Jury selection in the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger began last week in Boston, with all the media attention you’d expect from the final legal comeuppance of an aging organized-crime monster suspected of having a bloody hand in 19 murders.
The fact that monster was let off his leash by a corrupt Boston FBI office only makes the macabre criminal proceeding all the more sordid. Bulger spent 16 years on the lam before being captured June 22, 2011, after hiding in plain sight in Santa Monica, Calif.
Before his capture, he also enjoyed vacations in Las Vegas.
Bulger, 83, has come to symbolize the danger of cutting deals with criminal devils and the potential for corruption inside even a buttoned-down law enforcement organization like the FBI. Bulger and fellow hitman Steve Flemmi entered into just such arrangements with the FBI, and the result has been chaos in the courts and a shattering of the Boston office’s credibility.
The stain reaches all the way to Las Vegas.
The FBI’s shadowy arrangement thwarted Las Vegas police detectives from clearing the October 1969 murder of Peter Poulos, the minor Boston criminal figure whose corpse was found just outside the lights of Las Vegas. He’d been shot three times in the head.
Poulos was positively identified by detectives Chuck Lee and Jimmy Duggan after they sent photos of the deceased man’s dental work to law enforcement agencies.
A follow-up investigation tied Flemmi and Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme to the murder. (Poulos, a small-time hoodlum, had witnessed the murder of rival Boston mobster William Bennett.)
But when the detectives sought the FBI’s assistance in serving arrest warrants on Flemmi and Salemme, “everything came to a sudden stop,” Lee would later recall.
An attempt to extradite the suspects also failed, and the case languished as the criminal stock of Flemmi and Bulger continued to rise in Boston.
Years later, veteran Metro Homicide cold-case Detective Dave Hatch took another shot at clearing the Poulos murder. He pored over the file and reached out to Boston law enforcement. By then, murder suspect Flemmi’s status as an FBI darling was coming into greater focus. The office that recruited Bulger also protected Flemmi.
Now Flemmi is expected to be a star witness for the government in its prosecution of Bulger, the octogenarian monster.
Fallout from the FBI’s Bulger-Flemmi scandal has produced another intriguing phenomenon in Las Vegas: the appearance of former Boston mobsters Vinny Ferrara and prolific hitman John Martorano visiting friends and enjoying themselves as free men in Southern Nevada.
Ferrara’s attorney team, which included Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff, used the Bulger corruption to help win the freedom of Ferrara, the mobster nicknamed “The Animal.” Ferrara was in the crowd at the Feb. 14, 2012, opening of the Las Vegas Mob Museum.
Martorano admitted participating in more than 20 murders and implicated Bulger and Flemmi in a number of those killings. In exchange for his cooperation, Martorano received a dramatically reduced sentence. He served a dozen years in prison and was freed in 2007.
These days, reliable sources report, Martorano has occasionally been sighted in local casinos and dining at a favorite family restaurant in the northwest end of the valley.
Small world, don’t you think?
Back in 1969, Poulos’ killers made an unsuccessful attempt to bury the body. Their shallow-grave shovel work didn’t conceal the corpse for long. Salemme later complained of how difficult the digging had been.
In 2003 testimony to investigators with the House Government Reform Committee, Flemmi recalled telling Salemme, “The desert’s not soft. What were you thinking? It’s the Sahara? This is Nevada. This isn’t North Africa.”
That’s right, fella. This isn’t North Africa. This is Las Vegas.
We’ve got laws against littering here. If only the FBI had helped enforce them.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.