Whitey Bulger caught: why he topped FBI most-wanted list

Who is Whitey Bulger, and why does Wednesday's arrest of this aging crime boss matter so much to the FBI?

By , Staff writer

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    In these 1984 file photos originally released by the FBI, notorious Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger is shown.
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A 16-year manhunt that led the Federal Bureau of Investigation across oceans and across the United States finally ended this week with the arrest of Boston mob kingpin Whitey Bulger in Santa Monica, Calif.

Although Mr. Bulger occupied a place near Osama bin Laden on America's most-wanted list, he wasn't a big household name outside his home state. Efforts to publicize the FBI hunt – including a new national media campaign highlighting photos of Bulger's girlfriend – were a key factor enabling authorities to catch up with him Wednesday night.

Bulger and companion Catherine Greig were living in a three-story, 28-unit apartment building in the coastal community near Los Angeles, blocks from the beach. The arrest was based on a tip prompted by the TV ads, an FBI official in the city said.

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So who is Whitey Bulger, and why does the arrest of this aging crime boss matter so much to the FBI?

The answer is a tale that leads through gritty streets in South Boston, through byways of mob corruption that plagued Boston, and to Bulger's role as both a controversial FBI informant and a suspect in multiple murders.

In the beginning, he was just one of three brothers growing up in a tough Irish neighborhood. In the end, federal authorities were offering a $2 million reward for his capture, a record-setting amount for a domestic fugitive.

In a 2009 briefing on its efforts to catch him, the FBI sketched the story in brief:

The son of Irish parents, James J. Bulger (nicknamed "Whitey" for his hair color) was involved with a street gang called the Shamrocks during his youth. He committed a series of bank robberies across the nation and served prison time in the Atlanta penitentiary and Alcatraz before being released in 1963, at age 34.

"Upon his release, he became associated with an individual by the name of Stephen Flemmi, who was directly involved with La Cosa Nostra in Boston," FBI Supervisory Special Agent Richard Teahan said in the 2009 briefing. Bulger's Winter Hill Gang and La Cosa Nostra "took complete control" of criminal activities in the city including "gambling, drug trafficking, loan sharking, extortion, murder, you name it."

Along the way, the FBI alleges, he played a role 19 murders.

One victim was shot between the eyes in a parking lot at his country club in Oklahoma. Another was gunned down in broad daylight on a South Boston street to prevent him from talking about the killing in Oklahoma. Others were taken out for running afoul of Bulger's alleged gambling enterprises.

The Bulger saga has also tarnished the FBI, which used him as an informant against rival mobsters. Two decades after deciding to use him as an informant, the FBI launched a manhunt that for years failed to catch him.

Bulger fled Boston in 1995 after being warned, prosecutors said, by an FBI agent who worked with Bulger during his informant days. A congressional committee report in 2003 called the use of Bulger and other criminals as informants “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.”

During his Boston years, Bulger wielded power based on intimidation and a deep web of Boston-area connections. After becoming a fugitive, he eluded capture based partly on that same fear factor, as well as street smarts.

"The enterprise left a serious scar on the city, which has resulted in, you know, truly fear of people coming forward and providing information," Mr. Teahan said two years ago. Potential witnesses, he said, were wary of coming forward "as a result of Bulger’s infiltration of state government, local police officers, state police officers, and the FBI."

One of his brothers, William Bulger, rose to prominence as a Massachusetts politician during the same era. Although he publicly distanced himself from his crime-boss brother, in 2003 the former president of the Massachusetts Senate resigned as president of the University of Massachusetts – under public pressure because of the fugitive status of his brother.

Whitey Bulger now faces federal charges including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, narcotics distribution, extortion, and money laundering.

The FBI's quest to catch him led around the world, since he had a taste for travel, sightseeing, and history. Reported sightings or look-alike sightings over the years occurred in Canada, Mexico, Britain, Thailand, and continental Europe.

His longtime girlfriend, Ms. Greig, was charged in 1997 with harboring a fugitive. The recent publicity campaign profiled her as a lover of animals and a frequent patron of beauty salons. At age 60, she is 21 years younger than Bulger.

“We are trying to reach a different audience that will produce new leads in the case,” Teahan said on Monday as the ad campaign was being launched. The effort bore rapid fruit. Bulger and Greig were scheduled to appear in Los Angeles federal court Thursday.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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