Monday, January 11, 2016
‘Biggest rat of them all’
THERE was a distinctly Irish flavour to the James “Whitey” Bulger trial. Bulger’s heritage was invoked on day one, and the names of those who featured in the trial suggested it could have been taking place in Dublin or Cork, rather than Boston.
James Whitey Bulger in 1953
The legal personnel included figures like Jay Carney, Hank Brennan, and Brian Kelly.
Former FBI agents such as Bob Fitzpatrick, Ed Quinn, and John Morris featured, as did former prosecutor Jeremiah O’Sullivan and convicted murderer and former agent, John Connolly.
Among the murder victims were Paul McGonagle, Arthur Barrett, John McIntyre, Tommy King, Brian Halloran, and Michael Donahue. A man called Jimmy Flynn had been charged and acquitted of murdering the last two. One of the key witnesses was Kevin Weeks, a former associate of Bulger’s, who partook in a number of murders. And the most prominent reporter at the trial was Boston journalist, Shelly Murphy. Most of the personnel were from what had traditionally been an Irish enclave of the city, south Boston, or Southie. It was that area that Bulger ruled, ensuring that nothing moved without him getting his cut. The Bulger trial, and all that emerged from it, was straight out of the darkest recesses of America, but it had plenty of echoes from the old country.
One of the big features of the trial was the role of informants. At the outset, Bulger’s lawyer, JW Carney, invoked his Irish heritage. The defendant was charged with 19 murders, two of which were of women who were well known to him. He was charged with racketeering, running protection rackets, and other assorted crimes, which amounted to terrorising the south Boston area.
Surprisingly, for a lawyer, Carney was primarily concerned with defending something which isn’t even a crime. His 83-year-old client, Carney told the court, had not been an informant. It has long been known that for 15 years prior to 1995, when Bulger absconded, he had been supplying the FBI with information about the Italian mafia in the Boston area. He had been, in the parlance of the street, a rat. That position, more than anything, allowed him and his erstwhile partner, Steve Flemmi, to build their own organised crime empire.
Now, two years after his capture in California, Bulger, on whose life and crimes the movie The Departed was based, obviously wanted to put the record straight. He may have been a murderer and violent criminal, but he wasn’t a rat. Carney told the court that Bulger couldn’t have been an informer because it was “the worst thing that an Irish person could consider doing”, as a result of the 800-year strife between this island and its nearest neighbour.
“James Bulger never, ever — the evidence will show — was an informer,” Carney told the court. The lawyer was obviously ignorant of the last years of the Troubles in the North, when the IRA was riddled with informers.
As it was to turn out, the evidence at Bulger’s trial showed that he was an informer, a price he paid in order to be allowed by corrupt elements in the FBI to continue his reign of terror.
His only other beef with the charges was the idea that he had killed two women, Debra Davis and Deborah Hussey, though the killing of the former was ruled by the jury as not proven.
The former was Flemmi’s one-time girlfriend, while the latter was Flemmi’s stepdaughter.
Again, testimony in the trial from at least two former associates, showed that Bulger had murdered the two women with his bare hands. According to Flemmi’s testimony, Hussey was lured to a house, where Bulger was waiting for her.
“Jim Bulger stepped out from behind the top of a basement stairs and grabbed her by the throat and started strangling her,” Flemmi told the court. “He lost his balance and they both fell on the floor, and he continued strangling her.”
Flemmi disposed of the body, as he did with a number of the victims.
More than anything, the trial blew out of the water the myths that Bulger and some of his family had cultivated. (His brother, Billy, was for years the president of the Massachusetts senate, the most powerful position in state politics). According to this version, Whitey was just a guy from a tightly-knit Boston Irish family who had strayed into the world of crime, but retained basic attributes, like respect for women and a code of honour. Instead, all the evidence pointed towards a ruthless killer, who was so relaxed about murder that he usually took a nap after personally killing somebody. Also, apart from the depravity of his crimes, he was a grade-A rat.
The comparison that most aptly suits Bulger is with the former IRA man, Freddie Scappattici. The Belfast native was outed in 2003 as the British agent who was code-named Stakeknife. He had been a paid informant of the British security forces for up to 15 years, while his role in the IRA had been deputy head of the internal security unit. The Nutting squad, as it was known, questioned, usually tortured, and often murdered suspected informants in the IRA and wider community — and the man doing this work was himself an informant all that time.
Just as it was with Bulger. The trial heard that a number of those he murdered met their ends because Bulger had suspected them of “co-operating” with law-enforcement agencies.
One such victim was Brian Halloran, who was suspected of co-operating with the FBI. In May 1982, Bulger and an associate, Kevin Weeks, staked out a restaurant where Halloran and his friend Michael Donahue were eating. When they emerged from the eatery, Bulger sprayed them with automatic gunfire, killing the two men. Donahue was a completely innocent victim, who had no involvement in crime.
Another “rat” whom Bulger felt compelled to dispatch was John McIntyre. A fisherman, McIntyre had crewed the Valhalla, a ship that crossed the Atlantic to deliver guns to the IRA in 1984. The arms were transferred to the Marita Ann in Irish waters, but that boat was intercepted by the Irish authorities. Among those arrested on board was Martin Ferris, the current Sinn Féin TD.
Back in Boston, Bulger got word that McIntyre may have been the informant. He was invited to a house on the pretext of a party, and showed up with a slab of beer. Once inside, Bulger tied him to a chair and questioned him. McIntyre admitted he had co-operated. The trial heard that Bulger brought him down to the basement and tried to strangle him, but the rope he used was too thick.
He then asked McIntyre did he want “one in the head”.
“Yes, please,” McIntyre was reported to have replied. Bulger shot him, went upstairs, and took a nap while Flemmi and Weeks cleaned up the mess.
It amounted to one more “rat” dispatched by the man whom Weeks told the court “was the biggest rat of them all”.
In the end, the smidgen of salvation that Bulger reached out for was beyond his grasp.
He wasn’t a man of the warped honour that might sometimes prevail among thieves.
He was a rat, and one that had no compunction in killing because they knew the real Whitey.