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TV ads are latest tactic in hunt for Bulger

FBI hopes daytime audience will spot fugitive crime boss’s girlfriend

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By Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / June 21, 2011

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In the 16 years that South Boston gangster James “Whitey’’ Bulger has been on the run, the FBI says it has scoured the world for him using investigative tools ranging from the expected to the unorthodox.

They have pored through bank records and tapped the phones of his relatives and associates. They have placed ads in trade magazines urging dentists and plastic surgeons to be on the lookout for Bulger and the woman who fled with him, a dental hygienist intensely concerned about her appearance.

Now, the Boston task force searching for Bulger has embarked on a new strategy: using daytime television to find Bulger’s longtime companion, Catherine Greig.

During commercial breaks of shows like “The View,’’ “Ellen,’’ and “Live with Regis & Kelly’’ viewers will see a 30-second spot publicizing the worldwide hunt for the fugitives.

After years of searching for the 81-year-old Bulger, a fixture on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list who has triggered thousands of look-alike sightings all over the world, agents want to focus on the much younger Greig, who is likely to be more social and whose idiosyncrasies should make her stand out. The blue-eyed, 5-foot-6 Greig, now 60, has undergone several plastic surgeries, including a facelift and breast augmentation. She loves going to beauty salons, was known to get monthly teeth cleanings, and adores animals, officials said.

“We are trying to reach a different audience that will produce new leads in the case,’’ said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Richard Teahan, head of the task force that includes investigators from the State Police, the US Marshals Service, and the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

“We’re looking for people sitting in a hospital waiting for an appointment with a doctor where there are three or four [television] monitors on the wall, and they are watching these shows . . . or people who are in a beauty salon or barber shop,’’ he said.

FBI officials said a large percentage of daytime viewers are women in Greig’s age group.

“Those are the people who are her contemporaries, who would be her friends, her co-workers, someone she hangs out with,’’ said Special Agent Gregory Comcowich. The age difference between the couple is also something that may stand out to a friend or neighbor, he said.

A radio version of the public service announcement will also air on “The FBI This Week,’’ a syndicated program that airs daily on ABC and iTunes. In addition to television and radio spots, images of the couple will be displayed on digital billboards in New York’s Time Square.

The FBI is spending about $50,000 for the billboard and the ads, which will run in 350 time slots and 14 cities, including Boston.

It is the latest in a series of efforts announced by the Boston field office, where virtually every special agent in charge has vowed to capture Bulger since he disappeared just before January 1995, when prosecutors planned to indict him on federal racketeering charges.

Since Bulger fled, he has been charged with 19 murders and been publicly revealed as a longtime FBI informant who got away with crimes while being protected by corrupt agents. His former handler, retired FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr., is serving a 40-year prison term for murder, on top of a 10-year sentence for racketeering.

Some relatives of Bulger’s victims said the announcement was another painful reminder that he remains elusive.

“I don’t think they’ll ever really find him,’’ said Patricia Donahue, the widow of Michael Donahue, an innocent bystander who was gunned down in South Boston in 1982.

Bulger is accused of fatally shooting Donahue, a Dorchester truck driver, and Edward Brian Halloran, a Bulger associate, as Donahue gave Halloran a ride home from a Boston bar.

“I truly don’t believe the man is even alive,’’ Patricia Donahue said. “There have been so many rumors over the years. He’s in Costa Rica. No, he’s in Italy. No he’s in Boston. It actually became a joke, and that’s very frustrating for us, that it would become a joke.’’

William Christie, a New Hampshire attorney who represents Halloran’s family and the family of John McIntyre, another alleged victim of Bulger’s, said his clients hope he will be caught. But they worry that such announcements are attempts by the government to make the public believes they are serious about finding a killer they once protected.

“Having Whitey as a fugitive leaves a gaping hole that someone who has committed the crimes that he has committed will be brought to justice,’’ said Christie. “I think from the family’s perspective, the FBI is looking for Whitey Bulger as hard as Pakistani intelligence was looking for [Osama] Bin Laden.’’

Authorities insisted they are determined to find him.

“The bottom line is Bulger has to be caught, and the sooner the better,’’ Assistant US Attorney James D. Herbert said. “This has gone on long enough.’’

The FBI has increased the reward for Greig, who is wanted for harboring a fugitive, from $50,000 to $100,000. The reward for information leading to Bulger’s capture is $2 million, the highest amount offered by the bureau for a domestic fugitive.

Greig grew up in South Boston and was living in Quincy and working as a dental hygienist and dog groomer when she joined Bulger on the run weeks after he fled. The last confirmed sighting of Bulger was in September 2002, when he was spotted strolling alone through London’s Piccadilly Circus.

Teahan said he believes the couple is still together and that Bulger is alive.

“We have every reason to believe that his fitness is pretty good and that he stays active and that he continues to be able to be mobile,’’ he said.

Kevin J. Weeks, a longtime associate of Bulger’s, said he doubts the new campaign will help locate Greig. The couple knows how to keep a low profile, he said. “Cathy is smart enough to be cordial to people, but not memorable,’’ Weeks said. “She’s smart enough not to stand out . . . not to be the focus of anyone.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com; Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.