Justice, finally, for Boston
In James “Whitey’’ Bulger’s capture, there is finally justice for all.
There is, of course, the critical justice for every daughter, every son, every sibling, and every spouse of every one of the 19 or more victims Bulger allegedly killed in his multidecade, FBI-sanctioned reign of terror.
There is justice for South Boston, where the mobster ran roughshod over an entire neighborhood, allegedly murdering and maiming and flooding Broadway with drugs that ruined countless lives.
There is justice for every one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of State Police investigators, DEA agents, and Boston police officers who saw endless and arduous hours of surveillance, risky bugging operations, and honest detective work compromised by Bulger and the corrupt FBI agents with whom he consorted.
But beyond the families, beyond the borders of Southie, beyond the cadre of people who have chased Bulger’s shadow across continents and decades, there is another justice that is as broad as it is deep.
It’s about Boston, all of Boston. It’s about how Bulger turned a city of natural skeptics into a community of unabashed cynics when news exploded in the 1990s that the FBI, the nation’s foremost law enforcement agency, coddled this alleged killer.
A federal indictment says that 19 people died while the FBI had this relationship with Bulger. Many were tortured. Grown men and women lived in fear. Others lived in mourning. All the while, Bulger, late at night, dined with FBI agents, slipped quietly into their houses for casual talks, bribed them, exchanged gifts with them — all of it giving him license to kill.
Bulger’s close relationship with the FBI, first revealed by the Globe in 1988, began with his ever-odious FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr., though it didn’t end there. It splashed on all his colleagues in the FBI’s Boston office. It flowed to his bosses, each one of whom was inexplicably mesmerized by Bulger and his equally murderous cohort, Steve Flemmi. It seeped deeply into the US attorney’s office in Boston, where some high-level prosecutors looked as ridiculous as the starstruck agents on the streets. It extended to the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, because what happens in Boston doesn’t stay in Boston.
The alliance was supposedly about the frantic efforts to sink the Mafia, to which Bulger was of dubious help, but it was really about something far less grand. It was about the blind ambition of so many FBI agents who saw Bulger as a path upward. And along that journey, they found in Bulger an unlikely — and opportunistic — friend.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, as US District Court Judge Mark Wolf relentlessly sought the truth about the insidious relationships between the law and the lawless, a city watched in horror. FBI agents took the stand to detail deadly leaks and payoffs. Connolly was later convicted of murder — an FBI agent, in the line of duty, convicted in someone’s death. This city, no city, had ever seen anything like it.
Bostonians by nature are not the most trusting people. Maybe it’s as simple as the weather, which seldom fails to disappoint. Maybe it’s the politicians, who always seemed more craven here than just about anywhere else. Maybe it’s just the ingrained crustiness that comes with being a New Englander.
But when the FBI’s relationship with Bulger burst into the open, a city’s reflexive suspicion transformed into the hardened conviction that nothing, absolutely nothing, was ever straight. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation was contributing to murder and mayhem on Boston’s streets, then what person, what institution could this city ever trust again?
That answer arrived late Wednesday night, and it couldn’t have been any more shocking: the FBI. For 16 years, as Bulger’s alleged victims were found in crude, roadside graves, as the mobster in abstentia was portrayed in a major Hollywood movie, as the mythology of the lovable thug gave way to the portrait of the killer sociopath, two key questions were always tossed around this city as casually as Frisbees: Would Bulger ever be caught? Would the feds ever allow it?
Ends up, it’s yes to both. Old habits die hard, and questions will persist over whether the same law enforcement agency that tore apart families, betrayed its colleagues, and violated a city’s fragile faith can lead a recovery or, for that matter, is providing the whole truth about the capture. Soon, though, there will be an almost surreal opportunity, even possibility, for a community to heal.
Anything goes from here. Bulger’s cellphone records, bank statements, and the rest of the trove that agents pulled from his Santa Monica, Calif., apartment may or may not tie him to people back home. He may or may not decide to take down other agents and politicians in his fall. He may or may not lead detectives to the graves of other missing people.
But in the continued uncertainty, the people of Boston have this: They have Whitey, and in that cell isn’t just an old man, but the newest seeds of trust.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.