The big event at the trial of James "Whitey" Bulger today was supposed to be the introduction of recordings of Bulger's jailhouse conversations with family members. It's still not clear if Bulger will testify in his own defense, so the excerpts played in court today may be the most we'll hear from the man himself and they were certainly striking.

In one recording, Bulger laughed delightedly as he recounted a time he and his criminal associate Steve Flemmi pulled guns on "three black kids" who'd pulled up to a liquor store. In another, we apparently heard Bulger recount giving $55,000 to his former criminal associate John Martorano, who's now turned state's witness though the audio quality was poor and the thread of the conversation difficult to follow. A third recording featured Bulger and his brother Jackie making light or so it seemed about the murder of bar owner Eddie Connors, who was shot to death inside a phone booth.

But the most fascinating stuff today came from William Shea, a former criminal associate of Bulger's who specialized in dispensing drugs to smaller-time dealers around South Boston --first marijuana, then cocaine. Shea recounted being courted by Bulger after his release from prison in 1977, where he'd done seven years for armed robbery; as Shea tells it, Bulger pulled up next to him in a car in Southie, handed him an envelope packed with $500, and said, "Welcome home." Shea also described his role pulling formerly unattached drug dealers around Southie into Bulger's web: He and a couple partners would pull up next to a "maverick" dealer, invite them into the car, and tell them striking up an alliance would help forestall future unpleasantries. Bulger, it should be noted, wasn't mentioned by name, but stayed deep in the shadows; as Shea put it, he was a specialist at putting up "buffers" to protect his safety and reputation.

Eventually, lucrative as the drug trade was, Shea decided he'd had enough--so he told Bulger he wanted out. Bulger said that wasn't an option. Shea made a couple trips to Florida to convince Bulger the business could run without him. Bulger called him back, irate. The final time Shea returned to Boston, Bulger pulled up at his home with associates Steve Flemmi and Kevin Weeks and told Shea they were going for a ride. They drove to the Southie's D Street housing projects, where Bulger escorted Shea down some cellar stairs for a "talk." Shea recounted sneaking ahead of Bulger as they walked down, so he could place his back to the door and defend against a possible attempt on his life. Once he reached the bottom, he waited for Bulger to draw a gun or knife and also kept an eye on the top of the stairway, in case Flemmi or Weeks joined the festivities.

None of that happened. Instead, at a certain point, Shea said all the tension disappeared from Bulger's face and just like that, he was free to go. When they walked back to the car, where Flemmi and Weeks were waiting, Bulger offered Shea a ride home. "Nah," he answered. "I'll walk." Other than a brief chance meeting several years ago, it's the last time Shea saw Bulger before today.

Oddly, despite the terrifying encounter he described, Shea seemed delighted to renew his acquaintance with Bulger. Asked to identify him in court, he cracked wise, pegging Bulger as "that young man sitting right there." Bulger beamed and chuckled. At another point, as Shea described the massive amount of money he made as a drug trafficker, he joked that Bulger was probably miffed at how small his cut had been. Here, too, Bulger cracked up. For those of us watching, it was easy to laugh along with them until you remembered that Bulger's accused of 19 murders and host of other horrifying acts.