CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Patricia Donahue’s husband, Michael, was killed in a spray of bullets in 1982 when he offered a ride to a neighbor whom mobster James (Whitey) Bulger wanted dead. The murder, which Bulger was eventually convicted of, left Patricia Donahue a widow, and her three young sons fatherless.
So when Patricia Donahue learned in recent days that Bulger’s estate had filed a $200 million wrongful death claim against the federal government over Bulger’s fatal beating in a West Virginia prison, it reopened wounds, she said.
“I know they’re looking for answers because they didn’t like the way that their brother died, and all I would say is, ‘What goes around comes around,’ ” she said.
“The ironic thing,” she added, “is that we never got answers, you know.”
The legal claim by Bulger’s estate accuses the Bureau of Prisons, Justice Department and U.S. Marshals Service of abuse, negligence and recklessness in Bulger’s death in October. It seeks answers about why Bulger, a former FBI informant who was 89 and in a wheelchair, was transferred to the Hazelton federal penitentiary in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, a prison known to be dangerous for informants; hours later he was found beaten to death in his cell. Bulger was serving two life sentences for his role in 11 murders, including Michael Donahue’s.
Reports of the claim, which was filed last week and earlier reported on by The Wall Street Journal, left family members of Bulger’s victims with a painful mix of emotions, even as legal experts said it was an important step in a case that raised serious concerns about the safety of prisoners.
“There is no question that greater transparency would be in the public interest,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University.
“Few people are particularly aggrieved by Bulger’s death,” he said, “but that does not mean that these questions should not be answered.”
Bulger was also accused of strangling Debra Davis in 1981. Her brother, Steven Davis, said he believed that there were corrupt motives behind Bulger’s transfer to the federal prison where he died and that he thought Bulger’s family had a right to sue the government. (A jury made no finding in Debra Davis’ death.)
At the same time, Steven Davis said, “There is no question in my heart, I’m glad he got it exactly the way he got it.”
Two lawyers representing Bulger’s estate said his relatives did not expect to benefit financially from the legal claim because the estate was encumbered by more than $100 million in judgments, some of which carry high interest rates. Any money awarded would likely go to victims’ family members, they said.
Patricia Donahue said it would be a good thing if any money ended up going to the victims’ families. But that did not mean she was rooting for the Bulger estate in its claim.
“None of the victims, I’m sure, feel sorry for the Bulger family,” she said.
The lawyers for the relatives of Bulger, Henry Brennan and David Schoen, said the family’s motives were not financial.
“The important thing is for the family to find out what happened,” said Brennan, who was one of Bulger’s lawyers.
“We want to know the decision-making process that led to Bulger’s death in West Virginia, and we want to identify and hold accountable every person involved in that process,” he added.
A crime boss who terrorized south Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, Bulger, who denied being an informant, spent 16 years on the run before being captured in 2011.
Before being transferred to Hazelton, Bulger had spent several years at Coleman II, a federal prison in central Florida that is known as a safe haven for inmates who might need extra protection. Almost immediately after he was moved to the West Virginia prison, at least two inmates pushed his wheelchair out of view of security cameras and beat him with a padlock wrapped in a sock.
Asked whether anyone was charged in the beating, the Bureau of Prisons did not directly answer the question, instead issuing a statement: “The United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI are investigating the death of James Bulger as a homicide. To protect the integrity of the investigation, no further details will be released at this time.”
Brennan said he did not believe that anyone had been charged. Federal law would require that the family be told if anyone was, he said, and Bulger’s relatives have not heard anything.
Questions have swirled about how Bulger came to be moved to Hazelton. In early 2018, he had clashed with a medical worker at the Florida prison and was placed in solitary confinement. After that, prison authorities tried to transfer him to another facility, prison records show.
At about that time, Bulger, who had several heart attacks in prison, was expecting to be moved to a medical facility, Brennan said. Instead, according to The Boston Globe, his medical classification was suddenly lowered by prison authorities, which would have indicated that his health had improved and which may have made the transfer to Hazelton possible.
Brennan said he had spent the past 11 months trying to get information from the Bureau of Prisons without success. He said federal authorities had stopped taking his phone calls and the family had not been given an autopsy report.
“It’s clear that they don’t want to discuss Mr. Bulger’s death,” he said of the government.
The claim filed by the estate is a required precursor to a lawsuit. If the agencies do not respond within six months, the estate can sue, which Brennan and Schoen said was likely.
“We believe that James Bulger was deliberately placed in harm’s way,” a statement issued by Bulger’s family said. “There is simply no other explanation for the transfer of someone in his condition and inmate status to be placed in the general population of one of the country’s most violent federal penitentiaries.”
The lawyers said the family hoped that its claim would lead to transparency and changes that would benefit others who suffered abuse in the prison system.
“There’s something wrong with the way the system’s working,” Brennan said.
Anil Mujumdar, a civil rights lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, and a visiting lecturer at the University of Alabama School of Law, said the family was pursuing an important goal in seeking to force the Bureau of Prisons to reveal what happened to Bulger.
Referring to Bulger and Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and sex offender who officials have said hanged himself in a Manhattan cell last month, Mujumdar said, “If murders and suicides can occur like this in prison, then what that says is that no one is safe in prison.”