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'I'm Never Going To Shake Him Off': David Boeri Reflects On 3 Decades Of Covering Whitey Bulger

WBUR's David Boeri. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
WBUR's David Boeri. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that … Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

When I got the call, as I knew I would someday, that James Bulger was dead, I thought of Dickens and "A Christmas Carol."

Old Bulger was dead as a door-nail.

I won’t miss him. But I am never going to shake him off. Like Marley, he’s a ghost.

I started on this case in 1986 and followed what has to be the longest saga in the English language, a story whose cast even included a woman from Iceland, just like the Norse sagas of old.

For 32 years, I crammed facts and figures and rap sheets and built rolodexes of contacts to good guys, bad guys and “good bad guys,” which is how Bulger liked to think of himself.

I hung out in bars with detectives and state cops, some of the best fugitive hunters in the business, who were hellbent on finding Bulger. And I played detective, tailing and staking out bad guys with my cameraman while I was a TV reporter at NewsCenter 5.

When I ambushed them, the secret was to wait until they left the front steps of the house before cutting them off so they couldn’t escape back inside; I had them. The other secret was to lead with my business card in the left hand before I raised my right that held my microphone, which might be mistaken for a gun or a shiv.

On the trail of the fugitive I followed tips to Mexico, California, Oklahoma, Florida and Detroit. I was amazed to find out where the FBI had not gone and what they had not done — especially in California, the state in which they finally did get him, but only after the bureau brought in federal marshals for the help they had long resisted.

The FBI handed out these photos of James "Whitey" Bulger during its efforts to catch the reputed mobster. (AP)
The FBI handed out these photos of James "Whitey" Bulger during its efforts to catch the reputed mobster. (AP)

The hay loft of my barn overflows with my field tapes of trips and interviews and stories. They flank folders of old police files, mug shots, the photos of Bulger's victims and their families in boxes that testify to unspeakable crimes and cruelty.

Now that I've moved my WBUR Bulger files and court transcripts home, I'll need more space next to the tapes of a secretly recorded Mafia induction ceremony in Medford.

I’m at the age where I forget the names of my neighbors and cousins, but I can tell you in an instant both Bulger’s birth date and his inseam — 28 and a half inches (I tracked down his seamstress, who told me he was a cheap tipper).

People ask me why I spent so long and so much on this one case. Sometimes I’m stunned myself. I’d like people to think I was more than a one-track reporter, more than just a crime dog.

For me it comes down to an important distinction that lifted this story beyond the average bleed-and-lead stories of crime and violence associated with TV news.

You’ll find many violent people in the world, but what separates Bulger from the others is that he and his associate Stephen Flemmi were brought to us, indeed sponsored by, our own government.

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents recruited him as a top-echelon informant, then protected him from investigations and prosecution by other law enforcement agencies, like the state police, the DEA and the Boston Police Department. The government enabled, empowered and emboldened him. The FBI and prosecutors decided Bulger and Flemmi would succeed and other dangerous and violent men would fail — when they could have crushed Bulger like a June bug.

The truth and the scandal is that our government aided and abetted Bulger and Flemmi in a reign of crime and terror by warning them about good cops wanting to catch them and criminals likely to testify against them.

People ask me why I spent so long and so much on this one case. Sometimes I’m stunned myself.

I never need to go far to be reminded of it. Halloween happens to be the anniversary of the night in the mid-'80s when Bulger and his crew dug three rotting victims up from a South Boston basement, where they first buried them, and then ghoulishly buried them again in a hidden grave close to the Southeast Expressway. Fathers, daughters, brothers. Bulger chose to silence them before they might turn on him.

Being with the families of those victims and others whose remains were dug up in the winter, summer and fall of 2000 was like walking through a field of human wreckage. I stood beside mothers and children now in their 30s and 40s hoping desperately that the next bucket of muck scraped from the banks of the Neponset River might reveal a skull or bone that belonged to their loved one.

Over all the years of grieving and not knowing but fearing what had happened, the families had been victimized again, lied to, ignored, insulted and frightened — all to save the reputation of the FBI and the agents who won promotions for waging a war on organized crime. A war that, in the case of Bulger, was a lie. Only one agent would ever be prosecuted and sent to prison, along with a couple of local cops.

In the seventh ring of Dante’s "Inferno" those who have committed violence against their neighbors are immersed in boiling blood; the greater the violence, the higher the blood. Bulger would be standing in the deep end, and you have to wonder about all those in law enforcement who helped him knowing what he was about and what they knew he was likely to do.

"Whitey" Bulger’s copy of his own mugshot. In 2016, the U.S. Marshals auctioned off a collection of the mobster's personal items to benefit the families of his victims. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
"Whitey" Bulger’s copy of his own mugshot. In 2016, the U.S. Marshals auctioned off a collection of the mobster's personal items to benefit the families of his victims. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Secularly, accountability never really came. A congressional committee called it the greatest law enforcement scandal in history. There were heroes, to be sure: agents and cops and prosecutors who had pushed against the wall. But Bulger’s trial never answered many of the questions the victims' families wanted answered. He and his lawyers called it "a sham."

Say this about Bulger: As evil and violent as he may have been, his own career was proof of corruption, malfeasance, incompetence and indifference in the ranks of law enforcement. And his last day on earth followed the pattern.

While it’s true that the actuarial tables don’t suggest bright outcomes for an 89-year-old man in a wheelchair with a vial of nitroglycerin pills around his neck and a recent history of eight heart attacks, moving him from solitary confinement to another prison holding the most violent inmates of all and putting him in with the general population assured an even worse outcome. Bulger did not even make it through his first roll call. He was found in his cell with the doors open.

I used to think that my coverage of Whitey Bulger would finally come to an end when he died. Now I’ve come to believe it will only end when I die.

The Bureau of Prisons couldn’t keep their inmate safe for even a night. The FBI says it is investigating.

Prison guards found him deader than a door-nail, beaten beyond recognition with a thoroughness that Bulger himself might have applauded.

I used to think that my coverage of Whitey Bulger would finally come to an end when he died. Now I’ve come to believe it will only end when I die. It’s a story that never ends, a crime that never stops.

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David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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