Arrest Of Bulger, Former Folk Hero, (Mostly) Welcome News

By Jess Bidgood

June 23, 2011

This combo of headshots shown during a publicity campaign to locate the fugitive mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. (AP Photo/FBI)

BOSTON — In South Boston's Ottavio's Barbershop, there was only one thing to talk about on Thursday.

"He's been on the run for, you know, how long? 16 years? Everybody can say it's over, it's done," said Ottavio.

Early Thursday morning, the FBI tweeted that they had captured Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger and his girlfriend Catherine Elizabeth Greig. Both had been on the run since 1995, when Bulger learned he was about to be indicted.

Bulger is the infamous Boston mob boss who ran the Winter Hill Gang, a Boston outfit involved in drugs, loan-sharking, extortion and murder. He was on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list because of his alleged role in 19 murders — 11 of which are said to have been committed while he was an informant for the FBI. 

Residences at the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development, formerly as the Old Harbor Housing project, are seen in South Boston on Thursday. Bulger once lived in the Old Harbor Housing project.

"In Boston, the most dangerous, the most feared criminals were Whitey Bulger and his partner in crime, Steve Fleming," said Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, A 30-year-veteran of the Whitey Bulger story, to WGBH's The Takeaway.

Just this week, Kevin Weeks, a former Bulger confidante who began cooperating with the FBI after Bulger fled, told New England Cable News he didn't think this arrest would ever happen. "He’s the most dangerous 81-year-old you know. I honestly think that 50 years from now there’ll be a sighting of him and Elvis at McDonalds somewhere, someone will say they saw them. I don’t think they’ll ever find him," Weeks said.

To some in South Boston, the news was as resonant as that of another high-profile capture last month.

"They caught him, they caught Bin Laden, we're all set now!" Ottavio said.

Maureen Manning, a 20-year resident of South Boston, said it was high time Bulger was captured. 

"What he did to some of the young girls, not a nice character. I’m glad he’s caught," Manning said, referencing accounts by multiple sources that Bulger had abused young women and addicted them to drugs.

The sense of excitement and relief expressed by many Bostonites represents a marked change from the way Bulger was once viewed. "Hard to describe what a mythological figure Whitey Bulger was to my friends when I was growing up in Southie," tweeted the Globe's Billy Baker. "Robin Hood in a town car."

Michael Patrick McDonald is the author of "All Souls," a 1999 memoir about growing up in "Whitey" Bulger's South Boston. "People had a need to believe this guy was protecting us," McDonald told WGBH's Emily Rooney. "People always had the need to believe that we were in the best place in the world and we were always being protected by the best people in the world."

In the early 2000's, it became apparent that Bulger was actually working with the FBI — that he was talking, as it were, when he'd implored others not to.

“We grew up with this intense code of silence kind of bred into us. It’s amazing what a different world it is now,” McDonald said of the broadly postitive reactions to Bulger's capture.

Cullen said Bulger's is still present on the streets of South Boston — and in the people who are no longer there. "There were dozens and dozens if not hundreds of kids in Southie who died from the drugs that flowed on those streets. Whitey let it in," Cullen said.

Federal authorities say they intend to extradite Bulger to Massachusetts.

This article was compiled by Jess Bidgood with reporting from WGBH's Phillip Martin and WGBH's The Emily Rooney Show.

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