Whitey Bulger Bio Profiles Boston's Most Notorious Gangster
This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 25, 2013.
The remarkable story of gangster Whitey Bulger begins in the housing projects of South Boston and ends with his capture by the FBI in 2011 after his 16 years on the lam. By then, Bulger was wanted for 19 murders, extortion and loan sharking for leading a criminal enterprise in Boston from the 1970s until 1995. During much of that time he was also an informant and being protected by the FBI.
In their book, Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, Boston Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy trace the trajectory of Bulger's career in crime and his relationship with the FBI. They covered him for years for the Globe, and say Bulger got going early.
"Whitey talked about when he was 16 years old, he was in the back of a precinct house in South Boston, and he said a police officer jammed a gun in his mouth, and the police officer was leaning so close to him he could smell the liquor on his breath," Cullen tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Even at that tender age of 16, Whitey was clearly in the fast life, in the criminal life, and that sort of began that confrontational attitude he had with authority right there."
Cullen, who also grew up in South Boston and knew the FBI agent who was Bulger's handler from childhood, was the first to raise questions about Bulger's relationship with the FBI.
"I got a call from an FBI agent named Tom Daly," says Cullen. "He said that he had heard from one of his informants who was now in the witness protection program that we were going to do this story and that we were going to name Whitey Bulger as an informant. The agent told me that, 'It's not true, and that if you report something that's not true Whitey will not live with that.' He said, 'He would think nothing of clipping you, Kevin, and you know — you lived there.' "
Bulger was apprehended in California in 2011. He now faces murder charges in a trial in June.
On Whitey's response to school busing in Boston
Murphy: "There was a feeling in South Boston that people were unfairly labeled as racist if they were opposed to busing, and it was really this anger that a judge — a federal judge — was telling them that, 'Your children will be bused out of the neighborhood across town to a neighborhood that's higher in crime with schools that [have been] found are inferior.'
"So there was this feeling of being put-upon, and so while [Whitey's brother] Billy Bulger became one of the most outspoken political opponents of busing, Whitey was working behind the scenes ... And what we found from talking to some of his former associates is that one of the things he did was drive over to Brookline — to President John F. Kennedy's birthplace — and firebomb his birthplace. Part of the motivation was Ted Kennedy at the time was a very outspoken proponent of the need to desegregate the schools. He was very outspoken about it. And Whitey went over, and he wrote in chalk on the sidewalk, spray-painted on the sidewalk, 'Bus Teddy.' "
On the Debra Davis killing and investigation
Murphy: "It's very strange how this whole thing played out. You have this notorious gangster. He's dating this woman. She vanishes without a trace. And they did put a report in the FBI national computer database listing her as a missing person, and then mysteriously, suddenly there's an update to that report that she's no longer missing. She's been spotted somewhere in Texas, which is a complete lie. So [Davis' mother] knows someone in the FBI went into that database and altered that report."
On the legend and reality of Whitey Bulger
Cullen: "He went out of his way to build this reputation, the idea that he was a benevolent gangster, that he was a good bad guy. ... He would give turkeys to poor people. He would do things for people who were down on their luck. I think the biggest myth ... is that he kept drugs out of South Boston. ... If you look back and you go through the studies, there was just as much drug abuse and just as much drugs flowing around South Boston, if not more, than other neighborhoods. I lived there in the '80s, and cocaine was everywhere. So the idea that Whitey kept drugs out of South Boston is a joke and a myth, and is just the opposite: He actually took millions and millions of dollars in tribute and extorted money from drug dealers in South Boston. The only ones he chased out of South Boston were the ones who wouldn't pay him."
On how he became suspicious that Bulger might be an FBI informant:
Cullen: "[Former FBI agent] John Connolly was my best FBI source. John Connolly knew my family. It goes back to Southie again, and he did things and said things that made me very uncomfortable. He just kept praising Whitey and telling me how wonderful he is, and then my cousins are telling me he's killing people and he's pushing drugs all over the town, so it really bothered me. So I went to our editors in ... '87 or '88 when we first started planning the series. I said, I think Whitey's a rat. There's no other explanation for why he would be allowed to be out there. The FBI should have been after him years ago."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Whitey Bulger, the Boston criminal that inspired Jack Nicholson's character in the Martin Scorsese film "The Departed," was captured in 2011 after 16 years on the run as one of the FBI's most wanted men. Two years after his capture, he's facing federal racketeering charges, including charges that he participated in 19 murders. The trial begins next week.
