James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger, looking more like the kindly old man next door than public enemy Number 1, is finally on trial, a trial that promises to last weeks and expose not only Bulger's horrific crimes, but also his ties with the FBI that allowed him to carry out his reign of criminality.
Recently Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy and Globe columnist Kevin Cullen appeared at the Newseum to discuss Bulger and his story, which they have detailed in their new book Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice.
The 83-year-old Bulger was born "an Irish Southie" in South Boston, where loyalty to family and friends is paramount and valued above all other characteristics. In fact, for a time, Bulger was considered a Robin Hood figure in the community. But as the story of his years as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation was revealed in the 1990's, support shifted to the special reviling reserved for those considered snitches and rats. In fact, even now, Bulger appears more upset about the claim he was an informant than he does about the daunting number of criminal charges against him, including 19 counts of murder.
"People in Boston are really anxious to see Whitey come to justice," Cullen said. "While everyone was loyal to Whitey, he was loyal to no one. Everybody who went near him was destroyed. He didn't care about anyone other than Whitey. He felt this was Whitey's world and we're just living in it"
There are many fascinating angles to the Whitey Bulger story. There are his crimes. There is the fact that in his early years, he spent time in Alcatraz, an incarceration that gave him special status in the Irish crime family. There is the fact that his brother Billy became one of Boston's most prominent politicians and a president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There is the fact that for years Bulger juggled life with 2 women, his wife and his long-time girlfriend, both of whom spent time with him on the run. There is the fact that for 12 of the 16 years Bulger, who in Cullen's words "looked like half my ugly relatives" and his girlfriend lived a quiet life in Santa Monica and were known as good neighbors. However, all that time, Bulger was stockpiling weapons ("not that we need background checks," Cullen says sardonically), going back and forth to Mexico to pick up cheap medicine, and buying fake identities from homeless people on the beach and others. In fact, he once supposedly paid $200 for a license and the owner also gave him his Sam's Club card and a membership card for AARP.
But the most intriguing part of the story for many is that this life-long criminal maintained extremely close ties with the FBI, whose members repeatedly tipped him off, kept him out of trouble, and allowed him to continue his murderous criminality. They gave Bulger this protection in return for information he gave them about members of the Italian Mafia and other suspects.
And while he has no use for Bulger, Cullen has even more animosity for Bulger's FBI handlers, one of whom, John Connolly, is currently serving 40 years in prison for his actions. "The FBI needs an enema," Cullen said. "It was like chess to them. They didn't give a shit. People think you have to take money to be corrupt, but when my government turns it back on the victims of Whitey Bulger, that's corruption."
For his part, Bulger maintains that he was not an FBI informant and insists he will testify on his own behalf. In fact, the trial, with its 80 potential witnesses, promises to deliver a who's who of Boston's former crime family members, many of whom are already incarcerated for their crimes. "It's pretty bad when you have to rely on a hit man to get the truth," Cullen said.
So how exactly were authorities finally able to capture Bulger and get a chance to bring him to justice? Well, like almost all else surrounding Bulger, that, too, is an interesting story. A reward of $2 million dollars had been offered for information leading to his capture. This amount was second only to Osama bin Laden's capture reward on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Bulger was featured on the television show America's Most Wanted 16 times. Finally, in 2011, authorities received a tip from a woman who was living in Iceland that Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Grieg, were living in Santa Monica. The tipster said she recognized Grieg, an animal lover, because she had been especially kind to a cat. The Globe identified the tipster as a former model, actress, and Miss Iceland 1974, who had lived in Bulger's neighborhood.
"Whitey says 'a cat got me captured'. Well, if that's the case, then they should have given the $2 million to the cat," Cullen said.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Whitey Bulger's trial, which promises to be one of the great mob trials of history, started 2 days ago in a Boston courtroom. You can view The Washington Post's story about the trial opening by clicking here. To follow continuing trial coverage, here is a link to The Boston Globe.
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