Last week, the FBI’s Most Wanted (excluding Muslim terrorists), James “Whitey” Bulger, was arrested in California after 16 years on the lam. Now he’s back in Boston, getting to face justice for literally decades of crimes.
Bulger’s story is an astonishing one. Eldest of three sons, he got into the Irish mafia that ran large portions of Boston. They were rivals with the Italian mob, and the FBI was far more worried about the Mafia than the Irish boys.
So a devil’s bargain was struck. Whitey took up with an FBI agent, John “Zip” Connolly, and officially became Connolly’s informant. Whitey fed the FBI all kinds of tips about his rivals (not just the Italians, and not always accurate) and leveraged that influence into becoming the undisputed crime boss of Boston.
Whitey was a brilliant, cunning, brutal, and utterly remorseless monster. (Still is, I wager.) His main tactic was the “protection” racket. He used countless variations of that one to get literally millions out of his victims.
And all the while, the feds kept their stats up while busting the Italian gangs.
Whitey had a second, possibly even more powerful, ally looking out for him. And, unlike his FBI stooge and Irish mob lackeys, this was an “ally” in the truest sense.
While Whitey worked his way up the Irish mob ladder, his younger brother, William, went to law school and then into politics. Billy rose through the ranks until he was the President of the State Senate — an office that, in some ways, is more powerful than the governor in Massachusetts.
Billy’s rise was built on his intelligence, his cunning, his political skills, and in no small part by his brother’s fearful reputation. Billy would make jokes about asking his sociopathic mobster brother to “help out” in difficult political situations, but the thought was never far from mind whenever dealing with Billy Bulger.
And Billy also looked out for Whitey. Police officers, agencies, or other state bodies that looked too closely at the Senate President’s brother’s operations found themselves suffering from his disapproval. Budgets were cut, rules rewritten to strip them of power, and individuals were punished bureaucratically. In the most tragic case, in 1987 a state trooper named Bill Johnson was working at Logan Airport. He caught Whitey trying to get on a plane to Canada with $100,000 in cash. He arrested Whitey on the spot, who said the trooper would regret it.
And regret it he did. Bulger was released, all the documents were confiscated by state officials, and a vendetta began against him. He was stripped of his plum assignments, denied overtime, and transferred to the hinterlands of western Massachusetts. Eventually, Trooper Johnson resigned and, years later, committed suicide.
In 1991, Whitey realized he needed a legitimate source of income. He heard about a guy who won the Massachusetts Lottery and informed the guy that he had a few partners he’d forgotten about when he brought the ticket.
But in 1994, it finally fell apart. THe DEA, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Boston Police Department put together a task force to go after him. They deliberately kept the FBI out of the loop, because they knew Whitey owned the local FBI office. They indicted him — but Whitey’s investments paid off once more, and he was tipped off just before they moved in to arrest him. He’d spent years preparing for a fugitive life, stashing money and fake IDs around the world. When word came down that the jig was up, he bolted.
And disappeared for 16 years.
I have to confess, I thought he’d never turn up alive. Whitey had spent years running the Boston FBI office. He represented a huge embarrassment to the FBI, and also had tons and tons of dirt on other Boston officials. There were a lot of people who wanted what Whitey knew to stay secret. My own hunches were that he was dead, the body quietly disposed of in a way that would not likely be discovered. Or, if he was found, he’d be dead.
I thought the most likely outcome would be that a relative of his would turn in his body after he’d died for the reward — allowing Whitey to do one last turn for his family and score one last shot against the government, who’d have to pay through the nose for the privilege of burying his body. I really didn’t think he’d be taken alive — or allow himself to be taken alive.
But now he’s in jail, and the fun begins. Whitey has no one he can rat out to bargain for leniency. He was the top boss, and besides, most of the people he had dirt on are dead or in jail. Hell, some have even completed their sentences and are now free once more.
But back to Billy. After Whitey went on the lam, Billy decided it was time to get out of the public limelight. But he still wanted the steady paycheck and state pension — so he cut a deal with then-governor William Weld. Weld appointed him President of the University of Massachusetts, where he still colleced a very healthy paycheck, kept his prestige and respectability, and still controlled a hefty state budget and bureaucracy where he could keep rewarding his friends.
But after a rather embarrassing session in front of the United States Congress about Whitey’s adventures, then-governor Mitt Romney decided that Billy had to go. He devoted all his energies and resources into forcing him out, despite Billy’s still-considerable political power, and — over the objections of a hefty portion of the Democratically-owned legislature (they held over 3/4 of the seats in each house), got the guy to resign. I consider it one of the finer accomplishments of Romney’s term of office — he said he’d get rid of Bulger entirely, and he did it.
Now, Billy’s a very comfortable retiree, very well off, and Whitey’s facing trial. Whitey’s saying he can’t afford his own lawyer, especially since the feds confiscated all his money (including his lottery winnings, which they attached about a decade ago), so maybe Billy will fork over the green to get Whitey a good lawyer.
He’s going to need one.
Whitey’s 81, but seems in good health. I would not be displeased at all if he ends up the oldest person ever executed in the United States.