After an international manhunt, the FBI finally caught the 81-year-old Bulger at an apartment in Santa Monica along with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig on Wednesday, just days after the government launched a publicity campaign to locate the fugitive crime boss by circulating pictures of Greig on daytime TV and on billboards, the FBI said.
The arrest was based on a tip from the campaign, said Steven Martinez, FBI assistant director in Los Angeles. He would not give details.
Bulger had a $2 million reward on his head and rose to No. 1 on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list after Osama bin Laden was killed.
An inspiration for the ruthless gangland boss in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie "The Departed," Bulger was wanted for 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 gambling enterprises.
At the same time he was boss of South Boston's murderous Winter Hill Gang, a mostly Irish mob, Bulger was an FBI informant, supplying information about the rival New England Mafia. But he fled in January 1995 when an agent tipped him off that he was about to be indicted.
That set off a major scandal at the FBI, which was found to have an overly cozy relationship with its underworld informants, protecting mob figures and allowing them to carry out their murderous business as long as they were supplying useful information.
A congressional committee, in a draft report issued in 2003, blasted the FBI for its use of Bulger and other criminals as informants, calling it "one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement."
Police gave no immediate details on Bulger's arrest.
Bulger lived on the third floor of the Princess Eugenia, a three-story, 28-unit building of one- and two-bedroom apartments three blocks from a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Neighbors said the couple did not stand out.
Barbara Gluck, who lived on the same floor as the couple, said she didn't know their names but recognized them from photos on the Internet after their arrest.
Gluck described Greig as "sweet and lovely" and said they would have "girl talk" when they ran into each other in the building. Bulger became angry whenever he saw the two of them talking, and would say, "Stop talking to her," Gluck said.
"He was nasty," she added. At one point, Greig said Bulger had a "rage issue," the neighbor said.
Bulger and Greig were scheduled to appear in Los Angeles federal court Thursday. He faces federal charges that include murder, conspiracy to commit murder, narcotics distribution, extortion and money laundering. Greig, 60, is charged with harboring a fugitive.
The arrest brings an end to a manhunt in which the FBI received reported sightings of Bulger and Greig from all over the U.S. and parts of Europe. In many of those sightings, investigators could not confirm whether it was Bulger.
On Monday, the FBI announced a new publicity campaign that asked people, particularly women, to be on the lookout for Greig. The 30-second ad started running Tuesday in 14 TV markets to which Bulger may have ties and was to air during programs popular with women roughly Greig's age, including "The View" and "Regis and Kelly."
The campaign pointed out that the blond-haired Greig had plastic surgery several times before going on the lam and was known to frequent beauty salons.
The hunt for Bulger touched the highest level of Massachusetts politics. Bulger's younger brother, William, was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, leading the Massachusetts Senate for 17 years and later serving as president of the University of Massachusetts. He resigned the post in 2003 under political pressure.
William Bulger told a congressional committee that he spoke to his brother by phone shortly after he went on the run but had no idea about his whereabouts.
He declined to comment to The Boston Globe about his brother's arrest.
"Whitey Bulger has left behind in the Boston area a lot of victims and a lot of pain, and I think for them and for justice in general, it's a great day," said William Christie, an attorney for the families of two alleged Bulgervictims.
Bulger, nicknamed "Whitey" for his shock of bright platinum hair, grew up in a gritty South Boston housing project and went on to become Boston's most notorious gangster.
Along with Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, he led the Winter Hill Gang, which ran loansharking, gambling and drug rackets in the Boston area. U.S. Attorney Donald K. Stern said in 2000 that the two were "responsible for a reign of intimidation and murder that spanned 25 years."
Prosecutors said he went on the run after being warned by John Connolly Jr., an FBI agent in Boston who had made Bulger an informant 20 years earlier. Connolly was convicted of racketeering in 2002 for protectingBulger and Flemmi, also an FBI informant.
Bulger provided the Boston FBI with information on his gang's main rival in an era when bringing down the Mafia was one of the bureau's top national priorities.
The Boston FBI office was sharply criticized when the extent of Bulger's alleged crimes and his cozy relationship with the FBI became public in the late 1990s.
In 2002, the FBI received the most reliable tip in three years when a British businessman who had met Bulgereight years earlier said he spotted Bulger on a London street.
On Thursday, Bulger's picture on the Ten Most Wanted list was spanned by a red banner that said "Captured." Greig's photo, with the same banner, was displayed prominently.
John Weiskopf, who lives across the street from Bulger's Santa Monica building, said he recognized Bulgerwhen he saw his photo on the Internet.
"I recognized him. I said 'Holy Smokes,'" he said.
"From what I understand, these were really gracious easy-going people," Weiskopf said. "They don't come out with fangs, they just blended in."
Duffy, the retired state police major in Massachusetts, said the people who lived in South Boston saw Bulgeras a Robin Hood figure who protected them from drug dealers and other criminals. In reality, Bulger controlled the drug trade in Boston and committed murders as a matter of routine, Duffy said.
"Killing people was their first option," he said of Bulger and his gang.
He added: "There was this horrendous misconception that he kept drugs out of South Boston, when actually, he controlled the drug trade in South Boston. If you were a drug dealer, you didn't operate in South Boston without paying him."
Along with the federal charges in Boston, Bulger faces murder charges in Oklahoma in the killing of a businessman and in Miami in the killing of a gambling executive. Both slayings took place in the early 1980s.