Whitey Bulger's story is extraordinary in many ways. While he was becoming one of Boston's most notorious criminals, his brother Bill was becoming one of the most powerful men in the Massachusetts legislature. Whitey ran guns for the IRA, once fire-bombed JFK's birthplace to protest school busing in Boston and repeatedly took LSD in prison as part of a CIA-sponsored experiment.
What made Bulger's criminal career even more remarkable was his close collaboration with FBI agents who used him as an informant. Journalists Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, veteran reporters for the Boston Globe, say this relationship became corrupt and that several agents protected Bulger from other investigators looking into multiple murders he's now charged with.
Kevin Cullen is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and Shelley Murphy is a recipient of the George Polk Award. They're the authors of "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice." I spoke with them in February. Kevin Cullen, Shelley Murphy, welcome to FRESH AIR.
KEVIN CULLEN: This book is just a great read, I have to tell you, so many terrific, amazing stories in here. It's a story of, you know, a remarkable career criminal and a shameful episode in the history of the FBI but also a story of a city and a neighborhood. Tell us a little bit about South Boston and the Bulger family.
Well South Boston is literally a peninsula and figuratively an island. It's a place set apart from Boston, in Boston. It's sort of always thought of itself - we talk about American exceptionalism, well, there was Southie exceptionalism because folks that live in that neighborhood, and that included me for a big chunk of my life, thought of themselves as living in the best part of the city.
It's not unusual for people to refer to it as God's country, and it's a place - like I said, it's set apart, both figuratively and literally, from the city, and as a result, people have their own ways.
DAVIES: So it's a tight-knit community, row houses, primarily Irish back in those days or no?
CULLEN: It was - well, it was heavily Irish, but it was just very ethnic. There were a lot of people, a lot of Poles there. There were people from Lithuania. There were Italians. It was a mix. But certainly the - it's not only predominately Irish, it's Irish in ethos.
If you're there, you're almost Irish by osmosis in South Boston because even in the public schools, kids would learn Irish songs. That's the kind of Irish ethos that ran through South Boston. And even the unofficial mascot of the town, as natives refer to that neighborhood, it's the Fighting Irish, the leprechaun in sort of a boxing pose, the belligerent boxing pose with his fists up.
And it's a tough part of town, and it always was. And Whitey grew up in a time when it was particularly blue collar and particularly rough around the edges, and where he grew up it was particularly rough around the edges: It was a housing project.
DAVIES: All right, so let's talk about Whitey Bulger. His name was James, right, belonged to a big family. Did he get into crime early?
SHELLEY MURPHY: He did get into crime early. His first arrest was at age 13. He started, you know, with stealing, tailgating, you know, hanging out down by the waterfront where they would, you know, steal products off the back of trucks.
CULLEN: Yeah, one thing that struck, that we found out in one of the letters that we reviewed, Whitey talked about when he was 16 years old, he was in the back of a precinct house in South Boston. And he said a police officer jammed a gun in his mouth, and the police officer was leaning so close to him that he could smell the liquor on his breath. It was a really dramatic scene.
But even at that tender age of 16, Whitey was, you know, clearly in the fast life and in the criminal life. And I think that sort of began that sort of confrontational attitude he had with authority, right there. I mean, he was somebody who was going to have situations like that.
DAVIES: So Whitey picks his profession early, and he certainly stays with it. Bill, his brother, goes a different direction. One of you tell us about Bill.
CULLEN: Just the - I mean, they call Bill The Bean because they could see - from the street below, they'd see him studying in his room above. And Bill decided at a very early age, when he was in ninth grade, he decided to - if he was going to get out of South Boston - or not even get out of South Boston, but if he was going to make something of himself, he was going to go to Boston College High School.
And he more or less got himself in there. It showed incredible gumption. And Bill, you know, in our town you'd call somebody who's gone to Boston College High School, Boston College and then Boston College Law School, a triple eagle. And Billy Bulger was a triple eagle.
DAVIES: And he went into politics successfully.
CULLEN: Yeah, not unusual in that part of town. That's the other thing about Southie. The Irish learned very - the Irish were not particularly liked when they arrived in Boston in the latter half of the 19th century, and they realized the way to really seize power was to take political power. And nowhere - and in South Boston, that ethos was stronger than anyplace else.
The politicians were routinely considered the most important people in South Boston, and it was a great profession to get into.
MURPHY: Another thing that was very interesting about the Bulger household growing up is their father had lost his arm in an accident. And so he had difficulty finding work. So not only were they living in the projects, but that money, you know, money was tight.
And it seems, you know, according to interviews that we conducted, that Whitey, you know, he wanted things, and he wasn't - you know, the way he got them was not legally. And he was frustrated at being poor. He didn't like being poor. Billy describes his childhood in very, sort of, nostalgic terms.
