Joseph Tower said reputed mobster James "Whitey" Bulger was so feared in Boston that Bulger's protection allowed his operatives to sell drugs with impunity.
BOSTON — A onetime cocaine trafficker from South Boston told jurors in the trial of James "Whitey" Bulger on Tuesday that once he joined forces with Bulger's team in the early 1980s he had no trouble persuading small-time dealers to buy drugs from him at a premium.
Joseph Tower, who testified under the promise of immunity, said dealers knew they were buying not just cocaine but an implicit promise that Bulger would protect them from any trouble on the streets.
"You were always successful in persuading them?" Bulger attorney J.W. Carney asked.
"Oh, 100 percent," Tower said.
Later, he added that his customers always paid up — and if they didn't, all he had to do was remind them about "the muscle" behind his organization. "We'd resolve it without violence, if possible," Tower said.
Bulger, 83, is on trial for 32 criminal counts, which include racketeering, money laundering, extortion and gun charges as well as killing or ordering the murders of 19 people while at the helm of the Winter Hill Gang during the 1970s and '80s. If convicted, he faces the possibility of life in prison.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Tower, who now restores guitars for a living, gave jurors a primer on the cocaine distribution business, describing how he sampled the kilos he bought from Colombian dealers, mixed the drug with other substances to stretch his profits and then distributed it to dealers across the region.
He said he willingly teamed up with Bulger to get protection and saw his profits soar. At the height of the business, he said his inner circle of five associates was clearing hundreds of thousands of dollars a week and paying a cut to Bulger.
At one point, Tower said, Bulger's associates even helped him work out a deal to pay off a Boston police sergeant to keep the police from shutting down a side business he ran, an illegal nightclub where alcohol and cocaine flowed freely.
Carney acknowledged in his opening statement that Bulger was involved in drug dealing and ran an "unbelievably lucrative criminal enterprise."
But in his cross-examination with Tower, the defense attorney sought to make the point that Bulger never forced Tower or anyone else to get involved in drug dealing or pay protection money against their will.
He also sought to portray Bulger as a reliable protector who fulfilled his end of the bargain and earned his cut.
"When you needed help from Mr. Bulger, he immediately came?" Carney asked.
Prosecutors countered that image by eliciting testimony from Tower that he had little choice but to seek Bulger's protection.
"Mr. Bulger was well-known and well-feared," Tower said. "If you were with Mr. Bulger, you could operate — you didn't need the police."
Prosecutor Fred Wyshak then asked Tower who was "ultimately was the boss" of the entire cocaine trafficking operation.
"Mr. Bulger," Tower replied.
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