Infamous US mobster's trial due to start in Boston

BOSTON (AFP) - Jury selection begins on Tuesday in the trial of James "Whitey" Bulger, an ageing mobster who spent 16 years hiding in broad daylight in California and became the inspiration for a gritty Hollywood flick.

Bulger, 83, is charged with 19 murders in the 1970s and 80s in Boston and also faces federal racketeering charges.

His case gives new meaning to the term long arm of justice: a Bostonian nabbed way out west after many years on the lam, thanks to a tipoff from an actress who was once Miss Iceland, calling the FBI from Reykjavik.

Bulger was arrested in 2011 in Santa Monica, California, where he had been living under an assumed name with long-term girlfriend Catherine Greig, then 60. At the time, Bulger was on the FBI's ten most wanted fugitives list.

Police found some US$800,000 (S$1 million) in cash and an arsenal of weapons in Bulger's modest apartment, along with books about him.

Bulger fled Boston in January 1995 after being tipped off by an FBI contact that he was about to be arrested. He was spotted in London in 2002 and in California in 2000 and 2005, but evaded arrest.

After he fled, it emerged he had been a long-time FBI informant about the Mafia, fueling suspicion about the agency's fruitless efforts to find him.

Bulger became the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in "The Departed," the 2006 crime film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. It is a tale of crooks infiltrating the police force and vice versa, with Nicholson playing a ruthless don in the middle.

Bulger is expected to testify at the trial, which opens June 10 and is expected to last until September.

In addition to accusations that Bulger murdered mob rivals, potential witnesses and others who threatened him, prosecutors accuse him of a crime spree spanning into the 1990s that included extortion, money laundering and, at one point, running guns to Northern Ireland's IRA.

The FBI launched a public campaign in 2011 to nab Bulger and it worked.

Seeing a photo of Greig, the Miss Iceland of 1974, Anna Bjornsdottir, called the FBI and said she knew Greig and Bulger were living in an apartment in Santa Monica, as she had once lived in the same neighborhood.

Ms Bjornsdottir said she had met Greig because the two shared an interest in a local stray cat. She received US$2 million from the FBI for her tipoff.

Last year Greig pleaded guilty to harbouring a fugitive and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Some 80 witnesses are expected to testify in the upcoming trial and about 1,000 exhibits will be presented.

Bulger's relationship with the FBI and the Justice Department will be a prime issue.

Prosecutors allege that Bulger fled Boston just before he was indicted in January 1995 on charges he and his old partner in crime, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, and others were indicted as part of a racketeering enterprise controlling illegal gambling and loansharking in metropolitan Boston.

Flemmi moved to dismiss the indictment in 1997 on grounds he and Bulger could not be part of a conspiracy with the Mafia because they both were longtime FBI informants, promised immunity for their crimes in exchange for their cooperation against local mob leaders.

These revelations led to lengthy hearings exposing the FBI's relationship with the two gangsters.

The FBI acknowledged that Bulger had been an FBI informant from 1975 to 1990 and Flemmi since the 1960s. A former FBI supervisor admitted taking US$7,000 in bribes and leaking information to them.

Over the next 10 years, Bulger's closest associates turned on him, became government witnesses, implicated Bulger in multiple murders and led investigators to secret grave sites.

Bulger's former FBI handler, John J. Connolly, was convicted of warning Bulger to flee before his indictment and of second-degree murder for leaking information to Bulger and Flemmi that caused the 1982 slaying of a Boston businessman in Florida.

Connolly, who lived in the same South Boston public housing as Bulger in his youth, is now serving 40 years in prison.

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