BOSTON – When James "Whitey" Bulger ruled the streets of South Boston, the New England crime scene was a battleground for a bloody turf war between the Italian Mafia and Irish street crews.
But some observers say the organized crime landscape that took shape during Bulger's 16 years on the lam — ending with his capture days ago in California — is a shell of its former self, hobbling along with "old men in diapers" at the helm.
"It's over," said Boston defense attorney Joseph J. Balliro Sr., who represented crime figures Vincent "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi, an FBI informant believed to have killed at least eight people, and Henry Tameleo, the reputed consigliere of the New England Mafia.
Flemmi and Tameleo both died in prison decades ago.
A string of prosecutions, gang warfare and the march of time have sent many made men to prison or the grave. The ruthless crime syndicates powerfully depicted in movies including "The Godfather" and "The Departed" have seemingly lost much of their box office luster in real life. And even the chase of mobsters has been splintered by the terrorism focus put on law enforcement by the Sept. 11 attacks.
"They got their hands full with terrorism," said former Bulger associate John "Red" Shea. "These mob families have been taken apart."
Bulger, 81, was captured Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif., where he apparently had been living for most of the time he was a fugitive. Bulger, who appeared Friday afternoon inside a heavily guarded federal courthouse in Boston to answer for his role in 19 murders, told a judge he could pay for a lawyer if prosecutors would give him back money seized from him.
Carmen "The Cheeseman" DiNunzio, the reputed former underboss of the New England mob, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges and is serving a six-year federal prison sentence. Another former boss, 83-year-old Luigi "Baby Shacks" Manocchio, is locked up awaiting trial on charges he extorted thousands of dollars from strip clubs in Providence, R.I. Manocchio, who has denied the charges against him, was among 120 suspected mobsters and associates arrested in January.
Gennaro "Jerry" Angiulo, who ran the rackets for the Patriarca crime family in Boston from the 1960s to the early 1980s, died in 2009 at age 90. The site of Marshall Motors in Somerville, which served as the headquarters for the Winter Hill Gang once led by Bulger, is now a church.
"They keep chasing old men in diapers," said Rhode Island defense attorney and former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Raymond Mansolillo, who briefly represented Manocchio. "I think it's a waste of taxpayer resources."
The Italian crime operation La Cosa Nostra, however, remains the top organized crime threat in New England, said FBI supervisory senior resident agent Jeffrey S. Sallet. The Rhode Island-based Sallet heads up organized crime investigations for the FBI's Boston division.
"Because somebody is not a young man doesn't mean they are not dangerous and cannot order acts of violence," said Sallet, who arrested Bonnano family crime boss Joseph Massino in New York in 2003. Massino, who later was convicted of orchestrating a quarter-century's worth of murder, racketeering and other crimes, this year became the highest-ranking New York Mafia member ever to testify for the government.
Sallet said law enforcement put a dent in the mob at the same time that sea changes in traditional Italian neighborhoods such as the North End and East Boston shrank the "talent pool." There are ethnic organized-crime groups with roots in Asia and Eurasia that have set up in Boston, Springfield and Lowell, but they haven't had the chance to get entrenched, Sallet said.
"We gave (La Cosa Nostra) a substantial head start before we started putting them in jail," said Sallet, noting that racketeering laws were passed in the 1970s. "They've been in operation since the 1930s."
Rhode Island state police Col. Steven G. O'Donnell said the poor economy and the tightening of legitimate credit markets are other reasons to keep the heat on organized crime.
"Especially in a bad economy, they have dirty money working for them. They put it on the street at shylocking rates," said O'Donnell, who infiltrated Irish organized-crime crews in Massachusetts and Rhode Island as an undercover officer in the 1990s.
"I don't think law enforcement would close the books until it's eradicated," O'Donnell said. "It will never be eradicated."
Some critics of law enforcement's mob obsession say the public would be better served if attention were paid to lucrative drug operations in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, street violence and emerging ethnic crime groups.
"I think that's a lot of bluster on behalf of law enforcement to justify their budgets. The old days of so-called organized crime have been dead for some time," said Boston defense attorney Anthony Cardinale, who represented DiNunzio and Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, a former Patriarca family boss believed to be in the federal witness protection program. "Instead of going after an old man for getting a couple hundred dollars a week from a strip club, they should be going after true criminal behaviors like drug cartels."
Shea, 45, says the mob faltered in part because its members gradually gave up on their golden rule: a code of silence.
"There was a code that, people today, they don't do that," said Shea, who now earns a living as an author. "It's a total lost cause today."
In some ways, today's New England mob members aren't that different from the Hollywood producers who relish Mafia tales.
"They want to tell their story," said Providence police Capt. Thomas Verdi, who led the department's organized crime unit for six years. "The reverence that they once had is virtually non-existent. They have nothing but their stories."