Whitey on Trial
Secrets, Corruption, and the Search for Truth
By Margaret McLean, Jon Leiberman
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 Margaret McLean and Jon Leiberman
All rights reserved.
At the center of all this murder and mayhem is one man, the defendant in this case, James Bulger.
— Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly, opening statement
It was a note from a killer. A handwritten letter, nestled between bills in the mailbox, and postmarked ten days after a jury rendered a verdict at his trial. From: Whitey Bulger. The man accused of murdering nineteen people had written to us, wanting to tell his side of the story.
We couldn't open it.
We, Margaret McLean and Jon Leiberman, had joined forces to cover the sensational trial and write about it. Margaret is a former Boston-area prosecutor, legal analyst, and law professor at Boston College. Jon reported for America's Most Wanted and traveled around the world with the FBI task force searching for Whitey while he was a fugitive from justice.
Why couldn't we open that letter? We had formed intimate bonds with victims' relatives and members of law enforcement who had pursued Whitey for decades. They had helped us for months with this complicated case, given us their time.
Including a letter from Whitey in our coverage of the story felt like a betrayal. We fought about it. Was it the right thing to do? Our friends had experienced the murder of loved ones. Other friends had been tortured and beaten by Whitey. Those memories were painful for them, but they had learned to trust us and had shared private moments and feelings. Allowing Whitey to have his say felt wrong.
The trial itself had been overwhelming. Another friend and key prosecution witness had been murdered mid-trial. Silenced. He never had the chance to testify.
We became aware of the conflicts raging beneath the surface before the trial even started. Victims' relatives came to us for advice, torn over which side to root for at trial. We wondered how could that be? Don't victims always want the prosecution to win? Neither of us had seen that. We knew the trial would reveal decades of terror, extortion, and bodies buried in unmarked graves. Machine guns. A beautiful girl, strangled and buried in the basement. A brown-stained, grinning skull ... and she was known for her smile.
The evidence of violence was overwhelming, so why weren't the victims rooting 100 percent for the prosecution? The government typically upholds the principles of truth and justice, right?
We learned that Whitey's trial was far from black-and-white. It contained murky layers involving government leaks of top secret information that had caused innocent people to be killed. The massive-scale cover up and corruption went all the way up from Boston to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Top echelon FBI informants were murdered while the government looked the other way.
We opened that letter, and we are sorry for the pain it will inflict on some of our friends. We did it to expose the truth, and sometimes we need to hear it from all angles. A copy of Whitey's letter has been included toward the end of the book.
What follows is an eyewitness account of the Whitey Bulger trial and countless interviews with people intimately connected to the case.
I don't think you know how big this case is really going to be until you step in that courtroom. It's been thirty-one years since my husband was murdered. I'm in a catch-22 situation. We want Whitey to lose but we don't want the government to win either.
— Patricia Donahue, on the eve of the trial
A motorcade of four vehicles with sirens blaring barreled single file along Boston's Seaport Boulevard. Two federal squad cars flanked identical SUVs in the center. They looked the same, but we knew only one was armored. That armored car contained the prisoner, James "Whitey" Bulger, arriving for the first day of trial on that humid Wednesday morning, June 12, 2013. The motorcade sped past television satellite trucks and down a side alley next to the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse. Helicopters hovered overhead.
Even the setting for Whitey's trial presented a conflict between the beautiful and the ugly. The Moakley courthouse is arguably one of the most opulent government buildings in the country. It's located on Fan Pier overlooking the historic harbor, the site of the Boston Tea Party. The harbor teemed with sailboats, fishing vessels, and yachts that morning. The eighty-eight-foot-tall courthouse, with its curved glass facade, jutted into the harbor on a peninsula. Visitors from all over the world could see it glistening in the sun as they flew into Logan airport. The Moakley courthouse was designed by renowned architect Henry Cobb at a cost of $170 million. The building is surrounded by two acres of manicured shrubs, pristine flowers, and ornate wooden park benches.
The Moakley courthouse is a spectacular stage, yet during its largest, most featured production, the government was about to unveil a grotesque portrait of itself.
It was the summer of Whitey.
"It's time." The deputy United States marshal unlocked the spotless glass doors of the courthouse.
We watched a crowd burst through the lobby at 7:30 A.M., past several agents from the Department of Homeland Security with their bomb-sniffing black Labs.
No one dreamed this day would come, especially after Whitey spent sixteen years on the lam. Many thought he'd never be caught. Whitey had become a legend, a ghost of the past.
