Drug-trafficker and gangster but no murderer, claims Whitey defence
Laughter in court as Bulger attorney says 'the Irish don't inform'
PERHAPS because everyone had waited so long for this day, there was an air of both anticipation and anti-climax when Whitey Bulger's trial finally got under way on Wednesday in a federal courthouse named after his old neighbour in south Boston, congressman Joe Moakley.
In some respects, we in Boston think we know this story inside out; that the trial is really just a perfunctory event, something we have to go through with because history demands it.
But truth be told, it was an extraordinary few days, the start of what will be four months or so of history unfolding daily in Judge Denise Casper's courtroom.
In the opening statement of Brian Kelly, a federal prosecutor, Whitey Bulger emerged as the most vicious and venal of men, someone who could shoot someone in the head and then lie down for a nap.
He was a man who lost no sleep after strangling young women and burying them in secret graves. A man who, with the active assistance of a deeply corrupted FBI, which protected him as its informant, robbed and stole and murdered and plundered and built a fortune worth millions.
Jay Carney, Bulger's lawyer, stunned the courtroom with his opening statement by admitting to most of the government's charges against his client. He admitted that Bulger was a bookmaker, a loan shark and an extortionist.
He even admitted that Bulger was a drug-trafficker, something that Bulger's apologists had long denied, insisting that he "kept the drugs out of Southie".
But there was a method to what appeared legal madness. Bulger is admitting he did all of those things in the hope that the jury might believe him when he says he did not kill two women, Debra Davis and Deborah Hussey, and when he says he didn't kill legitimate businessman in Oklahoma, Roger Wheeler.
As for those other 16 murders that Bulger is charged with, Jay Carney had little to say. He was too busy denigrating the prosecution's star witnesses – a collection of murderers, thugs, drug dealers and corrupt FBI agents.
The Bulger defence team's strategy is to acknowledge that 'Whitey' was a top-echelon criminal but to refute any suggestion that he was a top-echelon informant for the FBI who used his status to murder and maim with impunity.
But they have a tough road to hoe. Let's start with Carney's bald assertion that Bulger had no motive to kill Debra Davis, the girlfriend of his partner in crime Steve Flemmi, or to kill Deborah Hussey, the daughter of Flemmi's long-time paramour.
In fact, Bulger had a strong motive to kill both women, or to have Flemmi kill them with him. Both Davis and Hussey were aware that Flemmi and Bulger had an arrangement with John Connolly, their corrupt FBI handler, who is serving a 40-year sentence for helping the Bulger gang kill a potential informer.
When Bulger became aware that Davis was leaving Flemmi for another man, he had no intention of letting an ex-girlfriend of Flemmi walk around with information that could land them all in prison.
Similarly, when poor Debbie Hussey, who turned to heroin after Flemmi sexually abused her as a young teenager, started dropping Whitey and Stevie's names around town, she was as good as dead.
Whitey can get up there and say Flemmi had more motive, that he killed them and blamed it on Bulger, and in Debbie Davis' case it's just Flemmi's word against Whitey's word. But the problem he has is with the Debbie Hussey murder.
Kevin Weeks, Bulger's former protege and gravedigger, has corroborated Flemmi's account of Hussey's murder and had already implicated him in a half-dozen others.
I've talked to Weeks about this and he said he saw no difference between the murder of Debbie Hussey and that of Bucky Barrett, the safecracker and jewellery fence who Bulger shot in the head after getting all of his money.
Weeks only had to serve five years in prison, something Jay Carney will make a big deal about. But implicating Bulger in Hussey's murder didn't affect his sentence one way or the other.
Kevin Weeks said he watched as the man he had always looked up to wrapped his legs around Debbie Hussey's torso and his hands around her neck and then choked the life out of her.
The only thing Jay Carney can do is try to convince the jury that the prosecution's witnesses are more amoral than his client.
In the meantime, it is a legal strategy that refutes for all time the nonsense that Whitey didn't profit from drugs. That is a lie that Bulger sympathisers, including his family, clung to for decades.
During his opening, Carney essentially copped a plea to a number of predicate acts of racketeering, so for all intents and purposes Whitey is already guilty. But this was never about getting off, it is about getting even and it's about getting his reputation back. It is a reputation he spent a lifetime cultivating, even though most of it is nonsense. It is the reputation of the good bad guy, a gangster with scruples – and gangsters with scruples don't inform on their friends and murder defenceless young women.
The defence strategy appears to be to argue that if an accused person admits to all these terrible crimes, why would he lie about something like killing a couple of women and a guy in Oklahoma?
How Carney explains away Bulger's 700-page informant file is another question. Carney has insisted that Bulger was never an informer. In fact, in a moment that seemed surreal, he said Bulger could never be an informer because he was Irish and that's the worst thing anyone with a drop of Irish blood could be.
That assertion brought guffaws from the courtroom. Bulger bankrolled the 1984 IRA gunrunning mission on the Boston trawler Valhalla and the Tralee-based trawler Marita Ann, which led to the arrest of several IRA men, including Sinn Fein's Martin Ferris. Sean O'Callaghan, an IRA informant, admitted he gave up the mission. But, according to Carney's legal theory, that would be impossible, because O'Callaghan is Irish and the Irish don't inform.
Bulger is charged with torturing and murdering a local man, John McIntyre, who was the engineer on the Valhalla, and who had begun co-operating with authorities after the Marita Ann was seized by the Irish Navy off the coast of Kerry.
Bulger's corrupt FBI handler, John Connolly, the son of immigrants from Galway, had fingered McIntyre for Bulger after McIntyre was interviewed by another FBI agent. McIntyre was lured to a house in south Boston where he was chained to a chair and interrogated for hours. Bulger tried to strangle McIntyre with a rope, prosecutor Brian Kelly explained, but the rope was too thick and it only made McIntyre gag.
"Do you want one in the head?" Bulger solicitously asked McIntyre, showing him a gun. "Yes," McIntyre replied, "please."
Whitey Bulger then shot McIntyre in the head. Flemmi then detected a heartbeat, so he held McIntyre's head aloft and Bulger fired repeatedly into McIntyre's face, according to the government.
Carney's assertions about the Irish was a rare moment of levity in a trial that is about all things dark. Bulger, meanwhile, has eschewed the typical defendant's uniform of a suit and tie, opting for jeans, long-sleeve shirt and trainers.
He will turn 84 in September and at this point he looks like an old man waiting for a bus. It wasn't until Friday, the third day of his trial, that he showed any emotion at all. It happened when Dickie O'Brien, a bookie who Whitey used to shake down, was wheeled into the court in a wheelchair.
When Zach Hafer, a federal prosecutor, asked O'Brien to identify Bulger, he pointed at Whitey and the two old men smiled at each other.
Now aged 84, O'Brien's health is in decline but his memory is sharp and he told some good stories on the witness stand, including one about a young, ambitious bookie who said he wanted to stop paying "rent" to Whitey for the privilege of doing business.
Whitey told the ambitious young bookie that they had a business besides bookmaking.
"What's that?" the bookie asked. "Killing assholes like you," Whitey replied.
After telling that story on the witness stand, Dickie looked over at Whitey and Bulger wasn't smiling anymore.
Kevin Cullen is a columnist for 'The Boston Globe' and co-author of 'Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice'.