BOSTON – James “Whitey” Bulger is an old man now.
He wears reading glasses. His hair is pure white, but not much remains. And when he stood up in a federal courtroom Wednesday morning to finally face the music, to stand trial for a lifetime of gangster crimes, he rose slowly, no longer the menacing Irish mob boss who allegedly scratched out 19 lives while the FBI looked the other way.
Dressed in 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.
The terrifying richness of Bulger’s life, laid bare in a courtroom, threatens to embarrass the FBI and Justice Department, which, according to Bulger, 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.
Bulger rose to power with the help of FBI agent John “Zip” Connolly, who grew up near Bulger in the hardscrabble housing projects of South Boston and once was even given an ice cream cone by the older boy.
They later hooked up as adults with a shared interest in bringing down the New England Mafia — Connolly because of the FBI’s obsession in the ’70s and ’80s with Italian organized crime, and Bulger because it was his primary competition.
As Bulger netted millions of dollars in extortion, gambling and drug dealing — his attorney didn’t deny these criminal undertakings during opening statements — FBI agents, including Connolly, provided cover in exchange for his help with the local mafia, according to a lengthy ruling by a Boston federal judge and other investigations through the years.
A 2004 report 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.”