Some of the things that happen in Boston give concrete proof to the old aphorism that truth is stranger than fiction. If one were to try to sell a book or movie about the Bulger brothers, one would get laughed out of any agent’s office.
William and James Bulger were born in a housing project in Boston back before World War II. Both grew up poor, but determined to make the most of their opportunities. (A third brother, Jackie, never really achieved too much.) William chose to make his mark in politics. He ran for the state legislature, and stayed there for nearly four decades. He was elected president of the Senate in 1978, where he ruled with an iron fist until 1996. Then, in a blatant attempt to curb his power, he was appointed president of the University of Massachusetts, where he stayed until he took a “golden parachute” in 2003.
James was equally driven, but chose a different path. He joined the mob.
James (nicknamed “Whitey”) eventually worked his way to the top of the Irish mob in Boston, the leader of the feared Winter Hill gang. He also managed to keep a reputation as a local “hero” who kept the drugs out of the good neighborhoods, and surviving while the other gangs (most notably the Italians) got taken down by the FBI.
Whitey’s streak came to an end in the early 90’s, though, when it came out that he had a powerful (but secret) supporter from his childhood covering his back.
No, not his brother Billy. I said SECRET.
John Connolly grew up in the same housing complex with the Bulgers, and joined the FBI. He eventually returned to Boston as head of the local office, and “recruited” Whitey as an FBI informant. Instead, though, Whitey used the FBI for his own ends, turning in his rivals and getting warnings from Connolly (nicknamed “Zip”) when investigators got too close.
That connection, coupled with unfortunate political things happening to state and local officials who hassled Whitey (including one state trooper who stopped Whitey from boarding a jet and leaving the country with a suitcase of cash, who ended up transferred into West Nowhere and eventually took his own life) kept Whitey at the top of the heap for decades.
Finally, though, enough honest law enforcement officials got enough evidence to indict Whitey for a laundry list of offenses, including 18 murders. The charges also shredded his cherished image as local hero, as his connections to the drug trade, prostitution, and other unsavory acts was exposed.
Zip did one final service for his old friend, though. He tipped off Whitey, who used one of his several prepared escape plans to flee. And he’s been on the lam since 1994.
Whitey was at the top of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List for years, right up until September 10, 2001. Many have speculated, though, that the FBI isn’t so eager to catch Bulger (at least alive) because of the potential for further embarassment. After all, it isn’t just any mobster that can co-opt an entire local division of the FBI and use it for his own ends.
Billy, for decades, had managed to avoid being directly tied to his mobster brother. He’d refuse to speak about him, and woe betide any who publicly linked the two. But he was called before a Congressional committee to testify about his contacts with the fugitive Whitey, and his refusal was a major factor in his leaving his UMass post.
Howie Carr is a Boston gadfly. He’s been a newspaper columnist for decades, a TV personality for a while, and a talk-show host for about 10 years. He knows more dirt about Massachusetts politics than most anyone, and is loathed by most of the liberal movers and shakers in the Bay State. (He claims authorship of the nickname “Liveshot” for John Kerry, and is the originator of the “Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Chivas)” phrase, just to cite two of his bon mots.)
Howie is now breaking into the book biz with the sordid tale I’ve glanced over above. And he ought to know it all — Billy has nurtured grudges against Howie for decades, and Whitey threatened to have him killed on numerous occasions. (One of Whitey’s minions once pointed out to Howie the precise dumpster they’d stuff his body in.)
The Boston Herald, where Howie got his start and still hosts his columns today, published three excerpts from Howie’s book this week (due out Thursday). One part describes how Zip tipped off Whitey, and how he made his getaway. Another tells how the cops almost nailed the fugitive several times, but he slipped out of their grasp. And the third goes into sordid detail about Whitey’s secret life, which Carr says was as a gay hustler.
If Whitey (who is believed to be still alive, although there is a persistent theory that the FBI knows he’s dead and where his body is located) wasn’t too busy on the run, I would NOT want to be Howie’s health or life insurer.
Other cities can boast about their legendary corruptions. Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles all have their tales. But only in Boston could the feared leader of the mob count as his two biggest allies the president of the state senate and the agent commanding the local FBI — who also happen to be his brother and his childhood friend and neighbor.