Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, 89, was on Tuesday found dead shortly after he was transferred to a federal prison in West Virginia.
At the peak of his nefarious career, James “Whitey” Bulger, the long-ago murderous Boston mob boss, wasn’t one to dwell on his mistakes, even when he killed the wrong guy a few times. For back then, as whispers had it, Whitey was untouchable.
Bulger, the model for Jack Nicholson’s ruthless crime boss in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie, “The Departed,” led a largely Irish mob that ran loan-sharking, gambling and drug rackets. He also was an FBI informant who ratted on the New England mob, his gang’s main rival, in an era when bringing down the Mafia was a top national priority for the FBI.
Bulger fled Boston in late 1994 after his FBI handler, John Connolly Jr., warned him he was about to be indicted. With a $2 million reward on his head, Bulger became one of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” criminals, with a place just below Osama bin Laden.
When the extent of his crimes and the FBI’s role in overlooking them became public in the late 1990s, Bulger became a source of embarrassment for the FBI. During the years he was a fugitive, the FBI battled a public perception that it had not tried very hard to find him.
After more than 16 years on the run, Bulger was captured at age 81 in Santa Monica, California, where he had been living in a rent-controlled apartment near the beach with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig. He was given a life sentence following his conviction for numerous crimes in 2013, including 11 murders.
Bulger, nicknamed “Whitey” for his bright platinum hair, grew up in a gritty South Boston housing project and became known as one of the most ruthless gangsters in Boston. His younger brother, William Bulger, became one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, leading the state Senate for 17 years.
“You could go back in the annals of criminal history and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone as diabolical as Bulger,” said Tom Duffy, a retired state police major who investigated Bulger.
“Killing people was his first option. They don’t get any colder than him,” Duffy said after Bulger was finally captured in June 2011.
Bulger was accused of strangling Debra Davis, the 26-year-old girlfriend of his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, and Deborah Hussey, also 26, the daughter of Flemmi’s common-law wife. In both cases, Bulger insisted on pulling out the women’s teeth so they would be difficult to identify, Flemmi testified.
During a search of his Santa Monica apartment, agents found over $800,000 in cash and more than 30 guns, many hidden in holes in the walls. A property manager at the building said Bulger and Greig, who used the names Charles and Carol Gasko, had lived there for 15 years and always paid the rent-controlled rate of $1,145 a month in cash.
The notorious mob boss had recently arrived at USP Hazelton, a high-security prison with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp in Bruceton Mills.
Boston-based reporter Michele McPhee said today that Bulger, 89, had been killed behind bars in the facility.
Richard Heldreth, the president of the corrections officers’ union at Hazelton, told WVNews that a male inmate had been slain there overnight, but was unable to immediately confirm the inmate’s identity.
Bulger was previously relocated from a Florida prison to a facility in Oklahoma. It’s not clear why he was on the move. Bureau of Prisons officials and his attorney declined last week to comment on why he was being moved.
The FBI and the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of West Virginia has opened a probe into the death, officials said.