Famous Boston gangster Whitey Bulger is now on trial in Boston. He’s accused of committing 19 murders, and has also been revealed as a long-time informant for the FBI. Reporter Kevin Cullen was the first to report that Bulger was an FBI informant years ago, and he kept up with the case. Brooke speaks to Cullen about Bulger, and about his new book “Whitey Bulger, America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice.”
Cops and Criminals - Howard Shore
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So here’s the question: Did Whitey Bulger rat on the Italian Mafia and other criminals, or did an FBI agent just make that up?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On trial in Boston is a mobster so rich with back story, it formed the basis of a Martin Scorsese film, the one that finally got him the Oscar. It’s called, The Departed.
FRANK COSTELLO: I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Jack Nicholson playing Frank Costello, who’s loosely based on Whitey Bulger, who played Robin Hood, while acting like John Gotti. In the trial now underway in Bulger's native Boston, his lawyers are trying to discredit the 700 pages of his informant file. He says the FBI didn't pay him for information, he paid the FBI for info. And, he says, he was no snitch, and he didn’t kill those two girls either, despite what his associates say. Actually, he's accused of 19 murders, but it's the snitch charge that really seems to rankle him, which kind of makes sense if you're from a South Boston neighborhood called Southie.
Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen, co-author of Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice, hails from in and around Southie. He was the first to break the story, years ago, that Bulger was an FBI informant, and he has kept on the story for decades.
KEVIN CULLEN: You know, if you’re in South Boston for any period of time in the seventies or eighties, you would learn about Whitey by osmosis. So I would have knew he was a gangster and all that probably when I was in my early- to mid-teens. So, now I think of it, Brooke, I started covering him when I went to the Boston Herald –
- in 1983, so I guess that makes it 30 years. He’s always been on my back burner, and this year he kinda jumped to the front burner after he got pinched, and Shelley and I decided to write the book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, set the scene for us here. What was the South Boston like that Bulger came out of?
KEVIN CULLEN: Well, it was working class, even though there were many other ethnic groups there, and particularly people from Eastern Europe. There would have been a lot of Lithuanians, Poles, Germans. And yet, the Irish ethos dominated. I mean, even Albanian kids in the public schools were forced to learn how to sing Irish songs. That’s the kind of place he grew up in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, by the time Whitey was a teenager, he was already a petty criminal. He'd been jailed in the fifties. He served part of his time at Alcatraz?
KEVIN CULLEN: He got involved in bank robbery, and in 1956 he was given hard time; he got 20 years, and he started in Atlanta. And then he was involved in an escape plot, and he was shipped off to Alcatraz, which turned out to be a boon to his criminal career because, you know, you and I, if we’re trying to impress people, we say we went to Stanford or we got our MBA at Wharton and that, you know, when you’re in criminal milieu, they go, wow, you went to Alcatraz, that’s very impressive!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
KEVIN CULLEN: He first got out of prison in 1965, and one of the reasons he got out early – he got out after nine years – is his brother Bill, by that time, was an up and coming politician, and he put together an amazing team of political people that helped get Whitey out.
Timing is everything. When he was locked up, there was a gang war here in Boston, mostly involving the Irish. And, by the time it was over, more than 60 men lay dead. Many others were imprisoned for the murders. And if, if Whitey had been on the street at that point, I think there was a good statistical chance that he either would have been a victim or a perpetrator. Instead, he emerged from prison to this barren landscape, this sort of - the wiseguy horizon was just wide open.
And he stepped in and he filled that void, and he rose very, very quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk a little bit more about his younger brother, Bill, who was a star student and who rose in political influence. They stayed really close.
KEVIN CULLEN: We saw this symbiotic relationship that Whitey, when he finally got out of the can in the mid-sixties, he took a great interest in his brother's political career. And anybody that he identified as a threat to it, he had no problem intimidating them. We talked to Kevin Weeks, one of his henchmen, who said that there was a state senator who was challenging Billy Bulger's authority on the floor of the State Senate and that Whitey instructed his henchman to call the state senator and say, “We’re going to kill you.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And where’s Billy now?
