Retired, former police reflect on efforts to get mobster

They cite work lost when corrupt FBI agent tipped Bulger

Roger Wheeler, 55, the millionaire chairman of Telex Corp. and owner of World Jai Alai, was gunned down outside a Tulsa, Okla. country club on May 27, 1981. He was among the victims. Roger Wheeler, 55, the millionaire chairman of Telex Corp. and owner of World Jai Alai, was gunned down outside a Tulsa, Okla. country club on May 27, 1981. He was among the victims.
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 24, 2011

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The news of James “Whitey’’ Bulger’s arrest came as a shock in the dead of night, jolting awake the retired cops who, in some cases, devoted decades to the frustrating pursuit of the mob boss.

“It’s something I didn’t expect,’’ said Tom Foley, the retired State Police commander who investigated Bulger for years as head of Special Services. “As time started to go on, over the years, you get less and less optimistic it’s going to happen.’’

When Foley, who had been sleeping, received the news in a midnight call from State Police Colonel Marian McGovern, “it took me a little while to figure out what she wanted,’’ he said.

But as it hit home, Foley began to reflect — on years of detective work, on murder victims unearthed from shallow graves, and on investigations that failed because Bulger had been tipped off by a corrupt FBI agent.

“People would say: ‘You can’t do it. You guys are never going to be able to do it,’ ’’ Foley, 57, said yesterday from his house in Clearwater, Fla. “And I’d look at them and say, ‘Maybe we won’t, but we’ll certainly give them hell.’ ’’

Bob Long, a retired State Police detective lieutenant who worked the case, expressed relief tinged by regret at the lives lost and opportunities missed because of FBI interference.

“The media keep showing surveillance videos we had taken, and it just makes me think of the effort we put into it and how sad that it was compromised,’’ said Long, who lives in Norwell and runs a private investigative agency. “I was exuberant that he was apprehended, but it made me think about how many lives could have been saved.’’

Long was awakened by his daughter, Whitney, who works for the Hull Police Department and delivered the news. “I just smiled and shook my head,’’ Long said.

The former detective recalled painstaking surveillance in 1980 by the State Police at the Lancaster Street parking garage near Boston Garden, where Bulger met with mob associates. That effort was irretrievably compromised after an FBI tip to Bulger.

Afterward, Long said, bugs placed at phone booths at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Dorchester encountered similar problems.

“The day we got the court order to bug each of those phones, they stopped showing up,’’ Long said. “It was paranoia. Everybody’s looking at each other: What’s going on?’’

Foley expressed similar frustrations, but said the team remained committed to the case despite its recurring obstacles.

“Were we determined? Yes, we were,’’ Foley said. “We weren’t going to go away.

“We’ve lived with this case our whole careers, and we spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on it,’’ Foley continued. “To finally get him into custody and make him accountable, it’s frustrating we couldn’t have done it sooner. But the final thing is that we’ll get our day in court with him.’’

Long said he is pleased for many reasons.

“I am just so happy that he’s finally coming back to Boston to face the music,’’ Long said. “I’m happy for the victims and their families, that they’re going to have some closure, I’m also very happy for the task force that got them. I didn’t think the FBI was making an effort in the early years, but I really think they have in the last six or seven.’’

To Frank Dewan, 71, a retired detective sergeant for the Boston police who investigated Bulger’s drug connections, the arrest is the culmination of work that began in the late 1980s with fellow officers Jim Carr and Ken Beers.

“I was just happy to see that he was locked up and even more happy to know that when he dies, he is going to die in custody,’’ said Dewan, who lives in Fort Myers, Fla.

Dewan said that, over the years, he did not believe that Bulger had died, partly because his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, had not been spotted.

“I felt that he was alive all the time because there was no reason for her to stay out there if he was dead,’’ said Dewan, who once questioned Bulger when he tossed a bag of money in a car outside his South Boston liquor store.

For Foley, the news spurred calls to reminisce with former colleagues. “We were all kind of satisfied in our way, and we discussed a little bit where we might go from here,’’ Foley said.

That journey now will be a little sweeter.

“I wouldn’t say it consumed me,’’ Foley reflected. “In this business, where you’re doing wiretaps all the time, it becomes very demanding. My wife probably would say it consumed my life, but not to the point where we were irrational about it at all.’’

The arrest will have another benefit, he said.

“For about 16 years, when I walked into a place, somebody would yell, ‘Hey, Foley, where’s Whitey?’ ’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at

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