THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Following shock, a neighborhood’s respectful reflection

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By Billy Baker and Cara Bayles
Globe Staff And Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2011

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For 16 years, it has been the two-word riddle that has captivated the people of South Boston: Where’s Whitey?

It was, for most, a question they never thought would be answered.

And so early yesterday, as local residents made their way into the Java House on East Broadway for coffee, their jaws hit the floor as they passed a rack holding the morning’s newspapers, with headlines announcing that the FBI had delivered a two-word answer: in jail.

Many thought it was a joke, some sort of gag newspaper.

“I don’t believe it,’’ said Dan Rull, 36, a South Boston native as he shook his head and quickly read that the legendary flight of James “Whitey’’ Bulger had come to an end Wednesday night in California.

“He was gone for so long,’’ said Rull who, like many on these streets where Bulger rose to power, never believed he would be caught. “I thought the feds dumped him themselves.’’

Indeed, the two dominant schools of thought in the neighborhood were that Bulger was either dead or that authorities did not actually want to find him for fear that he would reveal damaging details about his years as an FBI informant.

Now that Bulger and longtime companion Catherine Greig are in federal custody, the talk in Southie turned quickly to an equally enigmatic question: What does this mean?

In the saga of Whitey Bulger, the line between reality and mythology has long been blurred. “He was kind of like Robin Hood back then,’’ said Rull, who remembers growing up when Bulger had a mystique bordering on celebrity.

“But that was before you knew about all the [expletive],’’ he added.

Many bought into the idea of Bulger as protector of the neighborhood, and the aura has held, even after the sordid details of his alleged role in 19 slayings have come to light in his absence.

“He protected the town,’’ Jackie O’Brien, who owns one of the funeral homes in the neighborhood, said as he sat in front of the Murphy Memorial Rink along Pleasure Bay. “He kept the drugs out of the neighborhood,’’ he added, echoing a common belief about Bulger, despite evidence that he profited by shaking down drug dealers.

In a market on Dorchester Street, one resident, who declined to give her name, said it was hard to fault a man who was willing to hustle to make a buck.

“He was a mobster, but so what?’’ she said. “Everybody’s got an occupation.’’

In the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development, where Bulger and his brother, former Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger, grew up, one resident remembers Whitey Bulger being a “wonderful neighbor.’’

“He had two lives,’’ said Virginia Donato, who said her daughter lived next door to him for years. “I know he has to pay for what he’s done, but there was never any violence around here. I couldn’t say anything bad about Whitey, from what I knew of him.’’

Bulger’s time on the run coincided with a massive gentrification in the neighborhood; some say his disappearance facilitated it, removing the fear many outsiders had of the neighborhood’s parochial walls.

Some of those newcomers, who never saw him walking at Castle Island or cruising through the neighborhood behind the tinted windows of his car, wonder whether Bulger’s capture will close the chapter on the old neighborhood.

“It’s like a fairy tale,’ said Sebastian Lange, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years and owns Sophia’s Cafe on Dorchester Avenue. “As long as he remained on the run, the old guard could say to us, ‘Get out, yuppies, this isn’t the real Southie.’ Well, the real Southie is over, the yuppies are moving in, and they’re going to have to deal with it.’’

But for many people interviewed, deep analysis was something for another day. It was a day of shock, a day of disbelief, a day when everyone, finally, knew where Whitey was.

“It was just so sudden,’’ DeDe Barbuto said as she walked out of Sullivan’s at Castle Island, carrying a tray of hot dogs and French fries in one hand and her 1-year-old granddaughter, Riley, in the other.

“They caught Whitey Bulger,’’ she said, stumbling for the right words. “It just feels surreal.’’

Scott LaPierre of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com; Cara Bayles can be reached at carabayles@gmail.com.

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