The capture of notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger sent a wave of mixed emotions through residents of the accused killer’s former stomping ground.
His appearance in federal court Friday on 19 counts of murder reminded many of the horror that hung around his vicious criminal run here during the 1970s and 80s.
“It’s opening up a lot of wounds for people,” said a life-long Bostonian named Peter.
Decades have passed, but like most in the close-knit Irish American enclave where Bulger once operated, Peter still isn’t comfortable giving his last name.
“People from outside might see it as a fascinating story,” he said. “But in this community, there’s a lot of pain from the loss of brothers and fathers.”
It’s complicated because Bulger, now 81, is also remembered as a protector.
“Today, there’s a heroin problem and it started right after ‘Whitey’ left,” said Peter.
Bulger’s legacy is as conflicted as the double life he lived as a close confidant to the very FBI agents tasked with taking him down. He fled Boston in the mid-1990s after receiving an FBI tip that he would soon be charged with running a crime ring from the city.
Former FBI agent John Conolly was convicted in 2002 for obstruction of justice. But it wasn’t until last week that authorities finally caught up with Bulger, arresting him in Santa Monica, California, where he was living under an assumed name.
It was a long way from the South Boston housing project where Bulger, the second of six children, grew up and got the nickname “Whitey” for the platinum blond hair he had as a child.
Local lore holds that Bulger entered crime young to help his ailing parents support his brothers.
He was sent to prison for robbing banks in 1956, but by the mid-60s he had returned to Boston and quickly became a major gang leader.
Bulger is accused of a crime spree spanning into the 1990s that included extortion, money laundering and, at one point, running guns to the Irish Republican Army.
Relatives of some of his victims packed the Boston courtroom on Friday. Also in the audience was Bulger’s younger brother William (77) whose career as a beloved Massachusetts politician has long added a tragic twist in the Bulger story.
Empire of crime
The Bulger brothers’ divergent rise during the 1960s and 70s coincided with a tumultuous time in the identity of Irish-Americans as the nation mourned the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy, America’s first and only Irish-Catholic president.
During the years that followed William Bulger lifted spirits by rising to the presidency of the Massachusetts senate.
He delivered fiery speeches from the same rostrum where Kennedy once told Bostonians “it was here my grandparents were born — it is here I hope my grandchildren will be born”.
But “Whitey” took a different route, building an empire of crime that eventually won him a spot next to Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
Popular movies have lionized his criminal exploits, most famous among them Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar-winning blockbuster The Departed.
The film is fiction. But Bostonians turned out in throngs to see it, believing its main character, played by Jack Nicholson, was based on Bulger.
Still, residents say reality — not movies — keeps Bulger’s name whispered in alleys at night.
Bulger, they say, was a genuine American gangster in an era when thugs like Bin Laden sought to grow their myths through media splashes.
“He was the opposite, he wasn’t looking for press, he didn’t need it,” said one life-long resident who only gave his name as Pat.
“It was a different time when I grew up here,” the 45-year-old told Agence France-Presse. “You knew he was the boss and he ruled with an iron fist to people who crossed him.”
One of the more infamous examples of that rule came to light in 2006 when a federal judge ordered the US Justice Department to pay more than $3-million to the family of John McIntyre.
McIntyre, a fisherman and IRA-sympathiser, was as a middleman in a Bulger operation shipping guns to Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.
But things went sour between the two when a boat used to send guns to the IRA returned to Boston with a load of drugs on board.
“McIntyre didn’t like it,” said Jeffrey Denner, a lawyer for the fisherman’s family. “He wasn’t a drug dealer. So he went to the police, who in turn went to the feds.”
What McIntyre didn’t know was that Bulger had FBI ties. It didn’t take long before Bulger was tipped and his gang responded by kidnapping McIntyre.
“They broke his bones, then they tried to choke him to death but he wouldn’t die, so they eventually shot him,” said Denner, who later sued the FBI on behalf of McIntyre’s family.
Bulger had already been on the run for a decade when the case landed in court.
But his absence didn’t stop the death threats from coming in. “I used to get phone calls,” Denner said. “An anonymous voice with a South Boston accent would be on the other end saying, ‘You’re a dead man, we’re gonna’ find you.'” – AFP