| 16.3°C Dublin

Mob boss, fugitive, survivor - just who is 'Whitey' Bulger?


James 'Whitey' Bulger. Photo: AP

James 'Whitey' Bulger. Photo: AP

James 'Whitey' Bulger. Photo: AP

As the notorious criminal prepares to stand trial, Denise Lavoie describes a life story that reads like a gory TV mob drama

JAMES "Whitey" Bulger is no longer the feared man who swaggered around the Irish-American stronghold of South Boston and later became one of the US's most-wanted fugitives.

At 83, the bright platinum hair that earned Bulger his nickname is all but gone and his reputed status as the leader of a violent gang has passed.

But as Bulger's long-awaited trial gets underway, it's clear that the passage of time has done little to diminish Boston's fascination with Bulger.

"He's a survivor. He's had a very long shelf life in a profession where that is not typical," said Dick Lehr, who has co-written two books about Bulger, including the biography Whitey: The Life Of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss.

"The many faces of Whitey make him intriguing," Lehr said.

Those faces include his early image as a modern-day Robin Hood and harmless Irish-American tough guy who gave turkey dinners to his working-class neighbours for the Thanksgiving holiday and kept drug dealers out of the neighbourhood.

That image was crushed when authorities began digging up bodies.

Bulger would eventually be charged with playing a role in 19 murders but fled in late 1994 after former FBI Agent John Connolly Jr tipped him off. He remained a fugitive for more than 16 years before finally being captured in California in 2011.

Bulger's trial, set to begin this week promises to have all the glamour and gore of a TV mob drama.



Prosecutors plan to call a collection of infamous mob figures, including Bulger's former partner, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, who is now serving a life sentence for 10 murders and admitted pulling the teeth out of some of the gang's victims, including his own girlfriend.

Former hitman John Martorano, who admitted killing 20 people, will also take the stand, as will Kevin Weeks, a former Bulger lieutenant who eventually led authorities to half a dozen bodies.

Bulger, who grew up in a South Boston housing estate, earned his first arrests as a juvenile and went on to serve time in Alcatraz for bank robberies.

He became one of the most notorious criminals in Boston, while his younger brother, William Bulger, became one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, leading the state Senate for 17 years.

"If you go back to his childhood, he was nothing more than an incorrigible juvenile who was destined to go on to live a life of criminality, and that's exactly what he did," said Tom Duffy, a retired police officer who was one of the Bulger investigators.

Bulger, an inspiration for the 2006 Martin Scorsese film, The Departed, headed the Winter Hill Gang, a largely Irish gang that ran loan-sharking, gambling and drug rackets.

After Bulger went on the run, the public learned he had been working as an FBI informant for years, providing information on the New England Mob – his gang's main rivals – even while he was committing a long list of his own crimes.

The revelations of the corrupt relationship embarrassed the FBI and led to Connolly being convicted of racketeering.

Officials who felt thwarted for years as they investigated Bulger say the trial may give them a long overdue sense of justice.

"We were frustrated because he was being protected by the FBI, but we didn't know to what extent," said retired state police Detective Lt Bob Long, who investigated Bulger in the 1970s and 1980s.



Bulger's lawyers planned to use an immunity defence at his trial, arguing that federal prosecutor Jeremiah O'Sullivan, now deceased, granted Bulger immunity from prosecution.

But Judge Denise Casper rejected that request, finding that any purported immunity is "not a defence to the crimes charged."

Bulger's lawyers have also denied that he was an FBI informant.

The defence is sure to emphasise for the jury how Martorano, Weeks and Flemmi all struck deals with prosecutors for reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation.

For some of the victims' families, the trial is a chance to get answers.

Billy O'Brien was born four days after his father, William O'Brien, was gunned down in March 1973. Authorities say Bulger and his gang killed O'Brien and 10 others in a dispute with members of a rival group.

O'Brien never got to meet his father, but growing up in South Boston, he would see Bulger around the neighbourhood.

"You'd have all this crazy stuff that runs through your head. You're seeing someone that's responsible for killing your father.

"You have all these things that come to you that you want to say, but I'm a kid then. What was I going to do?" O'Brien said.

"I want to know the reason why my father was killed," he said.