Bulger pleads not guilty before many watchful eyes
US says it may call 40 witnesses
James “Whitey’’ Bulger pleaded not guilty yesterday to a federal racketeering indictment charging him with the murders of 19 people, speaking softly during a packed hearing that offered a glimpse of how the massive case against Boston’s most infamous gangster might unfold.
The day also brought assurances from his lawyer that the 81-year-old Bulger is not, as some former neighbors suggested, showing signs of senility.
“I see absolutely no evidence that my client suffers from Alzheimer’s,’’ J.W. Carney Jr. said outside US District Court. After Bulger’s capture in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 22 after 16 years on the run, neighbors said his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, told them he appeared to have early Alzheimer’s.
Carney said that since being appointed to represent Bulger, he had “found Mr. Bulger to be very smart, to have an excellent memory.’’
Yesterday, as Bulger was led into the courthouse in shackles and an orange prison uniform, he nodded to his brothers, William M., former president of the Massachusetts Senate, and John, seated in the front row.
He spoke quietly but clearly, saying “not guilty’’ as a clerk asked him how he pleaded to 32 counts of racketeering, extortion, money laundering, and weapons charges in crimes he allegedly committed while running a South Boston-based criminal enterprise that began in the 1970s and continued after he fled in 1995.
As he spoke, a remarkable collection of people who had waited decades to see him answer to the charges listened intently. Sons, daughters, and wives of Bulger’s alleged victims sat among investigators, some now retired, who spent years building the case. Former US attorney Donald K. Stern, who insisted on proceeding with Bulger’s indictment in 1995, even after the FBI warned him that Bulger was an informant, took in the moment.
“I couldn’t miss it,’’ Stern said. “I wasn’t sure this day would come, but here it is, and I’m looking forward to the trial.’’
Bulger is charged with participating in 19 murders, more than half of them while he was working as an FBI informant. Relatives of Bulger’s alleged victims were upset that the names of the victims were not mentioned in court. Bulger was not required to enter a plea for each slaying, because they are not listed as separate murder counts in the indictment, but rather as acts committed as part of the sweeping racketeering conspiracy.
“I think they should have named every single victim so those names would ring in Whitey Bulger’s head to bring back the names of these victims who meant nothing to him,’’ said Patricia Donahue, whose husband, Michael, was giving a friend a ride home in 1982 when Bulger allegedly shot him to death during an attack aimed at the other man.
William O’Brien, 37, who was born four days after his father was allegedly slain by Bulger and his associates in 1973, said he wished his father’s name had been mentioned, but was grateful that Bulger was finally facing the charges.
“He looks older,’’ O’Brien said. “But I still see the grin, the eyes, that look. He doesn’t look 81 to me.’’
Retired State Police colonel Thomas Foley, who spearheaded the investigation that led to the charges against Bulger, said: “Seeing him walk in in handcuffs, a broken man, was some sort of satisfaction for me personally, and hopefully it’s some satisfaction for all the families.’’
Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly said the government expects to call 30 to 40 witnesses to testify against Bulger in a trial that is likely to take at least four weeks.
US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler denied a request by Carney, who was appointed at taxpayer expense because Bulger says he has no money, to name his law partner, Janice Bassil, as cocounsel.
Bowler said Carney can enlist Bassil’s help and bill the government for those services, since they work in the same Boston law firm. The magistrate judge said she may appoint another lawyer to assist Carney if he “were unable to deal with the magnitude of the case.’’
Bowler pointed out that Carney may bill the government up to $9,700 to defend the case, but could petition for more if the case is deemed “extended or complex.’’
Bulger, who was warned by his former FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr., to flee just before his January 1995 racketeering indictment, was exposed as a longtime FBI informant in his absence. His former associates began cooperating with investigators, resulting in the discovery of secret graves and the racketeering indictment brought in 2000 accusing him of the killings. Last week, prosecutors dismissed the 1995 case, saying they want to focus on the murder charges. Bulger faces life in prison if convicted.
The elusive fugitive, who was one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, was arrested by the FBI along with Greig, 60, who is being held on a charge of harboring a fugitive. She is due in court Monday for a bail hearing. Agents seized $822,198 in cash, 30 guns, and knives hidden in the apartment the two shared in Santa Monica.
Yesterday, two floors above the courtroom where Bulger avowed his innocence, US District Judge Richard G. Stearns told relatives of one of the gangster’s alleged victims that they must wait until the end of the criminal trial to determine whether they are entitled to any of the cash seized from Bulger.
Michael Milano was killed in 1973 when someone with a machine gun opened fire on his new Mercedes-Benz after he left a North End restaurant where he bartended. John Martorano, a hitman turned government witness, later admitted that he carried out the shooting on Bulger’s orders and that the real target had been the restaurant’s owner, who drove the same make of car.
In 2002, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled that Bulger owed Milano’s family $2.2 million in reparations. They have not yet received any of that money. Yesterday, Stearns rejected the family’s request for a lien on the money seized from Bulger, saying they must wait for the criminal case to be resolved.
One of Milano’s brothers, Donald, said he wants to make sure assets obtained by Bulger through decades of violence end up in the hands of his victims. “All we’re trying to do is make sure that at some point we get a bite out of the apple,’’ he said.