Victims’ kin relieved and rueful
Michael Milano wasn’t supposed to die that night.
The 30-year-old North End bartender happened to drive the same make of Mercedes-Benz as the owner of his restaurant, who was having problems with James “Whitey’’ Bulger. When Milano left work that night in 1973, he drove into a hail of gunfire.
That memory came hurtling back at 5:30 yesterday morning when Donald Milano, Michael’s younger brother, got a call saying Bulger had finally been nabbed.
“I’m glad they found him, but will it make a difference in my life — or my brother’s life that he didn’t have?’’ he said by phone from his Winthrop home.
The long list of Bulger’s alleged victims includes pals and fellow criminals, people he saw as a risk to his once-powerful crime operation, and others who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong moment.
There was a Tulsa, Okla., millionaire who suspected Bulger’s crew of skimming money from his company, three men who cooperated with the FBI against Bulger, two young women Bulger considered a “threat’’ to longtime sidekick Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, and a man unlucky enough to give a ride to someone who turned out to be a hitman’s target.
Among the 19 victims was Roger Wheeler, chairman of Telex Corp. and owner of World Jai Alai, whom Bulger is accused of ordering gunned down in May 1981 outside a Tulsa country club, after he began suspecting Bulger’s gang was stealing money from his business.
Late Wednesday night, his son, David Wheeler, 59, a computer programmer living in Austin, Texas, got a text message from a veteran homicide detective from Tulsa: “Whitey Bulger arrested by FBI in Santa Monica.’’
Wheeler was gratified to learn that the man he believed responsible for his father’s murder finally had been caught, but like other victims’ relatives, his emotions were quickly overtaken by long-running cynicism about the government’s role in the case. He is convinced the truth about Bulger’s life as an organized crime boss and as an undercover FBI informant will never be fully known.
“My opinion is that they don’t want Bulger to tell what he knows about the corruption in the FBI,’’ said Wheeler, who was 29 and working for his father when he died. “There’s no crime that the FBI has not committed.’’
He worries that the truth will be concealed while this case is controlled by the federal government.
“The FBI has beat any idealism out of me,’’ Wheeler said.
Patricia Donahue, now 66, was in her 30s when her husband was killed on May 11, 1982. Michael Donahue had run into Brian Halloran at the Topside Café in Boston and offered him a ride home. He didn’t know Halloran had been put on Bulger’s hit list after the gangster learned two weeks earlier that Halloran had implicated him and Flemmi in Wheeler’s murder.
Michael Donahue, a 32-year-old father of three children, was shot along with Halloran as they began to drive home.
“To myself and my boys, we feel very relieved’’ with the arrest, Patricia Donahue said in a telephone interview. “We’ve waited a very, very long time for this to happen. I truly believed that this wasn’t going to happen. I thought [Bulger’s] health failed and maybe he passed on, given how many years went by.’’
Like other victims’ relatives, she said she wasn’t sure the FBI really wanted to catch Bulger.
“They didn’t do anything years ago, so I assumed nothing would happen,’’ she said. “I lost faith in the FBI a long time ago.’’
Asked about the appropriate punishment for Bulger, she said the death penalty would be “too easy a way out’’ for the 81-year-old.
“I would like to see him go to jail and suffer there,’’ she said. “He’s been living the good life all these years, while we’ve all been suffering. Now it’s his turn.’’
At her home in Quincy, Emily McIntyre, 83, said the arrest of Bulger brought her no peace.
Her son, John McIntyre, 32, a fisherman who served as a middleman for the mobster, was killed on Nov. 30, 1984, after cooperating with federal investigators. He pointed the finger at Bulger as being involved in marijuana trafficking and running an illegal operation to ship arms and ammunition to the Irish Republican Army in Ireland.
“I had great anger,’’ when he was killed, she said.
McIntyre’s family is among several victims who have filed multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits against the FBI, arguing they bore responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones.
Three years ago, a federal appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling, including a $3.1 million judgment, that the FBI was responsible for the death of McIntyre. The judges ruled that the FBI tolerated former agent John J. Connolly’s relationship with longtime informants Bulger and Flemmi, even while supervisors knew Connolly was leaking information to the gang leaders.
Similar lawsuits, which allege Connolly turned a blind eye to Bulger’s reign of terror, have been filed by the families for Richard Castucci, a Revere nightclub owner; Deborah Hussey, the daughter of a woman who had a long relationship with Flemmi; and Debra Davis, Flemmi’s former girlfriend.
Billy O’Brien was born four days after his father, William, was gunned down on Morrissey Boulevard in March 1973.
“I never thought I would see this day,’’ said O’Brien, now a father himself.
He recalled growing up in South Boston, watching Bulger strut around the neighborhood, seeing him as the man who ordered his father’s murder. He felt helpless.
“I would just look at him,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t stare directly at him. All these emotions run through you. What is a 13- or 14-year-old boy going to do about it?’’
For the Milano family, the news of Bulger’s arrest has come after a long, painful wait.
Ever since his brother was fatally shot on March 8, 1973, at a Brighton traffic light, Donald Milano said he has been repeatedly stunned and disheartened by events.
In testimony about a decade ago, one of Bulger’s hitmen, John Martorano, admitted that he killed Michael Milano, thinking he was the bar owner who drove the same model car.
Like many family members who have endured decades of stalled detective work and government misinformation, Milano said he gave up on the idea that Bulger would ever be held accountable.
“After all these years, who’d ever think the FBI would ever find him,’’ Milano said.
Maria Cramer of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Ben Wolford contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @davabel. Patricia Wen can be reached at email@example.com.