He talks about, you know, the good parts of Southie, all these, you know, wonderful memories of families, you know, gathered out in the courtyard of the project in games of tag. Whitey talks about, you know, being beat by his father and always trying to escape to something better.
DAVIES: All right, so as Whitey becomes a prominent criminal, Billy does very well and eventually becomes one of the most powerful people in the Massachusetts legislature. But let's go back to in Whitey's criminal career. He becomes a bank robber, gets caught, and at age 26 gets a lengthy prison sentence, ends up doing part of it at Alcatraz.
He gets paroled in 1965 and finds his way back to South Boston. And you write about there had been some - a series of gang wars among the Irish criminals in the neighborhood, and peace was made. And Whitey gets out and ends up becoming one of the most important criminals in Boston - Irish criminals in the area.
He ends up establishing quite a place for himself, him and a longtime associate named Steve Flemmi. They became important criminals in the city. How did he make his money then? What did they do?
CULLEN: Well, you know, timing is everything, and when you look at it, Whitey was able to emerge from prison to a very depleted underworld. There were over 60 people killed, mostly Irish gangsters, while he was away in prison. And so he was able to rise very quickly.
And he asserted himself, you know, he had told everybody, and a lot of people believed him, that he was going to go straight. But we found in our research that, you know, he dove pretty quickly back into the underworld. And he became an enforcer for a group called the Killeen Brothers. They were the pre-eminent gangsters in South Boston at the time, and they had a massive, extensive bookmaking operation.
And there was a lot of money to be made in that. And so Whitey became a protector for them. You know, he would have been a strong-arm guy. He would have been going around forcing people to pay their debts. And he had to do what he had to do to protect the Killeens.
Now he kind of knew Flemmi because when he got out of prison, one of the first things he did, he went to this after-hours club in The Roxbury section of Boston outside of South Boston, and he tried to basically get himself back in that life.
DAVIES: There's this fascinating episode when a federal court ordered the integration of the Boston school system, which meant, you know, busing kids to achieve racial balance from one community to another, and it meant some African-American kids being bused into South Boston. Whitey Bulger really got involved here. How did he react to this?
MURPHY: Well, he was furious. And, you know, there was a feeling in South Boston that they were - people were unfairly labeled as racists if they were - opposed busing. And it was really this anger that a judge, a federal judge, was telling them that your children will be bused out of the neighborhood, across town, to a neighborhood that's higher in crime, with schools that a federal judge has already found were inferior.
So there was this feeling of being put upon. And so while Billy Bulger became one of the most outspoken, you know, political opponents of busing, Whitey was working behind the scenes, his own little campaign to stir up trouble. And what we found from talking to some of his former associates is that one of the things he did is drive over to Brookline, to President John F. Kennedy's birthplace, and fire bomb his birthplace.
And part of the motivation was that Ted Kennedy, at the time was, you know, a very outspoken proponent of the need to desegregate the schools. He was very outspoken about it. And, you know, Whitey went over, and he wrote in chalk, spray-painted on the sidewalk, bus Teddy.
DAVIES: I want to ask one other question about this: Did he use his special talents as a criminal to help his brother's political career?
CULLEN: Well, one thing we found in researching the book is that Whitey took great interest in his brother's political career and was thrilled. He was actually in Alcatraz when Billy was first elected to the state legislature.
We found that there was one case that, when a fellow challenged Billy for the open Senate seat out of South Boston, Whitey went after the guy and really, you know, lit into him, at least verbally. And Billy, supposedly, told him to back off.
But throughout his career as a criminal, Billy - I mean Whitey was very often working behind the scenes to target anybody that would be perceived as a political enemy of his brother Bill. One example would be Frank Bellotti, who was the attorney general of Massachusetts. And he actually ran for governor, and he pitted himself against John Silber - then the president of Boston University - and a very close friend of Bill Bulger's.
And so Whitey and his henchmen were going around town tearing down Bellotti's signs, his political signs, and they actually were spray-painting stuff on buildings and walls, reminding people of the very controversial case when a fellow that had been targeted for prosecution by Frank Bellotti actually killed himself. And so that's the level that Whitey - I mean, Whitey was - like he did during busing, this was all stealth, but it was very, very pointed.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, both veteran reporters whose new book about the veteran Boston criminal is called "Whitey Bulger." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy. They've collaborated on a new biography of Whitey Bulger. It's called "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice."
