June 24, 2011
SOUTH BOSTON — The hunt for Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger is over. On Friday, he arrived in Boston and appeared before a crowded federal court in South Boston, the neighborhood from which he fled 16 years ago.
The notorious gangster was tracked down in Santa Monica, Calif., where he and his long-time girlfriend Catherine Greig lived under aliases of Charles and Carol Gasko. News of his capture both fascinated and enraged the residents of South Boston.
At Ottavio’s barbershop, John Simaris was the first customer of the day. Ottavio circled Simiris’ head expertly with a clipper and looked up at the television as Bulger stared from the screen.
Ottavio has been cutting hair in Southie for 35 years and was a witness Bulger’s outsized influence on this neighborhood — and the anti-drug-using demonstrations and gentrification that would follow his departure. Both the barber and his customer were about the capture. “Oh yeah. After all these years. Of course we’re surprised,” said Ottavio. “A lot of years went by. What’s he in his late 30’s?” He says to laughter.
James “Whitey” Bulger used to rule this community, and before he disappeared in 1995, sightings of the mobster occurred on a daily basis.
“I’ve seen him in the flesh. Broadway, Dorchester. Up around Cathy Grieg’s house on Fourth Street,” said Maureen Manning, walking her dog down Broadway.
Whitey Bulger was both admired and feared in this neighborhood. According to Michael Patrick McDonald, the author of Southie-centric memoir “All Souls”, Bulger had a reputation for taking care of South Boston.
“People had a need to believe that this guy is protecting us," McDonald said. "People always needed to believe that we were in the best place in the world and that we were being protected by the greatest people in the world.”
Yet Whitey Bulger reportedly made tens of thousands of dollars from the sale of heroin and cocaine, profiting from the drug that was hurting the streets.
To many longtime residents of South Boston, that's not news. “We all (knew),” said Maureen Manning. “What he did to some of the young girls. He was just not a nice character. Not at all.”
One woman, Debra Hussey was led to a house at 799 E. Third Street and murdered by Bulger and his henchmen. Another young woman named Debra Davis met a similar fate. That is what Maureen Manning remembers when she thinks about Whitey Bulger. “I’m glad he’s caught.”
But Michael Walker is ambivalent. “I kinda wish they never caught the guy,” Walker said.
Michael and his brother Pete Walker have followed the Bulger story and mythology all of their lives growing up here in Southie. Sitting in a pickup truck outside of Dunkin Donuts, Walker said he didn't think federal officials really wanted to catch the former FBI informant.
“The government’s no good. They could have gotten him when he was down on a train. Look that one up when they were looking for him on a train and the feds showed up and surrounded the train and never even approached him,” Walker said.
Pete Walker said he is convinced that with Bulger on their payroll as an informant for many years the FBI purposely botched the investigation into his whereabouts, including a sighting in Florida in 2009.
“They didn’t want ‘em, ya know. They had a sighting of him in Florida and when they went to look at ‘em, they said it was a Bulger out of New Jersey. They were looking for him in Paris and everywhere else. I don’t think they wanted him.”
The FBI is well aware of how its handling of the investigation and its inability, until now, to find White Bulger has been perceived in South Boston and elsewhere. Richard DesLaurier, Special Agent in charge of the FBI's Boston division, addressed the question earlier this week. “Although there are those that have doubted our resolve, it has never wavered. We followed every lead. We explored every possibility. And when those leads ran out we did not sit back and wait for the phone to ring,” DesLaurier said.
DesLaurier said a public service announcement released last week that aired on YouTube and other sites led to a tip, which led to the surveillance and capture of James “Whitey” Bulger in Santa Monica, California.
Regardless of exactly how it happened, the capture of "Whitey" Bulger closes a chapter in South Boston, a place that has already changed dramatically since James “Whitey” Bulger’s reign. Then, it was a closed neighborhood ruled by anti-bussing politicians and the Irish mob. Now, it's a mixed-race community of poor as well as upper-middle-class families.
At Ottavio’s Barbershop on Broadway, Ottavio said everyone could now relax. “He’s been on the run for 16 years. And now everybody can say, ‘Hey that’s it.’ It’s over. Done. They caught him. They caught Bin Laden. We’re all set.”
Subscribe to WGBH News Emails