By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors paraded hit men, drug dealers, bookies, and cops from a bygone era before a jury, painting ex-mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger as a cold-hearted killer and a government snitch before wrapping up more than six weeks of testimony on Friday.
Once the most feared criminal in Boston's underworld, Bulger, 83, faces life in prison if convicted on charges related to 19 murders he is accused of committing or ordering as boss of the Winter Hill Gang in the 1970s and 80s.
Prosecutors put some of Bulger's closest partners in crime on the stand. They recalled an era when gun-toting gangsters dumped bodies under bridges or buried them in earthen basements and exchanged information with corrupt FBI agents in a bloody struggle for money and power.
Confessed killers like John 'The Executioner' Martorano, Stephen 'The Rifleman' Flemmi, and Kevin Weeks vividly described Bulger strangling women, gunning down rivals and "rats" who talked too much, and demanding money at gunpoint from other criminals or local business owners.
"Prosecutors have an old saying, if you want to convict the devil you have to go to hell to find the witnesses," said Michael Kendall, a partner at the Boston law firm McDermott Will & Emery and a former federal prosecutor who investigated some of Bulger's associates. "That is literally true in this case."
Bulger's defense lawyers have said he is not guilty, and are poised to sow doubt about the witnesses, many of whom were neck-deep in crime themselves and may be seeking reduced sentences.
His attorneys plan to call a handful of witnesses starting on Monday, but they have not made clear whether Bulger, whose story inspired Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning film "The Departed," will take the stand himself.
Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from a corrupt FBI official and spent 16 years as a fugitive before law enforcement caught him hiding out in a seaside apartment in California in 2011, with a stash of money and guns.
Scott Garriola, a special agent with the FBI in Los Angeles, testified on Friday that the ageing criminal swore at the arresting agents when they confronted him and refused their demands he kneel down "because there was grease on the ground."
The trial took an alarming turn last week, when the body of alleged Bulger extortion victim Stephen Rakes was found in a Boston suburb. Police are still investigating the cause of his death, though a lawyer for Rakes' family said he did not believe the death was linked to the trial.
Some of the most riveting testimony came from Bulger crony and long-time friend Stephen Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for 10 murders he confessed to a decade ago in a plea deal that spared him execution.
Wearing prison-issue khakis and a green jacket and shirt, Flemmi coldly told the jury he watched Bulger strangle his girlfriend and his stepdaughter in separate incidents in the 1980s, both because Bulger feared they were talking too much.
"It didn't take long, she was a fragile woman," Flemmi said on the 1985 killing of Deborah Hussey, his step-daughter. He said Bulger took a nap after killing the woman, while Flemmi buried her in the basement.
Kevin Weeks, another high-ranking Winter Hill gang member, told stories that painted Bulger as a friend who reveled in killing like a movie villain. During a 1982 driveby murder, he said, Bulger wore a wig and a fake mustache and drove a car capable of sending out a smokescreen or oil slick.
The target of that killing was Brian Halloran, a gang associate suspected of talking to the FBI. The other victim, Michael Donahue, was simply giving Halloran a ride.
Another Bulger associate John Martorano nonchalantly described a dozen murders that involved Bulger, from successful hits on rivals to the accidental shooting of a teenage girl.
Former drug dealers and bookies also told of harrowing meetings in which they said Bulger stuck guns in their faces and demanded huge payouts, and one case in which Winter Hill facilitated an arms shipment to the Irish Republican Army.
The trial has exposed the dark underbelly of Boston's FBI during the days of Winter Hill, when corrupt agents invited gangsters for home-cooked meals and gave them tips that helped them evade arrest.
Retired Agent John Morris said the FBI's relationship with Bulger and Flemmi also involved the pair giving them information about the Italian mob - testimony that led Bulger to swear at him and call him a liar. Bulger has adamantly denied providing any information to law enforcement officials.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and David Gregorio)