By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - James "Whitey" Bulger's longtime partner in crime recalled on Friday how the mob boss killed the sidekick's girlfriend in 1981, strangling her after learning she knew about Bulger's dealings with a corrupt FBI agent.
Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi testified that Bulger persuaded him that Debra Davis had to die so she would never tell anyone about their arrangement with FBI agent John Connolly. Flemmi said he brought Davis to a house in South Boston that their gang used for executions.
"We walked in, and as soon as we walked in, in a matter of seconds, she walked in the entrance and he grabbed her by the neck," Flemmi testified.
He said Bulger knew Flemmi couldn't carry out the murder, telling his associate, "I'll take care of it, I'll do it."
Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for 10 murders, is the prosecution's star witness in Bulger's trial on charges of racketeering, extortion and drug dealing. Authorities contend the mob boss committed or ordered 19 murders in the 1970s and 80s when he ran the Winter Hill gang.
Bulger disapproved of Flemmi's relationship with Davis, a woman more than two decades younger, he testified. Bulger frowned on the lavish presents Flemmi bought her, including a Mercedes and fancy jewelry.
He said Bulger was also annoyed when Davis complained that Flemmi often had to go out at night on gang business.
"It was having an impact," Flemmi told the jury. "She required a lot of attention. She was a young girl."
The last straw for Bulger came when Flemmi tried to explain his nighttime absences by telling Davis that he and Bulger routinely met with FBI agent Connolly, who grew up in their neighborhood. The three met hundreds of times over about 15 years, with Connolly turning a blind eye to crimes committed by Bulger's Irish mob in exchange for information he could use against the Italian Mafia, prosecutors contend.
After Bulger killed Davis, Flemmi said, other gang members came around in a car and loaded her body into it. After dark, they buried her, with Flemmi digging the hole while his boss looked on.
Davis was one of two women close to Flemmi who wound up dead at the gang's hands, prosecutors charge. Four years after killing Davis, the gang murdered Flemmi's step-daughter, Deborah Hussey, also because they feared she would talk.
Bulger, 83, faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty, though his attorney admitted that his client had been a drug dealer, extortionist and loan shark, in others words an "organized criminal."
After a 1994 tip from Connolly, Bulger fled Boston before the FBI could arrest him. After 16 years on the lam, he was captured in 2011 in California. His story inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed," where Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger.
Flemmi said that he and Bulger began their 20-year partnership in 1974, when Flemmi returned from three years hiding in Montreal after a gang war spiraled "out of control."
He admired Bulger for having a strict health regimen that stood out among gangsters.
"He didn't drink, he didn't smoke, he worked out regularly," Flemmi said of Bulger. "We both had that in common."
Flemmi said both he and Bulger served as FBI informants, but Bulger has repeatedly denied this through his attorney.
Flemmi said Bulger paid Connolly for tips and also gave the agent lavish gifts, including a diamond ring and a belt buckle from the Alcatraz prison island where Bulger had done time early in his criminal career. Bulger contends he paid the agent for tips but offered no information of his own.
Connolly, now serving a 40-year prison sentence on racketeering and murder convictions, spent lavishly, dressing better than any other agent in the Boston office of the FBI and at one point buying a boat.
"When Jim Bulger found out about that, he was upset," Flemmi said.
Bulger thought Connolly risked attracting attention but he was convinced he could play the relationship with the FBI to his advantage, Flemmi told the court.
Flemmi quoted his old boss as saying: "If they want to play checkers, we can play chess."
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and David Gregorio)