BOSTON — Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was captured near Los Angeles after 16 years on the run that embarrassed the FBI and exposed the bureau’s corrupt relationship with its underworld informants.
After an international manhunt, the FBI finally caught the 81-year-old Bulger on Wednesday at an apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., along with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, just days after the government began circulating pictures of her on daytime TV in a new campaign to find the fugitive crime boss.
The arrest was based on a tip from the campaign, the FBI said without giving details.
FBI agents put the apartment under surveillance on Wednesday afternoon and, employing a ruse officials would not explain, lured Bulger out and arrested him without incident, authorities said. The couple were using the aliases Charles and Carol Gasko.
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.
A variety of guns and a large amount of cash were found in the apartment, the FBI said. Federal investigators declined to say how Bulger got enough money to live on.
“Although there are those who have doubted our resolve at times over the years, it has never wavered,” said Richard DesLauriers, agent in the charge of the FBI’s Boston office. “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.”
The model for the ruthless gangland boss played by Jack Nicholson in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie “The Departed,” Bulger was wanted for 19 murders. One 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.
“He left a trail of bodies,” said Tom Duffy, a retired state police major in Massachusetts. “You did not double-cross him. If you did, you were dead.”
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. But he fled in January 1995 when a retired agent tipped him off that he was about to be indicted.
That set off a major scandal at the FBI, which was found to have an overly cozy relationship with its underworld informants, protecting mob figures and allowing them to carry out their murderous business as long as they were supplying useful information.
A congressional committee, in a draft report issued in 2003, blasted 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.”
Patricia Donahue, wife of alleged Bulger victim Michael Donahue, said she could not believe it when she heard 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 pulled the trigger to end my husband’s life is going to go to jail,” said Donahue, 66.
Bulger lived on the third floor of the Princess Eugenia, a three-story, 28-unit building of one- and two-bedroom apartments three blocks from a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Neighbors said the couple did not stand out.
Barbara Gluck, who lived on the same floor as the couple, said she didn’t know their names but recognized them from photos on the Internet after their arrest. She said they lived in the apartment for “a good couple of years.”
Gluck described Greig as “sweet and lovely” and said they would have “girl talk” when they ran into each other in the building. Bulger became angry whenever he saw the two of them talking, and would say, “Stop talking to her,” Gluck said.
“He was nasty,” she added. At one point, Greig said Bulger had a “rage issue,” the neighbor said.
Bulger and Greig were scheduled to appear in Los Angeles federal court Thursday. He faces federal charges that include murder, conspiracy to commit murder, narcotics distribution, extortion and money laundering. Greig, 60, is charged with harboring a fugitive.
The arrest brings an end to a manhunt in which the FBI received reported sightings of Bulger and Greig from all over the U.S. and parts of Europe. In many of those sightings, investigators could not confirm whether it was Bulger.
On Monday, the FBI announced a new publicity campaign that asked people, particularly women, to be on the lookout for Greig. The 30-second ad started running Tuesday in 14 TV markets to which Bulger may have ties and was to air during programs popular with women roughly Greig’s age, including “The View” and “Regis and Kelly.”
The campaign pointed out that the blond-haired Greig had plastic surgery several times before going on the lam and was known to frequent beauty salons. It also noted that Greig, a former dental hygienist, had impeccable oral hygiene and perfect teeth as a result of monthly visits to the dentist.
The FBI was hoping that a patron or employee of a dental office, hospital, manicurist, beauty salon or other business would remember seeing Greig.
The hunt for Bulger touched the highest level of Massachusetts politics. Bulger’s younger brother, William, was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, leading the Massachusetts Senate for 17 years and later serving as president of the University of Massachusetts. He resigned the post in 2003 under political pressure.
William Bulger told a congressional committee that he spoke to his brother by phone shortly after he went on the run but had no idea about his whereabouts.
He declined to comment to The Boston Globe about his brother’s arrest.
“Whitey Bulger has left behind in the Boston area a lot of victims and a lot of pain, and I think for them and for justice in general, it’s a great day,” said William Christie, an attorney for the families of two alleged Bulger victims.
Bulger, nicknamed “Whitey” for his shock of bright platinum hair, grew up in a gritty South Boston housing project and went on to become Boston’s most notorious gangster.
Along with Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, he led the Winter Hill Gang, which ran loansharking, gambling and drug rackets in the Boston area. U.S. Attorney Donald K. Stern said in 2000 that the two were “responsible for a reign of intimidation and murder that spanned 25 years.”
Prosecutors said he went on the run after being warned by John Connolly Jr., a then-retired FBI agent in Boston who had made Bulger an informant 20 years earlier. Connolly was convicted of racketeering in 2002 for protecting Bulger and Flemmi, also an FBI informant.
Bulger provided the Boston FBI with information on his gang’s main rival in an era when bringing down the Mafia was one of the bureau’s top national priorities.
The Boston FBI office was sharply criticized when the extent of Bulger’s alleged crimes and his cozy relationship with the FBI became public in the late 1990s.
On Thursday, Bulger’s picture on the Ten Most Wanted list was spanned by a red banner that said “Captured.” Greig’s photo carried the same banner.
John Weiskopf, who lives across the street from Bulger’s Santa Monica building, said he recognized Bulger when he saw his photo on the Internet.
“I said, ‘Holy smokes,’” he said.
“From what I understand, these were really gracious, easygoing people,” Weiskopf said. “They don’t come out with fangs. They just blended in.”
Duffy, the retired state police major in Massachusetts, said people in South Boston wrongly saw Bulger as a Robin Hood figure who protected the neighborhood from criminals.
“There was this horrendous misconception that he kept drugs out of South Boston, when actually, he controlled the drug trade in South Boston,” Duffy said. “If you were a drug dealer, you didn’t operate in South Boston without paying him.”
For Bulger and his gang, “killing people was their first option,” he said.
Along with the federal charges in Boston, Bulger faces murder charges in Oklahoma in the killing of a businessman and in Miami in the killing of a gambling executive. Both slayings took place in the early 1980s. Both Florida and Oklahoma have the death penalty.