KEVIN CULLEN: When he left the State Senate, he was appointed as the president of the University of Massachusetts – actually, my alma mater, so there - but he was actually forced to resign by Mitt Romney, who was then the Governor of Massachusetts, because it was my co-author, Shelley Murphy who found some grand jury testimony that showed that Billy Bulger was saying one thing out publicly and another thing privately to the grand jury. Basically he said, I’m not gonna help anybody catch my brother.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
KEVIN CULLEN: And I hope they never catch my brother.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you write about Whitey, that he saw himself as a kind of mythical character.
KEVIN CULLEN: Mm. Even back in his early days, say like late teens, early twenties, he lived in a housing project where hardly anybody had a car, but he had a car ‘cause he’s a criminal. And he would take that car and he would drive around, and he would look for old ladies trundling down Broadway with their groceries, and he would leap out of the car, gallantly open the door, put them in the car, bring them home, carry their groceries up there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So he was the, the gangster with the heart of gold?
KEVIN CULLEN: Sure –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But he, but he wasn't, right?
KEVIN CULLEN: No, he was very conscious of creating that narrative that he was a gangster with scruples and helpin’ poor people with turkeys and blah-blah-blah. But, at the same time, for every act that he did, he did 400 acts of crime. He put knives to the necks of legitimate businessmen and said, “Give me your money. If you go to the FBI, I’ll know in five minutes, because that was true –
- because the FBI was protecting him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did Bulger become an informant for the FBI?
KEVIN CULLEN: Well, John Connolly was a, a young man that grew up in the same housing project as the Bulgers. The first time he really met and exchanged words with him, John would have been like, you know, six or seven years old, and he was in the local drugstore and Whitey Bulger – he’s in there, he’s the local hood, he’s 19, he’s got money ‘cause he’s stealing stuff, and he asked John Connolly and his little buddy, “Hey, what do you guys, you want an ice cream cone, I’ll buy you a cone.” And John Connolly looked up and said, “I, I can’t, my mother says I can’t take anything from strangers.”
And Whitey said to him, “Hey, we’re not strangers. You live around the corner, and our folks are from Ireland. What kind of ice cream cone do you want?” And Johnny Connolly said, “Vanilla.”
Not long after that, John was getting beat up by a much older boy, and Whitey came over and pulled the kid, the bigger kid off John Connolly and said, “Go pick on somebody your own size.” John doesn’t see him again until one afternoon in 1965, when he’s walking across the campus at Boston College.
But in that intervening years, Billy Bulger, the little brother of Whitey, became a big influence on John. Billy, you know, was this studious guy. He’s what we called a triple eagle. He went to Boston College High School, Boston College and Boston College Law School. And he was the formative influence on John Connolly, who did the same thing, and then he became an FBI agent. And that’s when he gets back into Whitey’s life. It would have been 1975. And Connolly asked Whitey Bulger to be his informant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He and another FBI informant, Steve Flemmi, became what you called “the epitome of lethal hypocrisy.”
KEVIN CULLEN: Well, what they did is the FBI put them together. They were actually within the same gang. The way they handled the Mafia cases, using guys like Bulger, murderers, to get at the Mafia, that was corrupt. And the FBI was fingering their own people. That was what’s amazing. They were actually getting their own people killed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in 1985, you join the Globe. Your best FBI source is John Connolly -
KEVIN CULLEN: John Connolly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who you knew from Southie.
KEVIN CULLEN: He actually approached me - I didn’t approach him – when I was working at the Herald, and he said, “Hey, I know your family, I’m an FBI agent. We should get together.” And he was a terrific source, and he knew everything. And I really liked him. He was really just a nice fun guy to be around. And yet, whenever I would ask him about Whitey - I had no idea that John was his handler - and I kept asking about Whitey and Stevie. And he said, oh, they’re good guys. I go, what do you mean? How can they be good guys, John? They’re killin’ people.
And the way he would explain it is, you know, there’s always gonna be gangsters, there’s always gonna be racketeers. But these guys are disciplined. They’re not cocaine Cowboys. They’re not gonna go out and kill women and children, blah-blah-blah.
Now, John’s telling me that. And then I have state police, DEA, Boston Police sources, who I trust inherently, and they’re telling me just the opposite. They’re saying, “These guys are bad, we believe he’s a rat. There's no explanation of him not being taken out, except that he's an informant for the FBI.”
