For 17 years Stephen Rakes has lived in fear, constantly looking over his shoulder for James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, the menacing gangsters he says stole his business and threatened to kill him.
Convinced that he was being stalked by a Bulger associate while working in the tunnel at the Broadway MBTA station in 1995, Rakes fled down the tracks and suffered a shock when he brushed against the electrified third rail.
But today it's Bulger, one of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted, who is on the run. And Rakes, who was threatened with prison for refusing to testify against Bulger and his gang during the 1990s, is now a key government witness against them.
Last week, Rakes, his former wife, Julie Dammers, and their three children filed a legal claim against the FBI seeking $120 million in damages, alleging that the agency destroyed their lives while protecting Bulger and Flemmi, their longtime informants.
"Even if I didn't step up to the plate years ago, I feel great that I'm able to step up to the plate now," said Rakes, speaking publicly for the first time about how Bulger and Flemmi allegedly stole his South Boston liquor store in 1984 and frightened him into silence for years.
"I was always afraid they were going to pull up some day and just shoot me," said Rakes, 47, who still lives in South Boston. "Every day I look over my shoulder. I trust absolutely no one."
Rakes said he never left the area because he believed Bulger would track him down, and "I felt like I was safer in South Boston than anywhere because I knew every street and every alley."
About a week after the Rakeses converted a dilapidated gas station on Old Colony Avenue into a financially promising liquor store in January 1984, Rakes was home with his two young daughters when Bulger, Flemmi, and an associate, Kevin Weeks, knocked on the door of his East Fourth Street home.
Although a brother and a sister of Rakes were indicted in 1990 and later convicted for being members of a South Boston cocaine ring that paid tribute to Bulger, Rakes said he was never part of Bulger's group.
"You've got a problem. We were hired to kill you," Rakes said Bulger warned him calmly that cold winter night. Other liquor store owners in the area were upset that Rakes was charging discount prices. So Bulger offered Rakes what he termed "a better deal."
"We're going to buy the store," Bulger announced matter-of-factly.
Bulger was furious when Rakes said it wasn't for sale. "He was shooting me with his eyes, bullet-piercing eyes. He scared the hell out of me and everything was a threat: I'll [expletive] kill you. You don't know how lucky you are."
The conversation moved to the kitchen, where Flemmi pulled 1-year-old Meredith Rakes onto his lap. Rakes, crying at the memory, recalled the helplessness and horror he felt.
"He puts a gun on the table and looks at me, like, `What are you going to do?' " said Rakes. His daughter, meanwhile, dressed in pink and yellow pajamas, was innocently "spinning the gun around, like it was a toy."
Flemmi ruffled the child's blond hair, Rakes recalled, and smirked, "Would you like to have your daughter grow up without a father?"
Bulger sat on a chair next to Rakes, clicking a switchblade, while Weeks, whose sister married one of Rakes's brothers several years ago, sat stone-faced and quiet.
"There was not a damn thing I could do," Rakes said. "There's nothing you can do because they've got guns and they're willing to kill anybody. Life is nothing to them. You've got something they want, they'll take it. And that's just what happened."
Rakes said Bulger tossed him a bag stuffed with $67,000 in cash, mostly 10s and 20s, and said, "Now we own the liquor store."
Threatened with death if he reported the shakedown, Rakes insisted the sale was voluntary when he testified before federal grand juries targeting Bulger in 1991 and 1995. A jury convicted Rakes of perjury and obstruction of justice in June 1998, but he escaped prison after agreeing to cooperate with authorities.
After losing the store, Rakes said he went to Disney World with his family, only to be ordered back by Bulger, who forced him to stand on a South Boston corner for two days to quell rumors that Bulger had killed him.
Rakes's wife sought help from her uncle, Boston Police Detective Joseph Lundbohm, who reported the takeover of the store to FBI Agent John J. Connolly Jr., unaware that Bulger and Flemmi were informants and Connolly was their handler.
In a 1998 Globe interview, Connolly confirmed that Lundbohm had told him that Bulger and Flemmi had seized the store, but Connolly said he didn't take action because the Rakeses "did not want to get wired up and they did not want to be witnesses. How do you make a case like that?"
A day after Connolly was warned about the shakedown, Rakes said Bulger paid him a visit and warned him that he'd better tell Lundbohm to "back off."
"I was more scared then than I ever was," said Rakes. "I figured he had a pipeline right to the FBI."
After Rakes lied to the grand jury in 1991, Bulger confronted him on his way home from the courthouse and revealed that he knew everything that had happened in the secret, closed-door proceeding, Rakes said.
"He had a piece of paper in front of him and he had all of the questions that the prosecutor had asked me," said Rakes. "I said, `Thank God I went in there and lied like crazy or I'd be dead by now.' "
Connolly was charged in 1999 with protecting Bulger and Flemmi from prosecution in the Rakes case and leaking information that caused his gangster informants to kill three potential witnesses against them.
Bulger became a fugitive after his January 1995 racketeering indictment, but Rakes said the gangster slipped back into town twice that year to scare him - once pulling up to him on a South Boston street and shouting from the passenger seat, "I'm watching you."
After his September 1995 grand jury appearance, Rakes, a track inspector for the MBTA, said he panicked when he saw Weeks standing on the platform at the Red Line's Broadway station and fled down the tracks, brushing the third rail. Rakes said he was hospitalized for several days following the accident.
The Rakeses were divorced in 1990. Rakes declared personal bankruptcy in 1993 and again last year and faces a number of angry creditors who say he scammed them on property deals. Rakes says all of his financial and personal troubles stem from the extortion.
What Rakes said he wants now, besides money, is his liquor store back. Now called Columbia Wine & Spirits, it was closed recently. Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to order the property forfeited to the government.
"I would like everything back the way it was," said Rakes. "But that's not real."