By Robert D. McFadden
James “Whitey” Bulger, the South Boston mobster and FBI informer who was captured after 16 years on the run and finally brought to justice in 2013 for a murderous reign of terror that inspired books, films and a saga of Irish-American brotherhood and brutality, was found beaten to death Tuesday in a West Virginia prison. He was 89.
Two Federal Bureau of Prisons employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was not yet public, said that Bulger was beaten unrecognizable by inmates shortly after he had arrived at the prison, the Hazelton federal penitentiary in Bruceton Mills.
He had been moved from prison to prison in recent years and was incarcerated in Florida before being transferred to Hazelton, which has been rife with violence.
One of the workers said that the inmates were thought to be “affiliated with the mob.” A law enforcement official who oversees organized crime cases said he was told by a federal law enforcement official that a mob figure was believed to be responsible for the killing.
Bulger, who was serving two life sentences for 11 murders, was found unresponsive at 8:20 Tuesday morning and pronounced dead by the Preston County Medical Examiner, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement. It did not indicate a cause of death.
To the families of those he executed gangland-style and to a neighborhood held in thrall long after he vanished, in 1994, Bulger’s arrest in Santa Monica, California, in 2011 and his conviction of gruesome crimes brought a final reckoning of sorts, and an end to the career of one of America’s most notorious underworld figures, the heir to a nation’s fascinations with Dillinger, Capone and Gotti.
In an all-but-lost era in South Boston before glassy condos and a showcase harbour replaced mean streets and a decrepit waterfront, Bulger dominated the rackets and folklore in that Irish-American working-class enclave. Tales of his exploits were learned from childhood there: how he shot men between the eyes, stabbed rivals in the heart with ice picks, strangled women who might betray him and buried victims in secret graveyards after yanking their teeth to thwart identification.
Enriching the Bulger legend, his brother, William, became president of the Massachusetts state Senate and president of the University of Massachusetts. William Bulger always denied firsthand knowledge of his brother’s crimes and whereabouts, but said he loved him and could never give him up to the law.
For years before details of Whitey Bulger’s criminal history became known through trials, books, newspapers and congressional hearings, popular myths in South Boston portrayed him as an Irish Robin Hood, giving out turkeys on Thanksgiving and protecting his own from the hated police and outsiders.
His code of the streets was touted: Never sell angel dust to children or heroin in the neighbourhood, trust only the Irish, never lie to a friend or partner, and above all never squeal to the authorities. He was an inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s mob boss in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film “The Departed,” set in Boston.
But such romantic notions were shattered by disclosures that for some 15 years he had been a federal informer and that the authorities had turned a blind eye to his crimes in exchange for his snitching on the Mafia. Beyond corrupting agents with bribes, the government said, the arrangement helped him conceal 19 murders, learn the identities of witnesses who later turned up dead, and send an innocent man to prison for a killing that Bulger had committed. It also led to a re-evaluation of rules for dealing with informers.
In December 1994, after decades of extortion, bookmaking, loan-sharking, gambling, truck-hijacking and drug dealing — much of it carried out as the authorities looked the other way — Bulger vanished just as federal officials were about to unseal an indictment and arrest him on racketeering charges. It was later learned that he had been tipped off by the agent who had been his undercover handler for years.
Bulger and his companion, Catherine Greig, who joined him after he fled, were extraordinarily elusive, despite international searches. Sightings were reported in Europe, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the United States, but no traces were found. For a decade, Bulger was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. A $2 million reward was offered for his capture, the largest ever for a domestic fugitive.
A Life on the Run
Bulger’s elusiveness was not coincidental. Kevin Weeks, who wrote a memoir, “Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob” (2006, with Phyllis Karas), said that in 1993 and 1994, Bulger prepared for life on the run by taking safe deposit boxes in Montreal, London, Dublin, Venice and U.S. cities to hide cash, jewellery and identity papers under false names. (Imprisoned on racketeering charges, Weeks became a cooperating witness against Bulger.)
After plastic surgery to change their appearances, Bulger and Greig settled in Santa Monica, California, in a small apartment a few blocks from the Pacific, in 1996. They called themselves Charlie and Carol Gasko and lived reclusively, paying their $1,145 monthly rent in cash. He spent his days watching television. She took walks, went to a beauty parlour and — being a former dental technician — had her teeth cleaned monthly. They took occasional trips, but mostly stayed home. They were fugitives for so long, they had AARP cards.
Embarrassed by its dealings with Bulger as an informer and frustrated by his invisibility, the FBI in 2011 began a national advertising campaign that focused not on him but on Greig’s idiosyncrasies. Her beauty parlour and teeth-cleaning visits were featured in 350 public service announcements in 14 cities on daytime television shows favoured by older women. They noted that the reward for her had doubled to $100,000.
Acting on a tip, agents closed in and arrested the couple on June 22. They offered no resistance. The white-blond Bulger hair had been dyed black and was receding. He was 81 and had a paunch. But the angular narrow face, the jutting chin and the clever eyes behind sunglasses were unmistakable. Inside the apartment walls, agents found $822,000 in cash, false identity papers and a score of handguns and rifles.
“I never thought I’d see this day,” Patricia Donahue, whose husband Michael Donohue was killed in a 1982 shooting attributed to Bulger, said after the fugitives were captured. “I have satisfaction and despair, because it brings back so many old memories. But satisfaction that they have him.”
