Thursday, June 23, 2011
It's a little weird that Whitey Bulger has been caught so soon after Osama bin Laden was killed. The two men were at the top of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for well over ten years (bin Laden's tenure began right after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998). You couldn't walk into a post office without seeing a poster with both of their pictures prominently displayed. (I always found those posters far more interesting than the displays of stamp designs.)
Bulger was finally arrested yesterday with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, after having been on the run since 1995. It had long been speculated that the two were in Europe somewhere, as Bulger was reported to have deposited cash and jewelry in safety deposit boxes all over the Continent. But it turns out they had been hiding in plain sight for fifteen years in a apartment complex three blocks from the beach in Santa Monica.
It will be interesting, when the photographs of the two come out, to see whether they had had as much plastic surgery as they were rumored to have had.
Bulger is charged with 19 murders; it's a fairly safe bet that he is guilty of many more. Reading his biography on Wikipedia is a fascinating trip through the 20th century crime. He was first arrested in 1943, at age 14, and was involved in crime for pretty much the rest of his life, except for the four years he spent in the Air Force, from 1948 to 1952. (He spent time in the stockade after committing numerous assaults, and was also arrested for going AWOL, but still managed to obtain an honorable discharge.) After being convicted of armed robbery in 1956, Bulger was actually incarcerated for a while at Alcatraz, when it was still a federal penitentiary.
After being released from prison in 1965, Bulger rose rapidly through the ranks of organized crime in South Boston, mostly by killing his rivals -- as well as some of his allies -- but also by informing on many of them to the FBI. Eventually he rose to become head of the Winter Hill Gang, a much feared crime group in South Boston.
The Jack Nicholson character in The Departed, Frank Costello, was based on Bulger.
Still, hearing about Bulger being arrested now feels a little like it felt to hear that bin Laden had been killed: it's a little surreal. It's just been so long since Bulger was anything but a disembodied face on a wanted poster that it's almost like hearing about a fictional character coming to life.
Bulger is 81, and evidently in poor health now. Bulger has now been remanded to Massachusetts, a state without the death penalty. But given the average amount of time that the average prisoner spends on death row, it's highly unlikely he ever would have been executed anyway.
In The Departed, Costello was shot dead while still in his prime. Given the number of people he killed, that would have been a more appropriate ending for Bulger as well.