Bulger offers new details to authorities

Trips to Mexico for medicine; had niece with a unit nearby

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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SANTA MONICA, Calif.— A chatty James “Whitey’’ Bulger provided FBI agents with intriguing details about his life on the run after his arrest last week, boasting that he routinely slipped into Mexico to buy medicine for a heart condition, according to a law enforcement official.

The 81-year-old gangster, arrested at his Santa Monica, Calif., apartment building on Wednesday after 16 years on the lam, allowed law enforcement officials to search his two-bedroom apartment without a search warrant. Inside, they found a false wall that Bulger used to conceal a cache of weapons, and perhaps contradicting reports that Bulger was in ill health, exercise equipment that included a punching bag.

Law enforcement officials have also found another connection between the South Boston mobster and the Santa Monica neighborhood he called home: A niece, the daughter of former Senate President William Bulger, lived 2 miles from Bulger’s address back in 1992.

Though Bulger was a fugitive wanted for 19 murders, he was by no means reclusive. Bulger said he and his girlfriend, 60-year-old Catherine Greig, frequently drove to the border, parked on the US side and walked into Tijuana, using a false identification to get through security, the official said. In Tijuana, he was able to purchase Atenolol, a drug taken for chest pain and high blood pressure, without a prescription.

A former close associate, Kevin Weeks, a gangster-turned-author, said yesterday that before Bulger fled Boston to avoid a federal racketeering indictment in January 1995 he talked about the easy availability of prescription drugs south of the border.

“Before he took off, he used to talk about Mexico,’’ Weeks said. “He said you could get as much prescription medicine as you wanted.’’

The arrest of Bulger, now being held without bail in Plymouth County House of Correction, has written a bizarre new chapter in one of the most sensational crime stories in Boston history. While rumored Bulger sightings came in from around the globe — in April, Bulger was rumored to have died of a heart attack in Costa Rica — he and Greig were living as an ordinary retired couple a few blocks from the beach.

In hindsight, there were numerous indications that Bulger might be in Southern California.

The FBI has known about Bulger’s interest in buying prescription drugs from Mexico since at least 2000, when agents distributed wanted posters in English and Spanish along the US-Mexican border. Earlier that year, a witness reported seeing Bulger outside a hair salon in Fountain City, Calif., about 50 miles from where he was finally arrested. The tipster said that a woman who looked like Greig was inside the salon while Bulger waited outside. A 2008 tipster told the TV show “America’s Most Wanted’’ that he had talked to Bulger on the Santa Monica pier.

But until the FBI launched a new publicity campaign highlighting the girlfriend of the most wanted man in America, law enforcement officials say they had nothing conclusive to link Bulger to California.

Yesterday, the FBI and US Marshal from Massachusetts issued a joint statement rejecting media reports that they initially gave a low priority to the tip that finally led to Bulger’s arrest. They stressed that the tip, which came from a source in Iceland, was immediately turned over to the FBI agent responsible for the Bulger Task Force, who verified the tip’s legitimacy. The tipster, a woman who had encountered the fugitives in Santa Monica, told authorities that Bulger was going by the name Charles Gasko, a name that didn’t correspond to anyone in California, suggesting it was a fake.

“Less than 24 hours after the supervisory agent first reviewed the tip, Mr. Bulger and Ms. Greig were arrested,’’ according to the statement from Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the Boston Division of the FBI, and John Gibbons, US marshal for Massachusetts.

Bulger had rented the unit by 1996 and perhaps as early as 1991, according to the property manager, Joshua Bond, which would be four years prior to his flight from Boston. By the time he went on the lam, Bulger also owned a condo in Clearwater, Fla., and he rented an apartment outside of London. He also stashed cash and documents in safe deposit boxes in London, Florida, and Dublin, Ireland.

When Bulger rented the apartment at 1012 Third Street, the street may already have had a Bulger family connection. In 1992, Bulger’s niece, Mary B. Hurley, lived in an apartment at 2805 Third Street, about 2 miles away, according to law enforcement sources.

It’s unclear whether Whitey Bulger ever visited Mary Hurley in Santa Monica.

A call by a Globe reporter to Mary Hurley’s home in South Boston went unanswered yesterday. No one responded to a knock on the door at William Bulger’s home.

FBI officials found more than $800,000 cash, 30 rifles, shotguns and pistols, and knives in the apartment shared by Bulger and Greig. Yesterday, a law enforcement official disclosed that many of the weapons were hidden in a secret compartment that had been constructed in a wall of the apartment.

Bulger built a similar hidden compartment in a closet wall of the house he once shared with Teresa Stanley on Silver Street in South Boston. Years after Bulger fled with Greig, Stanley had a relative break through a plaster wall to get to a hidden safe containing diamonds, gold coins, and letters Bulger had written while imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in the early 1960s.

On the night of his arrest, one unnamed official suggested Bulger was not in good health, but Bulger appears to have remained concerned about fitness. The arresting officers found extensive exercise equipment in the apartment, including an unusual punching bag. Bond, the property manager, said the punching bag was painted to look like a man’s torso and was kept in front of the window of the third-floor apartment so that it was visible from the street.

Bulger draped a hat on top of the punching bag, which made it appear like a person sitting by the window, Bond said.

Boston attorney Peter Krupp, who was appointed to represent Bulger at his initial court appearance in Boston on Friday, declined to comment yesterday, saying it’s still unclear who will be defending Bulger in the sweeping indictments in federal court charging him with racketeering, 19 murders, money laundering and drug trafficking.

“The case is very large, very complicated, and will require considerable legal effort to defend,’’ Krupp said during a brief telephone conversation.

Yesterday, most of the network television trucks and reporters who had been parked outside the building had disappeared. But curiosity-seekers continued to stop by to take photos of the building.

A young woman who lives in the building and knew Bulger and Greig well said she was devastated to learn their true identities, because the elderly couple had taken her under their wing and treated her like a grandchild.

“He was very protective of me,’’ said the woman, who spoke on the condition she not be named. She said Bulger, whom she knew as Charlie, urged her to let him install locks on the windows of her apartment, cautioned her to walk on the side of Wilshire Boulevard that was better lit when walking home from the gym at night, and advised her to hold her key in a way that would allow her to fight off an attacker.

“They were so kind to me,’’ she said. “My mother has met them and told them thank you so much for watching out for my daughter.’’

The woman said she knew Greig had told another neighbor that Bulger suffered from a respiratory illness, but she saw no signs of it and he appeared physically and mentally fit.

She said the couple often sat on benches at the Third Street Promenade, a popular spot dotted by restaurants and shops that is always busy and has surveillance cameras posted throughout. They would shop at a farmers’ market in the area on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“I think he was mocking them,’’ said the woman, noting that the couple lived only a few miles from the FBI’s Los Angeles office and were frequent visitors to one of Santa Monica’s busiest areas, heavily patrolled by police.

Maria Cramer and John M. Guilfoil of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at