Whitey becomes a very successful criminal. He makes a ton of money. He's a violent guy. But his personal habits are also really fascinating, you know, his diet, his drinking, his physical fitness obsession.
MURPHY: Well, even from the time when he was a young man, before he went to prison for bank robbery, he was a physical fitness buff. He had a gym, you know, that he worked out on before they became popular. He liked to run. He liked to keep in shape. And when he came out of prison and hooked up with his friend Stephen Flemmi, one thing the two of them had in common is that they did not drink.
They took care of themselves. They saw drinking as a weakness, a vulnerability. They did not do drugs. They were very careful. They prided themselves on being very smart. They read books. They were intellectuals, as much as a guy in that line of business can be an intellectual.
But they were very, very concerned about being fit and being perceived as a threat. They were very intimidating, physically and, you know, and with their reputations, what they were willing to do.
DAVIES: And then there's his remarkable relationships with the women in his life.
CULLEN: Yeah, that was - I think Shelley and I both agree that one of the things we really learned by peeling these onions back, is that Whitey had this - it was sort of - like a lot of things in Whitey's life, there's a contradiction because he was always seeking this domestic bliss, and yet he kept two households.
And so he - and when he came out of prison in 1965, he very soon got involved with a woman named Theresa Stanley, a single mother with four kids. And Whitey insisted that - you know, he more or less became a surrogate father to these children.
And he insisted that they have a sit-down family dinner every night. And he would sit there, and it was almost like "Father Knows Best" or "Ozzie and Harriet." And Whitey would just lecture the kids about how they needed to stay in school, and study hard, and save their money, and stay in great physical shape and stay away from bad influences.
And after that, he would, you know, wipe his mouth with the napkin, he would leave and go out and do crime for a few hours, and then he would retire to the bosom of his other mistress, a woman named Cathy Greig.
And the other thing that was interesting about this sort of love triangle is that while Cathy Greig obviously knew about Theresa Stanley and that domestic side of Whitey's life, Theresa Stanley was completely in the dark about the relationship that Whitey had with Cathy Greig.
And she only became aware of it in a very dramatic scene that we have in the book is when Cathy Greig called her out of the blue and said we need to talk. And this was...
DAVIES: And this is after decades of him doing this.
MURPHY: Yeah, and he had been with Theresa Stanley for nearly 30 years, and he had been with Cathy for about - almost 20 of those years. And Theresa was a very kind, lovely woman. She lived in South Boston. And Whitey was very careful to keep her away from Cathy Greig, who had also grown up in South Boston.
And the two women couldn't have been more different. Theresa was very sort of traditional, stay-at-home mom, you know, raising the kids. Cathy was very - you know, she was very career-oriented. She had attended Northeastern University. She was working in the dental school there, teaching students, and had, you know, planned on having a career.
But she met Whitey when she was very young, and she basically gave up her career to take care of him. And he would come to her house at, like, two, three in the morning, and she would be there all made up, dinner on the table and very - both women very, very much crazy about him. And I think both were in complete denial that he was doing, you know, the things he's accused of doing.
DAVIES: All right, so Whitey Bulger becomes a successful, dangerous, intimidating and money-earning criminal. But this is a fascinating story in its connection to the FBI. There's this Agent, John Connolly, who has a long, close relationship with Whitey Bulger. Tell us about him. How did he know the Bulger family?
CULLEN: Well, it goes right back to that housing project where it all began, Dave. It's - you know, John Connolly grew up in the same housing project. And they grew up in this place in South Boston where loyalty was everything: loyalty to your family, loyalty to your neighborhood, loyalty to your neighbors.
And so Connolly actually - you know, one of the important influences on his life when he was growing up, was Billy Bulger because Billy Bulger he saw as, you know, that's what I want to be. I want to study, I want to get ahead. And Bill Bulger was, you know, instrumental in pointing the right way for John Connolly. Go to school, you know, go to college.
And so John Connolly went to Boston College, and then John Connolly became an FBI agent. And when John Connolly was transferred back, after a few years on the road, to the Boston office, one of the first things he decided to do was seek out Whitey Bulger as an informant.
And the reason he did that is while Whitey was by this time one of the pre-eminent Irish gangsters in Boston, at this time the mafia was the national priority of the FBI. The FBI didn't take into account regional differences. They wouldn't look at Boston and say, well, geez, the Irish guys are just as bad as the Italians, we'd better take them both out. That wasn't what was going on.
And so Connolly approached Jimmy Bulger, as he would call him, Whitey, and recruited him as an informant, ostensibly to help the FBI take on the mafia. One problem with that approach is that Whitey Bulger didn't know much about the mafia, how he could - the difference is Steve Flemmi, his criminal partner, really did know a lot.
