By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - James "Whitey" Bulger made it clear to Boston bookmakers that murder was among his violent options if they balked at paying thousands of dollars in annual "rent" to the notorious mob boss, two former bookies testified on Friday.
"We have a business beyond bookmaking," Richard O'Brien recalled Bulger telling him in a private meeting decades ago to settle a disagreement. "Killing assholes like you." O'Brien spent decades placing illegal bets on horse-racing and football games.
"Rather than being in the bookmaking business and taking the unknown gamble, they would take rent like you would for an apartment," O'Brien, 84, testified.
On the third day of Bulger's racketeering and murder trial, O'Brien and 72-year-old James Katz, another former bookie, told jurors how the 83-year-old Bulger had earned millions while running the city's violent "Winter Hill Gang."
"You had to comply," Katz told the court, adding that the choice of withholding protection payments from the gang "was up to you but if they caught you, you'd get into trouble: you could wind up in the hospital."
Katz and O'Brien said that from the early 1970s to 1992, they each paid Bulger and his associates over $1,000 a month during football season and $500 a month during the rest of the year. They often handed over the money at bars, parking garages and a liquor store. Both men feared crossing Bulger.
"At that time it was murder and a lot of beatings," Katz said. O'Brien warned his daughter, who had joined the family's illegal business, to go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation if he failed to return within 12 hours from a meeting with a top Bulger associate. He also warned her not to go home to Boston if he ended up dead.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 after being tipped off that he would soon be indicted. In his 16 years on the run he was on the FBI's Most Wanted List of criminals. He was captured in 2011 in California.
MOBSTER, EX-BOOKIES' COURTROOM REUNION
On Friday, Bulger sat quietly at the defense table dressed in a blue shirt and jeans. Katz tried not to look at him directly, but O'Brien smiled broadly and nodded a greeting when prosecutors asked him to point out the man who had demanded the "rent" money.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all counts of his 32-count indictment that includes charges of having played a role in 19 murders. In opening arguments, the government described Bulger as a cold-blooded, hands-on killer, while his lawyer described him as a mild-mannered criminal who engaged in illegal gambling, loansharking and drug dealing but not murder.
The U.S. government is relying on the bookies to support its thesis. The police started to cultivate them as informants for leads on Bulger in the 1980s when it tried to crack down on violent gangs in Boston.
On Friday, Bulger's lawyer J.W. Carney tried to discredit Katz's testimony. He suggested that the former bookie cooperated with the government to escape the boredom and loneliness of prison where he was serving a sentence for racketeering and fraud.
"Your No. 1 priority was to provide substantial assistance to gain your freedom that day," Carney said to Katz about the day Katz returned to speak to a grand jury in Boston in 1994. Katz later entered the witness protection program and the government paid thousands of dollars to resettle him.
Asked about what he told the government lawyer, Katz responded: "I knew what he wanted."
Katz said his daily routine at the Pennsylvania prison included working on landscaping, which he described as boring. Carney asked repeatedly whether Katz missed his wife and was lonely in prison. He also asked whether there was anyone in prison who would touch him the way his wife did.
Carney will cross examine O'Brien on Monday when court resumes.
For decades Bulger's story has haunted Boston. Many of the victims' family members watching the proceedings from the waterfront U.S. District Court said they never believed he would be caught alive or brought back to stand trial.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by David Gregorio and Richard Chang)