'Whitey' Bulger extortion victim, potential trial witness, found dead
The dead body of a potential witness, who had hoped to testify about how mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger forced him at gunpoint to sell a liquor store, was found in a suburb of Boston, authorities said Thursday.
Stephen Rakes, who once sued the FBI for failing to protect him from one of Bulger's extortion schemes, was found Wednesday afternoon in Lincoln, Mass., about 16 miles northwest of Boston, according to the Middlesex Country District Attorney's office.
There were no obvious signs of trauma, and the medical examiner is conducting an autopsy to determine the cause of death, the district attorney's office said. No wallet was found on Rakes' body, an attorney for Rakes' ex-wife told reporters.
While authorities investigated his death, prosecutors at the courthouse in Boston called on their major witness, longtime Bulger lieutenant Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, to testify about the murders he says he and Bulger carried out.
Rakes, 59, was among the many extortion victims of Bulger's feared "Winter Hill" gang who were due to take the witness stand in the mob boss' trial. Authorities have charged Bulger with committing or ordering 19 murders in the 1970s and '80s.
Rakes, nicknamed "Stippo," once owned Stippo's Liquor Mart in South Boston, which prosecutors say Bulger's gang took over in a 1984 shakedown. He was on the government's list of witnesses but had not yet taken the stand.
His ex-wife, Julie Dammers Rakes, learned of his death Thursday morning and reacted with "surprise and shock," said her attorney, Anthony Cardinale.
Cardinale told reporters at Boston's waterfront courthouse that he did not believe Rakes' death was linked to the trial.
"I seriously doubt that this has anything to do with any part of the case," he said.
Bulger's gang bought the store for about $65,000 cash, forcing Rakes to take that sum at gunpoint in his home in front of his toddlers, prosecutors charge. They said the gang used the store as a front to launder money from illegal activities.
Like the gangsters, Rakes grew up in working class South Boston. After years of complaining about Bulger and his associates, Rakes had attended the trial almost every day and hoped to testify against the mob boss.
In 2002, Rakes sued the U.S. government for failing to protect him from Bulger's gang, which operated with impunity in Boston due to Bulger's relationship with the FBI. A federal judge dismissed the suit.
Bulger, 83, faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted of charges related to the 19 murders, including racketeering, extortion and drug dealing.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, though his lawyer admitted that Bulger was a drug dealer, extortionist and loan shark, essentially an "organized criminal."
Steve Davis, a friend of Rakes and a brother of one of Bulger's alleged murder victims, said Rakes did not feel at any time during the trial that his life was in danger. "He was comforted knowing Bulger was already behind bars," he told reporters outside the courtroom.