Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi has spent much of this year slumped in a courtroom chair, his prison pallor growing more ghostly by the day and his warmup suit wrinkling by the hour. Hardly the picture of a robust gangster-in-chief.
But Flemmi may well regain his vigor, and maybe even his swagger, when he takes the witness stand next month to challenge the 1995 racketeering charges against him, his fugitive partner, James "Whitey" Bulger, reputed New England Mafia boss Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, and other reputed mobsters.
Flemmi's testimony will bring full circle the extraordinary US District Court hearings that have kept law-enforcement authorities and career criminals in anxious anticipation. The outcome of the hearings will determine which side can more credibly claim to have been in control all along, and which will return more swiftly to business as usual.
Flemmi's appearance is particularly significant because he kick-started the pretrial process a year ago with a bombshell affidavit claiming that he and Bulger were authorized by the FBI to commit crimes in exchange for working as informants, and therefore the charges against them should be dismissed.
A key question about Flemmi's testimony is whether he will name the FBI agent who allegedly tipped off him and Bulger in advance of the 1995 indictment, giving them the "head start" they supposedly expected in return for their years of service as informants.
In exploring the claim that they were given approval by the FBI to commit crimes, US District Judge Mark L. Wolf has made public reams of once-secret FBI documents and has heard testimony from a parade of former FBI agents, prosecutors, Drug Enforcement Administration investigators, local police, and even former Governor William Weld, a former US attorney for Massachusetts.
Repeatedly, Wolf has been told that Bulger and Flemmi were never formally immunized against prosecution; indeed, none of the hundreds of documents produced to date spells out that defense claim.
But Wolf also has heard disgraced former FBI supervisor John Morris testify about special treatment that snitches received, including how Bulger and Flemmi were saved from a 1979 race-fixing indictment and alerted to a 1988 gambling probe. Morris, testifying under a grant of immunity, also said he told fellow FBI agent John Connolly that an informant had implicated the pair in a murder. The informant was soon killed. Connolly denies passing the word.
Beyond Wolf's decision about whether to leave the case intact, or strip it down, or throw it out entirely, there are other unresolved matters.
Last week, word surfaced that one of Bulger and Flemmi's alleged coconspirators, John Martorano, has cut a deal with the government under which he will testify against his former cohorts. So, even if Wolf dismisses the current indictment, Bulger and Flemmi might find themselves facing a new set of charges, possibly including murder.
Meanwhile, Bulger remains a fixture on the State Police "10 Most Wanted" list, having eluded a manhunt since 1995 in the company of his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. He is a somewhat lower priority for the FBI, which has placed him on a list of roughly 120 fugitives who are a step below the 10 Most Wanted.
There also is the uncertain future facing Connolly, now a Boston Edison executive. He denies wrongdoing, but has refused to take the stand without protection from prosecution. A federal prosecutor in Hartford has begun looking at the case to determine if anyone at the FBI broke the law by helping Bulger and Flemmi.
The probe is being managed in Hartford because one of the murders for which they have been implicated involved a Connecticut jai-alai operation; also, given the close working relationship between federal prosecutors and the Boston FBI, Justice Department officials chose a neutral site.