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Bulger ordered home

Aged mobster faces charges in 19 deaths

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By Peter Schworm and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / June 24, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — James “Whitey’’ Bulger, the notorious South Boston mobster who eluded capture for 16 years, stood before a federal judge here yesterday and was ordered back to Boston to finally answer accusations in 19 slayings and years of untold mayhem.

The sight of Bulger, bearded and handcuffed, was a spectacle many thought they would never see and could lead as soon as today to his appearance in a Boston courtroom not far from the streets where he was at once loathed and revered.

His appearance yesterday with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, marked the end of an underground life that had become legendary as the FBI fruitlessly chased reported sightings from Thailand to New Zealand to the Canary Islands.

In the end, they were found in plain sight, at a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., the couple may have rented even before they disappeared, three blocks from the beach and 4 miles from a local FBI office. After the couple’s arrest Wednesday evening, authorities said they found a stash of about 30 guns, $800,000 in cash, and several pieces of false identification hidden in the apartment.

Bulger, 81, tan and wearing wire-rimmed glasses and blue jeans, seemed good-humored and at times strikingly nonchalant before the packed courtroom yesterday. He chatted and laughed with Greig in a holding area and at one point mocked reporters by pretending to scribble notes about the proceedings.

When the judge asked Bulger if he had briefed himself on the voluminous pages detailing murder, racketeering, and drug-trafficking charges filed against him shortly before he disappeared, he casually replied that he had a general sense of what they said.

“I’ve got them all here,’’ he said. “It would take me quite a while to finish these. But I know them all pretty much.’’

He and Greig said they were destitute and asked the court to appoint lawyers to represent them.

Bulger and Greig were known in Santa Monica as Charles and Carol Gasko. Neighbors called him Charlie and saw him feed squirrels near the couple’s apartment and take twice-daily walks. One neighbor, Catalina Schlank, said the couple used an answering service rather than voice mail.

Law enforcement was oblivious to his presence.

“Nobody on the West Coast knew who he was,’’ said David Doan, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. “He was just another old man walking down the street.’’

The spectacle at the courthouse yesterday riveted New England and brought a stunning, almost surreal conclusion to a mystery many thought would never be explained. A brutally violent figure while in Boston, Bulger’s disappearance made him a fixture of city lore. His whereabouts and whether he was dead or alive became subjects of intense fascination and intrigue, inspiring books and films.

For the families and loved ones of his alleged victims, his capture brought a measure of relief yesterday. Prosecutors were elated.

“It’s a long time coming,’’ Assistant US Attorney Brian Kelly said at a press conference at the federal courthouse in Boston. “We’re glad he’s finally in custody.’’

Bulger’s brother, former Senate president and University of Massachusestts president William M. Bulger, who has testified that he had no knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts, said yesterday in a statement: “I wish to express my sympathy to all the families hurt by the calamitous circumstances of this case.’’ He also said he would not comment further.

Authorities said they were led to the fugitives by a “credible and promising’’ tip to the FBI field office in Los Angeles Tuesday evening, just one day after they launched a media campaign publicizing the search during commercial breaks on daytime television programs.

Investigators had tried media campaigns in the past, but this time elected to aim messages at women and focus attention on Greig, describing her as a 60-year-old who visited salons, was fond of animals, and got regular teeth cleanings.

A $2 million reward, the largest for any domestic suspect, had been offered for information leading to Bulger’s arrest.

Bulger’s life was a sordid tale of corruption and betrayal with cinematic sweep, and inspired the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese gangster film, “The Departed.’’

An FBI informant who allegedly committed crimes while under the bureau’s protection, Bulger disappeared in late 1994 after being tipped off by a rogue FBI agent to a looming arrest. The scandal and the subsequent failure to bring Bulger to custody sullied the bureau’s reputation and was a major embarrassment.

That history had fueled doubts that the FBI was fully invested in trying to capture him, but agents said they never wavered in their focus to bring him to justice.

“Although there were those who doubted our resolve over the years, it has never wavered,’’ said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Boston. “We followed every lead, we explored every possibility, and when those leads ran out, we did not sit back and wait for the phone to ring.’’

The last confirmed sighting of Bulger to be released by the FBI was in London in 2002.

In South Boston, once the base of Bulger’s criminal enterprise, residents found it hard to believe the former kingpin had been tracked down.

“I thought they didn’t want him to get caught, to be honest,’’ said Jackie Donovan, 26, a South Boston native working behind the counter at an East Broadway coffee house.

Bulger faces numerous federal charges and, if convicted, could be sentenced to life in prison, according to US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. Bulger also faces prosecutions in Oklahoma and Florida, where he could receive the death penalty.

In Oklahoma, Bulger faces murder charges in the 1981 slaying of Roger Wheeler Sr. Authorities allege Bulger had Wheeler killed when Wheeler learned that Bulger and his associates were skimming money from a jai alai operation.

“It is our intention to bring Bulger to justice and to be held accountable for the murder of Mr. Wheeler in Tulsa,’’ Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said. “It is our intention to bring justice to Mr. Wheeler’s family, friends, and this community.’’

Prosecutors in Florida, where Bulger is wanted in connection with a 1982 shooting, said they are eager to try Bulger in that state, but Ortiz said federal charges will take precedence.

“We intend to extradite him here to Massachusetts and then to pursue with the pending charges that we have in this court,’’ she said. Several of Bulger’s associates have cooperated against him since learning he had worked with the FBI, leading to the discovery of secret graves of his alleged victims in the Boston area.

Yet as his alleged deeds were brought to light, he remained in the shadows.

But after receiving the critical tip, agents sprang into action. On Wednesday morning, FBI agents in Boston asked authorities in Los Angeles to begin surveillance of the apartment where Bulger and Greig were believed to be living. By 4 p.m., they had spotted two individuals who resembled the fugitives. A little before 6 p.m., authorities lured the man out of the apartment using what they called a “standard ruse’’ and quickly determined he was Bulger. Bulger surrendered quietly, and agents then went inside the apartment and arrested Greig.

About an hour later, said DesLauriers, he received a call from John Foley, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI office in Boston.

“I have great news,’’ Foley said. “We got him.’’

DesLauriers attributed the arrests to the media blitz, calling the campaign a creative effort to target individuals more likely to encounter Bulger’s girlfriend, 21 years younger than Bulger.

DesLauriers, who inherited the Bulger case when he took over the Boston office, used just one word to describe his own reaction.

“Elation,’’ he said. “Elation.’’

According to city records, Bulger and Greig had occupied the unit since at least 1999, when new rent control rules went into effect. Property owners must get permission to increase rent for the incoming tenant, a spokesman for the city’s rent control board said.

“That does suggest the last time that unit was rented was some time ago,’’ Stephen Lewis said.

Maria Cramer, Jonathan Saltzman, Martin Finucane, John R. Ellement, Billy Baker, and Noah Bierman of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Lynda Gorov contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com; Shelley Murphy at shmurphy@globe.com.

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