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Higgins: Another Check Off the FBI’s List

June 24, 2011
James "Whitey" Bulger

James J. Bulger after his capture June 23, 2011

“Wheres Whitey?” Bostonians have been asking this question for 16 years since the disappearance of crime lord and leader of the Winter Hill Gang, James “Whitey” Bulger in 1994. Where has he been? Santa Monica where FBI agents arrested him without a struggle on June 23rd, 2011 and soon he will be shipping up to Boston to face several charges including 19 counts of murder, racketeering, conspiracy to commit extortion, narcotics distribution, and more.

I was surprised to see how slow the news media was to pick up on the story. It wasn’t only until this morning that it made a brief pass as CNN’s headline story, and the only local paper to give next day coverage was The Boston Globe. I assume the media’s general disinterest in an FBI’s most wanted arrest stems from the lack of gunfire and bloodshed that makes for a good story.

Born  James Joseph Bulger Jr., September 3rd, 1929 Whitey grew up in housing projects in South Boston with his parents and siblings. His father was the son of a couple from Newfoundland, Canada. From a young age Bulger had a criminal record; being arrested at the age of fourteen for larceny. After serving several positions in different gangs, he eventually assumed power over the Winter Hill gang after the arrest of former leader Howie Winter.

The FBI can now check two men off its top ten list; the first being Osama Bin Laden who was killed just last month. What is interesting about both of these men is the relationship they shared with government intelligence agencies at different points in their lives; working together with the bureau to provide  helpful information. In Bulger’s case this information was related to a rival gang the Patriarca crime family. In exchange for this information, the FBI generally overlooked the activities of Bulger and his kin to take a harder stance on his Italian rivals.

When this relationship was brought to light, it came as a blow to the people of Massachusetts, and the FBI took a great deal of criticism for it. In fact it was John Connolly, the FBI agent who received information from Bulger as his time as an informant that ultimately tipped Bulger off to his impending arrest, allowing him to prepare his 16 year escape from justice.

What is more interesting is the history of Whitey’s younger brother, who seems to be a tragic victim of his sibling’s actions. William Bulger was a very powerful political figure in Massachusetts. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1961, and later was elected President of the State Senate serving 17 years as its leader from 1978 until 1996. After his end in the State Senate, he was appointed the president of the University of Massachusetts’ 5 campuses (Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, Worcester, Amherst) which he served until 2003 when he was forced to step down due to political pressure regarding his knowledge about his brother’s whereabouts.

Indeed the relationship Whitey had with the federal government is concerning. Why did it take so long before the FBI began to react to Bulger’s crimes? What is cause for more interest is Bulger’s future. In an attempt to completely cleanse themselves of the embarrassment of their relationship with Bulger and his extended time eluding capture, the FBI may seek the msot extreme punishment possible. However, does “old money” still have a place in Boston? Bulger more than likely still has friends in high places. Older Bostonians enjoy a sense of nostalgia for their leaders, just look at the attention Ted Kennedy’s death drew, one car crash and dead woman later. What role if any will Whitey’s brother play? When reporters from The Boston Globe informed him of his brother’s arrest early in the morning he declined to comment and simply said “Thank you”. Does his political sway hold any weight, and will he use it to save his brother?

What is an appropriate punishment for an 81 year old man who has already experienced prison and who’s legendary status will probably earn him a comfortable life behind bars for the remainder of his years? There is no death penalty in the State of Massachusetts.

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