So they became, you know, two for the price of one. The FBI actually put them together. So they were a tag team. The two real main conditions other than he said he didn't want his brother Bill to know this, is Whitey said he would never give up his friends, and he would never give up the Irish Republican Army.
And as soon as Whitey agreed to become an informant for the FBI, he realized what a deal this was, because he immediately went out and killed a guy that he had been wanting to kill probably for a long time and then went to see his handler and give him the report that - you know, and he would implicate somebody else in the killing.
And then the other thing he did right after he became an informant, he really stepped up his involvement with the IRA, sending them weapons, and that culminated with a - the biggest shipment ever sent from America to the IRA in 1984, which he had a huge role in.
DAVIES: You said that he killed a guy he'd been after for a while and then reported that to Connolly?
CULLEN: Yeah, one of the first things he did after he made his deal with Connelly and agreed to provide information, is he set about going to kill a guy named Tommy King, who had been part of a rival gang, the Mullens, but then had become, ostensibly, part of Whitey's gang.
But Whitey always, always wanted to kill him. And now that he had the cover of the FBI, he was able to do that. And not only was he able to do that, he was able to throw the trail off him, off himself, after he did the killing. So what he did was first he killed Tommy King, then he killed another rival in the Mullens' gang, a guy named Buddy Leonard.
And then he went and sat - after he did these killings - he left Buddy Leonard in the back of a car, but he secretly buried Tommy King so they couldn't find his body. And then he sat down with John Connolly, his FBI handler, and said: Hey, I hear that Tommy King killed Buddy Leonard.
And so Connolly writes that report up, and that report is disseminated to people in law enforcement, including the Boston police, who are supposedly out there trying to find out who killed Buddy Leonard.
And then a few weeks go by, and then, you know, Whitey meets with Connolly again, and now the story is uh-oh, you know, I heard that the - somebody's going to kill Tommy King because of this, he brought too much heat on everybody. And then three weeks go by, and then he sits down with Connolly again, and now the third story is that, well, Tommy King's dead, they got rid of him.
So Whitey realized, very soon in this relationship, that he could use it to his advantage, that not only could he settle scores and not worry about the FBI coming after him, but that the FBI would become active partners in his disinformation campaign.
DAVIES: Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy will be back in the second half of the show. Their book is "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice." Bulger's federal racketeering trial begins next week in Boston. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Our guests, veteran Boston reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy have written a book about the career of legendary Boston criminal, Whitey Bulger, who was captured in Santa Monica, California two years ago, after 16 years on the run. Their book, called "Whitey Bulger," details his close relationship with FBI agents who used him as an informant and at times protected him from investigators looking into murders Bulger is now charged with. He's about to go on trial on charges he was involved in 19 killings. Jury selection begins next week.
Bulger's closest criminal associate was a man name Steve Flemmi, who was also an FBI informant. Fleming is expected to be called to the stand to testify against Bulger.
There's a woman named Debra Davis who was killed. I mean there are too many murders for us to go into detail, but this is an interesting one. She was a girlfriend of Steve Flemmi, right?
MURPHY: Yes. She was a young girl. She was only a teenager working in a jewelry store when he walked in and she caught his eye. Beautiful, gorgeous, young girl who looked a lot like a young Farrah Fawcett. He started dating her. At the time he, like Whitey, had various women in his life. He already, you know, was living with another woman and had children by her. But he started dating Debra and this relationship lasted for about nine years. He was buying her jewelry, and Jaguars, and Mercedes and she was very happy for a while with that life. But at some point she wanted marriage. She wanted kids. She wanted a family. And he didn't want any of that. She went on a vacation that he had paid for to Acapulco and met this wealthy businessman and fell in love. She came back and tried to break it off with Steve Flemmi. By this time she was 26 years old, but unfortunately for her, she knew about his relationship with the FBI. She knew that he had been having meetings with John Connolly. And Whitey and Steve Flemmi, according to testimony in court, decided that she was a liability, that she knew too much to be able to walk away.
So the way that Steve Flemmi tells the story, is he told her that he wanted her to see a home that he had just purchased for his parents. Now this house happened to be right next door to Bill Bulger's home in South Boston. And on a night in September of 1981, 26-year-old Debra Davis walks into this home. And according to Flemmi, Whitey is waiting and strangles her, and Flemmi kisses her on the forehead and says you're going to a better place. They buried her body along the banks of the Neponset River just south of South Boston in Quincy. And her remains weren't found for years, but it's one of the 19 murders that Whitey's charged with and one of two women he's accused of killing.
