‘It was like he was enjoying the attention’

By David Abel and Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / June 25, 2011

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There was something about the way he walked into the courtroom, flashing a cocksure smile at his younger brother, telling the judge he would pay his own legal bills if the FBI would return the $800,000 in cash agents took out of his Santa Monica hideaway.

James “Whitey’’ Bulger looked smug to them, as if he were more concerned about his money than the 19 people he has been charged with killing or ordering slain.

“His demeanor in the courtroom spoke volumes about his lack of remorse,’’ said Tommy Donahue, whose father Michael was shot to death in 1982, allegedly by Bulger and an unidentified accomplice while giving a ride home to a man who happened to be on the gangster’s hit list.

Donahue, his two brothers, and mother scrutinized every gesture of the 81-year-old crime boss who slumped into a chair at his hearing on the fifth floor of the federal courthouse in South Boston. It was a moment they never thought would happen, figuring the FBI would rather not find him or that he would die before they did.

When the seemingly hale man with the white beard ambled into the courtroom in New Balance sneakers, a white hoodie, and with a jovial smile, they were enraged.

“What I thought when I saw him was that he was an arrogant jerk,’’ Michael Donahue, one of Tommy’s older brothers, said after the proceedings. “It was like he was enjoying the attention.’’

Their brother Shawn said he hoped a trial would reveal the identity of the other triggerman. Their father was shot as he drove home Brian Halloran, the intended target of Bulger’s wrath. Halloran was also killed.

“Whatever he’s feeling, this is a great day for my family,’’ Shawn Donahue said. “I look forward to seeing him rot in prison a really long time.’’

Other relatives of victims killed during the mobster’s reign of terror said yesterday that they had no interest in traveling to the courthouse, which was deluged with reporters and others who came to see the man who had eluded authorities for 16 years.

Mary Callahan, 71, whose husband John was slain in 1982, allegedly at Bulger’s direction, said she had better things to do than see his court appearance.

“This man is sick,’’ she said of Bulger in a phone interview.

The body of her husband — a former president of World Jai Alai, a gambling company — was found in the trunk of a rental car in the parking lot of Miami International Airport. His body had to be identified by fingerprints.

Callahan said she hopes a “nonpartial’’ person will be in charge of the investigation to ensure that the truth emerges.

“We need different insights,’’ Callahan said. “You can’t just have the FBI looking into this.’’

Some victims’ relatives worried that Bulger’s status as an FBI informant who was tipped off about his indictment by his handler might make it easier for him to negotiate a deal or evade the harsh sentence they believe he deserves.

John Connolly, his former FBI handler, was convicted of corruption in 2002 and of murder in 2008 for crimes connected to the Bulger case.

David Wheeler said it was not worth his time or money to fly from Austin, Texas, just to get a glimpse of the man who allegedly ordered the death of his father, Roger, chairman of Telex Corp. and owner of World Jai Alai. His father was executed in a country club parking lot in Tulsa, Okla., after he suspected Bulger’s gang was skimming money from the operation.

“I’d rather not see him,’’ he said. “I’ve got better things to do with my airfare money.’’

Steven Davis, 53 — the brother of Debra Davis, who was allegedly strangled by Bulger — also skipped the trip to Boston, knowing it would be a brief hearing.

“I’ll wait for the trial,’’ he said.

He thinks constantly about his slain sister, a former girlfriend of Bulger’s associate, Stephen “the Rifleman’’ Flemmi. She disappeared in 1981, and her body was found in a shallow grave in Quincy. He wishes Bulger would suffer the kind of torturous death his sister did.

Davis feels so much rage when he thinks about Bulger that he said he prefers that the gangster avoid the death penalty and suffer a long imprisonment.

Anything but an “easy and quick’’ death for Bulger would be preferable, he said.

At the courthouse yesterday afternoon, Jeffrey Denner, a Boston lawyer who represented the family of John McIntyre during civil litigation against the federal government, said it was odd to see Bulger in handcuffs, under the watchful gaze of federal marshals, after so many years on the lam.

McIntyre, a fisherman who served as a middleman for the mobster, was allegedly executed by Bulger in 1984, after cooperating with federal investigators. He fingered Bulger for allegedly trafficking in marijuana and running an illegal operation to ship arms and ammunition to the Irish Republican Army.

“Seeing him here today, at least, is the first step to finding out what really happened,’’ said Denner. “He looked like Whitey Bulger 20 years later, just as smug as he’d always been.’’

For Patricia Donahue, now 66, who had to raise three sons on her own, the sight of Bulger appearing before a judge was deeply satisfying, even if he looked to her as if he was pleased to be there, in the limelight after so many years in the dark.

“We’re just happy to know that he’ll be spending the rest of his life behind bars,’’ she said.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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