The calls and emails started coming in to Dick Lehr’s home at 1 a.m. Thursday, alerting him that notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger had finally been captured. Lehr has been fielding interview and op-ed requests ever since, and knows his best-selling 2001 book Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal, cowritten with Gerard O’Neill (COM’70), will now need an epilogue. On the lam for 16 years, the 81-year-old fugitive was arrested in Santa Monica, Calif., late Wednesday evening, along with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig.
As a longtime investigative journalist at the Boston Globe, Lehr, now a College of Communication professor of journalism, latched onto the South Boston gangster’s trail back in the late 1980s. He helped expose Bulger’s relationship with FBI agent John Connolly. As an informant, the silver-haired mobster, brother of longtime Massachusetts Democratic politician William Bulger (Hon.’96), had fed Connolly information about the New England mafia, and in exchange received carte blanche protection for his criminal activity, which was later revealed to include a number of alleged murders.
In 1995, Connolly alerted Bulger that he was about to be indicted, prompting him to flee. Enraged by Bulger’s betrayals, several former associates turned against him, exposing secret graves and leading to additional charges that the mob boss killed 19 people. In 2002, Connolly was convicted of racketeering. In 2008, a Florida jury found him guilty of second-degree murder for tipping off Bulger to an FBI investigation into one of his associates who had knowledge of a murder Bulger allegedly ordered. That associate was later found killed, also allegedly at Bulger’s direction. The underworld kingpin inspired Jack Nicholson’s performance in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie The Departed.
After Osama bin Laden was killed last month, Bulger rose to number-one on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, with a $2 million price tag on his head. On Monday, the FBI announced a new publicity campaign targeting Greig, hoping someone would recognize her and lead them to Bulger. The agency pointed out her plastic surgeries, her obsession with her teeth, and her love of dogs. At a press conference on Thursday, the FBI announced that a subsequent tip had led to the arrest of the couple, who had been living under the assumed names Charles and Carol Gasko in an apartment in Santa Monica, just outside Los Angeles. Greig will be charged with harboring a fugitive and faces other possible charges.
While the arrest of Whitey Bulger may seem to close the book on a significant aspect of modern Boston history, Lehr says it’s really the beginning of a new chapter. Bulger’s capture puts the story back on center stage. And if he decides to start talking, there may be plenty more tales to tell. BU Today caught up with a tired Lehr on Thursday.
Were you surprised at where he was found?BU Today: What was your reaction to the news that Whitey Bulger has been captured?
Lehr (left): Wow, it’s long overdue. At least it’s happened. It’s a big day for justice.
Yes and no. I think no matter where they found him, it would make sense, but also be a surprise. The guy’s 81 years old, and I think it’s hard for people to be looking around at old men and thinking they’re cold-blooded killers.
How do you think he managed to avoid detection all these years?
In many ways, it goes to his remarkable discipline and skills, being a seasoned traveler and being low key. As an adult gangster, he was the opposite of flamboyant. He certainly got a lot of practice traveling the world before he went on the lam. He was hardly some urban gangster who once he left the neighborhood was lost at sea in terms of how to get around and make his way. There’s also always been speculation, and I’m not sure it will ever go away, that the FBI talked the talk about wanting to catch him, but continued to protect him, that they didn’t want to catch him based on what he might say if he did talk.
Do you think there’s any credence to that?
I can’t prove it either way. Back in the ’90s, there were still plenty of agents who had experience with Connolly and Bulger, so it was a conflicted situation that could lend itself to ongoing impropriety. But once you get into the late ’90s and early 2000s, you’re talking about a new generation of agents in the Boston office. I hope I’m not too naive, but I do believe they wanted to catch him these last few years.
Tell us about following the story as a Globe reporter.
We got into it way back in 1988. In many ways, it’s hard for anyone to put themselves back to the time when Whitey Bulger was not a rat, and he was considered to be a lovable crime boss and gangster. That was a result of the FBI agents’ enormous PR skills in spinning the story that Whitey was the good bad guy, the Robin Hood of the underworld. The notion that he would be a rat was unimaginable for an Irish gang boss. Our reporting began peeling away at that onion and revealed that he indeed had a relationship with the FBI. It was a story and a fact that took people a long time to accept because it was so unimaginable. But by the early ’90s, there was a genuine federal investigation and all this started tumbling out. It was all true, and it went deeper and darker and more hideous than you could imagine.
Could you describe the damage Bulger’s done?
He’s done enormous damage. He’s left a huge footprint on the modern history of Boston in a lot of ways. It wasn’t a single case that he compromised, or a single investigation where there was FBI misconduct. We’re talking about a footprint that lasted a couple of decades and involved the loss of many lives and the undermining of law enforcement across the board. It’s the biggest informant scandal in FBI history. It remains a case study for law enforcement on how things can go very wrong and the dangers of cozying up with an underworld crime boss.
How would you characterize Whitey as a human being?
It’s hard to get past how monstrous he is and has been, and it will be really interesting when they bring him back to Boston and start the judicial process to see this 81-year-old man who’s responsible for so much. There’s nothing there in terms of a human being. He’s a monster.
The media blitz on Monday focusing on his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, had been tried before by the FBI. Why do you think it worked this time?
It seems like annually they ramp up the press conference thing, increase the reward, change the focus, try new tricks, so to speak. But that’s the story I can’t wait to hear, the story behind the arrest, whether it was attributed to the new public PR announcement focusing on Greig or whether there was something else under way that was just coincidental. Perhaps they were zeroing in on him anyway. I hope we find out.
Whitey Bulger has become such a mythic figure in Boston. How will his capture impact the psyche of the city?
It will be a while before it’s over, because who knows what will happen in court. If there is a trial, that’s a year away. It just puts the whole story back in center court for a while. It’s hard to speculate. I hate the word closure. For all the families who had members who were killed by this gang or shaken down by this gang, there’s got to be some relief from the fact that the guy at the center is being brought home for justice. Will he talk about his fugitive life, the history of the corruption? It’s hard to imagine that he would. But I sure hope he does.
Read the Boston Globe’s five-part “Spotlight” report on Whitey Bulger’s underworld career, cowritten in 1998 by Globe reporters Dick Lehr, Mitchell Zuckoff, now a COM journalism professor, and others and edited by Gerard O’Neill (COM’70), here.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.