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For Some In Bulger Manhunt, Capture Seemed Impossible

BOSTON — Over the 16 years that Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was on the run from law enforcement, many people who followed his case grew doubtful that he’d ever be captured.

Among those doubters was the former head of the Massachusetts State Police, Tom Foley, who helped build the case against Bulger and fellow mobster Steven Flemmi. Foley worried about the passage of time and the aging process that would make Bulger increasingly difficult to recognize. But another concern also nagged at him: clashes among different law enforcement agencies that slowed the hunt for Bulger.

When Foley spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer, he acknowledged that he was pessimistic about the search due in part to the bad blood and turf battles among the FBI, State Police and U.S. Marshals Service.

Tom Foley: The frustrating part about this whole thing is that from beginning to end all the obstacles we went through in order to get these indictments against Bulger and Flemmi, and that even after pulling bodies out of the ground there were still turf battles going on regarding the fugitive investigation. And that’s the whole frustrating aspect of this thing: that maybe we’d learn some lessons going through those tough years in the 1980s and the ’90s when investigations were being compromised and our efforts were being thwarted out there. That, OK, we got through all that, maybe some mistakes were made, let’s move on.

But even at that point we couldn’t come together on the fugitive investigation. Who cares, actually, who catches him? Let’s just get him. And we said that numerous times. We don’t care who gets him. Let’s just get him.

Sacha Pfeiffer: It’s been surprising to many people that Bulger was found living in California, but you seem to think that California was a logical place for him to be. Why is that?

He spends a lot of time down in Florida — he did, I should say, in those years — and it was warm. We knew he liked the warm weather, he liked the sun, and Santa Monica has a similar climate. So it’s not that unusual for him to seek that kind of comfort zone.

What about the idea that Bulger has basically been hiding in plain sight? He’s been living in a relatively big urban area, not in some faraway remote place. Does that startle you?

No not all. Initially he went into Chicago; there’s millions and millions of people you can blend in with in that area. So it’s not, you know, if you go out to a remote area where he’s not used to seeing people and some of the neighbors start asking questions, but otherwise you can blend in. And the older he got, you start losing some of your characteristics from when you were younger. And so, as time goes on, I think you have more of an opportunity or an ability to be able to blend in.

What’s your sense of whether there are many people in Boston who are bracing themselves nervously for Bulger’s return and the possibility that he’ll be sharing important criminal information with law enforcement?

I’m hoping that he is willing to sit down and talk to law enforcement about it. I think there’s a lot of questions out there that he can answer. I think there is a real opportunity for us to maybe clean house once and for all. I’m hoping that he can come in and finally start pointing some fingers at some people that need to be held accountable here.

You’ve studied Whitey Bulger fairly closely. Do you think he will cooperate with law enforcement?

I think it’s a possibility. There’s one thing that he’s going to do. He’s going to try to negotiate the best possible situation that works for him.

So you think people should keep their hopes in check that this might crack wide open when he comes home?

You know, the case is very, very strong. He can go to trial if he wants to. A lot of things are going to come out at trial, I would expect. So from his perspective, he’s going to be sitting back saying, “You know, I got to see if I can get the best deal I can.”

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