With some fanfare and public notice, the FBI announced this past week it had taken Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger into custody after 16 years on the lam.
It was a big news story. Bulger’s mug shot has been gathering dust near the top of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list a long time.
The notorious hoodlum and former head of Boston’s infamous Winter Hill Gang wasn’t discovered wearing a clever disguise on a distant tropical island, but hiding in plain sight with his girlfriend in Santa Monica. He appeared in better-than-fair shape for an 81-year-old whose hard, violent life has included a bloody hand in 19 murders, according to authorities.
But that’s not really what makes Bulger’s capture a big deal. It’s not what he did, but what he knows that threatens to rock Boston law enforcement so many years after he slipped into obscurity. After entering into a secret source agreement with the Boston office of the FBI, Bulger killed and ordered murders with the knowledge of his handlers in what has become one of the most embarrassing chapters in FBI history.
And wouldn’t you know there’s a Las Vegas angle to all this. Several, in fact, but one is particularly close to the hearts of retired Metro detectives Chuck Lee and Dave Hatch.
Back in October 1969, Lee and his partner Jimmy Duggan were working homicide when they rolled on a call of a body found on the edge of town. The deceased had taken three bullets to the head at close range. The corpse turned out to be the remains of Peter Poulos, a small-time Boston hoodlum who had been running with big-time hit men Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi and Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemmi. The three men were suspects in the murder of William Bennett.
When Lee and Duggan made a positive identification of Poulos, and fingerprints linked Flemmi and Salemmi to the murder, the cops ran smack into the Boston two-step. No matter how hard they tried, the FBI wasn’t interested in lifting a finger to assist them.
Although murder warrants for Flemmi and Salemmi had been issued in Las Vegas in the Poulos murder, “everything came to a sudden stop,” Lee once told me. Attempts to interview the suspects were denied. When a try was made to extradite, it was as if the suspects were residing in a foreign country that simply didn’t speak the language of the Las Vegas street cops.
Years later, as a Metro cold case detective, Hatch discovered why. Flemmi was an FBI informant with a get-out-of-jail-free card in the same office that recruited Bulger, whose brother, William Bulger, was one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts.
Decades later, when the FBI’s corrupt informant program surfaced with Flemmi and Bulger as its central figures, the public learned why justice had been so hard to find.
With Bulger in custody in Boston, some believe this will close one of the most blatant examples of corruption in the bureau’s history. Perhaps the stain that penetrated deep into the fabric of the FBI’s credibility will at last be removed, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Back in 1995, Bulger fled Boston ahead of a racketeering indictment, and the consensus is friends in the bureau tipped him off. Maybe now we’ll find out just how he got so lucky.
Maybe we’ll also find out the names of any other FBI agents and Boston police officials who were on his payroll at a time he was busy running rackets and having adversaries executed.
And who would be surprised to learn Bulger made backdoor deals with politicians and business owners throughout the Boston area? You name it, Bulger supposedly had a piece of the action.
As one retired Massachusetts state police official told The Associated Press, “If he starts to talk, there will be some unwelcome accountability on the part of a lot of people inside law enforcement.”
Besides, evil old Whitey Bulger is 81.
What are they going to do to him now?
He already beat them at their own game.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.