SANTA MONICA, Calif. — As the FBI chased leads on two continents, Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger spent nearly all of his 16 years on the lam in this quiet seaside city, passing himself off as just another elderly retiree, albeit one who kept a .357 Magnum and more than 100 rounds of ammunition in his modest apartment.
Bulger — the FBI’s most-wanted man and a feared underworld figure linked to 19 murders — was captured Wednesday after one of the biggest manhunts in U.S. history. His undoing may have been his impeccably groomed girlfriend.
Earlier this week, after years of frustration, the FBI put out a series of daytime TV announcements with photos of Bulger’s blond live-in companion, Catherine Greig. The announcements pointed out that Greig was known to frequent beauty salons and have her teeth cleaned once a month.
Two days later, the campaign produced a tip that led agents to the two-bedroom apartment three blocks from the Pacific Ocean where Bulger and Greig lived, authorities said. The FBI would not give any details about the tip.
The 81-year-old boss of South Boston’s vicious Winter Hill Gang — a man who authorities say would not hesitate to shoot someone between the eyes — was lured outside the building and captured without resistance. Greig, 60, was also arrested.
Neighbors were stunned to learn they had been living in the same building as the man who was the model for Jack Nicholson’s ruthless crime boss in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie “The Departed.”
The arrest closed one chapter in a case that scandalized the FBI.
Bulger fled in 1995 after a retired FBI agent who had recruited him as a government informant tipped him off that he was about to be indicted. Soon it was discovered that the Boston FBI had a corrupt relationship with its underworld informants, protecting mob figures for decades and allowing them to commit murders as long as they were supplying useful information.
“Although there are those who have doubted our resolve at times over the years, it has never wavered,” Richard DesLauriers, agent in the charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said after Bulger’s capture. “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.”
While Bulger’s capture is the end of a long, frustrating search for the FBI, it could expose the bureau to even more scandal.
One of Bulger’s lieutenants testified in 2002 that Bulger boasted that he had corrupted six FBI agents and more than 20 Boston police officers, keeping them loyal by stuffing envelopes with cash at Christmastime.
“If he starts to talk, there will be some unwelcome accountability on the part of a lot of people inside law enforcement,” said retired Massachusetts state police Maj. Tom Duffy. “Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t want my pension contingent on what he will say at this point.”
On Thursday, more than a dozen FBI agents carried out bags of evidence from the Santa Monica apartment while neighbors and even some tourists from Boston watched. Authorities said they seized a variety of weapons, including the Magnum, and a large amount of cash.
The FBI “just started a new campaign in the Boston press a couple days ago. We were all laughing how nothing would come of it,” said Ed Dente, who was vacationing from Boston.
The new FBI announcements, which targeted 14 areas where agents thought Bulger might be, did not include the Los Angeles area. Instead, they were broadcast in San Diego, San Francisco and a dozen other locations.
Retired Massachusetts state police Col. Tom Foley, who investigated Bulger for decades, said he never believed the various reported Bulger sightings around the world, even the 2002 sighting in London that the FBI said was confirmed. Foley said it was widely believed that the FBI didn’t actively search for the mobster, at least initially.
“Apparently, they should have spent more time in this country looking for him than gallivanting overseas,” Foley said.
Damon Katz, chief counsel for the FBI in Boston, wouldn’t comment on Bulger’s living in the same place for almost the entire time he was a fugitive.
On Thursday afternoon, Bulger appeared with his girlfriend in federal court in Los Angeles and was ordered returned to Massachusetts to face charges after he waived his right to a hearing.
Balding, with a full white beard and wire-rimmed glasses, Bulger clutched court documents against his chest in court and smiled as he was led away by law officers.
He faces federal charges that include murder, conspiracy to commit murder, narcotics distribution, extortion and money laundering. Greig was charged with harboring a fugitive.
Many people in the Southern California neighborhood where the crime boss lived were not surprised that Bulger could blend in in Santa Monica, a densely populated beachside suburb of Los Angeles where aging, ponytailed hippies, bike-riding environmentalists, Hollywood actors and others regularly rub shoulders with retirees, but usually exchange no more than pleasantries.
“This is the perfect place to hide,” said Maura McCormick, who lives in an apartment building next door. “Nobody bothers anyone here.”
Seth Rosenzweig, a writer who lives down the hall from Bulger’s apartment, said the fugitive, who was partial to baseball caps and dark sunglasses, kept a low profile. He would divert his eyes every time he got into the elevator with other people.
The apartment’s managers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the couple, who went by the names Charles and Carol Gasko, had lived there 15 years and were ideal tenants who always paid their rent on time and in cash. Santa Monica property records show the apartment had a rent-controlled rate of $1,145 a month.
Catalina Schlank, who has lived in the building for 35 years, said she was friendly with Greig but not so much so with Bulger, whom she called a recluse. “They were a handsome couple, but they were kind of mysterious,” she said.
The couple didn’t own a car, choosing to walk everywhere. That’s easy to do in their neighborhood, just down the street from the beach.
Schlank said Greig would often walk to a market before dawn, bringing back the couple’s groceries in a shopping cart and stopping off to drop Schlank’s newspaper at her door, sometimes with some fruit she had picked up.
The apartment managers also recalled that Bulger seemed concerned for the well-being of others, once giving a building worker his flashlight because he was worried about her crossing the road after she finished her shift at night.
Bulger had a $2 million reward on his head and rose to No. 1 on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list after Osama bin Laden was killed.
He was wanted for 19 murders, including one in which the victim was shot between the eyes in a parking lot at his country club in Oklahoma. Another was gunned down in broad daylight on a South Boston street to prevent him from talking about the killing in Oklahoma. Others were taken out for running afoul of Bulger’s gambling enterprises.
At the same time he was boss of the Winter Hill Gang, South Boston’s murderous Irish mob, Bulger was an FBI informant, supplying information about the rival New England Mafia. A congressional committee in 2003 harshly criticized the FBI for its use of Bulger and other criminals as informants, calling it “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.”
The retired agent accused of tipping off Bulger, John Connolly Jr., was convicted of racketeering in 2002 for protecting Bulger and another mob informant in the Winter Hill Gang, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi. Connolly was also found guilty of murder in Miami for helping to set in motion a mob hit in 1982 against a business executive.
Patricia Donahue, wife of alleged Bulger victim Michael Donahue, said she could not believe the news of Bulger’s capture.
“I actually never thought I would see this day. I thought the man was dead,” she said. Her husband, a construction worker and truck driver, was killed in 1982 in a hit on an underworld figure who was cooperating with investigators. Donahue had given the target of the hit a ride home that day.
“I am very satisfied to know that the person who pulled the trigger to end my husband’s life is going to go to jail,” Donahue said.
While some investigators thought Bulger was probably moving around constantly while on the run, Massachusetts state police Detective Lt. Stephen Johnson said he wasn’t surprised that Bulger and Greig stayed put in California.
“It’s very hard to be living on the lam, and when you’re that age, you probably want to enjoy it,” he said. “I think he felt very comfortable there. It may have been a quality-of-life decision. He’d rather live in the U.S. and take his chances on getting caught than go to Europe or a Third World country and suffer conditions that weren’t so pleasant.”
Associated Press writers John Rogers, Greg Risling and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Brian Melley in Santa Monica, Calif.; and Steve LeBlanc, Denise Lavoie, Jay Lindsay and Mark Pratt in Boston contributed to this report.