So I had that all playing in my head when I went to Jack Driscoll, the editor of the Globe in 1988. And I said, “Jack,” I said, "I know I’m the law enforcement reporter. If I write this, I’ll never cover the FBI again. But I got to tell you, I think he's an informant, and every honest cop I know in town believes it too.” And that’s when Jack said, “I’m gonna put you with the Spotlight Team and we’ll get to the bottom of this."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Globe's investigative team.
KEVIN CULLEN: Yeah. The irony is we had no idea how corrupt the relationship was. We did not know, in 1988, that the FBI was actively assisting Bulger in targeting and murdering people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the series is about to come out, and you get a call.
KEVIN CULLEN: I got a call at the Globe office from an FBI agent named Tom Daly, who worked in organized crime. He said that a gangster called him and said, “Hey, the Globe’s working on this story, they’re gonna say Whitey’s an informant, and that that’s not true, and if, if they put that in the paper, he’d think nothing about clipping ‘em.” Now, this is where the FBI agent –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clipping you.
KEVIN CULLEN: Clipping me. That’s when the FBI agent said, “Especially you, Kevin, you live there,” meaning South Boston. My wife and I lived in South Boston."
Now, the reality is that gangster was a protected witness. He would have no idea that I lived in South Boston.
The FBI agent knew I lived in South Boston.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
KEVIN CULLEN: And they were trying to scare – they did a very good job. I was scared. [LAUGHS] So before the series was published, we moved nine stops down on the Red Line.
We moved to Harvard Square to a hotel, and I’m like saying, “These wise guys from Southie, they wouldn’t be caught dead in Harvard Square. They wouldn’t find us there.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Eventually, Bulger’s relationship with the FBI crumbled. He fled in 1994.
KEVIN CULLEN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s because the FBI tipped him off –
KEVIN CULLEN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - that he might be arrested. And so, he went on the lam for 16 years.
KEVIN CULLEN: Yeah, Whitey and Teresa took off, Teresa Stanley, one of his two paramours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
KEVIN CULLEN: Whitey stayed on the run for about a month with Teresa, before she said, “I’m not livin’ like this, and please take me home.” And that’s when he traded in the older model for the younger model.
And he got his mistress, Cathy Greig. And she ended up spending that full 16 years on the run with him, before he was captured in June of 2011, living in a rent controlled apartment two blocks from the beach, in sunny Santa Monica.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did they catch him?
KEVIN CULLEN: They could've caught him the first year, but the same organized crime squad from the FBI that was corrupted by him was put in charge of the search. The idea that these guys wanted to find him is ludicrous because all he could do is point the finger at them. So he's on the run. And then finally they put a multiagency task force together. But the trail had gone cold.
In the spring of 2011, the task force was down to just an FBI agent named Phil Torsney and a deputy US marshal named Neil Sullivan. The problem with finding Whitey is that Whitey looked like 20 million old Irish American guys. There were sightings of him all over the world. But these guys had the idea, why don’t we focus on Cathy?
So a woman, an Icelandic woman is sitting in her apartment in, in Reykjavik, and she sees the CNN report on CNN International, and she goes, “I know them, that’s Charlie and Carol Gasko. And she knew them because she used to spend part of the year in Santa Monica. And she actually was pretty famous. She was a - if you remember those ads in the seventies, “Noxzema, Take it off, take it all off,” she was the model in that.
CATHY GREIG: Nothing takes it off like Noxzema Medicated Shave.
[NOXZEMA MUSIC, UP & UNDER]
KEVIN CULLEN: And she appeared on the Love Boat and things like that, you know, married like a famous Icelandic rock musician and all that kind of lifestyle. So that’s why she’s in Santa Monica half the year. Cathy was a big animal lover. Actually, so was Whitey. Whitey liked animals much more than human beings.
He’s much nicer to animals than human beings. And so, they, they kind of adopted a stray cat. Cathy would feed the cat every day, and Whitey would stand there dutifully aside her, and Anna would always come up and talk to them, because she was a cat lover. She actually wrote a book about a cat.
That’s how she was able to put them together. She called from Reykjavik. She called the FBI in LA. But then the LA office pushed it to the task force in Boston. Neil was able to track her down, and as soon as she said, “She was very nice, but he was kind of nasty” -
- that’s when Neil says, “That sounds like Whitey and Cathy.”