DAVIES: Right. And you make a point in the book that Whitey denies ever having killed a woman. But Flemmi says he was there and did this. Now the important thing about her is this: her mother, Debra Davis, the victim's mother, believes that Flemmi was behind it all along and told the FBI this, right? And how did they respond?
MURPHY: Well, it was at a the time in the Boston office when they were starting to be some suspicion about the relationship, by some agents, about the relationship between, Connolly and Whitey and Flemmi. And two agents interview Debra Davis's mother, Olga, and she talks about, you know, my daughter vanished. I believe that Flemmi is responsible. But the agents did not compile any reports. Now later they said they were concerned about leaving any sort of a paper trail. But it's very strange how this whole thing played out. You have this notorious gangster. He's dating this woman. She vanishes without a trace. And they did put a report in the FBI, you know, national computer database listing her as a missing person. And then mysteriously, suddenly there's an update to that report that oh, she's no longer missing. She's been, you know, spotted somewhere in Texas, which was a complete lie. So, you know, someone in the FBI went into that database and altered the report. So her mother, you know was really afraid. She didn't really trust Flemmi. And now Flemmi's hanging around the house, taking up with younger sister, buying her a car, and so, you know, I think it put the mother in kind of a tough place and nobody really investigated.
CULLEN: Dave, you know, it's very important the timing of this, because the Debra Davis killing was one of several that followed in the next few years in which the FBI not only looked the other way, but they actually thwarted the attempts of honest law enforcement officers to hold Whitey and Stevie Flemmi accountable for these killings. That is the most egregious act you will find in that book - in our book. I mean, it's appalling the way this was handled. Because the reason the FBI was so afraid of doing the right thing then is because Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi were used as confidential informants to obtain the probable cause that allowed the FBI to plant bugs in the headquarters of the Mafia in Boston. And so they're looking at these guys as assets. So here's the FBI on one hand, they're about to - in Boston - they're about to make the most important prosecution in the history of the office of the FBI, taking out the leadership of La Cosa Nostra in Boston, and the guys that helped them get this case are involved, are implicated in a whole series of murders. So they didn't just look the other way, they made sure that nothing happened to Steve Flemmi and Whitey Bulger.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy. Their new book is called "Whitey Bulger."
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran reporters Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen. Their new book about one of Boston's most notorious criminals is called "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice."
This is an amazing situation where you have, you know, these two guys, Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi committing murders and the FBI covering up for them, misleading other authorities who are onto these murders, while these same two criminals are getting at least at least two of these FBI agents gifts and cash, and the bureau's, kind of, engaged in protecting them. And you write in 19 - the late '80s, the Boston Globe got onto this and started writing a story about Whitey, about his brother who was at this point a powerful man in the Massachusetts law legislature and about Whitey's relationship with this FBI agent John Connolly.
And Kevin Cullen, you write that you were visited by an FBI agent while you were working on the story. Tell us about that.
CULLEN: Well, I actually got a phone call.
CULLEN: Here's the background. John Connolly was my best FBI source. I mean John Connolly knew my family. It goes back to the Southy again. And he did things and said things that made me very uncomfortable. He just get praising Whitey and telling me how wonderful he is and, you know, and then my cousins are telling me that Whitey is killing people and that he's pushing drugs all over the town. So it really bothered me, so I went to our editors in, you know, I think it would've been'87 or '88 when we first started planning the series. I just said I think Whitey is a rat. There's no other explanation for why he would be allowed to be out there. The FBI should have been going after him years ago. And so we began that process and we found law enforcement people who were able to corroborate that, in fact, Whitey was an informant.
And about two months before we went with this series, it was part of - it's called the Spotlight Team, it's our investigative unit at the Globe; I got a call from an FBI agent named Tom Daly. He said that he had heard from one of his informants who was now in the witness protection program, that we were going to do this story and that we were going to name Whitey Bulger as an informant. The agent told me that it's not true and he said that if you report something that's not true Whitey will not live with that. And he said he would think nothing of clipping you, Kevin, and you know, you live there. So I lived in South Boston and I would be, I would have been seen among our team as being the most vulnerable.
We actually huddled, as a team, after that. Obviously, I was a little disturbed by the phone call, and we, kind of, decided that if the FBI was serious about this there would have been a formal notification process. That said, you know, I was shaken enough to that I would talk to other law enforcement people that I really trusted and believed in, in the Massachusetts State Police and the DEA, and let them know what the FBI said. So they would know. We wanted that on the record. And we ended up going with the series, but as a precaution, the Globe decided to put my wife and I up in a hotel outside of the city. And I told my wife that the concern was that maybe somebody wouldn't like the series or the stories and then throw rocks through our window. I wasn't totally honest with my wife at the time. But...
