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‘Ancient History’: Courtroom Reacts To Bulger’s Life Sentences

In this courtroom sketch, James "Whitey" Bulger sits at his sentencing hearing in federal court. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

In this courtroom sketch, James “Whitey” Bulger sits at his sentencing hearing in federal court. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

BOSTON — James “Whitey” Bulger will soon be moved to his new permanent home. The 84-year-old Boston crime boss has been housed at the Plymouth County Jail for the past two and a half years. Now, he’ll go to a federal prison for the rest of his life after his sentencing Thursday to two life terms, plus five years, on racketeering charges tied to 11 murders.

He was also ordered to pay almost $20 million in restitution for the families of his victims.

His last day in court was likely his last day in public view.

‘He’s Going To Die In Prison’

No one was moved to comment, “Jimmy, we hardly knew ye.” Instead, outside the courthouse after it was over, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz was first say “good riddance.”

“The myth, the legend, the saga of James Bulger is now finally over. He is ancient history,” said Ortiz.

“Ancient.” As in gone, done, through, over.

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“It took 31 years, six months, two days to finally get a conviction of somebody for my father,” said Tommy Donahue. Donahue’s father, Michael Donahue, was killed by Bulger and a machine gun in 1982.

“That old bastard is finally going to be in prison,” Donahue said. “He’s going to die in prison and, you know what? Today is the first day we can finally get on the road for closure, and it’s a good feeling. It’s bittersweet. But it’s a damn good feeling, is what it is.”

His last day in court lacked drama, compared to the day before when he was confronted by the families of those he murdered, but Thursday made up for that in terms of finality. Soft-spoken Judge Denise Casper weighed in with hard language about “unfathomable acts conducted in unfathomable ways.”

Bulger sat, ancient like a statue. Save for one scratch of his neck with his thumb, he never moved while Casper spoke. She told Bulger, “The scope, callousness and depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly derisively fathomed Bulger as “a little psychopath.” He has been a member of the prosecution team in the Bulger trial since 1991.

“We’re glad we got Bulger where he belongs,” said Kelly. “We’re glad we took down 50 members of his gang, and we’re glad Bulger and [Bulger partner Stephen] Flemmi are now serving life sentences in prison.”

Three creases in the back of his neck are all that we saw, the folds of age in a gangster who’s run out of tools and shuffling off into the shadows. He’d been brought down by state police detectives and a DEA agent who’d teamed up with prosecutor Fred Wyshak against forces in the Department of Justice and the FBI who didn’t want them going forward.

“Vindication. All this work. All this effort. Over the years, all the ups and downs, all the criticisms. At the end of the day we think that the bad guys are in jail,” Kelly said. “Not all of them as long as we would have wanted. But the worst of them are serving life in prison.”

Prosecutors showed disdain for both Bulger and his defense attorneys, who announced Bulger would be filing an appeal of his conviction, but not his sentence.

“I think Jim is pleased that he held to his principles and did not participate in the sentencing portion of the trial,” said J.W. Carney, Bulger’s attorney. “It took a lot of discipline for him not to react emotionally to some of the statements that were made yesterday, and he is proud that he was able to conduct himself in that fashion.”

It seemed a strange observation about someone who wouldn’t even look at the victims.

Here was the man who once could look out onto Boston and brag to associate Kevin Weeks, “I own this town.” Now he was being told, “no you don’t” by a judge, the prosecutors and that small team of investigators with Lt. Steve Johnson and DEA agent Dan Doherty.

“It was just very nice to watch Mr. Bulger walk out that door of the courtroom surrounded by marshals,” said Johnson. “Hopefully, we don’t have to see him again.”

Outside the courthouse and away from the crowd of officials talking about Bulger’s sentencing was retired State Police Col. Tom Foley. He’s as responsible as anyone for bringing Bulger down. He led the team. And even as he joined the cheering Thursday, he had reservations.

“I was happy to see him go. Finally, we got him off the street. No one’s going to be hurt by Whitey Bulger again,” Foley said. “But I’m just questioning if the next Whitey Bulger is right around the corner. And I don’t think people are getting the real story behind this whole case, because Whitey Bulger would not have existed if law enforcement was doing what it was supposed to do in those years.”

Here was an inconvenient truth on the day Bulger was consigned to “ancient history” as the FBI vowed to move forward to regain faith and confidence lost years ago.

“How many agents were prosecuted. One? In 2002, a special prosecutor comes in to clean out and investigate the Department of Justice. How many people are prosecuted? One: John Connolly,” said defense attorney Hank Brennan. “We all know there’s much, much more.”

No matter how self-serving Bulger’s attorneys may be, those agents and that collaboration and that culture may not have been consigned to the same ancient history as Bulger.

“These people still haven’t gotten the message here, how it’s really supposed to be,” said Foley.

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