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By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The first week of accused mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger's trial transported jurors back to an era when machine-gun-toting gangsters shot associates who talked too much in telephone booths and buried bodies under bridges.
It was powerful stuff, but even more telling was testimony from John "The Executioner" Martorano - the first of Bulger's top lieutenants to take the stand against his former boss - and others that showed how the culture of secrecy that allowed such gangs to operate has collapsed.
Martorano, as well as several low-level bookmakers who had paid tribute to Bulger's feared "Winter Hill" crime gang in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, readily discussed how the gang operated, with a core of thugs demanding money from bookies and drug dealers in exchange for enforcing debt collections.
Bulger, 83, and Martorano, 72, looked like the senior citizens they are in Boston's waterfront federal court building. The accused gang leader has lost the shock of light-colored hair that had earned him the nickname "Whitey." Martorano had to use two pairs of glasses, one to look at the lawyers and another to review evidence.
Speaking in a low, gravelly voice, Martorano nonchalantly described a dozen murders that involved Bulger, from successful hits on rivals for power to the accidental shooting of a teenage girl, which briefly caused him to consider shooting himself.
Both Bulger and Martorano - as well as fellow gang members Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi and Kevin Weeks, who are due to testify later in what is expected to be a three- to four-month trial - are relics of a bygone age of crime, observers said.
"These guys are throwbacks, they are dinosaurs. I don't think we could look at anyone today and say, 'He's just like Whitey,'" said Howard Abadinsky, professor of criminal justice at St. John's University in New York.
These days, the public is likely to know these characters mostly through Hollywood. Bulger's story inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed."
Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from a corrupt FBI official that arrest was imminent and spent 16 years as a fugitive before law enforcement caught him, hiding out in a seaside apartment in Santa Monica, California, on June 22, 2011.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including racketeering, extortion and 19 murders he is accused up committing or ordering. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Martorano confessed to 20 murders but served just 12 years in prison, while Weeks served just five years after admitting to helping Bulger commit that many killings. Each man received a lighter sentence because he agreed to testify against Bulger.
A readiness to kill helped the gang cover its tracks for years, said Michael Kendall, a partner at the Boston law firm McDermott Will & Emery and a former federal prosecutor who investigated some of Bulger's associates.
"Martorano was a very talented murderer. He knew how to do it, he knew how to control the number of people who saw it," Kendall said. "He wasn't going to do time for most if any of these murders because they couldn't prove them."
Boston police knew the gang's skill in cleaning up after itself. After Diane Sussman was wounded in a botched hit in March 1973, officials advised her to leave the city.
"The people who machine-gunned down the car probably did not want me as a witness," she recalled on the witness stand Thursday.
But the tightly disciplined organization Bulger had built broke down after he fled and his former cronies learned the boss had cooperated with the FBI. The degree to which that breached the gangster's code could be seen in how strongly his lawyer denied that Bulger had been an informant.
"James Bulger is of Irish descent, and the worst thing an Irish person could do was become an informant," J.W. Carney, Bulger's lead attorney, said in his opening statements. Bulger paid the FBI for information but never provided any of his own, Carney said.
Another one of Bulger's victims, who was also wounded in March 1973, when the gang attacked a car he was riding in, killing the driver, proved the exception at the trial.
Ralph DeMasi, recently released from prison after serving 21-1/2 years for a conviction related to a planned armed-car robbery, refused to testify until ordered by the court to speak.
He said he knew nothing about many of the people prosecutors asked him about, including a rival gang leader Bulger is accused of killing. But when asked about other inmates who won lighter sentences by cooperating with authorities, DeMasi opened up.
"You kill 20 people, go testify against somebody, you can walk," DeMasi said. "You have people walking out there now that are serial murders. It's how the system works."
In addition to the shattering of the illusion of trust, another factor led to the collapse of old-style ethnic gangs, experts said. As the immigrant groups they recruited from became more integrated into American society, young people from those backgrounds found better lives outside crime.
"Smart Jewish, Irish and Italian kids don't need to be gangsters to make money," said Kendall, the former prosecutor. "It absolutely is a cycle. "They make far more money in legitimate lives."
(Editing by Douglas Royalty)