James Carroll

Winks and nods for the Bulger brothers

By James Carroll
Globe Columnist / September 21, 1999
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Two weeks ago a savage killer named John Martorano, in a deal with government prosecutors, described in detail his murders of 20 people. Of particular note was his implication of James J. "Whitey" Bulger.

Sometimes Bulger participated in the killing; sometimes the killing was done at Bulger's behest. There was nothing new in Martorano's allegations: James J. Bulger had been named a killer as long ago as 1986 in findings of a presidential crime commission. A 1988 Globe Spotlight Team report had detailed Bulger's history, including his role as an FBI informant.

But the specific nature of Martorano's assertions -- a 1975 victim, Tommy King of South Boston, had been unlucky enough to best Bulger in a bar fight not long before he disappeared -- lent unusual clarity to the portrait of James Bulger. In contrast to his image as a harmless rogue, long promulgated by his FBI handlers, or to his image as Southie's own wise guy, James J. Bulger emerges here as a figure of unchecked evil.

Which, of course, raises the questions of how the FBI could have associated itself with him for 15 years, could have protected him -- or worse. What if FBI malfeasance was rooted in a broader culture of tolerance for this killer?

For many years, large parts of the Massachusetts political establishment willingly winked at the savage behavior of James Bulger, and that succession of winks eventually became a pervasive moral blindness. The explicitly expressed tolerance for James Bulger polluted not only law enforcement but government itself, fueling public cynicism, spreading fear, and turning the public sector into a murderer's accomplice.

Obviously all of this is tied to the role of James Bulger's brother William Bulger, the former Senate president. No one can lay the crimes of James Bulger at his brother's feet, and no one can fault William Bulger for his expressions of brotherly love despite everything. But the former Senate president went much further than that. It was his winking at the exploits of James Bulger that sponsored everyone else's.

In the magical curl of William Bulger's wit, James Bulger emerged as a figure of fun. Rumors of his underworld activities were an apparent source of pride, not shame. William Bulger was almost always discreet about such manifestations, but, as if to be sure that everyone in government knew what attitude to strike, there was a series of rare public occasions in which the politician brother celebrated the criminal. Those, of course, were the annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast roasts over which William Bulger presided.

At the 1992 breakfast, Governor William Weld asked for the microphone. "You can have that," Bulger said. "You can have anything you want. You've got everything anyway. You inherited it. My family has to win the lottery." This was a reference to James Bulger's money laundering scheme, built around an obviously fraudulent claim to have won the lottery. The audience loved the joke.

A Globe report on the breakfast the next day said, "Bulger and others repeatedly made reference to his younger brother James (Whitey) Bulger, a reputed South Boston gangster, and to a lottery win by one of his associates last year." But the masterpiece riff on James Bulger's lottery scam was delivered by Governor Weld, who sang a ditty composed for the occasion.

"Hello, Billy Bulger, you're the king of old South Boston / but a duke on Beacon Hill," it began. The Weld song included this verse; "Remember last year, Billy, when your brother won the dough? / He said he had to split it up with so-and-so./ But things could have been so much worse in splitting up his game. / If he had made the score the year before, he'd have had to split with Crane."

At the end of the song, Weld, according to the Globe report, "held up pictures of himself shooting a gun and a group of men who appeared to be firing back to illustrate what he says was his first `secret' meeting with Bulger." The joke here, of course, is that Weld, in his run for governor, had attacked William Bulger as an emblem of all that was wrong with Massachusetts politics. No more. And the guns proved it.

Flash forward to the St. Patrick's Day breakfast in 1995. Present were both US senators, Boston's mayor, a presidential candidate, two-dozen local officials, and hundreds of others. President Clinton would call in by telephone. Once again, a highlight was provided by a singing Governor Weld.

Barely two months before, James Bulger had become a fugitive. (US District Judge Mark L. Wolf asserted last week that Bulger's former FBI handler had tipped him off to a coming indictment.) Weld's song was to the tune of "Charlie on the MTA," and once again it was about the killer. "Will he ever return?" Weld sang. "No, he'll never return. / No, he'll never come back this way. / I just got a call from the Kendall Square Station. / He's with Charlie on the MTA." The gang loved it, but imagine how pleased James Bulger's tipster must have been.

Weld, in these instances, provides a measure of the depth of this corruption. He had served, after all, as a US attorney, with direct knowledge of James Bulger's crimes. A wink from him could make even the most compromised FBI agent relax, and it could enable so many others to stifle their misgivings and sign on to this deadly arrangement.

James Bulger, still at large, is an embarrassment to the FBI. He is a danger to the public. And in the way in which his fate became entangled with his brother's and in the way they then used each other to advance their separate agendas, the entire story remains a mark on the soul of the Commonwealth.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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