BOSTON -- James Bulger, the second-most notorious man in Boston, sits there in blue jeans and white sneakers, his balding head shaved to a salt-and-pepper speckle, his glasses perched at nose's tip in faux-studious pose. Somewhat diminished by his 83 years, he looks as if he might be waiting for the discount bus to Foxwoods Casino.
But then testimony resumes at the federal courthouse here on Boston Harbor, and the words transform the would-be retiree called Whitey into a sociopathic thug in winter -- one who seems less perturbed by descriptions of him as a serial killer than by the recurring contention that he was a longtime government informant. He has his pride, after all.
Perhaps the most damning of those words came late this week from a hearing-impaired witness of 79, wearing a green windbreaker and a quizzical look that suggested he too was looking for the Foxwoods bus. Only this was Mr. Bulger's former partner, Stephen Flemmi, a stone killer now serving a life sentence in prison for assorted crimes against humanity.
In less than 15 minutes of testimony on Thursday, Mr. Flemmi managed to acknowledge his role in 10 murders (Richie Castucci? "Yes." Roger Wheeler? "Yes." Debra Davis? "Yes."), admit to his own moonlighting as a veteran informant (a "quid pro quo" arrangement, he said), and describe Mr. Bulger as a federal informant whose diligence might have qualified him for a government pension.
After a court recess on Thursday delayed the rest of Mr. Flemmi's testimony until Friday -- when he would describe how Mr. Bulger strangled a woman and then lay down for a rest -- the two slightly shrunken men glowered at each other like toothless junkyard dogs. One muttered a choice name, the other muttered in return, and the thought occurred: Enough with Whitey.
His story is so familiar, his alleged victims and shady associates so numerous, that it has become Boston's own Trivial Pursuit. He was the Irish-American gangster who wore the mask of a South Boston Robin Hood, went on the lam for 16 years, only to be captured and treated to a transcontinental flight home in shackles. Awaiting him was a racketeering indictment that accused him of 19 murders, among other crimes, and a reputation for accommodating corrupt, Mafia-obsessed agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In his day, he held Boston in thrall and some fear. If you didn't know somebody who knew somebody who had trembled in his presence, you at least engaged in those Where's Whitey conversations during his prolonged absence, and wondered how much his erudite brother, William Bulger -- once the powerful president of the Massachusetts Senate -- knew about his elder sibling's exploits and whereabouts. One could easily imagine all the attention feeding the preening vanity of Mr. Bulger, who used to admire his muscular figure in the reflections of cars parked outside his headquarters, according to the recent book "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice," by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, two Boston Globe reporters who seem to know Mr. Bulger better than he knows himself.
Then, in April, bombs detonated at the Boston Marathon, wounding 264 and killing three, including an 8-year-old boy. Mr. Bulger was instantly displaced as Boston's most notorious figure by the bombing's surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old naturalized citizen with extreme Islamist beliefs. And his alleged crimes and behavior seemed even more depraved amid a grieving city's heightened awareness of the preciousness of life.
Still, since early June, Mr. Bulger has been having his days in court, generating a daily public ritual. The defendant arrives each morning by small motorcade from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. Before 9 o'clock he is escorted to the defense table, where, between his suited attorneys, he rarely grants eye contact to those accusing him of heinous acts.
This week, while witnesses have spoken of vanishing acquaintances and DNA matches to long-buried body parts, Mr. Bulger has kept his head down, scribbling notes like an overeager paralegal. One businessman said that Mr. Bulger once held a machine gun to his crotch. Another man, a former drug trafficker, recalled his threat "to cut my head off." Scribble scribble.
The gallery behind him is divided into three sections. On one side, members of the public fortunate enough to be granted a seat. On the other side, we reporters straining like phrenologists to divine meaning from the back of Mr. Bulger's head. And in the middle, the relatives of murder victims.
After two hours of testimony, a 20-minute recess is declared, and many people -- though not Mr. Bulger -- rush to the cafeteria to eat and compare notes. The question of whether Whitey will testify in his defense is a favorite subject; his famous vanity, and his insistence that he is not a rat -- His Irish ancestors would rise from their graves! -- suggest that he just might.
As another quick lunch ends, Tommy Donahue, a union electrician, says he'd love to see Mr. Bulger executed; in fact, he'd throw the switch. But his mother says no; she wants the man to suffer. Then they gather up their empty sandwich wrappers and head for the fifth-floor courtroom for two more hours of testimony in the delayed avenging of the late Michael Donahue.
The trial of Mr. Bulger has had its gripping moments, its detailed descriptions of blood spilled -- even the occasional expletive from Mr. Bulger when his delusion as a stand-up guy has taken another hit. But the appearance of his partner in crime, Mr. Flemmi, at the end of this week had the city on high alert. Hundreds lined up in the early-morning dark, hoping to gawk from one of the few spare gallery seats.
This is because Mr. Flemmi was once Mr. Bulger's Italian-American twin, sharing interests in not smoking, not drinking to excess, not getting flabby, and not working within the law. Also, not abiding by the underworld understanding to keep your yap shut.
On Friday, the aged witness returned to the stand wearing the same green windbreaker. He asked the judge to speak up. He had to be asked repeatedly to move back from the microphone, and to specify who he was referring to when he said "he," as if everyone knew it could only be Mr. Bulger.
But Mr. Flemmi's memory seemed sharp as a stiletto, one aimed at Mr. Bulger's heart, as he recounted several decades in the Boston underworld. If he wasn't killing someone, he was disposing of the body or mopping up the blood. He laid out Mr. Bulger's close relationship with the F.B.I. agent John Connolly and recounted an ever-growing list of murders that he said were sanctioned or committed by Mr. Bulger. All the while, he spoke of dead bodies the way a carpenter might discuss two-by-fours. That is, until it came to the murder of Debra Davis, his young blonde girlfriend.
This is what Mr. Flemmi said:
His girlfriend and his partner were jealous of the time he spent with the other. Then he slipped up one night by telling Ms. Davis that he had to leave her birthday party to meet an insistent Mr. Bulger and an F.B.I. agent named Connolly. A mistake.
Mr. Bulger and Mr. Connolly found out; they were not happy. Mr. Bulger insisted that she had to die. Mr. Flemmi said no, absolutely not -- until, finally, he said O.K.
Mr. Flemmi took his girlfriend to a house in South Boston, where Mr. Bulger leapt from behind and strangled her. "Strangling her all the way down to the basement," he said. Then, as Mr. Flemmi wrapped his dead girlfriend in a tarp, Mr. Bulger went back upstairs "and laid down."
After dark, the body was taken to Neponset. "He sat down on the bank and I dug the hole," Mr. Flemmi said.
Why didn't Mr. Bulger help in the digging?
"That's what he does," Mr. Flemmi explained.
At this point, the judge abruptly ended testimony for the day, as if to say: Enough.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.