BEHIND THE SCENES
"We believe he has stashed millions of dollars in safe deposit boxes all over the world," FBI case agent Richard Teahan told us while searching for Whitey with America's Most Wanted in 2008. "He set himself up for a lifetime on the run."
We walked through the courthouse doors on that first day of the trial and entered straight into a commotion befitting three decades of waiting. The lines to get through security snaked throughout the lobby. People yearned for a glimpse of Whitey finally taking a seat in that empty spot at the defendant's table.
"Check phones in over here." The marshal pointed to the guard desk behind him, where two more lines had formed.
We flashed our media identification cards, which would allow us to bring electronics into the courtroom.
"Media to the right." The marshal pointed toward the far security beltway and metal detector.
A man pushed in front of us. "I'm here for the Whitey Bulger trial. Can I get into the courtroom?"
"First ten people on the list," the marshal said.
"Where's the list?" the man asked.
"Fifth floor. Courtroom 11. And it's first come, first served. We had people lined up since early this morning."
The man cut into a security line.
"Wait a minute, sir! You still have to check your phone." The marshal cupped his hands like a megaphone. "All electronics have to be checked."
After making it through security, we had to wait again with the crowds for an elevator up to the fifth floor. After missing at least six packed cars, we finally made it, our backs pressed against the far wall.
Patricia "Pat" Donahue squeezed into the same elevator, along with her three grown sons, Michael, Shawn, and Tommy. While many Boston-area families would spend the months ahead on Cape Cod, the Donahue family would not. They would spend their summer en route to and from the courthouse. This elevator would become their conduit between the pain of the past and hope for the future.
Pat waved at us and waited for the elevator doors to close. She had been waiting over three decades, ever since her husband Michael was murdered in 1982. She wore her blond hair short and stylish. She always appeared put-together in a conservative summer skirt, matching top, and colorful scarf or vintage necklace. Pat often welcomed others with a full bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. She was exuberant and full of life. When Pat walked into a room, heads turned. She had never remarried and we often wondered why.
Two marshals managed the crowds outside Whitey's courtroom on the fifth floor. We knew they'd maintain order in the actual halls of justice, but would the government control this case on the inside, where it really mattered?
"Sorry, public seats filled." The first marshal showed a handwritten list of ten names to the pushy man who we'd seen downstairs. "You'll have to watch the trial in one of the overflow rooms down the hall. They've got big-screen TVs all set up." He turned toward an attractive woman who had squeezed past and raised a finger. "Hold on."
"CNN," she said.
"Did they put your name on the list?"
"Okay." The marshal placed a check mark next to her name. "Head on in. The benches on your left are labeled for media. The first row's reserved for the sketch artist."
"Oh, good morning, Pat." The marshal stepped aside and held the door open for the Donahue family.
The Donahues squeezed into the second row of benches, labeled RESERVED.
Steve Davis turned around in his front-row seat and nodded at them. We knew his sister Debra had been strangled years ago. Whitey stood trial for that, too. The Davis family wanted answers. Debra was a beautiful twenty-six-year-old blond, full of life. Why were all her teeth pulled? Why was she buried in the basement? Why had three decades gone by without any justice for Debra?
Carmen Ortiz, the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, sat in the front row with her legs crossed and chin slightly raised. She wore her shoulder-length dark hair in a simple, no-nonsense style. Her pressed and starched suit made her look like an influential business woman. The national spotlight shone down on her office that day. Ortiz had assigned three of her top lawyers to prosecute Whitey. We knew the government had nine hundred exhibits at the ready. Carts loaded with fat three-ring binders lined the railing behind the government's trial table. We watched Ortiz glance toward Richard DesLauriers, the top gun of the Boston FBI, who sat on the bench designated for law enforcement. The defense team would attack Ortiz's office and the FBI for years of government corruption and leaks of top secret information to Whitey and his men. Leaks that killed informants along with innocent people. The dark days had occurred before Ortiz's time in office, yet questions still lingered. Top secret documents dating back to the 1970s remained hidden under lock and key. Would they finally be unsealed during Whitey's trial? How high up did the corruption go? Would anyone else take the fall?
The lead investigators took their seats: DEA agent Dan Doherty, State Police Lieutenant Steve Johnson, and Department of Justice lawyer James Marra. They'd been consumed with the Whitey Bulger case long before he was caught.
One man sat at the end of the bench in the front row reserved for the defendant's family: Whitey's brother John. It was a tough day for the Bulger family. We knew family members felt conflicted. Most chose not to attend.
A side door opened and a hush descended upon the packed gallery.
"There he is!" A man in the public section rose halfway and pointed.
Whitey Bulger entered the room. The Whitey Bulger.
