This city’s home-grown parlor game--the Boston equivalent of Elvis sightings--took on new impetus last month when crime lord and onetime FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger was named to the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list. The hunt for the 70-year-old career criminal--a near-mythic figure who disappeared in 1995 after being indicted on racketeering charges--gained more momentum when Bulger was implicated this month in some of the deaths of up to 20 people rubbed out by a Mafia hit man.
Conceding that it was “highly unusual” for a former informant to join the 10 most wanted, U.S. Atty. Donald Stern called the plea agreement his office struck with hit man John Martorano an important step toward bringing Bulger to justice.
“It can only help,” Stern said in an interview. “Every local police department and state police agency throughout the country will now have Whitey Bulger’s name and picture on the wall.”
Last Wednesday, bolstering the government’s position, U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf refused to uphold a claim by Bulger’s sidekick, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, that the FBI promised the pair immunity in exchange for information. He did, however, bar authorities from using some key evidence gathered via eavesdropping. In addition to tying Bulger and Flemmi to the killings, officials here hope the admitted murderer can advance a grand jury’s investigation into the FBI’s conduct in its years-long organized crime investigation.
The case of Bulger and his confederates offers a fascinating window into the exploits of what was once the nation’s most organized network of Irish mobsters, who fought for turf with rivals in the New England Mafia. Longtime residents of South Boston, the Irish American stronghold where Bulger was without question the most powerful man around, are not confident that prosecutors will ever find their man. “I think he’s gone forever,” said Michael Patrick MacDonald, born 33 years ago in a gritty housing project.
For decades, Whitey Bulger ruled as South Boston’s version of a supreme godfather. You needed shoes for your kid? Whitey took care of it. Trouble with the Boston Housing Authority, manager of the neighborhood’s numerous housing projects? Whitey took care of it. Some guy roughed up your daughter? Whitey took care of him, better believe it.
“You had a husband giving a wife a hard time, that’s the stuff you went to him for,” said Peggy Davis-Mullen, a South Boston native who represents her community on Boston’s City Council. “Even growing up, there was this dichotomy. You knew that he was a guy that was involved in organized crime, but you also had--I’ve got to be honest with you--regard for the man. I don’t know what he did when he was doing his business, whatever his business was, but I know that he was a guy on the street and that he was good to people that were poor.”
But while handing out favors to the needy, Whitey also was busy running crime in the area that residents call Southie and in other parts of the region. “A reign of terror,” said journalist and former Boston mayoral candidate Christopher Lydon. “Twenty-plus years of thug-ocracy.”
Bulger controlled the community’s drug trade and ran a well-known band of crooks called the Winter Hill Gang, which had an impressive trade in bookmaking, extortion, racketeering and money laundering. “He was in charge,” said MacDonald, author of “All Souls,” a new memoir about growing up in South Boston. “Nothing illegal happened without his stamp of approval.”
Bulger plays an important role in the book, which has half of South Boston furious because MacDonald washes the neighborhood’s dirty linen in public and the other half overjoyed for the same reason. MacDonald, one of 11 children, grew up to help launch Boston’s successful gun-buyback program and to found the South Boston Vigil Group. One of MacDonald’s brothers died at 25 in an armored-car heist while working for Whitey Bulger. Another brother was in jail for a jewelry store robbery--also a Bulger project, according to MacDonald--when he was found hanged at 22.
According to the extensive lore of a community that loves its legends, Bulger was crafty, meticulous and smart in a terrifying way. His ice-blue eyes were merciless. His one extended prison stay for bank robbery only added to his mystique. After all, Whitey did time at Alcatraz.
Women loved him. His longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, now 49, has apparently been his companion since he went on the lam.
In many ways, Southie, with its 30,000 residents, is separate from the city that surrounds it, cut off by water as well as fierce neighborhood politics. When the schools of the largely Irish American community were forcibly integrated by busing in the 1970s, South Boston became infamous as the northernmost outpost of racial hatred and tension.
