One of James "Whitey" Bulger's closest associates implicated the crime boss Tuesday in a string of murders connected to their gang's failed effort to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from the gambling businesses once operated by the World Jai Alai company in Florida and Connecticut.
At one point in the conspiracy, with the skim doomed and Bulger's Winter Hill Gang the subject for the first time of serious law enforcement attention, the associate — gang hit man John Martorano — said that Bulger pressed him to kill one of his best friends as part of a cover-up. Martorano said he agreed because Bulger had learned from a corrupt FBI agent that the friend was likely to talk.
"How did you feel about that? " Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak asked.
"Very bad," Martorano replied.
For years, the murders tied to the jai alai industry were one of Connecticut's most stubborn crime mysteries. The state became the first to legalize gambling on the fast-paced Basque sport in the late 1970s, when World Jai Alai tried to expand beyond its base in Florida. Thirty years ago, Connecticut was home to three jai alai gambling venues called frontons.
Martorano's account of the murders came during his second day as a key government witness at Bulger's racketeering trial. Bulger is accused of 19 killings — four of them tied to jai alai — and other crimes that date to the 1970s.
Most of Martorano's testimony has been a terse and emotionally flat recitation of the details of violent death, illustrated by prosecutors with grainy projections of 35-year-old crime scene Polaroids.
But the pace slowed Tuesday when prosecutors questioned Martorano about events beginning in 1981, when, he said, former World Jai Alai President John B. Callahan approached the leaders of the Winter Hill Gang — then Bulger, Martorano and Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi — with a plan to take over the business by force.
Roger Wheeler, a millionaire industrialist in Tulsa, Okla., had just bought the company. Callahan, a Boston native, had been forced to resign as its president after state police detectives in Connecticut, where he had applied for a gambling license, found him socializing at Boston night spots such as the Playboy Club with Martorano's brother and other members of the Winter Hill Gang.
"He was a high priced accountant days," Martorano testified. "And put on a leather jacket and wanted to hang out with rogues at night."
"Did you ever hear the phrase 'Wannabe gangster?'" Wyshak asked.
"That's what he was," Martorano said.
When Callahan was company president, his drinking buddies in the Boston underworld began showing up in management positions. Martorano testified Tuesday that Callahan told him in the early 1980s that the new owner, Wheeler, had begun an internal investigation based on suspicion that someone had been stealing from the business. Callahan was afraid he would end up in jail.
Martorano said Callahan's solution, at least initially, was to buy the business from Wheeler.
"He had the financing," Martorano said. "He figured that would stop the investigation."
But Wheeler refused to sell, Martorano said, and Callahan decided to hire the Winter Hill Gang to kill him.
Martorano said Callahan made the decision after consulting with H. Paul Rico, a retired Boston FBI agent with ties to Flemmi and other members of the Winter Hill Gang. Callahan had hired him as World's head of security and Wheeler had retained him. Martorano said Rico persuaded Callahan that, with Wheeler out of the way, his widow could be persuaded to sell.
"Callahan wanted to get Mr. Wheeler killed so he wouldn't get in trouble" Martorano testified. "He said that he discussed it with Paul Rico. If Roger Wheeler wasn't on the scene, they could put the proposal to his wife."
The gang's payoff would be a skim of $10,000 or so a week from World Jai Alai's cash concessions, such as parking and food, Martorano testified. Under Callahan's plan, Martorano said, Callahan would take back control of the business. The Winter Hill Gang, in return for the skim, would prevent other criminal groups from trying to push their way in.
"He didn't think that the mafia would bother him if we were with him," Martorano testified.
When the Wheeler murder was proposed, Martorano was hiding in Florida after being indicted in a conspiracy to fix horse races. He said he discussed the proposition with Flemmi by telephone and was told that Bulger had agreed.
Martorano said he and another gang member flew to Tulsa in May of 1981. He said they found Wheeler based on details about his appearance and golf schedule that Martorano was told came from Rico. Martorano said he put on a fake beard and a pair of sunglasses and shot Wheeler in the face after the industrialist's weekly 18 holes at toney Southern Hills Country Club.
"I saw a guy coming over the hill carrying a brief case," Martorano said. It looked like him. He was heading toward that car. So I head toward that car. He opened the door and got in. So I opened the door and shot him. Between the eyes."
To make their point, prosecutors projected a morgue photograph of the bullet hole in Wheeler's face on a screen in the courtroom.
Within a year, Martorano testified, Callahan's plan to acquire World Jai Alai and avoid arrest was falling apart.
Callahan, it turned out, had confided his plan to kill Wheeler to a drunken, disaffected Winter Hill hanger-on named Edward Brian Halloran. When Halloran was charged in Boston with an unrelated murder, he tried to trade the Wheeler conspiracy to the FBI for leniency.
Martorano said he learned about Halloran during an emergency meeting in New York with Bulger and Flemmi in the late spring or early summer of 1982.
He said Bulger told him he had gunned down Halloran in broad daylight on a busy South Boston street after learning from an FBI agent he was paying that Halloran had become an informant against the Winter Hill Gang. Martorano testified that gang members referred to the agent, John Connolly, as "Zip."
"He said that Halloran had went to the FBI and told them that I had killed Wheeler," Martorano testified. "Bulger said he learned this from his friend Zip."
The killing of Halloran, who had applied for admission to the witness protection program, had brought intense pressure on the gang in Boston, Martorano said. He said he learned from Bulger that law enforcement was about to turn its attention to Callahan and the gang doubted he would hold up.
Martorano testified that Bulger also claimed to have killed Halloran as a favor to him. Martorano said Bulger was then pressing him to kill Callahan, a close personal friend for whom he had killed Wheeler.
"He said that Zip told him that Callahan is going to get so much pressure on him that he is going to fold and we are all going to go to jail for the rest of our life," Martorano testified. "Bulger did all the talking. Stevie just listened They thought that he wouldn't hold up they wanted to take him out."
"I objected," Martorano said. "Callahan was a friend of mine. I had just killed a man for him, risked my life. I didn't want to kill Callahan. Eventually, they convinced me. It was two against one and it was three of us. And I finally agreed, 'It has got to be done. It has to be done.'"
While he was a fugitive in Florida, Martorano testified he had the use of Callahan's car and a condominium Callahan owned in Plantation. The next time Callahan flew down from Boston for a weekend, Martorano said he met him at the airport and shot him in the head.