous life story. Bulger helped FBI agents bring down the local mafia, and they in turn helped him avoid prosecution. He controlled the Boston underworld while his little brother controlled state politics. He was turned in by an Icelandic ex-beauty queen.
“What’s been true about this case for decades is that it really exceeds the capacity of human imagination,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense lawyer.
The terrifying richness of Bulger’s life laid bare in a courtroom threatens to embarrass the FBI and Justice Department, which Bulger said promised him immunity for his crimes. But the trial is also about a largely bygone time. Big gangster trials are a rarity these days. The FBI has largely moved on from organized crime — if there even is much left — to focus on terrorism.
“If you go back to the ’70s and ’80s and asked who was the most powerful person in a city, there would be a godfather that everyone would know,” said James Jacobs, an organized-crime expert at New York University law school. “These godfathers were at the core of the power structure of American cities. I don’t think that really exists anymore.”
Today, big-screen box office hits are about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, not mobsters like Paul “Paulie” Cicero in “Goodfellas.” But the color of old gangster movies is back with the Bulger trial. There’s Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, a former army sharpshooter and partner in crime, who is scheduled to testify against Bulger. And on Wednesday, a former state police detective testified about an old organized-crime investigation dubbed “Operation Lobster.”