RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to get an inside look now at the ongoing trial of one of America's most infamous crime bosses, James "Whitey" Bulger. The trial started over a month ago in Boston. Bulger is accused of dozens of crimes, including involvement in 19 murders. Victims and former insiders have already taken the stand. Tomorrow, one of Bulger's former henchmen is expected to testify about a murder he claims to have seen Bulger commit. Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen says that testimony is likely to be crucial to the trial. Cullen has been reporting on Whitey Bulger for decades. He and fellow reporter Shelly Murphy wrote the book "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice." When we called up Cullen, we started by asking him who has taken the witness stand so far.
KEVIN CULLEN: Like previous weeks, it's sort of this combination of nefarious characters who used to be in the gang life of Whitey and then victims of Whitey Bulger's violence; the survivors of those victims, very often the grown children of men who were killed in the '70s and '80s. And I had been most struck by the testimony of just ordinary people. There was a woman named Diane Sussman, who in 1973 was in a car with her boyfriend, Louie Lapiana, and their friend, Michael Milano. And they were driving a Mercedes-Benz that unfortunately looked just like the car of a gangster named Indian Al, who was marked for death by Whitey Bulger's crew, the Winter Hill Gang. And the car was raked with gunfire. Whitey actually was not a shooter in that, according to the shooter, John Martorano.
But there was always this myth that was perpetuated or propagated by the FBI and the Justice Department is that, you know, oh yeah, well, Whitey Bulger killed people but he only killed gangsters. Well, that myth died in the front seat of the Mercedes-Benz with Michael Milano. And Diane Sussman's testimony was so poignant and so compelling because she talked about how lives were ruined on that night, that she and Louie were a couple and obviously they weren't a couple after that because Louie was left paralyzed from the neck down. And when I looked at the jury, Rachel, they were crying. A number of jurors were crying. And Whitey Bulger kept his head down. He could not look at this woman. And when she walked past him on the way out of the courtroom - Whitey Bulger is a small and vile and venal human being - but when she walked by him, her decency made him look even smaller.
MARTIN: As you talk about, many witnesses made deals with the government to lessen their punishment in return for testimony. Who are some of the other more high-profile witnesses who made similar deals?
CULLEN: It was a guy named Joe Tower who was a drug dealer, who described how basically Whitey, first of all, propped him up in the business and then when Joe did some time and came out of jail, they said go away or we'll kill you, and so Joe went away. So, there's been a procession of these people like that. But beyond Diane Sussman, I'd say the most powerful witness so far was, again, an ordinary person. His name is Paul McGonagle. He's a Southie kid. And when he was 14 years old, his dad, Paulie McGonagle, who was part of a rival gang - Paulie McGonagle, the evidence shows, or at least the allegations are, was killed by Whitey Bulger in 1974 and his body was buried by Whitey and his crew in a beach in Dorchester right next to Southie.
So, Paul got up there and testified about how his father just disappeared and he never knew what happened to him. And that when he was 15 years old, a year after his father's disappearance, Whitey Bulger, he said, rolled up to him in his gangster car, the blue Malibu that everybody in Southie knew as Whitey's car, he rolled down the window and stared at him with his aviator sunglasses and said, hey kid, don't worry - we took care of the guys that took care of your father. When Paul said that, jurors' heads snapped and they all looked at Whitey Bulger. And I'm thinking at least some of them are thinking, how could you do that to a 15-year-old kid? How could you be charged with his father's murder and then pretend that you avenged his father's murder? I wrote in my column that was, with Diane Sussman, the most devastating evidence that's been presented against Whitey Bulger.
MARTIN: So, what has that been like to sit in on this trial of this man you have been covering for so long?
CULLEN: I feel like it's watching history unfold and I'm sort of professionally and personally been invested in this for so long. I feel like it's a privilege to be at this and watch this because at the end of the day, the importance of this trial is not just about Whitey Bulger the criminal. Hey, he's a criminal. I expected him to do things like this. I think just as important is explaining for our readers that this is about institutional corruption at the highest level. Like I said, I expect Whitey Bulger to be a vicious and venal gangster. That's what he was. I don't expect my government to get in bed with a vicious and venal gangster like Whitey Bulger, but they did.
MARTIN: Kevin Cullen is a columnist for the Boston Globe. He's been reporting on Whitey Bulger for decades. He is covering the Whitey Bulger trial and he joined us from Boston. Kevin, thank you so much.
CULLEN: Thank you, Rachel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.