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For families, Bulger verdict brings closure, angst


Published:   |   Updated: August 13, 2013 at 07:12 AM

BOSTON — The guilty verdicts against James “Whitey” Bulger brought catharsis and closure to relatives of the 11 victims in whose killings he was convicted of playing a role, but for the families of the eight people whose deaths couldn’t be definitively linked to the Boston mob boss, peace will be harder to come by.

Steve Davis didn’t wait for the jury to be dismissed before he walked out of the courtroom, appearing upset it had issued no finding in the 1981 strangulation of his sister Debra.

Outside court, Davis said he doubted whether Bulger personally strangled his sister, as Bulger’s former partner and his sister’s boyfriend, Stephen Flemmi, testified. But he’s certain Bulger was part of it, and the jury’s inability to make a finding left him “stuck in the middle like I have been for 32 years.”

“Who’s winning here?” Davis asked. “I lost my sister. All these people lost family members. He’s losing his freedom. What do you really win here?”

The jury’s decision came more than two years after Bulger’s electrifying capture in California and 19 years after he became one of the nation’s most notorious fugitives. It means Bulger, 83, is all but certain to spend the rest of his days in prison after sentencing in November, when even a term short of a life sentence could amount to one.

Bulger was charged primarily with racketeering, which listed 33 criminal acts – among them, 19 killings that he allegedly helped orchestrate or carried out himself during the 1970s and ‘80s while he led the Winter Hill Gang, Boston’s Irish mob.

The federal jury decided he took part in 11 killings, along with nearly all the other crimes on the list, including acts of extortion, money laundering and drug dealing. He was also found guilty of 30 other offenses, including possession of machine guns.

One woman exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” after the jury said prosecutors hadn’t proved Bulger’s role in the 1975 death of Francis “Buddy” Leonard, who was shot in the head. And a visibly angry Billy O’Brien told reporters that prosecutors “dropped the ball” after the jury didn’t convict Bulger in the 1973 shooting death of his father, William O’Brien.

“Five minutes they spent talking about his murder” during the trial, he said.

Patricia Donahue wept, saying it was a relief to see Bulger convicted in the murder of her husband, Michael Donahue, who authorities say was an innocent victim who died in a hail of gunfire while giving a ride to an FBI informant marked for death by Bulger.

Thomas Donahue, who was 8 when his father was killed, said: “Thirty-one years of deceit, of cover-up of my father’s murder. Finally we have somebody guilty of it. Thirty-one years – that’s a long time.”

He said that when he heard the verdict: “I wanted to jump up. I was like, ‘Damn right.”’

Bulger, nicknamed “Whitey” for his bright platinum hair, grew up in a gritty housing project in the blue-collar, Irish Catholic stronghold of South Boston. His notoriety grew parallel to the rise of his younger brother, William Bulger, who became one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts and led the state Senate for 17 years.

Whitey Bulger began clashing with police as a teenager, when he stole from the back of trucks on the South Boston waterfront. His thievery escalated, and by 1956, he was convicted of robbing banks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Indiana. He served nine years in prison.

Investigators say he later began organizing truck carjackings, taking payments to allow others to carry them out on his territory. At a time of gang conflict in the 1960s, he brokered a truce with the Somerville-based Winter Hill Gang, and he increasingly came under scrutiny as he rose to lead the largely Irish gang.

As a crime boss, Bulger was smart, controlling and vicious, said Bob Long, a retired Massachusetts state police detective.

“He was focused,” he said. “He wasn’t somebody who went out late at night and got drunk. He kept a very low profile in his personal life, not flashy or showy.”

Bulger, who became the model for Jack Nicholson’s sinister crime boss in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie “The Departed,” cultivated an image as a benevolent tough guy in his working-class neighborhood, someone who would help old ladies across the street and give turkey dinners for Thanksgiving. But as the bodies of his victims piled up, he was revealed as a ruthless killer.

Among the killings Bulger was accused of committing or orchestrating were two men who were chained to chairs for hours, interrogated, then shot in the head; two women who were strangled, including Davis; and two men who died in a hail of gunfire as they left a South Boston restaurant.

“He enjoyed killing,” Massachusetts state police Detective Lt. Stephen Johnson said after Bulger’s arrest. “We know from people who were there that post-murders, he would act super-relaxed. His associates said he would be in a good mood for a long time after he killed someone.”

For years, investigators say, government corruption kept them from building a case against Bulger. In 1985, federal prosecutors tried to nail him for controlling betting and loan-sharking rackets in the Boston area, but no charges were filed.

At his trial, prosecution witnesses and Bulger’s own lawyers said he gave payoffs to a half-dozen FBI agents, at least one state trooper and Boston police officers to get information on search warrants, wiretaps and investigations so he could stay one step ahead of the law.

In 1994, Bulger vanished. A former FBI agent, John Connolly, was later convicted of tipping off Bulger that he was about to be indicted.

William Bulger was forced to resign as president of the University of Massachusetts system in 2003 after it was learned he got a call from his fugitive brother and didn’t urge him to surrender.

After more than 16 years on the run, Bulger was captured at age 81 in Santa Monica, Calif., where he had been living near the beach with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

At the trial, with Bulger at last held to account for his crimes, he took notes on a legal pad and traded occasional profanities with the former associates testifying against him. But Long, the retired investigator, said the trial didn’t reveal anything he didn’t already know about Bulger, who faces life in prison.

“He looked,” Long said, “like the self-absorbed psychotic that he is.”

Melia reported from Hartford, Conn. Associated Press writers Bridget Murphy and Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.

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