Rich Teahan, who’s the supervisor of the task force here, called the FBI in, in LA and asked them to check it out. And it turns out they did the right thing. They got about – and he refused to get down on his knees when he was surrounded by this phalanx of FBI agents and LAPD. And they’re pointing guns at him, said, “Get down or we’ll shoot.” And he goes, “I’m not kneeling down, I’m not kneeling down.” And everybody thought, when they heard that, that he wanted to die in a blaze of glory. But Whitey wrote in his letter that the reason he didn’t kneel down is that when he looked at the garage floor, it was covered with like oil and gas.
And he had white chinos on. He didn’t want to stain them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] A rather low key end to –
KEVIN CULLEN: Yeah, “anticlimactic” I think is the word we’ve used. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, how well do you think the Scorsese film, called The Departed, in 2007 –
KEVIN CULLEN: Mm-hmm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which was supposedly a remake of a Hong Kong film, depicted Bulger and Connolly, because we're told that's what the story is loosely based on?
KEVIN CULLEN: I thought it was a brilliant film as a piece of filmmaking. And Billy Monahan, the guy that wrote the screenplay, is from Boston. I mentioned that earlier. When you grow up in this town, you think you know Whitey by osmosis. We know that Whitey did go see the movie at Santa Monica. I think Whitey would have been appalled by that ‘cause Whitey is extremely vain and, to this day, was doing 115 pushups in his cell. He’s gonna be 84 in, in September. And he would not let himself go like [LAUGHS] Jack Nicholson!
But I think Nicholson captured the menace. You know, Whitey was a vicious guy. I think the public record is pretty clear about that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about the depiction of John Connolly, the FBI agent who ultimately lied for him and covered up his murders?
KEVIN CULLEN: Well, John, it, it’s funny, and when you - we talk about this , this story really is a story of overweening loyalty. And, at the end of the day here, as the Irish are fond of saying, John Connolly is really the only standup guy. [LAUGHS] Now, I say that knowing that he took money from gangsters. I say that knowing that he got people killed. But he also kept his mouth shut, which is amazing when you think about it, because everybody else rolled, the gangsters who claim that loyalty is everything, especially Whitey, who claims loyalty is everything. He's been loyal to no one but himself.
I mean, Teresa Stanley was with him all those years. She died last year, Teresa, and she was a lady. She ended up spending the last few years of her life carrying heavy trays, working as a waitress at the South Boston Convention Center.
You know, Whitey dragged his own brother Jack Bulger, who had been the clerk magistrate of the Boston Juvenile Court – when Whitey was on the run, he dragged Jackie into the conspiracy to get phony IDs. Jackie was convicted of a felony and lost his pension. So much for loyalty. Loyalty for Whitey went one way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where’s John Connolly now?
KEVIN CULLEN: John Connolly is serving 40 years in prison. He was convicted in Miami in 2008 for helping Whitey kill a, a potential informant. It isn’t even somebody who had become an informant. And Connolly, by all accounts, is gonna die in prison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any resolution for you in this book? The trial of Bulger has begun, but the larger issue of FBI complicity isn't going to be resolved, thereby.
KEVIN CULLEN: No, it isn't. And I don't think the culture of the FBI has changed that much, to be honest. I think they still treat other law enforcement agencies as lessers. We’re still struggling here in Boston about what they knew about the Tsarnaev brothers, who were behind the Boston Marathon bombings. The FBI had information about these guys and never shared it with local law enforcement, which is sort of par for the course.
And you'll see the big shots get out there and say, “Oh, we’ve never been closer. We've never been more cooperative with each other.” That's baloney! [LAUGHS] I, I know the real cops. I know the real detectives. I know the DEA agents. They don't trust the FBI. That's never changed. And I think the Whitey Bulger case exposed that, to its worst element. And I don't think it’s changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin, thank you very much.
KEVIN CULLEN: Oh, thanks Brooke. I had fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin Cullen is a reporter for the Boston Globe and co-author, with Shelley Murphy, of Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice.
[THE DEPARTED CLIP]:
JACK NICHOLSON AS FRANK COSTELLO: When you decide to be somethin’, you can be it. That's what they don't tell you in the church. When I was your age they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Olivia Weitz and Molly Buckley, and it was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.