By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - When she was assigned to the federal task force charged with finding James "Whitey" Bulger in 2000, then-Drug Enforcement Agency agent Pamela Hay had a problem: She wasn't convinced her FBI counterparts wanted to catch the fugitive mobster.
The former leader of Boston's "Winter Hill" crime gang by then was in his sixth year of hiding, after fleeing the city in 1994 on a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent.
"I had to sort out what was going on, did the FBI really want to find Bulger, if Bulger was found, what was it going to uncover?" Hay recalled in an interview on Tuesday.
She soon determined, however, her FBI colleagues were very serious about catching Bulger. "They worked hard, almost like they wanted to regain their reputation," she said.
Bulger, once the most feared criminal in Boston, on Monday was found guilty of 31 of 32 counts in a sweeping racketeering case that proved him a murderer, drug dealer and extortionist. A jury convicted him a little more than two years after FBI agents caught up with him, living in hiding under an alias in a Santa Monica, California seaside apartment.
The verdict, which legal experts said is likely to leave the 83-year-old in prison for his remaining years, is a step towards redemption for the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bulger, who early in his criminal career had served time on the Alcatraz prison island off San Francisco, maintained brutal control on Boston's underworld thanks to corrupt relationships with FBI agents that shared his Irish ethnicity and turned a blind eye to his crimes in exchange for information they could use against the Italian Mafia.
"This trial is a start for the FBI to earn back the trust of the public once again," said Walter Prince, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who is now a partner with the law firm Prince Lobel. "It's going to take a while for the FBI to put those criminal activities behind them."
Justice Department officials in Boston admitted that Bulger's case had long been a black mark on the bureau.
"This day of reckoning for Bulger has been a long time in coming. Too long, in fact, due to his decades long of corruption - and corrupting law enforcement officials in this city," U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said on Monday after the jury rendered its verdict.
"It was a corruption that not only allowed him to operate a violent organization, but allowed him to slip away when honest law enforcement was closing in," she said.
During Bulger's two-month trial, jurors heard about a long relationship between the defendant and his FBI handlers, John Connolly and John Morris.
Connolly and Bulger were first put in touch by the gangster's older brother, William, who became the powerful president of the state Senate and wanted to help out a friend who grew up in the same South Boston neighborhood.
Bulger agreed to meet with Connolly, reluctantly at first, but eventually the two became close. Connolly regularly entertained Bulger and his partner-in-crime Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, inviting them over for home-cooked meals, according to testimony at the trial.
Connolly developed a 700-page informant file in more than decade of regular meetings with Bulger, who claimed that he paid the agent for tips but never provided any of his own.
Connolly is serving a 40-year prison sentence on racketeering and murder convictions. His boss, Morris, is a free man and testified that he accepted money and gifts from Bulger, and offered tips that led to mob executions, including that of Edward Halloran.
Halloran had approached the FBI to offer tips of his own - a crime that Bulger regarded as punishable by death.
"Not a day in my life has gone by that I haven't thought about this," Morris said about the murder of that gangster and another man, uninvolved in gang business, who had the misfortune to be driving Halloran home when the "Winter Hill" gang arrived.
Bulger adamantly denied being an informant and cursed at Morris when he took the witness stand, calling him a liar. Still, Bulger's lawyers acknowledged a close relationship with law enforcement.
They plan to appeal the verdict, saying that rulings by U.S. District Judge Denise Casper and her predecessor on the case prevented them from making their best defense - that Bulger had been promised immunity by prosecutors.
Bulger's lawyers never said why prosecutors would have offered their client immunity if he was not an informant, an argument that they wanted to make in the courtroom.
"I was somewhat taken by the defense of immunity I think it was novel and perhaps in another day and another time it would have prevailed," said Barry Slotnick, a defense lawyer whose clients have included the late reputed New York mob boss Joseph Colombo.
"He controlled organized crime in Boston and the FBI was desperate to get info from him, whether they got it or not and so as a result of their need to ingratiate themselves with him, it all went aside."
(Additional reporting by Daniel Lovering; Editing by Andre Grenon and Grant McCool)