DAVIES: You didn't tell her about the FBI call? Yeah.
CULLEN: I didn't tell her about that until much later after that. But, you know, we had a very nice week in a very fine hotel. And the state police had worked their informants during that week to see what Whitey's reaction would have been to the series. And the only thing that came back from the state police informants is that Whitey didn't like one section of the series in which we reported that he beat up a wino in front of Teresa Stanley's house. He said that that was no wino. Apparently, he thought that made him look like a bully if he beat up a wino. But he didn't say anything about the informant part of it. Now obviously, he was furious about it, but he actually told the FBI, after this was revealed in the Boston Globe, that nobody would believe it, that they would see it as just an attempt to get back at his brother.
DAVIES: Which is kind of what happened, right?
CULLEN: Yeah. Exactly. I mean it's...
DAVIES: I mean people didn't believe he was an informant, right? Criminals.
CULLEN: Well, you know, one of the most incredible things that you see in the book, Dave, we ask Anthony Cardinale, a very, you know, a very well-respected lawyer who has represented some of the most senior Mafia figures in the country, including John Gotti, Tony Salerno and Jerry Angiulo here in Boston. And Tony asked them all, separately, how come you, why didn't anybody make a move on Bulger after the Globe put that in the paper. And they all said the same thing, they said they didn't believe that the FBI would get into bed with somebody as vicious and as venal as Whitey Bulger. So the Mafia actually had a higher view of the FBI than it deserved. I think it was both.
DAVIES: So it wasn't that the FBI was concerned about your safety.
DAVIES: It's that they wanted to muscle you off the story?
CULLEN: They weren't concerned about my safety. They weren't concerned about anybody safety when it came to Whitey Bulger. So no, they weren't concerned about my safety, just the opposite. I mean this actually became a point of contention during Judge Mark Wolf's long evidentiary hearing. By this time I was the London bureau chief for the Boston Globe and I got subpoenaed and had to come back and testify about this. And I spent three hours on the stand asserting what happened. And we had contemporaneous notes of that period. Because as soon as I got off the phone with - the threat - my editor Jerry O'Neil said write this memo and agent daily never took the stand. They said he was going to but after I testified he never took the stand. And Judge Wolf in his findings made it clear that that spoke volumes, that Agent Daily would not get up and refute my testimony.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy. Their new book is called "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice."
Well, let's move the story toward its conclusion here. I mean, you know, eventually the state police and the Drug Enforcement Administration make a case against Whitey and his associates, not for the murders, but for some other crimes. Whitey gets tipped off by his FBI friend, John Connolly, and goes on the lam where he is at large for 16 years. And then his associates start cooperating. They realize they're in trouble and so details of these murders come out, one by one. But there's an interesting chapter in this tale about how the FBI's complicity with Whitey Bulger and his criminal friend Steve Flemmi, how that story comes out, and it involves this federal Judge Mark Wolf. Tell us about that.
MURPHY: When John Connolly warns Bulger's associate that an indictments about to come down, he says they should flee. But Flemmi does not take that advice, he hangs around and he's caught. Now he's sitting in jail and he decides his best defense is to claim that they were informants and they had immunity from prosecution. And at that time, they were charged with just gambling and loan sharking and shaking down drug dealers. And the defense is that the FBI gave us immunity from prosecution with the caveat that we not kill anyone. Judge Wolf held hearings that lasted throughout the year, and as some of their codefendants are sitting there listening to, you know, the fact that Whitey and Steve Flemmi were informants, they're furious and they can see the writing on the wall. They're afraid that if Flemmi decides to, now, you know, cooperate that they'll all be implicated in murders. And they - it's basically a race to be the first one to cooperate.
And so the first one is a hit man, John Martorano, who tells about murders that happened in the '60s and '70s. And then later, much later, you know, another associate - a longtime associate of Whitey Bulger's cooperates and he leads them to the secret graves. And what's happening behind the scenes is, you know, the state police and the DEA are seeing this case, sort of, unravel. I mean, the idea that, you know, how could - the original indictment was that, you know, the head of the New England Mafia at the time, and Bulger and Flemmi, were controlling the rackets around the city that they were dividing up, you know territory. But now that case was falling apart. How could there be, you know, a conspiracy that involved the Mafia and Whitey Bulger being partners when a Whitey was an informant against the Mafia? So seeing the case fall apart really spurred the DEA and the state police to go out and start, you know, trying to gather new evidence. You know, they cut some deals that were very controversial, men who had admitted to murders and got these unbelievable deals.
