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Former 'Whitey' Bulger associate tells of drive-by killings

Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marsha
Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marsha

By Scott Malone and Svea Herbst-Bayliss

BOSTON (Reuters) - A former criminal associate of James "Whitey" Bulger told jurors hearing the accused mob boss's murder and racketeering trial on Monday about killing rivals in drive-by shootings as his friend rose to power in Boston organized crime circles.

John Martorano, 72, is the first of Bulger's former associates to take the stand in Boston federal court, where Bulger is being tried on charges including racketeering and 19 murders he committed or ordered while running Boston's "Winter Hill" crime gang in the 1970s and 80s.

Bulger, 83, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Martorano, who spent 12 years in prison for 20 murders he confessed to, recounted several execution-style killings of Bulger rivals and people mistaken for them, in which he served as gunman while Bulger drove a backup car.

The night of December 1, 1973, when the crew set off to kill rival James O'Toole, was different, Martorano said.

"This night here, Whitey wanted to do the driving, so he came with me," Martorano recalled. Bulger, who served as lookout while Martorano got out of the car and gunned O'Toole down with a machine gun, had to wave off a passerby who came walking down the street.

"He chased him off with his hand, and he said, 'I'm never going to be in the car without a gun again,'" Martorano said.

That night the gang members gunned down their intended victim. But, Martorano said, they also shot dead at least two other people unintentionally in efforts to murder rival gang boss Al Notarangeli, whom they shot dead in February 1974.

Normally, Martorano said, he rode in a stolen "boiler car" with another gunman, a driver and pair of machine guns, with Bulger driving another legally owned car, which could be used to crash into other vehicles if needed to stop police.

Earlier, Martorano told the jury that it "broke my heart" to learn that Bulger had served as an FBI informant. Martorano said he had named his youngest son "James Stephen" in honor of Bulger and another associate, Stephen Flemmi.

The FBI has extensive files of information it says Bulger provided during the years when agency investigators who shared Bulger's Irish background cooperated with him as they worked to take down the Italian mafia in the United States.

Bulger, through his lawyers, denies being an informant.

In opening statements last week, Bulger's lawyer described the accused as a mild-mannered criminal who engaged in illegal gambling, loan-sharking and drug dealing but not murder. Prosecutors portrayed him as a "hands-on" killer.

Martorano is the first of three key Bulger associates due to testify in the trial, which is expected to last three to four months, with Kevin Weeks and Flemmi also due to testify.

FOCUS ON BOOKIES

The court also heard from former bookmakers who paid "rent," or tribute money, to Bulger's gang to be allowed to continue to run their illegal gambling operations.

Richard O'Brien, 84, testified that he began working with Bulger's gang in the early 1970s, and that the arrangement was helpful to enforce collections on debts he was owed.

"When we had a problem, the best thing I had was to say, ‘Do you want to speak with someone from Winter Hill?'" O'Brien testified.

Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, O'Brien said he had lied during grand jury testimony in 1995, when he denied that he paid "rent" to Bulger out of fear of what would happen to him if he testified against Bulger and his associates.

"I wouldn't testify against those people because of the repercussions you could have," he said.

Bulger's lead attorney, J.W. Carney of Boston law firm Carney & Bassil, has repeatedly focused on witnesses' past false statements. He argued in opening statements that witnesses including Martorano testified against Bulger only to get their own prison sentences reduced.

Bulger, who as a young man spent time locked up in the Alcatraz prison island off San Francisco and lived in hiding for 16 years before his 2011 arrest, has intrigued Boston for decades. His story inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning movie "The Departed."

Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from a corrupt FBI agent that his arrest was imminent. On the run, he was on the FBI's "most wanted" list of criminals.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Douglas Royalty)

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