Boston reporters uncover Whitey Bulger’s criminal career in new book
FILE - In these 1984 file photos originally released by the FBI, New England organized crime figure James "Whitey" Bulger is shown. Bulger, a notorious Boston gangster on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list for his alleged role in 19 murders, has been captured near Los Angeles after living on the run for 16 years, authorities said Wednesday June 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Federal Bureau of Investigation, File)
FILE - This June 23, 2011 file booking photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows James "Whitey" Bulger. A new judge has been named to preside over the trial of reputed Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger a day after the previous judge was removed to eliminate any appearance of bias. The clerk of the federal court Friday, March 15, 2013 announced the appointment of U.S. District Judge Denise J. Casper. (AP Photo/U.S. Marshals Service, File)
WHITEY BULGER: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice By Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy. Norton. 478 pp. $26.95. ISBN 978-0393087727 What do Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Peter Facinelli (he of Twilight fam
Even if you don’t know their credentials, it takes about five seconds of chatting with Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy to understand why they’re uniquely qualified to write about Whitey Bulger. There’s just no mistaking those thick Boston accents.
“You have to understand South Boston to understand Whitey Bulger,” said Cullen, who will be at Red River Theatres along with Murphy tonight to talk about their new book, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice. “One of the reasons our book is the best book that’s been written is that we both grew up here. I was born in South Boston; my entire maternal side is still there. . . . I think we bring an authenticity to it.”
Indeed, South Boston is a living, breathing character in the 478-page book, which follows Bulger from his childhood in one of the nation’s first housing projects to his climactic capture in 2011 after a lifetime of skirting the law. It was in those insular South End projects, hotbeds of family pride and hell-bent loyalty, that Bulger cut his teeth as a career criminal. And it was the connections he made there that allowed him to elude justice for decades.
Cullen, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has worked for the Boston Globe since 1985, was the first to question those connections while working the crime beat back in the late ’80s. He sensed something fishy every time he talked with John Connolly, an FBI agent who had lived around the corner from Bulger and is now serving jail time for racketeering. “Whenever I asked Connolly about Bulger and (Stephen) Flemmi, he would make excuses for them and say they were good guys,” Cullen said. “It made no sense to me that the bureau was always making excuses for them. There was no ex planation for why they were still out there except that they were rats.”
Exposing that relationship was a gutsy move by Cullen, who got a call from another FBI agent that Bulger was likely to kill him if he went through with the story.
Cullen viewed the call as “a ham-fisted attempt to scare them off the story,” but briefly relocated his family out of South Boston nonetheless.
Both Cullen and Murphy, who first met as young reporters at the Boston Herald and later became colleagues at the Globe, have spent a large part of their careers covering Bulger’s escapades. Murphy has covered every criminal and civil trial that’s connected
to him and has followed him on the run from the law. “I was there when they were digging up the bodies,” said Murphy, who broke the story that a former Miss Iceland was the tipster who brought law enforcement agents to the 81-year-old’s Santa Monica apartment complex.
After Bulger’s arrest, Cullen and Murphy reflected on their collective knowledge of Bulger and reached the logical conclusion: a book. Of course, they were hardly the first ones to entertain such an idea. “There have been so many books written, we wondered if there was really enough interest,” Cullen said.
To their pleasant surprise, their proposal got bids from five major publishers. After settling on W.W. Norton Company, and with the trial fast approaching, the pair embarked on a whirlwind, eight-month mission to tell the Whitey Bulger story thoroughly and authoritatively.
“We jumped at the chance to tell it as we saw it. We didn’t want it to just be a compilation of what’s already been reported,” said Murphy, who interviewed dozens of Bulger’s friends, family members and associates and visited the places that had left their mark on the infamous gangster, including his suffocating prison cell in Alcatraz.
Along with a rich sense of place and a great deal of insight on the ganster-era FBI, the book paints a complex portrait of Bulger, a hardened criminal and cold-blooded killer whose carefully maintained persona hid deep inconsistencies and insecurities. It shows him hiking in the White Mountains with his family, visiting a psychologist and eating a lavish dinner at the Ritz. It tells of how he put a gun to someone’s head and blew his brains out then went to take a nap, and of how he had to turn away when a friend euthanized a sick puppy.
The book also includes new information Cullen and Murphy unearthed during their research, including dozens of letters he wrote to a man named Richard Sunday, who’d done time in Alcatraz with him in the ’50s.
“The reason he (Sunday) shared them with us is he felt they showed another side of Whitey,” Murphy said. “It’s the first time we get inside Whitey’s mind and how he thinks.”
What the book avoids is the temptation to psychoanalyze this cryptic and conniving character, whose trial begins in Boston next month. “The idea that you could psychoanalyze someone that you’ve never talked to . . . it’s crazy,” said Cullen, who tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to get an interview with Bulger, who despises the media, the Globe and Cullen himself.
Cullen and Murphy were also careful not to turn the book into “crime porn,” hovering over all the juicy details of the murders. Quite the opposite, they tried to flesh out the victims’ stories in ways that hadn’t been done in the past. “We feel very proud that we gave the victims a voice,” Murphy said.
Tonight’s event, a joint venture between Gibson’s Bookstore and Red River Theatres, begins at 5:15 with a reception in the screening room, followed by a Q&A with the authors at 6 p.m. and a screening of the The Departed at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for the Q&A and film, and $40 for the full event, including reception. For information and tickets, visit redrivertheatres.org.