Whitey Bulger: a saga of Irish brotherhood and brutality

Gangster’s codes included ‘never sell angel dust to children’ and ‘trust only the Irish’

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 brotherhood and brutality, was found dead Tuesday in a West Virginia prison. He was 89.

To the families of those he executed gangland-style and to a neighbourhood held in thrall long after he vanished, in 1994, Bulger's arrest in Santa Monica, California, in 2011 and his conviction and life sentence for gruesome crime 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 before glassy condos and a showcase harbour replaced mean streets and a decrepit waterfront of South Boston, 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 in 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.

‘Lie to women’

His codes were touted: never sell angel dust to children or heroin in the neighbourhood, trust only the Irish, lie to women but never to a friend or partner, and above all never squeal to the authorities. He was an inspiration for Jack Nicholson's Irish 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 snitches on the Mafia. Beyond corrupting agents with bribes, the US 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 sweeping re-evaluation of rules for dealing with informers.

In December 1994, after decades of extortion, bookmaking, loan-sharking, gambling, truck-hijacking, drug dealing and strong-arm tactics – 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 later came out 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, proved extraordinarily elusive, despite intensive international searches. Sightings were reported in Europe, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the United States, but no traces were found. Years passed. For a decade, Bulger was on the FBI's Most Wanted list, along with Osama bin Laden. A $2 million reward was the largest ever offered for a domestic fugitive.

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 Phillis Karas), said that Bulger, in 1993 and 1994, prepared for life on the run by taking safe deposit boxes in Montreal, London, Dublin, Venice and US cities to hide cash, jewellery and identity papers, passports and credit cards in several false names.

Reclusive lives

After plastic surgery to change their appearances, Bulger and Greig settled in Santa Monica, in a small apartment a few blocks from the Pacific, in 1996. They called themselves Charlie and Carol Gasko and lived reclusively, paying $1,145 rent in cash. He spent his days watching television. She took walks, went to a beauty parlour and – 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 membership cards from the AARP, a lobby group that advocates for people over 50.

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 TV shows favoured by older women. They noted the reward for her had doubled to $100,000.

Acting on a tip, agents closed in and arrested the couple on June 22nd. They offered no resistance. The Bulger white-blond hair was dyed black and 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 slain 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 3rd, 1929, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, one of six children of James and Jane McCarthy Bulger. His father, a labourer, lost an arm in an industrial accident. The boy grew up in a public-housing project in clannish South Boston, known as Southie, an isolated community of 30,000, mostly Irish-Americans, across a narrow waterway from downtown Boston. He preferred the streets to school, where his brothers William and John excelled.

FBI informers

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 organised 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 other federal and state police agencies, as they committed murders and other heinous crimes. Flemmi and Connolly were both convicted of involvement in murders and given long prison terms.

While he apparently never married, Bulger had a long relationship with a Quincy waitress and another with Theresa Stanley, who had several 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.

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 in federal court in Boston was sentenced to eight years in prison and a $150,000 fine. She later was sentenced to an additional 21 months in prison for refusing, even with a grant of immunity from prosecution, to testify before a grand jury investigating whether other people had helped him 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 killings of rival hoodlums and others who had been identified by the FBI 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.

‘Human suffering’

Bulger, who exchanged obscenities with some of his accusers, did not take the stand. His lawyers, JW Carney Jr and Hank Brennan, described a culture of official corruption, with agents taking bribes and alerting criminals in advance 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, although it said the prosecution had not proved his involvement in seven others and it did not reach a verdict 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 November 14th 2013, federal 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 into the stillness of 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 offered no evidence to support the claim at his trial. Prosecutors noted that Bulger had not been barred from taking the witness stand in his own defence, only from testifying about his unsupported claim of having been granted immunity by an official who had been dead for years.

Hoodies and jewellery

After his incarceration, the story of Bulger continued to generate publicity, as well as books, a documentary and a movie. In an effort to raise money for his victims, the government sold at auction more than 100 bins of items confiscated from him – furniture, kitchen utensils, sunglasses, sneakers, T-shirts, hoodies and jewellery, including an outsize gold and diamond ring. The proceeds, plus the $822,000 in cash found in his hideout walls, were divided among the families and estates of more than a score of murder and extortion victims.

In 2014, a Joe Berlinger documentary, Whitey: The United States of America v. James J Bulger, examined his trial and crimes in interviews with prosecution and defence teams and victims' family members. AO Scott, in a review for the New York Times, said the family accounts dispelled any "nostalgic or romantic notions about the old Boston underworld".

In 2015, the Scott Cooper movie Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as Bulger, was based on a 2000 book of the same name by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Boston Globe journalists who followed the Bulger story for years. The New York Times's reviewer, Scott, called the film "a muddle of secondhand attitudes and half-baked ideas", but 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." – New York Times