The Whitey Bulger trial is one of the most-watched trials of the century. Reminiscent of something from 1950s film noir, the mob trial has captured national attention largely because of the enormous scale of Bulger’s criminal operations along with the added intrigue of his status as an FBI informant. America’s fascination with Godfatheresque characters and their activities also fuel the overall interest and curiosity. Though the Bureau once looked the other way when it came to Bulger’s criminal activities, which included murder, racketeering, and conspiracy, Whitey Bulger is finally facing justice at the age of 81. Just when it would seem that the country was finally safe from Bulger, a shocking—or predictable, depending on your perspective—death has occurred. Was this witness yet another to murder victim who was silenced before he could take the stand against Bulger?
Fifty-nine-year-old Stephen “Stippo” Rakes was on the government’s witness list, but prosecutors had decided not to use Rakes’s testimony. Anxious to bring Bulger to justice, Rakes was disappointed that he would not be called to testify. He was friends with Steven Davis, whose sister Debra Davis had been killed by Bulger and his gang, and Rakes wanted to participate in bringing closure to the woman’s death. Rakes also had other ties to Bulger’s gang. At one time, he owned the South Boston Liquor Mart, which Bulger purchased to use as a cover for his money laundering scheme in the 1980s. Rakes claimed that Bulger’s gang held him at gunpoint and threatened his daughter until he agreed to sell his store. However, Kevin Weeks, a member of Bulger’s gang, claimed that Rakes wanted to sell the store and had pressured the gangsters for more money. In the ensuing argument, a member of the Bulger gang drew a gun. Rakes and his ex-wife had been involved in perjury cases and lawsuits with Bulger’s gang since the 1990s. Clearly, there was longstanding bad blood between Rakes and Bulger, and after being told he would not be allowed to testify in court, Rakes was not pleased. According to Steve Davis, Rakes “said his testimony was going to mean more to this case than anybody else’s.”
Just one day after being told he would not be permitted to testify, Rakes was found dead by the side of the road only 30 miles from his home. While the investigation into the cause of death was being conducted, speculation naturally leaned toward Bulger and his associates. Though the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office indicated that there were no signs of visible trauma on the body, those who knew Rakes well did not believe he died from natural causes, nor did they believe he would have taken his own life. Davis said that Rakes was in excellent health, and he also told reporters he was “110 percent sure” Rakes did not commit suicide. “I’m thinking somebody slipped something in his drink, poisoned him or something,” Davis said. Reports have emerged during Bulger’s trial of other witnesses who mysteriously died in the 1970s and 80s before they could testify against Bulger. Now, Rakes has been found dead.
Though it would seem to be a slam dunk to prove that Bulger and his gang had something to do with Rakes’s death, upon further investigation, it was found that Bulger had been poisoned by a business associate with no ties to the Bulger case. William Camuti was arrested in Boston for murdering Rakes by spiking his iced tea with potassium cyanide. The reason? Mr. Rakes owed Camuti a substantial amount of money due to business deals gone awry.
Perhaps Bulger’s widespread notoriety helped him escape blame for Rakes’s murder. Though Bulger was ultimately found guilty of 31 criminal counts, this particular murder was not among them. Camuti was crafty in his timing in that suspicion was immediately cast toward Bulger for obvious reasons. Had the murder not occurred in the scope of such a high-profile criminal case, it may have been easy for investigators to craft a case against Bulger.
Cases of misplaced guilt occur all too often that are based more on circumstances and a suspect’s criminal history rather than the actual evidence. For most people wrongly accused of a crime, the media is typically not present (at least not with such national saturation as in the Bulger case), and the overall interest level of the citizenry is low because there is a presumption among most law-abiding citizens that if someone has been accused of a crime, law enforcement is probably in the right, and the accused is probably guilty—especially when the accused already has a criminal record. Criminal attorneys fight this battle every day, waging battle on behalf of those who are too easily implicated and who have little in the way of resources to fight back.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, Illinois. A former prosecutor in Cook County, Mr. Weisberg is a member of the Capital Litigation Trial Bar, an elite group of criminal attorneys who are certified by the Illinois Supreme Court to try death penalty cases. He is also a member of the Federal Trial Bar. Mr. Weisberg is a solo practitioner at the Law Offices of Andrew M. Weisberg.