BOSTON -- At the South Boston Liquor Mart, they sell plenty of beer, little of it imported. They sell a lot of shots too because a lot of customers are not exactly dining out for lunch.

The Liquor Mart also does a brisk trade in Massachusetts Lottery tickets or did until recently. Now, a handwritten sign on the door says: "Lottery not working."

Funny thing. It was working like gangbusters late last month when James J. "Whitey" Bulger, supposed head of a crime ring, brother of the state Senate president and former owner of the Liquor Mart, made his big score.

Bulger and a couple of pals hit the jackpot in the state's "Mass Millions" game. Their take was $14.3 million, one of the biggest payouts in the game's history.

"I say, 'God bless him.' His number came up," Patrick Preston, 55, who described himself as a parking attendant, said of Bulger. Taking the noonday sun at Castle Island on the very tip of the South Boston neighborhood recently, Preston said he thinks that the lottery was on the up-and-up.

Most of Bulger's neighbors are more likely to see Ireland united and free in their lifetimes than they are to retire on lottery winnings. Still, a lot of people play, and most have nothing but envy for Bulger.

At Flanagan's supermarket on West Broadway, the neighborhood's main street, Bill Little, an unemployed clothing cutter, did not begrudge Bulger his winnings one bit.

"He had the same chance to lose, right?" Little said. "I think he ought to pay his taxes and keep the winnings." Like a lot of players, Little is in the loss column on a lifetime basis but continues hoping for that big score.

South Boston, known with a sometimes belligerent pride as "Southie," is isolated, insular, nearly all white and largely Irish. It is a place of modest two- and three-story wooden row houses, where opportunity is defined mostly in terms of the military, the unions and the civil service.

It also is a breeding ground of Democratic politicians, ranging from former House speaker John McCormack to House Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. And, of course, there is William "Billy" Bulger, second most powerful official in Massachusetts. The Senate president never discusses his brother, and Whitey more than returns the favor. He never talks to reporters -- period.

According to authorities, the lottery story unfolded this way:

A man named Michael Linskey bought a season ticket in the "Mass Millions" game for $50 last December at the South Boston Liquor Mart. He filled out a lottery registration form with his combination, 8-15-32-35-40-42, and mailed it to lottery headquarters, where it was logged into a computer.

On July 26, that combination was selected in a live, televised drawing. Three days later, Linskey went to the lottery's main office to claim his winnings.

There he announced that he would be sharing the jackpot with three partners. He would keep half, and the rest would be split equally among Whitey Bulger; Linskey's brother, Patrick, who works at the Liquor Mart; and Kevin Weeks, who was listed as the official lottery agent at the Liquor Mart and routinely is identified as a lifelong friend and associate of Bulger.

The $14.3 million jackpot is to be paid in 20 annual installments. After taxes, that comes to $537,336 a year. Bulger's $89,556 share is pretty good walking-around money.

One theory advanced by law enforcement sources is that Linskey did in fact get lucky and hit the number before Bulger heard about it and demanded a share of the jackpot so as to provide himself a visible means of support. That way, the Internal Revenue Service could not make a "net worth" case, in which people are charged with spending more money than they can prove was earned.

When the news broke last week, the people who run the lottery and the people who bust crime said they were flabbergasted.

"He just made himself bulletproof from the IRS," a federal agent told the Boston Globe about Whitey Bulger. "Now the guy has a legitimate income of 89 grand a year."

Thomas Trimarco, first deputy in the state treasurer's office that oversees the lottery, told the Boston Herald that "anybody can play the lottery and win, and that's all this proves." He and other officials insisted that the lottery was "absolutely foolproof" and immune to tampering.

Embarrassed lottery officials said that, while they could find no reason not to issue checks to Bulger and the Linskeys, they are checking into Weeks. He apparently failed to notify the lottery in 1986 when he sold his interest in the liquor store. Yesterday, the state yanked his lottery license.

Whitey Bulger, who is in his early 60s, is seen as something of a Robin Hood around his native South Boston and is a legend among Boston-area law enforcement agencies. Over the years, he has provided plenty of good copy to the local press.

In 1956, Bulger was convicted of robbing banks and served nine years of a 20-year term before returning to the area. According to law enforcement and local media reports, Bulger initially joined a criminal enterprise in nearby Somerville, then set up his own operation here.

In 1985, Bulger's name came up in the trial of Gennarro Angiulo, convicted former organized crime boss here. Federal prosecutors said Bulger and a pal, Steven "the Rifleman" Flemmi, ran most of the area's other rackets. "Whitey's got the whole of Southie," Angiulo said in a conversation taped by federal agents and played at his trial.

In 1986, a report by the President's Commission on Organized Crime called Bulger "a reputed killer, bank robber and drug trafficker."

However, Bulger has not been convicted of a crime in decades. Boston's newspapers have speculated that he has been spared indictment because he has been an FBI informer or because his brother somehow protects him, but little evidence has been cited for either theory.

Meanwhile, as people in Southie are saying this week, Whitey probably is laughing all the way to the bank.