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Whitey Bulger: Why Bostonians Are So Obsessed With Him

I doubt the rest of the country is as preoccupied with all things Bulger as we are here in Boston. After several days, still the chit chat—everywhere—is about getting Whitey. (Do you think the FBI wanted him not to be found? Do you think the girlfriend turned him in?) Almost the entire first section of The Boston Globe, for two days, was filled with sidebars, feature stories, and news releases from both here and California—Santa Monica now being ID’d as the location formerly known as “the lam.” Indeed, despite his multiple, shall we say, transgressions, there is almost a civic pride that he was such a badass, that he was gone for so long, and that he is ours.

I first heard talk of “Whitey” Bulger in 1991, when I moved to Boston four years before he skipped town. I knew who he was, though, because he had a putatively respectable brother, “Billy,” who was president of the Massachusetts Senate, then president of the University of Massachusetts. They were most often written about as brothers who chose wildly divergent paths. (And too bad, alas, for Billy, Whitey was always mentioned.) Through a Manichean looking glass, Billy was officially “the good brother,” a law abiding public servant, until, under a grant of immunity, he admitted to being in touch with his brother after he had, uh, gone on the lam. Billy Bulger (Bostonians seem inclined towards diminutives) made a statement under oath—then—that has been resurrected now: It was about his being disinclined to help anyone find or harm his brother. My first reaction to that was trying to understand, having no siblings myself, familial fealty and strong fraternal bonds. But rather than showing character, Billy displayed what they call here “Southie loyalty.”

With the capture of Whitey came a recap of the crimes from which he was running: 19 murders (at least), drug dealing, statutory rape, and money laundering. Oh, and did I mention he was an informant for the FBI who managed to corrupt his handlers—one of whom is in the can until 2051 or death, whichever comes first? Billy’s seeming forgiveness of his brother, along with showing up at Whitey’s arraignment and mouthing “Hello,” drags him, again, into the spotlight. I would hazard a guess that whatever social cachet or respectability Billy ever had is now a thing of the past.

The west coast neighbors, not surprisingly, had nice things to say about Whitey, where he was known as that nice old man, Charlie. It never seems to fail: Whenever there’s a heinous crime, even if it involves torture or cannibalism, some neighbor is always on TV saying, “But he was such a nice guy. He always said, ‘Hi,’ or offered to help with my packages.” Whitey kept a punching bag in one window, wearing a cap, and painted to look like a torso. There was also in the modest, two-bedroom rent controlled apartment a false wall containing 30-odd rifles, knives, $800,000 in cash, and numerous false IDs—these, presumably, allowing him to travel. For one thing, he went to Mexico to buy Atenolol, a drug for controlling his high blood pressure and heart trouble. “The nice old couple” was known as Charles and Carol Gasko. There is speculation that their choice of surname was to mask their Irish-American heritage, or meant as an homage to the name of one of the spaceships on “Star Trek.”

And of course there was a moll, just like in the movies and detective thrillers. Whitey’s ladyfriend/companion told the neighbors he had, variously, Alzheimer’s or respiratory problems. Mrs. Gasko, in reality Catherine Greig, may only have to serve five years for harboring a fugitive. Being only 60 to his 81, she has some years ahead of her and may, by sharing information, wind up with a minimal sentence.

All this has been, and continues to be, talked about and chronicled in great detail here in Boston. I almost sense regret, in some people, that they got him, because now they can’t talk about getting him. And the interest isn’t going to let up anytime soon. Now there is the question of who should pay for Whitey’s legal fees. Prosecutors are arguing he has hidden assets that could pay for his defense, and that he shouldn’t be entitled to free legal counsel. When the judge asked him if he could afford a lawyer, Whitey said he could, provided that the state hands back the $800,000 in cash recovered from his apartment. I guess it’s possible that Whitey will get his money back, but as they say in Boston, “Don’t hold yah breath. Save it fah ya chowda.”

Margo Howard is an advice columnist for Creators Syndicate and