People craned their necks to catch a glimpse. Several stood. Many likely remembered the snapshot of Whitey in dark sunglasses wearing a Red Sox cap as he had appeared years before, a free man, walking along the pedestrian paths at Castle Island in South Boston. This man was no longer on the run, no longer shielded by sunglasses or disguises.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Howie Winter, former head of the Winter Hill Gang and Whitey's partner in crime, told us, "He's always four or five steps ahead of everyone. I don't think they'll ever catch him. I'd say no to be honest with you. ... He's very clever and a master of disguises. He always had wigs and makeup."
Marshals escorted the pale white-haired eighty-three-year-old to his seat behind the defendant's table. He looked like an ordinary man: no handcuffs, no prison jumpsuit. For the big day, he had chosen a kelly green long-sleeved Henley shirt tucked into Levi's jeans with bright white sneakers. Nothing formal. A suit and tie would've been out of character for Whitey. He glanced into the gallery, making eye contact with his brother.
"Quiet in the courtroom!" a marshal yelled.
We watched the lawyers taking last-minute notes. This would be a tricky trial for both the prosecution and the defense.
THE BELL TOLLS NINETEEN TIMES
He did the dirty work himself, because he was a hands-on killer.
— Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly, opening statement
Assistant United States Attorney Brian Kelly pursed his lips and chewed the tip of his pen. He sat behind the government's table with his two colleagues, waiting for the judge and then the jury to enter. We knew Kelly would deliver the opening statement for the government in a matter of minutes. The government always goes first, as the party with the burden of proof. He had chosen a dark suit with a bright red tie. His sandy brown hair appeared freshly trimmed. Kelly had a receding hairline, yet looked young and cherubic for a man in his early fifties. Kelly's family sat in the gallery, appearing fidgety and anxious for him.
Kelly and lead prosecutor Fred Wyshak were seasoned veterans of Boston's war on organized crime. Wyshak, age sixty, looked stockier than Kelly, with cropped gray hair and a large, creased brow. They fought together for over two decades tearing down Whitey's empire. They had recently added Zachary Hafer to the team. He was a handsome lawyer in his midthirties with a full head of dark hair.
Kelly turned and whispered to an assistant seated at the table behind him. She nodded and checked something on a courtroom computer. Kelly's eyes appeared puffy. Had he slept the week before? He had to be conflicted about his case. We knew he was a good man, a man of high integrity and moral character. How would he deal with the underlying current of government corruption? What was the government setting out to accomplish? A win across the board with guilty findings on every count in the criminal indictment, or the truth?
The clerk rose from her seat just below the judge's bench. "All rise!" she said.
United States District Court Judge Denise Casper whisked into the courtroom from a door located behind the bench.
"Court is in session. Please be seated." The clerk remained standing. "Criminal Action 99-10371, United States versus James Bulger."
"Good morning." Judge Casper scanned both counsel tables, which were positioned side by side in the center of the lawyers' section, called the bar.
"Good morning," the lawyers said.
Casper regarded Whitey for a moment. "Good morning, Mr. Bulger."
Whitey nodded and returned the judge's greeting.
Judge Casper commanded attention. This was her courtroom and the biggest trial so far of her career. Critics snickered, telling us she was far too inexperienced to handle a trial this big. Others praised Casper as intelligent, no-nonsense, and a good listener.
"We'll be here until Christmas," a reporter whispered when the final pretrial conference carried on until 6:00 P.M.
"She's slow. Very slow," said a lawyer who had appeared before her on another case. Most lawyers hadn't practiced before Casper. She was an unknown commodity.
While Casper's personality was a wild card, her pedigree stood out: Wesleyan University, Harvard Law School. President Obama appointed her to the bench in 2010 as the first African-American woman to serve on the First Circuit. Casper had practiced civil litigation for a prominent Boston law firm and worked as a federal and state prosecutor.
The slender forty-six-year-old woman in the black robe and shoulder- length hair adjusted her glasses and shuffled papers. How would she handle five experienced male attorneys ... and Whitey? Six against one? Will she command respect? Will she favor one side over the other? How will she control her courtroom with the anticipated high drama of convicted killers coming face-to-face with Whitey for the first time in decades?
"All rise for the jury."
Whitey rose, along with his lawyers and the rest of the gallery. His gaze shifted toward the door to the left of the judge's bench as the jurors entered. Twelve would decide his fate. Did they have any idea of the enormity of the case at hand? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Whitey on Trial by Margaret McLean, Jon Leiberman. Copyright © 2014 Margaret McLean and Jon Leiberman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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