'Rifleman' Flemmi's opening salvo: Whitey Bulger was FBI informant (+video)

The former crime partner of James 'Whitey' Bulger testified Thursday that the two were FBI informants – and that Bulger took the lead in managing the relationship with the bureau. Meanwhile, in a bizarre twist, a potential witness turns up dead.

By , Staff writer

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    Stephen 'The Rifleman' Flemmi takes the witness stand in James 'Whitey' Bulger's murder and racketeering trial, as seen in this courtroom sketch in Boston, Thursday, July 18. The two former leaders of the Winter Hill Gang, haven’t seen each other in almost 20 years when Bulger fled Boston to evade arrest.
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The former crime partner of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger testified Thursday that Mr. Bulger was a man of overbearing personality who took the lead in a “quid pro quo” relationship that the two had with the FBI as informants.

Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi said he worked with Bulger on a daily basis from the 1970s through the early 1990s, running criminal enterprises in Boston for big profits.

His testimony represents the capstone of a weeks-long case presented by federal prosecutors. Bulger is charged with 19 murders, and Flemmi is expected to say the two were co-conspirators in many of them.

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Bulger, through his defense lawyers, is insisting he was never an FBI informant.

The arrival of Flemmi in the witness box also comes alongside news of a bizarre twist outside the courtroom – the sudden death of a potential witness at the trial. The body of Stephen Rakes turned up Wednesday afternoon in Lincoln, Mass. There were no obvious signs of trauma, the Middlesex District Attorney's Office said, and the cause of death is being evaluated by a medical examiner.

Mr. Rakes had said he hoped to testify about Bulger’s 1984 takeover of his liquor store. The store became a headquarters and a source of income for Bulger.

But last week another government witness gave an account of the store takeover that differed in some details from what Rakes had planned to say. Prosecutors removed him from their witness list, and he was disappointed about losing the chance to testify, according to some news reports.

Flemmi took the stand just minutes before the close of Thursday’s court session. During his short appearance, he came off as mentally sharp, not the least bit nervous … and by his own admission a killer.

He and Bulger haven’t seen each other in almost 20 years. With a federal indictment bearing down on them in 1994, Bulger escaped Boston and lived under a pseudonym for 16 years before being caught, while Flemmi was arrested and eventually confessed to 10 murders – escaping the death penalty through a deal with prosecutors.

Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak asked Flemmi what his relationship with Bulger was.

“Strictly criminal,” Flemmi replied.

He wore an olive green windbreaker-style jacket.

Much of his testimony is still to come, including the allegation that Bulger strangled two women – both connected to Flemmi – because of fear they might reveal compromising information, including the FBI relationship.

Flemmi said Thursday he and Bulger met with FBI agents “hundreds of times,” providing information on the New England Mafia and on smaller-time South Boston criminals.

Bulger’s lawyers have emphasized the other side of a corrupt relationship: that FBI personnel including Agent John Connolly provided information to Bulger and Flemmi that helped them evade indictment for years.

Flemmi said Bulger did most of the talking when the two met with Mr. Connolly or other agents, although Flemmi had often shared the information with Bulger before the meetings.

“He [Bulger] was the one that was really friendly with Connolly,” Flemmi testified.

Asked to describe Bulger’s personality, Flemmi said it was “forceful,” and “overbearing.” Still, he said they related to each other as friends.

On one occasion the two vacationed together in Europe on a trip that, according to other accounts, Bulger used as an opportunity to stash money for a potential life on the lam, should he ever need to flee from authorities.

Now, with former colleagues such as Flemmi testifiying against him, Bulger has exhibited some flashes of temper in the courtroom. On Thursday, according to The Boston Globe, Bulger and Flemmi exchanged some hostile words as they were leaving the courtroom.

This week has also seen testimony from other prosecution witnesses about Bulger’s extortion activities. Judging by the testimony, forceful is an understated way to describe his behavior.

Earlier during Thursday’s session, William David Lindholm described a meeting during his days as a marijuana smuggler when Bulger pulled a gun to make the point that he wanted a cut of Mr. Lindholm’s profits.

Defense attorney Jay Carney, cross-examining Lindholm, asked if Bulger wanted him to join under an umbrella of protection.

“No, I think it was under his umbrella of extortion,” Lindholm replied. “He wasn't protecting us from anything.”

Flemmi’s testimony is scheduled to continue Friday.

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