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FBI said to pay $2m to Bulger tipster

Las Vegas man’s bid for reward was rejected

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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The FBI has quietly paid an unidentified tipster the $2 million reward for information that led to the June capture of fugitive gangster James “Whitey’’ Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, in Santa Monica, Calif., according to a man who tried to claim the money.

The FBI has promised confidentiality to the tipster, who has been identified by law enforcement officials as a woman in Iceland, and the agency refused to comment on the reward yesterday.

But a Las Vegas man, who was seeking the reward, said yesterday that the FBI notified him that his claim had been denied and that the money had already been paid to someone else.

“They said they already paid it. . . . They were writing the check out,’’ said Keith Messina, 45, who called “America’s Most Wanted’’ in June 2008 to report that he had spotted Bulger, one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, on the Santa Monica Pier. “The feds are saying we want to hide whoever it is. What’s there to hide?’’

The FBI referred calls to the US attorney’s office in Boston, which is prosecuting Bulger in 19 killings. Bulger, 82, and Greig, 60, who is charged with harboring a fugitive, are being held in separate jails while awaiting trial.

“At this time, we cannot discuss any details about the reward, including whether or not it was paid and to whom,’’ said Christina DiIorio Sterling, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s office. “The FBI was clear from the beginning that protecting the identity of the tipster was paramount, and information related to the reward will be released if and when the time is appropriate.’’

During an interview with the Globe yesterday, Messina questioned why the details of the tip and the taxpayer-funded reward have been shrouded in secrecy. He said the FBI never called him about his tip that Bulger, a longtime FBI informant, was in Santa Monica three years ago, even though he left his name and cellphone number with “America’s Most Wanted.’’ The Fox show listed his tip as a moderate priority and forwarded it to the FBI.

“They ignored my lead,’’ Messina said. “The question is: why?’’

Messina said he was vacationing in California with his wife, Tonya, and their three children on June 28, 2008, when he spotted a tanned, shirtless elderly man wearing blue denim shorts, a hat, and sunglasses and sporting a gold crucifix around his neck. He said the man, who was holding a book and standing on the pier, looked familiar.

When a young man wearing a Boston Celtics jersey passed by, Messina said the elderly man shouted to the passerby, “Where are you from in Boston?’’ and struck up a conversation about the city, asking if he knew where Newbury Street was.

After returning home two days later, Messina, a fan of “America’s Most Wanted,’’ said he checked the show’s website, recognized the elderly man on the pier as Bulger, and called in the tip.

On June 22, the FBI arrested Bulger and Greig at a rent-controlled apartment on Third Street in Santa Monica.

They had been living at the apartment, which was within walking distance of the pier, since at least 1998 as Charlie and Carol Gasko.

The FBI said the tip that led to the couple was called in to the FBI as a result of a publicity campaign launched by the bureau two days earlier. The blitz featured a 30-second television spot publicizing the worldwide manhunt for the couple that was aired during commercial breaks of daytime television shows such as, “The View,’’ “Ellen,’’ and “Live with Regis & Kelly.’’

The FBI offered a $2 million reward for information leading to the capture of Bulger, a fugitive since 1995, and $100,000 for Greig.

Law enforcement officials said the tip leading to the couple’s arrest came from a woman in Iceland who had crossed paths with the fugitives in Santa Monica and was watching CNN when she saw a story about the new FBI campaign and recognized the pair.

Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Michael I. Gowdey, who represents Messina, said yesterday that he filed a claim with the FBI seeking the $2 million reward for his client. In July, he received a letter from the FBI denying the claim.

“The information provided by Messina did not lead directly to the arrest of Bulger, as required by the published reward notice,’’ Damon A. Katz, chief division counsel of the FBI’s Boston office, wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Globe. He added that Messina’s information “did not contribute in any way to the arrest of Bulger.’’

Gowdey said Katz told him in late July that a tip from another tipster, whom he declined to identify, “was being honored and recognized.’’

But, Gowdey said that if the FBI had spent a couple of days in Santa Monica investigating Messina’s tip, they might have spotted Bulger, who took daily walks around the neighborhood.

“To me, they completely disrespected Mr. Messina’s attempts to help the FBI,’’ Gowdey said. “Regardless of the reward, they didn’t even say thanks for trying to help us.’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.