SACO, Maine — Charlie Berg’s Facebook status on Thursday was simply “You’re welcome, America.”
This may be one of the few times where that sort of statement isn’t totally outrageous.
Throughout May, Berg, president of Blackfly Media, and Angela Helton, president of Northeast Media Associates, collaborated on a video public service announcement project for the FBI.
The first of its kind for the agency, the PSA was the latest drive to bring in fugitive gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who has been on the run since 1995, wanted on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Early Thursday morning, the FBI announced Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, had been captured in California, less than 36 hours after the PSA produced here in Maine had begun airing in television markets across the country. A tip generated from the PSAs led agents to the mobster and his moll.
This is the second time in recent months a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list has been captured or killed. The other was Osama bin Laden. While the agency doesn’t rank who is most wanted on the list, the reward for bin Laden was $25 million. The reward in the Bulger case is $2 million. There’s one fugitive with a $1 million price on his head, and the others offer $100,000 each.
Berg, who also works as a news photographer with WCSH in Portland, got a text message from a friend just after midnight, alerting him to the capture. Helton said she was still in bed when her husband read her the headline from Yahoo.com Thursday morning.
“I was like — you’ve got to be kidding me,” said Helton, a Presque Isle native and former TV journalist who founded her own media relations firm six years ago. “I jumped out of bed — my phone was blowing up, my Facebook was blowing up.”
It all started in May when Helton got a call from a Washington, D.C.-based friend who works for the FBI. The friend was wondering if Helton might be interested in working on a video project for the agency, but wouldn’t reveal any details.
“Of course! Hello! I’ve always wanted to be in the FBI,” said Helton, adding she has drawn her inspiration from the Alias TV show.
But as a journalist and later as a PR professional, she admits she had a bit of a big mouth, so a career as an agent wasn’t in the cards. That wasn’t a problem in working on the Bulger case, though. Helton reached out to Berg to work on the project, and they were sworn to secrecy.
Besides the personal connections with the FBI, both speculate they were chosen to work on the PSA because they were away from Boston, in Maine. The FBI didn’t want the work they were doing to leak out to the media; didn’t want to somehow alert Bulger of the new push with the planned PSA.
Rather than rent studio space in Portland, the FBI agents preferred to work in Berg’s Saco home — clustered around an impromptu editing suite set up in the dining room.
Initially, as the dark cars and serious agents came into the housing development, it was a bit intimidating, said Berg, sort of like the movie “Men in Black.” But that only lasted for about 30 seconds, and they started working on the project.
“We were like good friends by the first time they left here — 14 hours later,” said Berg.
The FBI had brought many files of pictures and surveillance videos of Bulger and Greig from over the years. Two agents who came up to work on the PSA and two FBI media specialists spent several long, 11- to 14-hour days in Berg’s home. Helton and Berg put together the video and worked with the agents to pick out the best photos, improve the script and put together a PSA that would capture the most attention on TV.
The FBI has used billboards, Times Square displays, fliers and other methods to advertise a search for a fugitive, said Helton, but this was the first PSA. The agents working on the project would take finished video back to their superiors, run it up and down the chain and email over revisions. Eventually, it met with approval and went live.
Both Portland-based Blackfly Media and Northeast Media Associates are small businesses. Northeast Media is a one-person shop, and Berg has one partner, Jason Nelson, chief photographer at WGME in Portland. Much of the work both firms have done has been corporate. Blackfly has done work for iRobot, Boeing and Mitsubishi; Northeast Media has clients including Modern Pest Services Inc., Downeast Energy and others.
Helton and Berg had worked together before on other projects, such as Web videos for the Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau and spots for Madgirl World. But nothing like the FBI project. Both are award-winning TV journalists as well.
After the work was done, the two talked about whether the FBI would ever catch Bulger, the 81-year-old fugitive who has been an embarrassment for the agency for decades.
“They’ve been trying everything for 16 years to find Whitey Bulger,” said Berg. “Who knew they’d do it, on this computer, from Saco, Maine.”