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Kevin Cullen

Ever the wiseguy, and sharp as a tack

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / June 25, 2011

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For somebody who’s supposed be in such poor health, Whitey Bulger was able to pick out his little brother Billy in a crowded courtroom and mouth a cheerful hello even before he made it to the defendant’s table.

And for a guy whose moll, Cathy Greig, was telling the neighbors back in Santa Monica that he had Alzheimer’s, Whitey seemed like he still had his fastball. He didn’t miss a beat when the judge asked him if he could afford a lawyer.

“Well,’’ he replied, “I could if you’d give me my money back.’’

Once a wiseguy, always a wiseguy.

Patricia Donahue, the wife of a man Whitey Bulger stands accused of cutting to shreds with a machine gun, was sitting in the back of the courtroom, shaking her head at Whitey’s trademark insolence.

“He’s worried about his assets?’’ Pat Donahue said. “He should be worried about his ass.’’

With Whitey, it was always about the money. Whitey is absolutely obsessed with getting back that 800 large the feds seized from his the rent-controlled apartment in California. (Note to Santa Monica rent-control board: You might want to check your tenants a little more closely out there.)

Whitey didn’t say anything about the 30 guns they grabbed. But, then, guns are a dime a dozen. Eight-hundred grand doesn’t grow on trees, you know.

The government, God bless ’em, said they would oppose Whitey trying to get the taxpayers to pay for his defense. Maybe the Justice Department could give that $800,000 to the Donahues to make up for the $6 million they refused to pay them last year under a court order.

There were some interesting seating arrangements in Courtroom 10 at the federal courthouse where, if everything goes right, Whitey will be spending so much time in the coming years that they’ll have to charge him rent.

On one side, Margaret McCusker, Greig’s twin sister, sat in the front row. Billy Bulger sat in the second row, between two of his sons, right behind McCusker, with whom he chatted easily.

On the other side of the courtroom, there sat a few dozen of the people whose loved ones ended up in shallow graves or hard pavement after being shot, stabbed, strangled, garroted, and who knows what else by someone the government says is Whitey Bulger — the same Whitey Bulger the government, in the guise of the FBI, protected throughout that bloody reign of terror.

The Donahues filled a row. Pat, her sons Michael Jr., Shawn, and Tommy. Michael’s wife, Malissa, put a comforting hand on her husband’s back.

“I’m here for my husband,’’ Pat said.

That would be Michael Donahue, a truck driver who had the misfortune of offering a ride to a hoodlum who had offered Whitey Bulger up to the FBI, not knowing that Bulger was the FBI’s highly valued, if highly overrated, snitch. Michael Donahue was collateral damage in a corrupt alliance between Whitey Bulger and the FBI.

Margaret McCusker was there for her sister.

Billy Bulger was there for his brother. And according to Assistant US Attorney Brian Kelly, Greig told the feds that Billy was trying to figure out a way to post bail.

The judge even told Whitey Bulger that, if he wanted, he could request a bail hearing at a later date.

And I could request a date with Kate Winslet. Whitey won’t get bailed, no matter how much money Billy can stitch together. The guy just spent 16 years on the lam, for cripes’ sake. I can’t wait to stand in this same courtroom and listen to Whitey promise, cross his heart hope to die, that he really, really, really won’t run away if they let him out.

What in court lingo they call the initial appearance was over in a few minutes. But that turned out to actually be his initial initial appearance. Whitey rolled out of the courtroom in cuffs while a different magistrate came in for a different set of charges, then Whitey rolled back in again, like an encore. They listed the charges and the potential maximum sentences, which when totaled up was approximately as long as the Paleolithic Era.

Whitey was dressed in ill-fitting blue jeans, sneakers, and a peasant smock that made him look like some guy selling necklaces on a sidewalk in Cambridge.

He looked much younger than 81, and Cathy looked much older than 60. She’s only facing five years for harboring a fugitive.

As Whitey left the courtroom, this time for good, he looked back at Billy and his nephews twice. The second time, he flashed a wry smile.

“Are you telling me that guy’s supposed to be sick?’’ said Tommy Donahue, who was 8 when his father was murdered 29 years ago. “He looks pretty healthy to me.’’

Tommy and his brothers didn’t quite know how to feel as they stared at the man they believe left them without a father growing up.

“I felt numb, a bit,’’ said Michael Jr.

“I felt like I was looking at the guy who could take down a lot of other FBI agents if he wants to,’’ said Shawn.

“I felt like I wanted to do something bad, like I wanted to hurt him,’’ Tommy said. “Whitey stood there with his punk smirk, his wiseguy remarks.’’

When it was over, the three men who have stayed with this case longer than anyone — State Police Lieutenant Steve Johnson, US Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Dan Doherty, and Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak — strolled over and said hello to the Donahues.

“You guys are the best,’’ Tommy Donahue told them. “You’ve been good to our family, you’ve been good to all the victims, and we appreciate it.’’

During the hearings, the FBI special agent in charge of the Boston office, Richard DesLauriers, sat directly in front of the Donahues, but he left without saying anything to them.

“If he leaned back, he would have been in my lap,’’ Tommy Donahue said. “We know who he is. But he doesn’t know who we are. Next time, maybe he’ll say hello. Maybe the FBI will be nice to us, for once in our lives.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com

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