BOSTON — A man who had hoped to testify in the ongoing racketeering trial of reputed mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and openly despised him has been found dead, authorities said Thursday.
A jogger discovered the body of Stephen Rakes on Wednesday afternoon in woods on the side of a street in Lincoln, Mass.; there were no obvious signs of trauma, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office said.
Authorities conducted an autopsy Thursday, and said they were awaiting the results of toxicology tests to determine the 59-year-old Quincy man’s cause and manner of death. The autopsy also found no signs of trauma.
Prosecutors say Rakes and his former wife were forced to sell Bulger their South Boston liquor store in 1984 to use as a headquarters for his gang and as a source of legitimate income. But a government witness gave a differing account on the stand last week.
Rakes attended Bulger’s trial every day through Tuesday, when he was last seen there. Though he was a potential witness, the judge had agreed to exempt alleged victims and their families from the usual sequestration order, which keeps all witnesses out of the courtroom before their testimony.
Rakes’ former wife, Julie Dammers, said in a telephone interview Thursday that she knew of his death, but asked for privacy.
Bulger, the former leader of South Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, spent 16 years on the run, becoming one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted before authorities captured him and his girlfriend in California in 2011. He is charged with participating in 19 murders but maintains his innocence.
Rakes was a vocal critic of Bulger leading up to the trial, saying in April when Bulger appeared in court for the first time in about two years that he began hyperventilating when he first saw the defendant. Rakes said Bulger wouldn’t look his way.
“The day I see him in a box, not breathing, will be better,” Rakes told The Associated Press that day.
Rakes was eager to get on the witness stand, according to Tommy Donahue, son of alleged Bulger victim Michael Donahue. But prosecutors told the judge Tuesday who their remaining witnesses would be and Rakes wasn’t among them.
“He said he wanted to get up there and tell his side of the story,” Donahue said Thursday.
Rakes was upset when he left the courthouse Tuesday, said Steven Davis, the brother of alleged Bulger victim Debra Davis. But Davis said he wasn’t sure why.
Davis said he had repeatedly called Rakes, a friend of his, since Tuesday but had not heard back.
Last week, the testimony of Bulger’s former right-hand man, Kevin Weeks, included his account of how Bulger acquired Rakes’ store nearly three decades ago.
Weeks denied that the gang forced Rakes to sell the store, saying Rakes had agreed to an offer from Bulger to buy the store for $100,000.
He said when they arrived at Rakes’ house to close the deal, Rakes said his wife didn’t want to sell the store and complained about the selling price.
“He was trying to shake us down,” Weeks said from the witness stand.
Weeks said he pulled a gun out of his waistband and put it on a table, in front of Rakes’ two young daughters, who were in the room. One of the girls was bouncing on Bulger’s lap and reached for the gun, and Bulger told Weeks to put it away.
Bulger told Rakes that he couldn’t back out of the sale and they made the deal, according to the testimony.
Rakes was present for the testimony and later disputed the account, saying he was forced to sell the liquor store.
“Kevin continues to lie, as usual, because that’s what he has to do,” Rakes said that day. “My liquor store was never for sale — never, never, never.”
In the lead-up to Bulger’s trial, Rakes described South Boston as a different place from the days when some thought of Bulger as a benevolent tough guy who gave away Thanksgiving turkeys and helped elderly women cross the street.
He said as South Boston’s property values went up, new people moved in, and the neighborhood changed. Rakes said Bulger’s image also underwent a transformation as years passed.
“There are still people in this town who still say he was a gentleman,” Rakes told the AP. “But there aren’t too many of them left.”
Rakes didn’t count himself among them.