James “Whitey” Bulger’s life of crime intertwines with the illegal, unethical and corrupt actions of FBI agents in Boston, Bulger’s hometown.
Those misdeeds have been chronicled before by authors Lehr and O’Neill, whose best-selling “Black Mass” outlined how agents paid to protect instead took payoffs from mobsters and allowed crimes to be committed.
Now, in “Whitey,” the authors focus on Bulger, the prime beneficiary of FBI transgressions. And Bulger, sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial on charges of racketeering, extortion and committing or participating in 19 murders, claims he’s immune from prosecution, that his life of crime was sanctioned by the FBI in exchange for information he gave the bureau about other criminals.
He’ll have a hell of a time proving it to readers of the book titled after his nickname.
That’s a nickname that’s become synonymous with wily, crooked, vicious, cunning and, most recently, evasive. Of course, the evasive tag ended when he and his girlfriend were found living under assumed names in California, where they fled when Whitey was tipped by his FBI friends that an indictment with his name on it had been returned by a grand jury.
“Whitey” pulls it all together. In the authors’ words, it traces “the evolution of Whitey from a juvenile delinquent in the 1940s to stone-cold killer in the 1960s, from unchallenged crime boss in Boston in the 1980s with the blessing of a corrupted FBI, to fugitive from justice in 1995, and, finally, to his capture sixteen years later at age eighty-one.”
Bulger, who many believe was the hoodlum behind Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” comes off as cagey when he needs to be, kind when he wants to be, and vicious when he has to be. The authors track his killings, his love lives and, most illuminating , his connections to his FBI pals.
“Whitey” also examines Bulger’s ties to his almost equally well-known brother Bill, a powerful figure in Massachusetts politics who was forced to resign as president of the University of Massachusetts in the wake of congressional testimony that showed he used his influence on his brother’s behalf.
Whitey’s only stint in prison came when he was 26 after his conviction for three bank robberies. The authors chart younger brother Bill’s intercession with prison authorities to have Whitey transferred and then to have his sentence reduced.
But Whitey did his part, playing the role of model prisoner by staying out of trouble, reading and helping other prisoners. It was, the authors note, his way of getting what he wanted by doing what he had to do.
Following his release, Whitey immersed himself in the rackets of South Boston, eventually ascending to the head of the Winter Hill Gang. Along the way, he cultivated (and provided ample gifts of cash and niceties) to his FBI “handlers.” The question was, who was handling whom? The agents, primarily John Connolly, a boyhood chum and devotee of his brother Bill, were eager to gain prestige with their bosses by culling information on the Boston Mafia, the bureau’s chief target following the mob’s expose at its Apalachin, N.Y., summit. Bulger, ever the enabler, was more than willing to comply, continuing a practice of informing he started when he named a fellow bank robber after his arrest.
In return, the FBI agents overlooked crimes he committed, including murder, accepted his payoffs, scuttled Bulger investigations by other law enforcement agencies and tipped Bulger whenever the heat got too hot.
Here’s how the agents protected Whitey in one instance: they provided phony information to another informant, who told his buddy behind bars, another informant, who then parroted the phony information to the state prosecutors handling him.
The authors gathered their information from a multitude of sources –interviews, newspaper articles, books, FBI and other law enforcement documents, and congressional testimony. They come from journalistic backgrounds, both formerly working at the Boston Globe, O’Neill a Pultizer Prize winner and Lehr now a journalism professor at Boston University.
Whitey was done in by trusted henchmen who eventually turned on him after their arrests and his disappearance. His 16 years as perhaps the nation’s most-wanted criminal came to an end because of tips from a hairdresser who recognized his girlfriend from a nationwide get-Whitey media blitz and a former neighbor who recognized the nasty man who called himself Charlie Gasko.
O’Neill and Lehr fill their work with the kind of details and dialogue that make a work of nonfiction read like a novel. They disclose Bulger for what he was, a conniving and sometimes vicious criminal who used his gang members, his women and the FBI to put money in his pocket, sex into his life and absolution for his crimes.
Calling him “America’s most notorious crime boss” might be a stretch, though. Then again, Al Capone, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Sam Giancana and John Gotti aren’t around to dispute it.
Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss
By Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
435 pages, $27
Lee Coppola is a former prosecutor, News reporter and retired dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.