News & Politics

James “Whitey” Bulger Arrest a Big Win for the FBI

With latest capture, two spots now open on the "Ten Most Wanted" list

It’s a bad time to be a fugitive in the FBI’s crosshairs: The arrest Wednesday of James “Whitey” Bulger capped a  stunning seven-week period that has seen the Bureau make progress in three of its most vexing and seemingly coldest cases.

Talk to just about any cop in Boston long enough and even today you’ll hear complaints about Whitey Bulger and  the FBI’s corruption. I began my journalism career covering the cops beat in Boston, so over the years I’ve spent many hours speculating with them in Dunkin’ Donuts and squad cars about Whitey’s fate. Most cops I knew  believed one of two scenarios: Either Whitey and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, have been dead since days after they fled in December 1994—probably buried under a parking lot or a building foundation somewhere in suburban Boston—or that the FBI would never find them because Whitey had too much dirt on the Bureau.

Both scenarios were proven untrue with a dramatic late-night announcement that James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious leader of the Winter Hill gang in South Boston, in 1999 the 458th person added to the Bureau’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, and perhaps the darkest stain on the FBI’s recent history, was caught after a tip from the public. Evidently, a member of the public responded to a recent high-profile push by the FBI to air information and  pictures of Greig, concentrating on her rather than the fugitive boyfriend.

The arrest, coming just seven weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden, removes from the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list its two highest-profile fugitives—and two of the longest-listed fugitives. (Both bin Laden and Bulger were added in the summer of 1999, the al-Qaeda leader in June, the Boston mobster in August.) Only two current fugitives have spent more time on the list: Victor Manuel Gerena, a Puerto Rican robber, and escaped murderer  Glen Stewart Godwin.

And yet even in one of those cases, the Bureau has made recent progress: Gerena, who last year became the fugitive who has spent the most time on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list and is believed to be hiding in Cuba, is now the last suspect standing from a 1983 armored car depot robbery in West Hartford, Connecticut, in which $7 million was stolen. On May 10, the FBI in Puerto Rico arrested the only other remaining fugitive sought in that crime:  Norberto Gonzalez Claudio, a one-time member of the Los Macheteros gang, was visibly aged after 25 years on the run and sported a white Abraham Lincoln-like beard, when FBI agents caught up to him while on his morning  jog. The Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Puerto Rico office, Luis Fraticelli, said the former Puerto Rican nationalist appeared rightly surprised when agents stopped him and did not resist.

And yet while the death of bin Laden was cause for public celebration in the streets outside the White House, the capture of Bulger might inside the Hoover building be an even sweeter victory. Bulger’s corrupt, years-long “partnership” with FBI Agent John Connolly, told expertly in the book Black Mass and on which Martin Scorsese's The Departed was loosely based, compromised the Bureau’s reputation in Boston for a generation and  helped the gangster escape capture time and time again. (Connolly, who is serving a ten-year federal prison sentence in North Carolina for helping Bulger, coincidentally is scheduled to be released next week.)

The Bulger victory is particularly sweet for FBI Director Robert Mueller, who three decades ago as a junior prosecutor under then-US Attorney William Weld worked in Boston at the peak of Bulger’s power. Mueller, whose ten-year term is in the process of being extended by the Obama administration, now has two spots to fill on the “Ten Most Wanted” list. To do so, the Bureau solicits nominations from all its field offices and then sifts through them to decide what case might benefit from a burst of publicity.

UPDATE 9:40 AM: Boston police I spoke with this morning are suspicious of the timing of Whitey's arrest considering that corrupt FBI agent John Connolly is set to complete a ten-year prison sentence next week. They speculate that the Bureau's recent push to find Bulger after 16 years was partly motivated by a desire to keep Connolly in jail longer. The Bureau has some strong leverage right now to force Whitey to cooperate quickly.

With Bulger's girlfriend Catherine Greig herself a no-longer-sprightly-60, a lengthy prison sentence for her would effectively be a death sentence. The FBI and prosecutors are likely to use her as leverage with the 88-year-old Bulger—if he turns on accomplices (including Connolly) and provides evidence to help aid in their prosecutions, the government might let Greig off with either a slap-on-the-wrist or even no charges at all. Watch to see if the government moves quickly to indict Connolly on new charges and keep him in jail.

Another possible theory floating around Boston police circles today is that Greig herself provided the tip that led to Whitey's arrest. He is reportedly in poor health and the recent burst of publicity around Bulger might have encouraged her to turn him in and hand off the medical care he now requires, in return gaining her own freedom and some of the $2 million reward money associated with his capture.

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