In the closing days of 1978, federal prosecutors in Boston worked feverishly to put the final touches on an indictment to bust open a horse-race-fixing enterprise that had amassed millions of dollars in illegal profits while operating in eight East Coast states.
It was one of the biggest organized crime cases in years, and prosecutors had an ace in the hole: The master race-fixer himself, Anthony "Fat Tony" Ciulla, was on board to testify as their star witness.
But a band of Boston FBI agents was far from ecstatic about that: Two of the government's targets were James J. "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, newly minted informants enlisted to help the FBI go after organized crime in Boston.
Now, for the first time, Ciulla, the witness whose testimony eventually helped win a slew of convictions, has broken his silence to talk about the time when Bulger and Flemmi could have been prosecuted, but were not, and the consequences of that decision. "Start counting the bodies from '78 on, from Stevie and Whitey," says Ciulla.
In the ongoing investigation of Bulger and Flemmi, authorities now believe the pair was involved in the murders of at least eight people since they were dropped from the race-fixing case. Two weeks ago, the decomposed bodies of two men and a woman were recovered from a makeshift grave in Dorchester.
"How many people?" asks Ciulla, a hulking, 6-foot-4, gravelly voiced gambler who has never lacked for bravado and whose exact whereabouts remain a secret.
"You're talking about buckets of blood."
Indicted in early 1979 in the historic race-fixing case were gang boss Howard T. Winter and 20 others - gangsters, Las Vegas casino executives and jockeys, but not Bulger and Flemmi. "I had them dead to rights," Ciulla says about his readiness more than 20 years ago to testify against the two, if they had been charged with the others.
But that never happened. The maneuverings by former FBI agents John J. Connolly Jr. and John Morris to protect Bulger and Flemmi have since been exposed, mostly during federal court in 1998 that revealed FBI wrongdoing in an alliance with the gangsters that began in 1975 and lasted two decades. Under oath, Morris has admitted working to get Bulger and Flemmi out of the race-fixing case. Connolly, in interviews, has said he and Morris believed their informants' insistence that they were not involved in the gang's scheme.
Now Ciulla is talking.
"This was a critical moment," he says, "the inception of the feds doing them a big favor." If Bulger and Flemmi had not been dropped from the case, he says, "a lot of people, families, kids would have fathers, husbands, brothers, whatever. It makes me want to vomit. That's the bottom line. They should have been indicted. They were as guilty as everybody else."
Though the 70-year-old Bulger remains a fugitive on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, the public unraveling of his underworld reign, and of the wrongdoing by Boston FBI agents associated with him, is now six years in the making.
It started with Bulger and Flemmi's racketeering indictment in 1995 and extended through the federal court hearings overseen by US District Judge Mark Wolf. Last month, Bulger's former FBI handler, Connolly, was indicted on racketeering charges, including tipping Bulger to his indictment so that he could flee. Morris, under a grant of immunity, has confessed to illegally taking money from Bulger. Wolf ruled that to protect Bulger and Flemmi, Connolly, Morris and others would warn them repeatedly during the 1980s about investigators' plans to wiretap or target them.
But the race-fixing case was different. The probe had originated in New Jersey in 1977 and was first taken up by FBI agents based in Lowell, not Boston.
During one lengthy FBI debriefing in Sacramento in early 1978, Ciulla gave agents a "recap of the overall scheme," according to the FBI report of that session. He told how jockeys were bribed to throw races, and how the gang collected thousands of dollars in wagers made at tracks and with bookmakers. He named Bulger and Flemmi as two of the seven key Winter Hill gangsters who managed the scheme. He broke down how the illegal profits were split up - "50 percent to Howard Winter and his six aforementioned associates."
Later that year, during a state trial against jockeys in New Jersey, Ciulla took the witness stand and was told to name his Boston partners. Like an actor setting up his best lines, he hesitated. "Your honor, I have been in front of federal grand juries with these names," he said.
"You are here now," replied the judge, unimpressed. He ordered Ciulla to answer the question. Ciulla did. He then named Winter and, for the first time publicly, other partners: "Whitey Bulger. Stephen Flemmi."
In November of 1978, Ciulla was the subject of a cover story in Sports Illustrated under the headline "Confessions of a Master Fixer."
In the end, the federal case was too far along for Morris and Connolly to give Bulger and Flemmi a heads-up. Indeed, as 1978 wound down, it looked like Bulger and Flemmi were certain to be indicted. But then the agents paid a visit to Jeremiah T. O'Sullivan, the lead prosecutor on the New England Organized Crime Strike Force. They explained that Bulger and Flemmi were an investment they wanted to preserve as part of the FBI's war on local organized crime. The meeting achieved the hoped-for result. Bulger and Flemmi were not charged.
"They tried to con me," says Ciulla, now 56, referring to the reasons he says O'Sullivan gave him to explain Bulger and Flemmi's absence from the indictment. "I went in and had big beefs with them." Having described Bulger and Flemmi's participation to FBI agents and identified the two under oath during a state trial, Ciulla says he was angry and incredulous when told the federal case in Boston would not include the pair.
