By David Amoruso for Gangsters Inc.
If you were told Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, a man responsible for countless murders and a known snitch, was placed in a prison’s general population, what would you say? Probably that he was a dead man walking, right? It is this aspect of Bulger’s death that continues to mystify investigators looking into his predictable murder.
There is no doubt about it: “Whitey” Bulger was a hated man. On the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, and beyond, his name struck fear in the hearts of the public and underworld figures. He was known for violence and capable of murder at the drop of a dime. He was also known as a rat. Though it took until the mid-1990s until his status as a longtime FBI informant was made official.
By then, Bulger was on the run and would remain a ghost for 16 years. One of America’s Most Wanted Criminals. He was finally arrested in 2011 and found guilty of 11 gangland killings and sentenced to life in prison in 2013.
Investigating Whitey’s murder
What happened since then and up until Bulger’s death at the hands of other inmates, has been investigated by the Justice Department inspector general and documented in a report released in December of 2022.
At the time of his sentencing, “Whitey” was a frail, old man. He was finally going to get a taste of justice and he wasn’t happy about it. Life in general is pretty hard for most 80-year-olds, never mind spending it behind bars at that ripe old age. To add to the hard time, Bulger suffered from serious health ailments, which included a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.
His health issues caused authorities to place Bulger in U.S. Penitentiary Coleman in Florida, a prison able to treat his ailments. Only Bulger was having none of it. He allegedly threatened a nurse there in 2018. Prison officials then placed the elderly mob boss-turned-snitch in solitary confinement and began looking for a prison that would be a better fit.
This is when the murder mystery began. Instead of finding Bulger a prison facility that could handle his health problems and treat them accordingly, they started a transfer to Hazelton, a prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, that could not.
This was clear after three requests were turned down by officials in Hazelton. In order to make the move possible officials in Coleman had to downgrade Bulger’s medical status. According to the report, Bureau of Prison (BOP) officials failed to “accurately represent” Bulger's serious health ailments, contradicted a BOP medical director's guidance based on Bulger's medical record, “downplayed Bulger's cardiac incidents” and stated his chest pains were induced by anxiety.
After the downgrade nothing stood in the way of Bulger’s transfer to a prison ill-equipped to handle his health problems. It also gave way to the second mystery surrounding Bulger’s road to death.
Bulger who? Winter Hill Gang what?
When inmates are transferred from one prison to another, officials check a database for gang or mob ties, possible enemies or threats. Upon his transfer, Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang, apparently, wasn’t listed as an organized crime unit in the BOP's Security Threat Group Roster. Because of that, “there was no reason to believe that Bulger could not be placed at Hazelton.”
An official told investigators that, “there was no information in BOP's databases indicating that Bulger was a gang member or a law enforcement cooperator.”
Like one had to check a database to know whether or not an infamous inmate like James “Whitey” Bulger had any gang ties. Had they missed any of the news reports? Headlines? Front pages? The books on his life of crime? The two movies based or inspired on his life? One in which he was played by Jack Nicholson and the other in which he was portrayed by Johnny Depp. Who needs a database with a notorious man like Bulger?!
But, oh well, let’s see where this story will go.
According to investigators, Bulger was eager to leave Florida for his new digs in West Virginia. He had apparently “lost the will to live” while incarcerated there and “adamantly” requested to be placed in the new facility's general population without any protection.
While prison officials supposedly could not find anything about Bulger’s gang or status as an informant in their database, he was famous enough for one Hazelton prison official to request he be placed in the unit he managed. Identified in the report only as “Unit Manager 2”, this official volunteered to have Bulger under his supervision due to Bulger's “broad publicity status.” He stated that he was best equipped to handle such a high-profile inmate’s incarceration.
Giving the rat a warm welcome
The compound where Bulger was to be housed was also home to several inmates with ties to organized crime in Massachusetts and the Italian-American Mafia. Among them Genovese crime family hitman Fotios “Freddy” Geas, who despised snitches, and Boston mobster Paul DeCologero.
- READ: “Freddy hated rats” – Meet the hitman who allegedly murdered mob boss Whitey Bulger behind bars
As staff discussed Bulger’s impending arrival at Hazelton, inmates picked up on the chatter and the entire place was buzzing as a result. “Both the inmates and staff were speculating about how long Bulger would stay alive in Hazelton,” the report states.
One inmate wrote an email on October 29, hours before Bulger’s arrival: “If i[sic] dont [sic] call you tomorrow then we are locked down for probably 30 days cause [sic] we got word whitey [sic] bulger [sic] is coming to the yard tonight.. you [sic] remember him as the boig [sic] boston [sic] irish [sic] mobster leader who was just caught afew [sic] years ago.. well hes[sic] been a government witness for 20 years aso[sic] yeah you already know…”
As Bulger arrived inmates began yelling “rat”. It was a fitting welcome for the man not listed in BOP databases as an informant.
Within 12 hours of his arrival, Bulger lay beaten to death in his cell. His eyes were gouged out and his tongue was cut out of his mouth, no doubt alluding to his status as a snitch. Prosecutors allege Fotios Geas and Paul DeCologero entered Bulger’s cell and beat him to death, while Sean McKinnon acted as lookout. The three men were charged in August of 2022 with conspiracy to commit murder. All pleaded not guilty.
“The fact that these serious deficiencies occurred in connection with a high-profile inmate like Bulger was especially concerning, given that the BOP would presumably take particular care in handling such an inmate's case,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a statement. “In our view, no BOP inmate's transfer, whether they are a notorious offender or a non-violent offender, should be handled like Bulger's transfer was in this instance.”
- READ: Revenge is a dish best served cold - The men charged with killing mob boss Whitey Bulger know this all too well
Questions remain, however, why things happened the way they did in this particular case. Why did officials downgrade Bulger’s medical issues? How come the BOP database did not list accurate information which could easily be found on any Google search? And why did prison officials fail to act on the clear threat Bulger faced when entering another facility? Especially one housing members of organized crime.
The answers to these questions will probably never come. Bulger’s death is a happy ending to many people on both sides of the law and especially to those straddling the thin line between the underworld and the one above.
A lot of secrets were buried with Bulger. And that’s where they will remain.
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