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Bulger Trail Cooled As Some FBI Tips Weren't Pursued

This article is more than 11 years old.
This image is taken from a 2006 surveillance video and shows what one tipster thinks is James 'Whitey' Bulger in San Diego. (Courtesy)
This image is taken from a 2006 surveillance video and shows what one tipster thinks is James 'Whitey' Bulger in San Diego. (Courtesy)

Though people were shocked by James "Whitey" Bulger's arrest last week, the tip that brought him in was one of many tips that came from California.

WBUR has learned that one tip to the FBI five years ago came from a spot just four blocks from his apartment in Santa Monica.

If you'd listened to the FBI's postings on the TV show "America's Most Wanted" in the first five or so years after Bulger fled Boston, it should come as no big surprise that he was arrested in Southern California.

“This is a great neighborhood and I’m sure he could hide very well here," said one of his Santa Monica neighbors, Ingrid Veneckert. "It’s right close to the beach, it’s wonderful here so I can see why he chose it."

"The old man in the back says, 'Hey you're from Boston,' the kid says, 'Yeah, yeah,' and they start talking Boston locations and that triggered me — and I gave them the tip."

Keith Messina, 2008 Bulger tipster

It's the kind of place, the bureau itself said, that Bulger might well be found. Back in April 2000, the FBI noted that "Bulger may currently be located in Orange County." That following a tip to "America's Most Wanted" that someone looking like Catherine Greig had been seen at a beauty salon between Los Angeles and San Diego.

"In all, since 1995, there have been 16 episodes that featured 'Whitey' Bulger," said Steve Katz, co-executive producer of "America's Most Wanted."

Katz said his shows on Bulger generated close to 2,000 tips, like this one, from avid "America's Most Wanted" viewer Keith Messina, who was on the pier at Santa Monica on June 28, 2008:

He was wearing a hat, the glasses, a gold necklace with a cross on it. And then he had a nice tan. The old guy had a nice tan.

Wearing shorts and no shirt, the old man spoke to a young man who was wearing a green jersey with Boston stenciled on it.

"The old man in the back says, 'Hey you're from Boston,' the kid says, 'Yeah, yeah,' and they start talking Boston locations and that triggered me — and I gave them the tip," Messina said.

There wasn't a lot to go on, and a lot of the tips aren't helpful, but they belonged to a cluster of California sightings.

Even closer to Bulger than the pier was a tip on March 29, 2006. This one came with a specific address, specific information that the man was visiting a woman who had small dogs. The man was described as balding with grayish blond hair. It was no more than four blocks from the apartment where Bulger would be arrested.

"All those tips were handed over to the authorities to be followed up on," Katz said.

Did the FBI respond to those tips? It won't say. It can't say, the bureau says, because of a gag order.

But another tipster from Southern California said the bureau never called him. He was an Amtrak employee in San Diego on July 29, 2008, when he thought the man purchasing a ticket to Boston sounded like he was from Boston and looked like Bulger. He wrote down the man's address and name.

"I never heard from anyone 'till you called," he told me. This despite the fact the FBI knew Bulger had used Amtrak while a fugitive.

Here's another fact: "America's Most Wanted" revealed Bulger uses Atenolol for heart medication.

Last week, as FBI agents searched Bulger's apartment, the handcuffed suspect became quite talkative, according to law enforcement sources. He told them he and Greig regularly drove down to the border and crossed over to Tijuana to buy his medications, using fake IDs to cross back into the States.

I wasn't surprised because I'd been to the border in September 2000, reporting for WCVB-TV after getting a tip to a Whitey sighting in San Diego:

"The reason investigators tell us she's coming here is that because in Mexico, you don't need prescriptions so there's no record when you come to get drugs," I said, back in my 2000 report, where I went into a "farmacia."

You would think that crossing the border would be high-risk for someone on the "Most Wanted" list. But when I brought FBI posters and photos of Bulger and Greig to Bruce Ward, the assistant port director at Immigration Naturalization Services in San Diego, he said no one from the bureau had ever shown him that information.

Here's a snippet of my WCVB-TV report on this story:

"Generally, if they find out this gentleman is going to be in the area, they would contact us and we'd be on the lookout for him," Ward said.

Ward was adamant that the INS, as the immigration agency was called back in 2000, could do their job if they received a be-on-the-lookout advisory.

"If we had a lookout for him with posters posted and mentioned it in our musters, we would probably catch him if he's down here," Ward said.

Back in Boston, in the fall of 2000, I presented what I'd heard and seen to the top investigator at the FBI, Tom Cassano, and the special agent in charge, Charles Prouty.

"They told us that nobody from the FBI had ever distributed photos or posters of 'Whitey' Bulger or Catherine Greig at the border," I told them.

"If they didn't post them, well, we can't help that, but we do send them out there," Cassano said.

"Short of walking up to every border station and posting them ourselves, that is a responsibility that they have at the border," Prouty said.

Despite those tips in 2000, the statements on "America's Most Wanted" that Bulger might be in Southern California, and while tips continued to come in from San Diego to Santa Monica during the next 10 years, the FBI never seems to have pushed any initiatives there. All their public initiatives were in Florida, and especially all over Europe.

Last week, when the bureau did follow up on one tip that put Bulger in Santa Monica, I got a call from someone who had contacted both the FBI and me in 2007. Back then, the tipster claimed he'd seen "Whitey," in shorts, at the premiere of the movie "The Departed." He complained he hadn't gotten anywhere with the bureau. Now he's claiming vindication.

"Hey, Dave Boeri. It's your buddy in sunny San Diego, where crime bosses wear shorts. What comes around goes around, huh buddy," he said in a voicemail.

On Tuesday, the Boston office of the FBI cited the "gag order" as a reason they they couldn't talk about their investigative work in California.

Earlier Coverage:

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



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