(USA TODAY) -- Reputed mobster James "Whitey" Bulger led a criminal organization that "ran amok" in Boston for almost 30 years before he slipped away as law enforcement closed in almost two decades ago, a prosecutor told a federal jury Wednesday.
Opening statements began in the trial of Bulger, who faces a 32-count federal indictment alleging that, among other things, he participated in 19 slayings going back to the early '70s, as well as racketeering, extortion, weapons offenses and money-laundering.
"At the center of all this murder and mayhem is one man - the defendant in this case, James Bulger," Brian Kelly said.
An iconic figure in Boston's organized crime past, Bulger was nabbed at a quiet California condominium in 2011 after 16 years on the lam. Bulger is a bearded old man of 83 who hardly looks the ruthless crime boss - and secretly protected FBI informant - that prosecutors allege.
Bulger is accused of leading the Winter Hill Gang with a brutality that terrorized South Boston in the 1970s and '80s. The trial may stir old ghosts, giving a public airing to the corruption that infected the city and even the FBI during those years.
"Sure, Whitey Bulger is on trial - a compelling and significant crime figure,'' said Dick Lehr, a Boston University journalism professor who has written two books on the alleged crime boss. "But the FBI is also on trial. You cannot mention Whitey Bulger without in the same breath talking about the FBI. It wasn't a single case. ... It was a way of life for a couple decades.''
Even as the carnage mounted, Bulger was a bigger-than-life figure in Boston, a widely known, politically connected guy whose own brother, Billy, was president of the state Senate and eventually president of the University of Massachusetts.
Federal indictments tell a sordid tale of extortion, shakedowns and murders of rivals and potential witnesses. Among the 19 slayings he is accused of was the strangulation in 1981 of Debra Davis, allegedly because she planned to break up with Bulger's partner in crime. Federal prosecutors allege he buried three other victims in the yard of a South Boston home, then dug them up and reburied them at another property when they learned the house was being sold.
Most, but not all, of the slayings were in the Boston area. Bulger was accused of conspiring to kill Roger Wheeler, owner of World Jai Lai, who died in May 1982 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 after being tipped off that he was about to be indicted - a favor from his pal and former FBI handler, John Connolly. Connolly, who grew up in the same South Boston housing project as Bulger, recruited him as an informant and protected him from prosecution in exchange for tips, jurors found in Connolly's trial in 2002, when he was convicted of racketeering, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. He received a 10-year prison sentence.
In 2005, Connolly was convicted in Florida of murder. He was accused of tipping Bulger, who allegedly had a potential witness killed. Connolly is serving a 40-year sentence on that conviction.
Bulger was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., where he had spent most of the previous 14 years. A renewed federal dragnet with a $2 million bounty produced the tip that brought him down. The FBI renewed its hunt for Bulger by airing public service announcements in several states, including California, focusing on the search for his companion, Catherine Greig, and appealing to those who might have seen her at a beauty parlor or doctor's office.
Within days, the FBI received hundreds of tips. The reward money was paid to the former Miss Iceland 1974, Anna Bjornsdottir, who had gotten to know Bulger's girlfriend while living in Santa Monica, The Boston Globe reported in 2011.
While on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, Bulger had been hiding in plain sight - using a fake ID, covering his bald head with a Red Sox cap and walking daily along the Pacific surf far from the harsh winters of his hometown.
Greig shared his $1,100-a-month rent-controlled apartment three blocks off the beach. Cops found an arsenal of guns and $822,000 in cash hidden behind the walls.
Greig, 62, is serving an eight-year sentence after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and identity fraud.
The trial could last as long as three months. Judge Denise Casper ruled that jurors won't be sequestered, and their identities will be released after a verdict. Lehr said that shows Bulger has no organization or loyal enforcers left to fear.
Prosecutors plan to call notorious gangsters and hit men to testify against Bulger, including John Martorano, who admitted killing 20 people, and Steven "The Rifleman" Flemmi, serving a life sentence for 10 deaths.
Bulger's defense lawyers said in a recent court filing that they will attack the credibility of the prosecution witnesses, who were once reviled and sent to prison by the same government. Bulger is arguing he had immunity because of his work for the government. Casper has ruled that any purported immunity deal was "not a defense to the crimes charged.''
Defense attorneys plan to call top law enforcement officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller, former Massachusetts Republican governor William Weld and U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns, each of whom worked in the U.S. attorney's office in Boston during Bulger's reign on the streets.