BOSTON — James "Whitey" Bulger, the mobster who terrorized south Boston in the 1970s and '80s, holding the city in his thrall even after he disappeared, was convicted Monday of a sweeping array of gangland crimes, including 11 murders. He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
The verdict delivers long-delayed justice to Bulger, 83, who disappeared in the mid-1990s after a corrupt agent with the FBI told him he was about to be indicted. He left behind a city that wondered if he would ever be caught — and even if the FBI, which had been complicit in many of his crimes and had relied on him as an informant, was really looking for him.
"This was the worst case of corruption in the history of the FBI," said Michael Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who investigated some aspects of Bulger's activities. "It was a multigenerational, systematic alliance with organized crime, where the FBI was actively participating in the murders of government witnesses, or at least allowing them to occur."
The trial was the final reckoning for a man small in stature but large in legend, who ruined hundreds of lives and deepened the stain on Boston's already corrupt federal law enforcement bureaucracy. Bulger was on the run for 16 years, until authorities found him in 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., with an arsenal of weapons and $822,000 in cash secreted in the walls of his retirement apartment.
The trial also offered a glimpse of a time and a place that has all but disappeared. The south Boston of Bulger's day has been transformed from a parochial, mostly Irish-American working class enclave into part of Boston's booming innovation economy. Old triple-deckers have given way to glassy condos for young professionals.
The dilapidated waterfront of Bulger's era, where he once imported 36 tons of marijuana, is now a showcase harbor dotted with pleasure craft and rimmed by the soaring glass walls of the federal courthouse where he has stood trial since June 12, with his former partners in crime parading to the witness stand to testify against him.
As a clerk read the verdicts in the lengthy and complicated list of charges, Bulger looked away from the jury and showed no reaction. He was found guilty of 31 of 32 counts of his indictment, the one exception involving an extortion charge. While the jury of eight men and four women convicted him of 11 murders, they found the government had not proved its case against him in seven others, and in one murder case it made no finding, leading to gasps inside the courtroom by relatives of those murder victims and explosive scenes outside the court.
"My father just got murdered again 40 years later in that courtroom," said the son of William O'Brien, who is also named William.
When he was led from the courtroom, Bulger gave a thumbs-up sign to a few of his family members seated behind him, prompting a woman sitting with relatives of victims to yell out, "Rat a tat Whitey." His sentencing is set for Nov. 13.
His lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., vowed to appeal. He said the basis for an appeal would be that Judge Denise Casper had not allowed Bulger to mount the defense he wanted: that he was given immunity for his crimes — in essence, that he had a license to kill.
Others said such an argument was ludicrous and had little chance of success, particularly since Bulger maintained he was never an informant.
"It's difficult enough to persuade a court of appeals that you were immunized for proven murders if you were an informant," said Martin Weinberg, a prominent Boston criminal defense lawyer. "It's impossible to make that argument when you say you were never an informant."
Perhaps one glimmer of gratification for Bulger was that the jury reached "no finding" in the death of Debra Davis, one of two women he was accused of strangling. He has long maintained that his personal code of honor did not allow for the killing of women, although the jury did determine that he had killed the other woman, Deborah Hussey. Davis was the longtime girlfriend of Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, Bulger's former partner in crime who testified against him. Hussey was the daughter of another of Flemmi's longtime girlfriends.
Weinberg said the seven murders that the government had not proved Bulger had committed were the oldest of the murder charges and were based on uncorroborated testimony. But, he noted, the jury also rejected the defense's argument that "because the FBI was corrupt, Mr. Bulger deserved to be exonerated."
Though previous courtroom proceedings — notably those presided over by Judge Mark L. Wolf in U.S. District Court in 1998 — exposed the symbiotic relationship between Bulger's Winter Hill Gang and the FBI, this trial focused more on Bulger's criminal actions while under the bureau's protection.
Fred Wyshak, the assistant U.S. attorney who was the lead prosecutor, maintained that some victims were killed because the FBI had told Bulger they were informants who were going to testify against him. Others were rival hoodlums or innocent bystanders.
"The depth of depravity is stunning — the killing of weak people, the women, the treachery against their own friends, shooting them in the back of the head," said Anthony Cardinale, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented mobsters and who first exposed Bulger as an FBI informant. "It's almost Tosca-esque in terms of the treachery that went on and, in the end, everyone winds up dead."