Alleged Whitey Bulger Victim Turns Up Dead

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 18 2013 12:40 PM

Alleged Whitey Bulger Victim Who Wanted to Testify Turns Up Dead—but Was It Foul Play, or Heartbreak?

James "Whitey" Bulger holds John Martorano's youngest son.
James "Whitey" Bulger holds a baby during a Christening ceremony in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts.

U.S. Attorney's Office of Massachusetts/Handout via Reuters

Stephen "Stippo" Rakes, the former owner of a South Boston liquor store who was adamant that James "Whitey" Bulger and his friends forced him to sell his business to them at gunpoint roughly three decades ago, made it clear he was eager to testify in Bulger's ongoing federal trial. Rakes was "one of the most determined of Bulger's alleged victims," according to the Boston Globe, someone who had been a "constant presence" in the U.S. district court where Bugler has been on trial this summer. Yesterday afternoon, Rakes turned up dead. ABC News with the details:

The body of Rakes, 59, had "no obvious signs of trauma" and an autopsy is being performed to determine the cause of death, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Lincoln, Mass., Police Chief Kevin Mooney announced today. The corpse was found on Mill Street in Lincoln yesterday at 1:30 p.m., police said.
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Given this is a mob case we're talking about, it's easy to read headlines that are some variation of "Key Witness in 'Whitey' Bulger Gangster Trial Found Dead" and leap to what would appear to be the obvious conclusion that foul play was at hand. But the early signs suggest that's not necessarily the case. For one, there's the lack of obvious signs of trauma, and police have also reportedly told Rakes' family that they are investigating his death as a suicide. There's also the rather noteworthy fact that Rakes, while originally on the prosecution's witness list, learned the day before his body was found that prosecutors did not plan to call him to testify after all.

Steve Davis, one of Rakes' longtime friends and whose sister is one of the 19 people whose deaths Bulger has allegedly been tied to, told the Boston Globe that Rakes felt the prosecution's decision robbed him of the chance to tell his side of the story. Specifically, Rakes wanted to refute claims by former Bulger sidekick Kevin Weeks that it was Rakes who both initiated the sale and went back on his word. "He’s got his day up on the stand. Now I’ll have my day," Rakes said outside the courtroom last week after Weeks' testimony. "Then we’ll see what the difference is."

But despite telling the Globe that Rakes was devastated by the news he wouldn't get his chance on the stand, Davis told ABC News this morning that he doesn't believe that Rakes would have taken his own life as a result. "Stippo would not kill himself. Absolutely not. He was looking forward to taking the stand." Davis told the network, noticeably glossing over the fact that his friend wouldn't be given a chance to testify. "He told me over and over he had a big bombshell to drop. He had everything to live for and was looking forward to his day in court."

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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