Man Who Hoped To Testify Against Whitey Bulger Is Found Dead

Jul 18, 2013
Originally published on July 18, 2013 6:31 pm

Stephen "Stippo" Rakes, who claimed that notorious Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger forced him — at gunpoint — to sell a liquor store in 1984, was found dead Wednesday in Lincoln, Mass.

According to the Middlesex (Mass.) District Attorney's office, "there were no obvious signs of trauma. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is conducting an autopsy to determine the cause and manner of death."

ABC News is reporting that "police told the Rakes family the death appeared to be a suicide. But a source close to the Rakes family [said] that 'he had no phone, no wallet, and police are still looking for his car.' "

Bulger, who was on the lam for 16 years before being captured in June 2011, is on trial in Boston. He's accused of 19 murders and racketeering.

Rakes, 59, had wanted to testify. Our colleagues at WBUR report that he "was on the witness list of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, but was told on Tuesday that prosecutors did not plan to call him to testify. WBUR adds that:

"Rakes had long alleged that Bulger and his associates, Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks, extorted his liquor store at gunpoint in 1984. He and his wife at the time, Julie Rakes, had opened the store only a month earlier. Rakes claimed that Bulger and his associates had come to his house with $67,000 in cash, and put a gun on the table in front of Rakes' daughter.

"The South Boston Liquor Mart, on Old Colony Avenue in South Boston, was operated as a legitimate business by Weeks, Bulger's right-hand man, and served as a meeting place for the gang.

"Earlier this month, Weeks was called as a witness for the prosecution, and his testimony included the takeover of the store. He disputed Rakes' account. Weeks claimed the gang had a deal to buy the liquor mart from Rakes for $100,000, but Rakes had changed his mind.

" 'He was trying to shake us out... he wanted more money from us,'" Weeks told the jury. 'It wasn't going to happen.' Weeks said he pulled out the gun. He said Rakes' daughter reached for the gun, so Bulger put it away."

The Boston Herald writes that:

"Last month, attending Bulger's murder and racketeering trial as federal court in Boston, Rakes told the Heraldhe was eager to testify.

" 'I'm not afraid of him anymore. I can't wait to get on the stand and look him right in the eyes,' he said. 'I come here to represent the victims that are afraid to come here. My friends. That's why I'm showing up. And there's not one. There's not 10. There's hundreds. ... They took everything from me. They don't care about nothing. They don't care about what they take from you.'

"He added: 'At least I'm still alive. I'm alive and I'm grateful for that.' "

WBUR's extensive coverage of Bulger and his trial begins here.

NPR's Tovia Smith, who's been covering the trial, will have more on Thursday's All Things Considered. We'll add her report to the top of this post when it's ready. Click here to find an NPR member station that broadcasts or streams the show.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In federal court in Boston today, mobster James Whitey Bulger was stared down by his old partner in crime. Stephen Flemmi, nicknamed The Rifleman, is now helping the government try to put Bulger behind bars for life. The 79-year-old Flemmi is a key prosecution witness in the racketeering and murder case against Bulger. And on the same day that Flemmi took the stand, there was another strange development outside the court.

NPR's Tovia Smith joins us now. And, Tovia, let's start with that new development, it's this - that a man was found dead who was on the government witness list to testify at this trial.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: That's right. It was Stephen Rakes. He was 59. His body was found yesterday. He was a man who claimed he was extorted at gunpoint by Bulger because Bulger wanted the liquor store that Rakes owned. Another witness had told us a bit of a different story, so Rakes was very eager to testify. And he was very upset on Tuesday when he was told by prosecutors that he would not be called.

Authorities say they have not yet determined the cause of death, but friends say they cannot fathom that Rakes would have taken his own life. And some admit to being a little rattled by this. For example, Steve Davis - who is a friend of Rakes and whose sister was allegedly a Bulger victim - as he put it, he said, I don't want to go back to the '80s when we were all looking over our shoulders and worrying about our families. But Davis said this is suspicious and it does make you nervous, he said.

BLOCK: And Stephen Rakes had been a regular presence in the courtroom, right?

SMITH: Indeed, with Steve Davis.

BLOCK: The big witness who did testify today, Tovia, was Stephen Flemmi and he was on the stand only briefly. What did he say?

SMITH: Well, he just got started minutes before court adjourned. But even in that short time there was no shortage of drama. This was the first time these two former partners and close friends have seen each other in decades. And I should say, this trial is probably going to be the last time, since Flemmi is serving a life sentence and Bulger is facing one.

Today, these two confronted each other with glares. Flemmi called Bulger and obscenity and the two exchanged unpleasantries. And this was after Flemmi testified that he and Bulger were both informants for the FBI. Flemmi says they did it hundreds of times. And we have seen already at this trial that being called a rat is exactly what gets Bulger to lose his cool in court. He insists he was never an informant. He was only buying information, not giving any. This is important to him, apparently.

His attorney has said that being a rat was about the worst thing in Bulger's mind that anyone could be. And Flemmi is testifying that he was exactly that.

BLOCK: And Flemmi, a key prosecution witness here, is going to be back on the stand tomorrow. What else are folks expecting to hear from him?

SMITH: He will probably talk about Bulger's role in murders, specifically two women. Again, this is something that Bulger maintains he did not, would not do - like being an informant, against his code.

BLOCK: OK. That's NPR's Tovia Smith, speaking with us from Boston about the trial of James Whitey Bulger. Tovia, thanks.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.