Back in the town he terrorized
Bulger, making Boston return, hears charges, seeks public counsel; Calm, confident courtroom demeanor infuriates his alleged victims
In a dramatic return to the neighborhood he once ruled as a mob boss, James “Whitey’’ Bulger appeared in federal court in South Boston yesterday on charges of racketeering, extortion, and 19 counts of murder during a savage criminal reign that cast a shadow over the city.
In perhaps the highest-profile court appearance in the city’s history, the former gangster returned to Boston after 16 years hiding from an international manhunt, finally brought back to answer to his alleged crimes by the same law enforcement agency that had allowed his criminal enterprise to flourish.
Under tight security that included Coast Guard boats with bow-mounted machine guns, Bulger arrived in a caravan of sport utility vehicles to a frenzied scene at the courthouse, where news personnel descended hours before the hearing and throngs gathered in hope of seeing the underworld kingpin in person.
In a packed courtroom tense with anticipation, Bulger came face to face with relatives of his alleged victims and with his brother, former Senate president William M. Bulger. Spotting his brother as he entered the courtroom, Bulger, in handcuffs, smiled and mouthed, “Hi.’’
Appearing fit and composed, the 81-year-old betrayed little emotion in the courtroom, but at one point sparred with the judge over whether he could afford a lawyer.
“Well, I could if you gave me my money back,’’ he said, referring to more than $800,000 authorities seized from his apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., following his arrest Wednesday with his longtime companion Catherine Greig.
Bulger, who was arraigned in two cases stemming from the 1990s, asked both judges to declare him indigent so he could have the services of a government-paid lawyer. Prosecutors bristled at the request.
“He was found with $800,000 in cash,’’ said Assistant US Attorney Brian T. Kelly. “We think he has access to more.’’ Greig filed a document with the court saying that William Bulger “may be willing to assist’’ financially, Kelly said.
Peter Krupp, a lawyer who last summer represented one of two admitted Russian spies from Cambridge against federal charges, represented Bulger at the hearing and probably will handle at least the early stages of his defense.
Bulger faces more than 50 charges in two indictments that allege a wide range of offenses related to racketeering, including 19 murders. The host of accusations includes more than 20 counts of money laundering, extortion, loan sharking, witness tampering, and possession of machine guns in furtherance of crimes of violence.
The most serious offenses carry life sentences. Reading the charges and the maximum penalties took Kelly several minutes.
In other developments yesterday, the manager of the apartment building where Bulger lived said he believes he was an unwitting participant in the ruse FBI agents used to lure Bulger outside. The manager, Joshua Bond, said he received a phone call from a woman reporting that several storage units at the building had been broken into. Bond then called the tenants, including Bulger, and asked them to meet him outside. By the time Bond arrived, Bulger was in handcuffs and surrounded by agents.
Also, a law enforcement official said yesterday that the tip that led authorities to Bulger came from a woman from Iceland who had crossed paths with the fugitives in Santa Monica. She was watching CNN when she spotted a story about a new FBI television ad campaign focusing on Greig and quickly called authorities.
Her tip was initially ranked a “low priority’’ call until deputy US Marshal Neil Sullivan, a member of the task force searching for Bulger, saw it and decided it warranted immediate attention.
The FBI began surveillance of Bulger and Greig’s apartment. A few hours later, they were in custody, ending the long hunt.
Yesterday, Bulger entered the courtroom escorted by marshals, his hands cuffed behind his back. He walked with a slight hunch, but otherwise looked robust. Dressed in a white pullover shirt with a hood, blue jeans, and running shoes — apparently the same clothes he wore in a Los Angeles court on Thursday — he wore metal-rimmed glasses above a thick white beard. When answering questions from the judges, he stood firmly.
Bulger waived his right to seek a bail hearing after Kelly said that Bulger was “quite obviously a risk of flight.’’ Kelly described Bulger as a threat to potential witnesses and noted that he will probably face murder charges in Oklahoma and Florida, which both have the death penalty.
Greig, who faces a charge of harboring a fugitive, was also ordered held until a detention hearing next week.
As she left the courtroom, she turned to the gallery and flashed a smile at her twin sister, Margaret McCusker, in the front row. After the hearing ended, McCusker briefly chatted with William Bulger.
Outside the courtroom, McCusker said it was “very good to see her.’’
William Bulger declined comment.
“Perhaps later, I’ll make a statement,’’ he said. “I’d like to think about it.’’
As William Bulger walked through a scrum of reporters outside the court room, one of his sons got into a confrontation with a reporter and shoved him.
The brief proceedings, the first chapter in a legal drama sure to grip the city in the coming months, culminated a stunning turn of events that saw the notorious fugitive snatched from a seemingly comfortable life near the beach in Southern California into federal custody, then whisked across the country to a city hungry for long-denied retribution.
“It was a sickening feeling in my stomach seeing him, the guy who murdered my father,’’ said Tom Donahue, whose father, Michael, was shot to death in 1982, allegedly because he was giving a ride home to a friend on Bulger’s hit list.
Boston attorney Jeffrey Denner, who represented the family of murder victim John McIntyre during civil litigation against the federal government, said it was strange to see Bulger in custody after so many years.
“Seeing him here today, at least, is the first step to finding out what really happened,’’ Denner said. “He looked like Whitey Bulger 20 years later, just as smug as he’d always been.’’
A fearsome gangster who built an underworld empire on ruthless intimidation and brutal violence, Bulger fled in late 1994, tipped off to an imminent arrest by a rogue FBI agent with whom he had cooperated. While on the run, Bulger’s legend grew, and he became a larger-than-life figure, a fixture on the FBI’s Most Wanted List who produced sightings around the world.
But apparently, Bulger and Greig, were living in Santa Monica all along, known to neighbors as Charlie and Carol Gasko. But on Tuesday, a day after launching a new media blitz in hope of producing new leads in its long-thwarted hunt for Bulger, the FBI received the tip that led them straight to his rent-controlled, two-bedroom apartment.
There, in addition to the cash, authorities found a stash of guns, including an AK-47 and a sawed-off shotgun, and fake identification.
Coming so soon after the new media campaign, the timing of the arrest prompted suspicion from some who believe that the FBI already knew where Bulger’s was hiding. But federal authorities continued to insist yesterday that was not the case.
“Any claim that the FBI knew Mr. Bulger’s whereabouts prior to the FBI’s publicity efforts this week are completely unfounded,’’ Richard DesLauriers, special agent-in-charge of the Boston Division said. “When we learned his location, he was arrested promptly.’’
“The FBI crafted a media plan to reach as many people as possible. As is now evident, this effort was successful and led directly to the arrest of Mr. Bulger and highlights the importance of the public’s assistance in these matters.’’
Glen Johnson, David Abel, Noah Bierman, Billy Baker, Maria Cramer, Shelley Murphy, Andrew Ryan, and John R. Ellement contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com.