By Richard Valdmanis and Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - 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 on Thursday.
Stephen Rakes, who once sued the FBI for failing to protect him from one of Bulger's extortion schemes, was found on Wednesday afternoon in Lincoln, Massachusetts, 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's trial. Authorities charge Bulger with committing or ordering 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s.
Rakes, nicknamed "Stippo," once owned Stippo's Liquor Mart in South Boston, which prosecutors charge 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 on 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.
News of Rakes' death came the day prosecutors called one of the government's top witnesses, Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for his role in many of the murders of which Bulger is accused.
As Flemmi was brought in to testify, he and Bulger saw each other for the first time since the week before Christmas in 1994. He told the court he had met with Bulger almost daily for two decades starting in 1974, and that their relationship was "strictly criminal."
Flemmi, who testified only briefly before court wrapped up for the day, said he and Bulger had met with a corrupt FBI agent "hundreds of times" to trade information.
Bulger has adamantly denied being an FBI informant, insisting that he paid then-agent John Connolly for tips but offered none of his own. Connolly is serving a 40-year prison sentence on racketeering and murder convictions.
The trial brings back a dark period for Boston's FBI office, when Bulger and Flemmi were listed as informants but also were given tips by corrupt agents who helped them escape capture and root out "rats" within their ranks.
Bulger fled in 1994 after a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent. He was finally captured in Santa Monica, California, in 2011 after 16 years on the lam.
His story inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed," in which Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger.
In 2004, Flemmi pleaded guilty to 10 murders in a deal that spared him the death penalty, and his testimony is expected to form the backbone of the government's case against Bulger.
In six weeks of testimony, witnesses so far have described Bulger as a cold-blooded criminal quick to violence. Former associates have accused him of participating in killing several people suspected of talking to law enforcement. Others said he used fear to extort cash.
The government is close to finishing its case and earlier this week advised U.S. District Judge Denise Casper that it could wrap up by Tuesday.
(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and David Gregorio)