I mean they served time in prison and now are free. But what they gave is they gave the story of the FBI's, you know, what was happening behind the scenes, the secret graves which led to this new murder indictment.
DAVIES: Right. And so this judge, I mean he bores into it - as these people talk, he bores into this story about the murders and the FBI's relationship with Whitey Bulger and then writes, what, a 600-some-odd page report?
CULLEN: It was an opus - 661 pages. I think what Judge Wolf did more than anything was to challenge the Justice Department's self-serving narrative that this was just the - a scandal that involved a rogue agent and his rogue supervisor.
I think if you read the book you will see that the conspiracy involved many people in the FBI. It's been very convenient for the FBI with the connivance of the Justice Department to spin this as, you know, John Connolly did this and John Morris let him get away with it.
I have a certain sympathy for John Connolly in the sense that he did everything the FBI told him to and everything that the FBI rewarded him for. And that was making informants. But he is now the - he's the guy holding the bag. He's the guy doing 40 years in prison now for helping Whitey Bulger kill somebody.
DAVIES: Right. But they didn't tell him to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
DAVIES: Which he did.
CULLEN: Obviously. Yeah, yeah.
DAVIES: You know...
MURPHY: Well, I think the...
DAVIES: Go ahead.
MURPHY: I think that what's important here is, you know, there's been overwhelming evidence that John Connolly crossed the line, but I think the point here is that he wasn't the only one who crossed the line. And there have been civil proceedings, you know, based on wrongful death suits filed by the families of some of these victims where the judges have found that the FBI as an institution was liable.
That there was evidence of, you know, deliberately sticking its head in the sand and not doing what it should have done and that was not a case of just a couple of rogue agents. That this couldn't have happened without approval at very high levels of the FBI and the Justice Department.
CULLEN: After John Connolly was convicted, the special prosecutor, John Durham, said that he would release a report that would identify the misconduct and criminal activity, if they found it, of all the other FBI officials involved in this. That report - we're still waiting for it.
MURPHY: And that was 11 years ago.
CULLEN: And Mr. Durham has moved on to the CIA case. So we're still waiting.
DAVIES: Our time is short so we're not going to have time to go over the fascinating tale of Whitey Bulger's 16 years at large and whether the FBI really pursued him as much as they should have, and how he was caught. That's all in the book. But I do want to ask you whether you feel you get this guy.
I mean I just made notes of character - things that you wrote about Whitey. I mean, his physical discipline. You know, his penchant for healthy living and exercise. His ability - his propensity to take a nap right after a murder. His fear of needles and germs. Do you feel like you get this guy?
CULLEN: I guess we get him a lot better than we did before we set out to write the book. But he is a man of so many contradictions. But the one thing I really took away from it, and when we got these letters that he's written from jail and went through, I thought it was striking that he went at great length to say that, you know, he offered his life up for Cathy Grieg, the woman that he spent 16 years on the run with and described as the great love of his life.
That, you know, he was willing to submit himself to execution for murders he is charged with in Oklahoma and Florida if only they would release her or at least show leniency to her. And that's a wonderful - it plays right into Whitey's, you know, selfless view of himself. But the flipside is that if he really wanted to help Cathy, all he had to do was to tell his lawyer to tell her lawyers, tell the feds anything they want.
Give me up. I'm going to die in prison. This is how I save you. So even in that case, in which he really portrays himself as this noble person who would die for the woman he loved, it's mythmaking. And he's engaged in mythmaking from the day he was a young teenager stealing things and being polite to his neighbors and offering them rides home in a car that he could only afford because he was a criminal.
DAVIES: He cares about what the world thinks of him.
MURPHY: Oh, he definitely - to Whitey Bulger, reputation is everything. Everything. And he is now writing letters saying I was never an FBI informant. And, I mean, there's a very hefty FBI file on him that refutes that, you know, filled with things that only could have come from him. But he clings to this, you know, reputation.
He's built this reputation and I just don't think he can bear it, sitting in jail, that he's no longer the powerful guy, you know, out there controlling everything. He's insulted. They're now calling him things like King Rat.
DAVIES: Shelley Murphy, Kevin Cullen, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CULLEN: Thanks for having us.
MURPHY: Thank you.
DAVIES: Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy's book is "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice." We spoke last February. Jury selection in Whitey Bulger's trial begins next week in Boston. He's charged with participating in 19 murders. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "The East." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.