In recent years, the houses on one side of Broadway, the main drag, are suddenly sporting new paint jobs and fancy price tags. City Point, the section that juts into the harbor, is verging on fashionable. Broadway even boasts a cappuccino bar.
In their time, the Bulgers were a kind of royal family. Whitey was the bad boy. His older brother, Billy, was the more legitimate politician. As president for decades of the Massachusetts Senate, William Bulger wielded more power than most governors. In perfectly tailored suits, he fostered an image of refinement. He prided himself on his command of the classics and spoke Latin at the dinner table.
William Bulger, who does not talk about his brother’s record, is now president of the University of Massachusetts. Still, MacDonald views him as a powerful poseur.
“William,” he snorted. “What kind of Irishman is named William?” It was William of Orange who imposed British rule on Ireland.
MacDonald is no kinder in his assessment of Whitey Bulger. “We had the code of silence bred into us, thanks to Whitey. He built this sense that it was us against them, the poor Irish of South Boston against everyone else. Then he turned out to be the biggest snitch of all.”
Since at least the mid-1970s, federal officials say, Whitey Bulger was a confidential informant for the FBI. No one in South Boston would have dreamed then that Bulger was snitching, but information that has tumbled out since his disappearance shows he maintained a cushy relationship with FBI agents over 20 years.
Without agreeing to testify, Bulger provided information that led to the apprehension and conviction of numerous important criminals. Such information, some agents say, helped crack the hold of powerful mobsters, including the Patriarca crime family, for whom John Martorano was a capo and hit man.
Lengthy negotiations led to the plea agreement with Martorano unsealed here last week. The 58-year-old ex-high school football star bartered a guilty plea to 10 murders in Massachusetts--as well as one in Oklahoma and another in Florida--for a prison sentence of 12 1/2 to 15 years.
Although Martorano’s plea documents refer to 20 murders “aided and abetted” by “John Doe #1" and/or “John Doe #2,” Stern said it would “not be unreasonable” to substitute the names of Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi for the two Does. Sources told the Boston Globe that Martorano specifically implicated Bulger and Flemmi in many of those killings. Eighteen of the murders Martorano describes were committed in Massachusetts, the last in 1976. Most of the victims were rival mob members.
Flemmi, 64, is incarcerated on a variety of charges. His lawyer, Kenneth Fishman, blasted the deal with Martorano as a desperate move.
“The government is clearly trying to deflect attention from its own conduct over a period of 30 years during which it utilized Mr. Flemmi and later Mr. Bulger in its so-called war on organized crime and then shamelessly abandoned them by reneging on its promises,” Fishman said.
Federal officials make no secret of the fact that they hope information provided by Martorano will strengthen a corruption case against several former FBI agents here. Among the charges under investigation by the grand jury is a claim by a former FBI supervisor, John Morris, that he took thousands of dollars in payoffs from Bulger and Flemmi. Under a grant of immunity, Morris also admitted that he warned Bulger and Flemmi about an FBI wiretap.
Stern does not hide his abhorrence for the agreement his office crafted with Martorano. “Making a plea agreeing with someone who has admitted to murdering 20 people in cold blood ranks as one of the most distasteful things I have had to do as U.S. attorney.”
Some of the family members of Martorano’s victims share his sentiments. Richard J. Castucci Jr. recalled identifying his father’s corpse in the trunk of a car. Castucci said he was devastated by the government’s deal with Martorano.
Meanwhile, Stern said the hunt for Whitey Bulger remains a priority. His departure was so clean that authorities suspect he had prepared for it for years.
His icy intelligence has helped Bulger stay ahead of what Stern insists is “a very active fugitive investigation.” Bulger is also disciplined and determined, authorities say. For a time, for example, he is known to have lived in a Louisiana trailer park. Less adaptable crime lords, they note, might have considered that a comedown.
Bulger was spotted most recently in 1997 at an Irish festival in West Palm Beach, Fla., and in 1998 in Sloan, Iowa. After that, said Stern, “the trail has gone cold. What we are hoping for is a break or two.”
Fat chance, said MacDonald: “They’ll never find Whitey.”