BOSTON - Across the Boston area, investigators have been digging up bodies along with the long-buried secrets of fugitive mob boss James ''Whitey'' Bulger and his associates.
The dead - five of them so far - are believed to be victims of Bulger's gang from as far back as the 1970s.
Their discovery comes after more than five years of work by investigators and federal court hearings that revealed a cozy relationship between Bulger and the FBI.
The reputed boss of Boston's Irish mob has been on the lam since 1995 after an FBI agent allegedly tipped him off about an indictment. He is now on the agency's 10 Most Wanted list.
''If Bulger's going to be apprehended, it will be because of these bodies,'' said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. ''Now there's hard evidence of mass murder.
''And mass murder of not only crime figures, but of ordinary people who may have had contact with crime figures but were not themselves involved in the underworld.''
The first three bodies were found early this year, near an interstate in Boston's Dorchester section. One of them, Deborah Hussey, was said to have had an affair with Bulger associate Stephen ''The Rifleman'' Flemmi and was threatening to expose the relationship to her mother - Flemmi's common-law wife. Hussey disappeared in 1984.
Last week, investigators in Dorchester found skeletal remains believed to be those of Paul McGonagle, a rival of Bulger's who disappeared in 1974.
The latest body was unearthed Thursday in Quincy, just outside Boston and several hundred yards from where Bulger once lived. The victim is believed to be Tommy King, who disappeared in 1975 after a bar fight with Bulger.
According to published reports, authorities were led to the bodies by Kevin Weeks, a Bulger crony who pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges.
The digging continued Friday, reportedly for Debbie Davis, a former girlfriend of Flemmi's who disappeared in 1981.
Davis' relatives have been going to each new grave in hopes of finding her.
''It's not just how this might help an ongoing investigation,'' U.S. Attorney Donald Stern said. ''It's also the emotional toll that it takes on family members whose loved ones have disappeared for all these years.''
The unearthing of the bodies marks a new stage in the investigation into Bulger, brother of William Bulger, a former state Senate president who is now president of the University of Massachusetts.
Bulger and his cohorts are accused of bookmaking, extortion and other crimes dating to the early '70s. According to court records, Flemmi and Bulger also worked as FBI informants.
Flemmi, who is awaiting trial on racketeering charges, has claimed that with the FBI's protection, he and Bulger could do anything short of ''clipping someone'' without fear of arrest.
Over and over, Flemmi said, he asked then-FBI agent John Connolly and Connolly's supervisor to guarantee him immunity from prosecution, which he said they did.
Connolly now faces federal racketeering charges. He is accused of alerting Bulger and Flemmi to investigations by other law enforcement agencies and tipping them off in 1995 about an upcoming indictment.
Bulger remains on the lam.
''What typically happens in a murder case, is that the trail goes colder and colder with every passing year,'' Levin said. ''The public loses interest in the case. Investigators move on to cases that are easier to resolve. But finding bodies always energizes an old murder case.''
On the Net:
FBI Most Wanted list: http://www.fbi.gov/mostwant/topten/tenlist.htm