SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Whitey Bulger is finally on trial ,after 16 years on the run. The Boston mobster who was once on the FBI's Most Wanted List is accused of murdering 19 people, as well as extortion and racketeering. Prosecution alleges he worked as an FBI informant in exchange for protection. Dick Lehr is the co-author, with Gerald O'Neill, of "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mobster." He joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Dick Lehr's co-author is Gerard O'Neill.] Dick, thanks for being with us.
DICK LEHR: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: So this was the first week of the trial. What did you notice?
LEHR: Well, I think what was most surprising and remarkable was the defense opening argument. Whitey's lawyers conceded countless crimes, announcing he was a gambler, a loan shark and extortionist, and even including drug trafficking, which is something Whitey and his image makers had always resisted.
But he seemed to be asserting an argument that wanted to clean up Whitey's image. He was just insisting he's never been an FBI informant, despite a mountain of evidence.
SIMON: So let me understand this. So it's OK to say he's been a drug dealer; just don't call him an FBI informant?
LEHR: That's right. It really boiled down, that was the bottom line. And he cited two main reasons why he would never be an FBI informant. Number one in the defense was his Irish-American heritage, and it's the worst thing you can do if you're have Irish heritage.
SIMON: To be a rat.
LEHR: And this number two is the claim that he had no ties to the FBI, and low and behold, the government's first witness was a state trooper who hauled out a bunch of video surveillance from the early 1980s showing Whitey in his office near Boston Garden in an auto body shop and there come all the mafia bosses from the north end of the city coming to see Whitey Bulger.
SIMON: You know, every now and then we need to explain to the rest of the country what has made the Whitey Bulger story so fascinating. He was on the lam for 16 years. The thought was always present in people's minds that when somebody this well known can't be found for 16 years he must have high-placed help, right?
LEHR: Yep, and that's been part of his legacy, frankly. What makes him, what we argue in our biography, probably the most significant crime figure in the last century. It isn't his longevity, but it's this connection to the FBI in Boston. That's what puts him in a league of his own and that's why I think people everywhere should be concerned about, is that he was at the center of the worst informant sting on the Bureau's history.
SIMON: Well, let me get you to run that down for us a bit because the implication has always been that there were these certain elements in the FBI who would let the Bulger organization do a lot, if not everything they wanted to, in exchange for information that they could use for prosecutions.
LEHR: That's the basic deal, the way it's supposed to work when, under the Bureau's top echelon informant program they enlisted underworld figures to give them information. And then the Bureau might give them a little running room to do their non-violent rackets. But in Boston, the mountain of evidence now shows from early on after the deal was struck in 1975, Whitey turned the tables.
And he turned a band of agents into his security force of sorts. They were leaking to him information about other underworld figures that were cooperating against him. There's a handful of murders that Whitey's facing charges for now that they're called the tip-off murders, and these were murders Whitey is alleged to have committed based on tips from his FBI handlers, that the victims were informing against him. So he was in charge, and that's not how it's supposed to work.
SIMON: But what do people say he's like in person?
LEHR: He's a charming guy, and he's had a knack from when he was a teenager to when he was Charlie Gasko hiding in Santa Monica, of neutralizing the people immediately around him - his neighbors - with kindness. As a kid in the housing projects of South Boston, he was famous for bringing, you know, hauling up the groceries from the other mothers. When he was arrested in Santa Monica, his neighbors went, oh, that nice guy down the hall or in the building. They didn't know him very well and I think that was always - I'm not sure how conscious that was after all these years, but it was part of his technique.
SIMON: Dick, what's organized crime in Boston like these days?
LEHR: Nothing like it was in the so-called glory years of the mafia and the Angiulo crime family and then when Whitey was at the top of his gang during the '80s. I mean, there certainly is still organized crime, but there aren't these prima donna figures, these marquee names who controlled things, you know, from the '60s right up to the end of the century.
SIMON: Dick Lehr, author of "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mobster." Thanks so much. Talk to you later.
LEHR: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.