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On The Run For 16 Years, Bulger About To Start Trial

BOSTON — One of the biggest and most anticipated trials in Massachusetts starts Tuesday morning in federal court on the South Boston waterfront. James “Whitey” Bulger — reputed mob boss, former FBI informant and alleged killer of 19 people — will face charges that have been on the shelf for years.

For a preview of the trial, Morning Edition spoke with WBUR reporter David Boeri, who has been following the Bulger case for years and who will cover the trial in the months ahead.

Bob Oakes: That the defendant is charged with 19 murders is extraordinary all by itself, but remind us why even beyond that the trial is quite extraordinary.

David Boeri: Start with the fact that those charges are on the shelf because Bulger famously fled town at the end of 1994 when he got tipped off by his former FBI handler that he was about to be arrested. That was 18 years ago. But what really makes this extraordinary is for all those years, Bulger was on the government books as a secret, top-echelon informant. And there is overwhelming evidence that he was protected from prosecution by the FBI, FBI agents. He was even aided and abetted in some of his crimes by those same agents.

Eleven of those 19 murders were committed while Bulger was on the government’s books as an informant on the “war on crime,” so to speak.

That’s the allegation. The records show Bulger being recruited in the fall of 1975 in order to help the government fulfill the goal at the time, which was to bring down the Mafia. And, yet, within short order — it’s charged — back in 1975, he kills two people in his own gang, and then he uses his informant status with the FBI right away to point investigators who are investigating those two murders in another direction. And there is worse: The government alleges Bulger was tipped off to people who were informing on him, and he then killed them.

Big picture — give us a sense of the scope of this trial.

Extraordinary, again, in just sheer numbers. It’s anticipated the trial’s going to run for as long as four months. The government’s listed about 83 potential witnesses. The defense has listed 78 and another half dozen or so expert witnesses. The timeframe covers years of history. The murders span a period from 1973 to 1985. And then the government’s also going to prove extortion, money laundering, weapons violations. It’s going to be phenomenally challenging trial.

What are we likely to see in the next few months in this trial?

In many ways this really is going to be a replay of two previous trials — the trials of John Connelly. He’s Bulger’s FBI handler. He had a trial in 2002 and another in 2008 in Miami. So many of the same witnesses who were called to those trials are going to be called to this trial.

And the main event, perhaps, of this trial is going to be old partner Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi getting on the stand. He’s going to accuse Bulger of killing two women. Bulger is expected to accuse Flemmi of killing them. And then we have the FBI’s John Morris; and the last time Morris spoke to Bulger was while Bulger was a fugitive. He made a surprise phone call to Morris, and after that phone call Morris went into cardiac arrest. He retired soon after. So we are going to see some very, very dramatic encounters here.

You think “Whitey” Bulger will take the stand?

This is what’s undoubtedly going to be the highlight of this trial and sort of the death-defying circus act because Bulger has promised through his attorney that he is going to take the stand. What is he going to say? Is he going to use the occasion to defend himself from the charges? Is he going to aim somehow desperately for an acquittal, which seems a very far-fetched idea here? Or is he going to use the time to settle scores?

What are the big trial issues at play here?

The two issues that were most important to the defense have really been cut off by the presiding judge. Bulger wanted to make the argument that any and all crimes he committed — including murder — he had received immunity from by the Department of Justice. Now, as outlandish as that might seem, the idea that someone might have a license to kill from the Department of Justice — had that gone forward, it would have been profoundly embarrassing in some ways to the Department of Justice for some of the things it would have revealed. In any case, it’s been cut off to him.

The second claim Bulger has made is that he was never an informant. His claim is that he paid for information, that he never gave anybody up. That too has been largely cut off as a defense for him, according to his attorneys. They’ll still try to push those points, but they’re much more restricted in what they can do now.

Let me ask you about the families of the alleged victims. Many of them are expected to be in the courtroom. And many others are expected to take the stand for the prosecution. What’s their role?

In the end, it really does come down to the families because their loss, their pain and how they have been treated is really the biggest indictment of all, of the government and how it handled “Whitey” Bulger, whether he was an informant or he wasn’t an informant. And their families were deprived of having a father, a husband, children. A lot of these families had no idea for years and years where their loved ones were. The remains of one victim are still unrecovered.

This is Paul McGonagle, formerly of South Boston. His father, also named Paul McGonagle, was murdered allegedly by Bulger in 1974. He was buried. His remains weren’t found until 26 years later. This is what McGonagle has to say:

Everywhere I went, I was always thinking that maybe I’ll run into those two. Maybe I’ll see Catherine Greig and Bulger walking on some beach, walking in some dog park. I was at an Irish festival in Atlantic City, N.J., and I saw this guy walking down the boardwalk. And he walked past me, and I caught up to him. I walked right in front of him and made him look me in the eye to be sure it wasn’t him.

We’re going to hear a lot more voices like this, aren’t we?

That’s right. Tuesday we’re going to talk to many more families of victims, and you will just understand — listening to these people — the depths of the pain that was caused by this relationship with the FBI.

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