Thursday, 4:30 PM
FBI posts pictures of possible Whitey Bulger sighting in Italy
By Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff
Fugitive gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, may have been spotted in Sicily in April by a vacationing federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent who shot a brief video of the couple before they slipped away, according to law enforcement officials.
The FBI posted the video and a still photo today on its website and launched a media blitz in Italy and throughout Europe in an effort to boost the international profile of Bulger, 78, one of the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted," and Greig, 56, who is believed to be traveling with him.
"Law enforcement authorities are requesting the public's assistance in positively identifying the unknown couple,'' the FBI wrote under the photo.
"This could be Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Iowa on vacation in Sicily for all we know and that's why we're asking for help," said Warren T. Bamford, the special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Boston office.
The video taken April 10 shows a white-haired couple strolling past shops in the seaside resort town of Taormina. The man is wearing Bulger's trademark sunglasses and baseball cap and dressed in khaki pants and a sweater over a plaid shirt. He's accompanied by a woman with short hair, also wearing sunglasses.
If it is Bulger and not just another look-alike, it would be the first confirmed sighting of the South Boston gangster since he was spotted in September 2002 strolling alone down a busy street near Piccadilly Circus in London.
The FBI didn't disclose the circumstances of how the video and photos were shot or whether the person approached the couple, but law enforcement officials said they were taken by a DEA agent who was on vacation.
In a press release issued this morning, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan's office said an individual had observed a couple believed to be the fugitive and his girlfriend and videotaped them.
"A facial recognition analysis was conducted and proved to be inconclusive," Sullivan's release said.
Italian law enforcement authorities, the DEA, and members of the Bulger Task Force, comprised of investigators from the FBI, Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, have not been able to rule out the possibility that the picture shows Bulger and Greig.
Investigators were unable to resolve whether it was the couple even after interviewing their former associates and showing them the photos, according to Sullivan's office.
"Therefore, law enforcement is interested in speaking with anyone who was visiting the area of Italy during the months of March, April and May 2007 and may have observed or had contact with the two individuals in the photograph and video," Sullivan's press release said.
"Some people are saying, 'Absolutely that's him,' and others are saying, 'I don't think that's him at all,'" said Bamford. However, he added, investigators who have been tracking Bulger for years agree it's "a very good look-alike, probaby the best they've seen in a very long time."
After the reported sighting, Bamford said, Italian authorities helped investigators from Boston try to locate the couple with "some good-old fashioned detective work," searching hotels, marinas, bars, ferries and other areas throughout the country. Bamford said there was no audio of the couple so it was unknown if they are American.
"They weren't able to develop any logical leads for us," Bamford said. "Now we're all at a dead end here and it's time to put the video and pictures out to the public."
Bulger, a longtime FBI informant, was warned to flee just before his January 1995 federal racketeering indictment in Boston by his former handler, retired FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. Bulger has eluded authorities ever since, despite a worldwide manhunt. Since he fled, he's been charged with 19 murders. The FBI is offering a $1 million reward for information that leads to his capture.
Three months before his indictment, Bulger took a European vacation, stopping in Venice and London and Dublin, according to the FBI. The FBI has scoured the world to investigate reported sightings that were later eliminated as look-alikes in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Connolly was convicted in 2002 of racketeering and obstruction of justice for protecting Bulger from prosecution and is serving 10 years in prison. The former agent is also awaiting trial in Florida on charges that he helped Bulger and fellow informant, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, orchestrate a 1982 gangland slaying.