Whitey Bulger is dead. The infamous South Boston criminal was killed in a West Virginia prison where he'd recently been transferred. Dick Lehr, formerly of the Boston Globe, authored several books about Whitey Bulger, including the seminal "Black Mass," which was co-authored with fellow former Boston Globe journalist Gerard O'Neill. Lehr spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about Bulger. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: The Boston Globe, the paper that you and your co-author worked for, is reporting that Bulger may have been killed at the hands of an inmate with ties to the Mafia. Does that surprise you?
Lehr: If that’s true, not really. The Mafia and elephants, I guess, never forget. This goes way back. Whitey Bulger and his cohort, his sidekick, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi for years were informants for the Boston FBI office, and especially Flemmi, gave them tons of intelligence about the Mafia that led to the undoing of a crime family.
Howard: The Italian crime family, and creating a vacuum that allowed the Irish Mafia, including Bulger's gang, to fill that void.
Lehr: Absolutely, it was in the early 1980’s that the FBI, with Bulger’s help, took out the Angiulo crime family. And from then on, Bulger was the most powerful underworld boss in the city, in the region.
Howard: And one of the reasons he had so much power was because the FBI had a deal with him, and they pretty much look the other way when he committed crimes.
Lehr: The FBI and their corrupt so-called "unholy alliance" with Bulger enabled Bulger to basically have a license to kill here in Boston.
Howard: And his handler John Connolly grew up with Whitey Bulger and with his brother Billy Bulger, who of course went on to become Massachusetts senate president and head of the UMass system.
Lehr: The lead corrupt agent in the band of agents who in effect became members of Bulger's gang, John Connolly, as you mentioned, grew up in South Boston. And it all began this unholy alliance, through personal relationships. That was the leverage, that was the way in.
Howard: And of course it was John Connolly, the corrupted FBI agent, who tipped Bulger off. He managed to escape and ended up on the 10 most-wanted list. And it took years to get him back. He was only captured not that long ago, in California. He was subsequently tried and convicted, and was serving time in prison for 11 murders, but he was accused of many more.
Lehr: Yes, I mean the 11 are the ones they made. But I don't think anyone in law enforcement or in the neighborhoods think that was all of it. I think what really elevates Bulger to his place in the history of American crime is this connection with the FBI. Because you talk about famous gangsters in American history, whether it's Dillinger, John Gotti more recently. None of those guys, for all the money and all the murders and mayhem they created, none of them did what Bulger did. And that in effect brought the FBI to its knees — where you had a band of agents working for him.
Howard: Let me ask you about that band of FBI agents. Only John Connolly ended up serving time. What happened to the rest of the FBI agents who were corrupted by this?
Lehr: Well Connolly’s supervisor, an agent by the name of John Morris, and that's a key thing to make this corrupt alliance work, is to take out and compromise the supervisor, John Morris became a government witness, so that spared him prison time. And then, as far as the others, they've been identified in court hearings by name and in testimony. But somehow the FBI and the government seemed satisfied with Connolly and Morris, and I don't think we'll ever know the whole story, how deep and dark it was and how high up it might have gone. The FBI tries to spin it as basically two bad apples in the bureau. But you know, the records and the history at this point demonstrates that it was far broader and deeper than that.