THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

For neighbors in Calif., memories now seem surreal

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By Maria Cramer and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / June 25, 2011

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — They were the gray-haired couple who blended in, yet often surprised people with acts of almost excessive kindness.

James “Whitey’’ Bulger once chastised a neighbor for walking alone in the dark on Third Street, then gave her a flashlight.

When he heard a new neighbor playing country music on his guitar, he gave him a black Stetson cowboy hat.

Bulger’s longtime companion, Catherine Greig, often fetched the newspaper for an elderly neighbor and occasionally sneaked a mango or an orange into the plastic wrap.

On Wednesday, neighbors in the Princess Eugenia apartment building where the couple lived learned who they really were. That afternoon, Bulger’s neighbor and building manager, Joshua H. Bond, took a call from a woman who did not identify herself. She said someone had broken into storage lockers at the complex, including Bulger’s.

Bond called Bulger and the other tenants and told them to meet him in the garage.

When Bond arrived a few minutes later, he saw Bulger in handcuffs. Bond said had been an unwitting but key player in a ruse that city and federal authorities concocted to capture Bulger.

Bond, a 28-year-old Boston University alumnus, could only sputter “hi’’ to the man he had lived next door to for four years.

“Oh, man,’’ Bond said yesterday. “I feel so weird talking about this. . . . They were just your typical old couple.’’

As tourists posed on the steps of the apartment building yesterday and news cameras stood sentry outside, neighbors marveled at how long the couple escaped notice. They hardly acted like people hiding from the law.

Greig would spark conversations with neighbors, and Bulger rarely resisted petting their dogs.

Bond recalled how Bulger, who went by the alias Charles Gasko, often prattled on, with Greig tugging at him almost impatiently.

“ ‘All right, Charlie, let him go,’ ’’ Bond recalled her saying.

They never disguised their Boston accents, though Bond recalled that the couple once said they were from Chicago.

The pair dressed plainly, and neighbors noticed that, through the years, Greig let her blond hair go gray.

“It just seems like a lie,’’ said Catalina Schlank, an 88-year-old neighbor who befriended Greig. “They were such sweet people.’’

There were moments when the couple acted reserved.

Schlank recalled once offering a copy of her house keys to Greig in case of an emergency.

Greig said she had to ask Bulger. A few days later, Greig told her the answer was no.

“She said, ‘My husband doesn’t want to be responsible,’ ’’ Schlank said.

The couple sometimes disappeared for a while, said Denise Walsh, 51, who often talked with them when the couple took their long walks. “There were times when I wouldn’t see them for long periods of time,’’ Walsh said.

Lately, Schlank said, Greig complained that Bulger had trouble sleeping and seemed depressed.

“She told me he had Alzheimer’s,’’ Schlank said.

Bulger said he was a military veteran who had seen combat, Bond said.

Once, Bond said, Bulger said he carried a knife.

“He told me he fought in Korea, and I saw something in his eyes that made me think he killed a guy,’’ Bond said.

Bond met the couple about four years ago when he moved into the complex. Bond said Bulger had been living there since at least 1996 but once told him he had moved in as early as 1991.

Bond recalled that soon after moving in, Bulger came by with a large box and said he thought of the gift after hearing Bond strumming old country songs on his guitar.

Inside was the cowboy hat.

Bulger began calling him “Tex,’’ and in the next four years the couple would give him other gifts, including a bottle of expensive liquor, home-baked bread for Christmas, and a red light for his bicycle.

“ ‘You need to get a light. It’s dangerous,’ ’’ Bond recalled Bulger saying. “He acted so — I don’t want to say fatherly — I would say grandfatherly toward me.’’

John Weiskopf, who lives across the street, said neighbors have been trading stories of Bulger that belie the description of a mobster charged with killing 19 people, including a woman he is accused of strangling with his bare hands. Two years ago, when the owner of the hotel across the street died, Bulger and Greig wrote a long sympathy note to his daughter, Weiskopf said.

After Bulger’s arrest, a middle-aged woman in Weiskopf’s building described how Bulger gave her a flashlight so she would be safe walking at night.

“It’s kind of strange that on one side he was trying to protect the people he cared about or the people in his environment,’’ Weiskopf said.

The stories paralleled those that people recall in South Boston of a sinister but patriarchal figure who fiercely protected the neighborhood he also terrorized.

Jimmy LeBlanc, a South Boston native who moved to Santa Monica less than a week ago, described one afternoon 20 years ago when he saw Bulger walking down West Broadway. At that moment, a dog viciously attacked a cat and a woman began screaming, “ ‘Oh God, the cat,’ ’’ LeBlanc said.

Bulger coolly took out a wad of cash, stripped off a few hundred dollar bills, and handed them to the woman, LeBlanc recalled.

“ ‘Go get the cat fixed,’ ’’ Bulger said and walked away.

Yesterday, in Santa Monica, Walsh stood outside Bulger’s apartment building and described the sadness she felt hearing about the charges against the couple who fawned over her bull terrier, Joey.

The dog was especially fond of Bulger, who two weeks ago sat on the steps of his apartment building, petting Joey.

“I guess he’s not a very good judge of character,’’ Walsh said, petting the dog. “Neither am I.’’

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