James Joseph Bulger Jr. was born on September 3, 1929, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, one of six children of James Bulger and the former Jane McCarthy. His father, a labourer, lost an arm in an industrial accident. James grew up in a public-housing project in South Boston, known as Southie, a clannish community of 30,000, mostly Irish-American, across a narrow waterway from downtown Boston. He preferred the streets to school, where his brothers William and John excelled.
A troublemaker from an early age, Whitey ran with a gang, stole cars, mugged people and was sent to reform school. He joined the Air Force at 20, but was discharged after going AWOL. He robbed banks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Indiana and served nine years in federal prisons. Back in South Boston, he became an enforcer for an Irish mob. In 1979, he and an associate, Stephen Flemmi, took over the infamous Winter Hill Gang, which had dominated crime there for years.
By then, both were FBI informers. The dates and circumstances of their recruitments are in dispute, but the target was the Patriarca family, which controlled organized crime in New England. John Connolly, an FBI agent who had been a childhood friend of Bulger’s, became his handler.
The arrangement helped end the Patriarca reign, but the price was high. In 1998, Chief Judge Mark Wolf of Massachusetts federal court concluded that the FBI had protected both informants, even from police, as they committed murders and other heinous crimes. Flemmi and Connolly were convicted of involvement in murders and given long prison terms.
While he apparently never married, Bulger had a long relationship with a waitress from Quincy, Massachusetts, and another with Theresa Stanley, who had children from a previous relationship. Stanley fled with Bulger when he disappeared in 1994, but within weeks returned to her children. Bulger was then joined by Greig, who spent the fugitive years with him.
She survives him, as do Bulger’s brothers.
Facing Justice, Finally
After their capture, Bulger and Greig were returned to Boston to face trials. Greig was charged with harbouring a fugitive and as part of a 2012 plea agreement was sentenced to eight years in prison and a $150,000 fine. She was later sentenced to 21 more months in prison for refusing, even with a grant of immunity, to testify before a grand jury investigating whether other people had helped Bulger while he was a fugitive.
Bulger was charged with complicity in 19 murders, racketeering, extortion, money laundering and other crimes. A parade of former associates testified against him in a two-month trial, telling of the killing of rival hoodlums and others who had been identified as informers. Witnesses told of guns in victims’ faces and crotches, of shakedowns and demands for cash for the privilege of doing business on Bulger turf.
Bulger, who exchanged obscenities with some of his accusers, did not take the stand. His lawyers, J.W. Carney Jr. and Hank Brennan, described a culture of official corruption, with agents taking bribes and alerting criminals to wiretaps and pending indictments, but offered little evidence that Bulger could not have committed the crimes.
In August 2013, the jury convicted him of 31 of 32 counts, including participation in 11 murders, while saying that the prosecution did not prove his involvement in seven others. No verdict was reached in the death of one of two slain women.
“It’s good to be over,” June Barry, 79, a lifelong South Boston resident who used to joke with friends about Bulger’s grip on the neighbourhood, said after the verdicts. “I’m glad they got him, and they got him alive. He has to pay for it now.”
On Nov. 14, U.S. District Judge Denise J. Casper sentenced Bulger to two life terms plus five years. She also ordered him to pay $19.5 million in restitution to his victims’ families and to forfeit $25.2 million to the government, although it was unclear if any of the millions he stole would be retrievable.
“The testimony of human suffering that you and your associates inflicted on others was at times agonizing to hear and painful to watch,” the judge said to a courtroom filled with sobbing relatives of the killer’s victims. “The scope, the callousness, the depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable.”
In 2016, a three-judge federal appellate court in Boston denied Bulger’s appeal for a new trial. The panel said he had not shown that his right to a fair trial was violated when a judge barred him from testifying about his claim that he had been granted immunity for his crimes by a federal prosecutor who died in 2009. Bulger had offered no evidence to support the claim.
He had been moved to the Hazelton prison after threatening a worker at the Coleman prison in Sumterville, Florida, according to one of the Hazelton workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hazelton has been a hotbed of violence, recording 275 episodes of assaults on workers and fighting among inmates in 2017, an investigation by The New York Times found. At least two inmates were reported killed there this year.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other officials have written to Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressing alarm over staffing levels at federal prisons, including Hazelton.
In a statement, Carney, one of Bulger’s lawyers, said the prison authorities shared blame in Bulger’s death. “He was sentenced to life in prison,” Carney said, “but as a result of decisions by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, that sentence has been changed to the death penalty.”
After his incarceration, the story of Bulger continued to generate publicity, as well as books, a documentary feature and a movie starring Johnny Depp.
To raise money for the victims, the government auctioned off more than 100 bins of items confiscated from Bulger — furniture, sunglasses, sneakers, hoodies and jewellery, including an outsize gold and diamond ring. The proceeds, plus the cash found in the walls of his hideout, were divided among the families and estates of victims.
In 2014, a documentary, “Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” directed by Joe Berlinger, examined the Bulger case through interviews with the prosecution and defence teams and members of victims’ families.
The 2015 movie “Black Mass,” directed by Scott Cooper and starring Depp as Bulger, was based on a 2000 book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Boston Globe journalists. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, A.O. Scott called it “a muddle of secondhand attitudes and half-baked ideas.” But he added: “It’s possible to think of the shortcomings of ‘Black Mass’ as fitting comeuppance for Mr. Bulger. He may have thought he was a big deal, but in the end all he merits is a minor gangster movie.”