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Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Rick Cinclair, File, AP Photo
ADVANCE FOR DEC. 25 - FILE - In this June 2, 2011 file photo, Ron Weston, right, comforts his daughter Heather Dickinson as Devin Dickinson reaches out in Brimfield, Mass., in the aftermath of Wednesday's tornado. Residents of 19 communities in central and western Massachusetts woke to widespread damages day after at least two late-afternoon tornadoes struck.

BOSTON — To law enforcement, he was a common thug and murderer. To some people in South Boston, he was a benevolent protector.

To everyone, however, James "Whitey" Bulger was a ghost for more than 16 years.

The California capture of the notorious Boston mob boss, who vanished in 1994, was the biggest story of the year in Massachusetts, but it was not the end of the Bulger saga.

Bulger, now a frail old man of 82, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he participated in 19 murders and other crimes ranging from drug trafficking to loan sharking dating to the 1970s.

"Although there are those who have doubted our resolve at times over the years, it has never wavered," Richard DesLauriers, agent in the charge of the FBI's Boston office, said after the capture.

The former prized FBI informant fled in late 1994 after receiving a tip from his FBI handler that he was about to be indicted.

The FBI over the years said he was likely moving from place to place, perhaps even to Europe and Mexico, but it turned out that he spent 15 of his 16 years on the lam living an obscure life in Southern California and stashing guns in the Santa Monica apartment he shared with his longtime girlfriend.

He was captured after a tipster saw a news story about a new FBI campaign focusing on the girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

Politics, weather and sports also dominated the state's headlines in 2011.

Massachusetts weather is known for being fickle, but 2011 proved to be trying for even the hardiest New Englanders.

The year began with a series of brutal snowstorms that threw school schedules into chaos, caused multiple roof collapses and blew municipal snow removal budgets.

Nature even played a cruel prank with one final winter blast on April Fool's Day.

It turns out the never-ending winter was just the beginning of the state's weather woes.

In scenes reminiscent of the Plains or the South, a series of powerful tornadoes rarely seen in Massachusetts ripped across Hampden and Worcester counties on June 1, leaving hundreds of homes in ruins and claiming three lives.

"All this was chaos," said Michael Valentin of Springfield, who witnessed the tornadoes. "It was like a mad wind twisting. It was destroying everything. Cars were being smashed against walls. Pieces of wood and trees were flying in the air."

Irene was a tropical storm by the time it reached New England in late August, but it was still powerful enough to cause widespread damage with high winds and torrential rains. One Massachusetts man died, and a section of Route 2 in the Berkshires washed out by the storm took months to repair.

The final blow was a snowstorm just before Halloween that left hundreds of thousands without power, some for days. The state's electric utilities drew harsh criticism for the time it took them to restore power.

On the political front, state leaders redrew Massachusetts congressional districts after losing one seat after the latest census, and two longtime Democratic congressmen representing a half century of experience in the U.S. House announced their retirements, reducing the state's clout in Washington.

Rep. John Olver, 75, announced in October that he would not seek re-election to help care for his ill wife.

The bigger bombshell came in November when Rep. Barney Frank announced he would not seek re-election after three decades in the House.

Frank, 71, said simply that "there are other things I would like to do with my life," while acknowledging that new congressional districts that put 325,000 new constituents into his district would make for an arduous re-election campaign.

Even though the Senate election between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and a yet to be determined Democrat is not until November, campaign rhetoric heated up in 2011. Harvard Law professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in what is expected to be one of the country's most closely-watched Senate races.

After years of wrangling, the state Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick in November approved of the construction of three resort casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts.

The next task is to determine who gets the licenses to open casinos and where they are situated. Proponents of casino gambling say they will stop Massachusetts residents from spending their money in out-of-state casinos, while providing jobs and revenue. Opponents say crime, gambling addiction and other social ills brought by casinos are not worth it.

"It's not the solution to every economic challenge we face and it won't be the cause of every social ill that we in the commonwealth together have to deal with," Patrick said moments before signing the bill.

The Occupy Wall Street movement against what protesters say is corporate greed and economic inequality spread to several communities in Massachusetts. The largest was in Boston, where about 300 protesters set up a tent city in a public park to protest economic injustice. But unlike other cities, the Occupy Boston encampment was largely dismantled peacefully after two months, although dozens were arrested for trespassing.

Two state departments also underwent overhauls in the wake of heightened public scrutiny.

The state Probation Department was embroiled in a patronage scheme in which people were allegedly hired based on who they knew rather than on their qualifications. The revelations led to several top probation officials, including former Commissioner John O'Brien facing criminal charges. In response, lawmakers passed and Patrick signed a bill creating a standard hiring process for all court and probation officers.

The state Parole Board was also revamped in March following the killing last year of a veteran Woburn police officer shot during a department store heist by a career criminal who had been paroled despite a life sentence. As public outrage mounted, Patrick accepted the resignations of the five board members who had voted to parole the individual, and then appointed new members.

The Archdiocese of Boston in August finally released a list of about 150 priests and church workers accused of child sex abuse in the last 60 years, nine years after the church's clergy abuse crisis exploded. But the list was immediately criticized as incomplete because it did not include the names of members of religious ordered who had been accused.

In sports, the Boston Bruins ended a championship drought spanning nearly four decades, giving the state a reason to celebrate.

After watching the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics win titles in the past decade, the Bruins grabbed the spotlight by winning their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. The Bruins were the first team to win three seven-game series on the way to the NHL crown, including in the finals over the Vancouver Canucks.

The year wasn't as kind to the Boston Red Sox, who experienced the biggest September collapse in baseball history. The Red Sox seemed positioned in August to challenge for their third World Series title in eight seasons, but they fell apart in September and frittered away a nine-game lead in the wild-card race to miss the playoffs entirely.