Ciulla, formerly of Stoneham and the son of a fish merchant, admits his outrage was not based on some high-minded devotion to justice. It was self-preservation. "I didn't want to leave them out there," he recalls. "You got to remember the more of them left on the street, the more likely I get killed."
O'Sullivan, says Ciulla, sought to play down Bulger and Flemmi's culpability. "He tried to justify Stevie's not being in the indictment by the fact he was a little bit on the lambrooskie," says Ciulla. Flemmi had returned to Boston in 1974 after several years on the lam in Canada. "Then he was saying, `We couldn't correlate certain dates' " of fixed races.
"I said, `That is not true.' And Whitey was there all the time." Ciulla says Bulger helped round up Boston-area bookmakers to unwittingly take bets on fixed races. After suffering huge losses, the bookies found themselves indebted to - then controlled by - the Winter Hill gang.
Ciulla says Bulger and Flemmi were "very disciplined guys" who eschewed the partying, which, he says, included snorting cocaine, that might begin in the gang's headquarters at Marshall Motors in Somerville and run deep into the night.
"Did I hang out with him?" he says about Bulger. "Socialize after the day's business? Go with him to Southie? No. But he was always there. There was always the money for him and for Stevie."
During the months leading to a trial that ended up running into the summer of 1979 and lasted 46 days, Ciulla says, he was still complaining about the failure to indict Bulger and Flemmi. He says he asked O'Sullivan, "Why are these guys being left out? They are no more or less guilty than the others. They were partners. They were part of the conspiracy. Why would you leave them out when I had direct dealings with them?"
O'Sullivan, now in private practice at the Boston firm of Choate Hall & Stewart, did not return a call seeking comment.
From O'Sullivan, Ciulla says, he always got double-talk. From FBI agents, he says, he finally got the truth. "They had to tell me," says Ciulla, "because I was going nuts."
He says the FBI told him Bulger and Flemmi had given their word they would not go after him, a pledge Connolly has mentioned in interviews. "I wasn't OK about Stevie and Whitey, but I had to swallow that load. You know what I mean? That's how it was."
In a prosecution overseen by O'Sullivan, Ciulla proved his worth. Winter and seven codefendants who remained in the case (some had fled and others had pleaded guilty) were convicted in July 1979 after a 10-week trial. Ciulla testified for 17 days. Winter was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Even before the trial began, Morris had filed internal FBI paperwork cleaning up the crisis as far as Bulger was concerned, and he resorted to the spin that has since been exposed as commonplace in the FBI's files about Bulger.
Morris wrote to FBI headquarters that Bulger was clear because "no prosecutable case developed against source in the opinion of Strike Force attorney handling the matter."
Last fall, Wolf did not mince words in ruling about Morris's report. "This was not true," he concluded. "Rather, Bulger and Flemmi were not prosecuted in the race-fix case because Connolly, Morris, and O'Sullivan had decided that their value as informants outweighed the importance of prosecuting them."
In the pending case against Bulger and Flemmi assembled by a new generation of prosecutors and investigators, the two crime bosses are charged in the race-fixing scheme as one of their many acts of alleged racketeering - the same charge O'Sullivan chose not to pursue.
For his part, Ciulla has spent the intervening years in and out of the federal Witness Protection Program, and lives today under a new identity at an undisclosed location. His last public appearance in Boston was in mid-1995, when he was whisked into town to testify at the bail hearing of John Martorano, the hit man for the Bulger gang who had been a fugitive until his arrest that year.
Ciulla says his decision to grant an interview was prompted mostly by the latest sensational news in the Bulger case - the discovery Jan. 14 of the three buried bodies in Dorchester. Authorities believe the three were killed by Bulger and Flemmi or their underlings during the 1980s.
"What I'm telling you, listen, the three bodies they found . . . that wouldn't have happened" if Bulger and Flemmi had been prosecuted in the race-fixing case, Ciulla says.
He concedes that FBI agents in 1979 had no idea of possible murders to come. But agents did brush aside reports from other informants at the time indicating Bulger and Flemmi's criminal activities were growing and expanding into cocaine trafficking, loan sharking, and extortion.
In his recent ruling, Wolf wrote: "Connolly and Morris were well-aware that he [Bulger] and Flemmi remained involved in a range of criminal activity. . . . The FBI neither investigated nor disclosed such information to any other law enforcement agency."
But the dead were what was on Ciulla's mind when he was interviewed last week. He ticked off the names of others now believed to have been killed either by Bulger and Flemmi, or on their orders.
"Those things were impossible to happen if they went along with it, if they were in the indictment," he says. "Didn't Howie [Winter] get 10 years? They would have been in jail. It would have been the downfall of all that."
Gerard O'Neill of the Globe staff contributed to this report.