Michael Dwyer / AP
Stephen Rakes smiles after greeting an acquaintance outside the liquor store he once owned in the South Boston neighborhood of Boston. Rakes was found dead Wednesday in a Boston suburb.
A man who had been listed as a witness against James "Whitey" Bulger has been found dead, adding an element of intrigue to a trial that has riveted Boston.
An autopsy found no sign of trauma on Stephen “Stippo” Rakes, and investigators were awaiting toxicology tests determine the cause of his death, officials said Thursday. Police said they are treating the death as suspicious, New England Cable News reported.
Rakes, 59, claimed that Bulger forced him at gunpoint, while threatening his young daughter, to sell his South Boston liquor store below market value in 1984 so the Winter Hill Gang could use it as a front.
But last week, another witness, former Bulger associate Kevin Weeks, testified that Rakes wanted to sell the shop and tried to shake down the gangsters for more money, sparking a confrontation in which a gun was pulled.
Rakes, 59, was on the prosecution's list of witnesses to testify against Bulger, 83, who is on trial for racketeering and murder after spending 16 years on the lam as one of the nation's most-wanted fugitives.
According to the Boston Globe, though, he was told Tuesday afternoon that he would not be called to the stand, depriving him of the opportunity to rebut Weeks' account. It was unclear why he was dropped from the lineup.
His body was found at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Lincoln, Mass., according to the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office. He did not have a wallet or any identification with him, NBC station WHDH reported.
Rakes had been attending the federal trial, which has featured gory testimony from admitted killers and several outbursts from Bulger, who has cursed at witnesses who say he was an FBI informant.
“The day I see him in a box, not breathing, will be better,” Rakes told the Associated Press after he saw Bulger in the courtroom in the courtroom in April.
Bulger had loomed large in Rakes’ life long after whatever transaction transpired in 1984.
He was convicted of perjury in 1998 for lying to a grand jury about the extortion several years earlier. He claimed he was afraid to tell the truth, eventually cooperated and did not go to prison.
He and his ex-wife won a $28 million judgment against Bulger, though a $120 million lawsuit against the FBI for its corruption relationship with Whitey was thrown out.
Rakes told the Boston Herald last month that he 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...There’s hundreds. And they’re still afraid. Some of them, 40 years later, they’re still afraid," he said.
"I tell them, ‘Are you going to let him kick us around or are we going to kick him around?’ They took everything from me. They don’t care about nothing. They don’t care about what they take from you.”
Then, he added, “At least I’m still alive. I’m alive and I’m grateful for that.”
Then came the testimony from Weeks, who portayed Rakes as the bad actor in the liquor-store deal, saying he reneged on an agreement to sell it for $100,000.
"He was trying to shake us down," Weeks said, recounting how he pulled out a gun but then put it away when Rakes’ daughter, being bounced on Bulger’s lap, went to touch it.
"We didn't go to him to buy the store. He came to us. It wasn't your regular extortion," Weeks said.
Rakes said it was a pack of lies.
"My liquor store was never for sale -- never, never, never," he told the Associated Press.
As a medical examiner tried to determine how Rakes died, the Bulger trial marched on in Boston federal court.
The man prosecutors say was Bulger's top lieutenant, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, briefly took the stand Thursday and will be back on Friday. Flemmi, who has admitted to 10 murders and is serving life in prison, mouthed a curse at Bulger from the witness box.
This story was originally published on Thu Jul 18, 2013 11:24 AM EDT