THE BULGER MYSTIQUE
Whitey eludes snares set by troopers, DEA
AFTER A WHILE, they called themselves "The Losers" -- this bunch of state
troopers who spent 1980 trying to bust Whitey Bulger, only to suffer a series
They bugged his office, the phones he used and, finally, tried to bug his
car, but each time Bulger eluded them; he either uttered small talk or nothing
The troopers had stumbled onto the Irish mobster by accident; a tip came in
that a stolen car ring was working out of a garage near Boston Garden. Instead
of stolen cars, the troopers found Bulger and his partner, Stephen Flemmi,
were holding court daily inside the Lancaster Street garage.
Setting up shop in a Merrimac Street flophouse across from the garage, the
troopers began keeping an eye on Bulger. To pass the hours while waiting for
their target to appear, the troopers killed cockroaches, then mounted them on
the wall, noting their size and time of death. From a third-floor window, they
monitored what was suspected to be Bulger's gaming and loan-sharking affairs.
The troopers captured the comings and goings of some of Boston's best-known
drug traffickers, loan sharks and hit men. "We saw the transfer of cash from
hand to hand," a trooper said. One day they tailed a Mafioso carrying a bag of
cash from Lancaster Street to the nearby headquarters of Gennaro Angiulo, the
The stakeout was fruitful; six months of photos and intelligence was more
than enough for a court to permit the troopers to plant a bug inside the
garage. But as soon as they tried to close in on Bulger, the probe that had
seemed so promising fizzled quickly.
First came the agonizing setbacks resulting from their own inexperience.
The trick was breaking into the garage to install the bug. One break-in that
succeeded involved a trooper hiding beneath the floor of a van that had been
stored at the garage overnight. It became known as the Trojan Horse maneuver.
Bathed in perspiration, the trooper climbed out in the early morning darkness
and installed the bug. But the effort went for naught when the microphone
failed to pick up voices.
Follow-up break-ins to move a new microphone into better listening
positions also encountered technical troubles. Putting the mike under an
office couch proved a disaster when Vincent (Fat Vinnie) Roberto, a reputed
Mafia associate, sat his 400-pound frame down and squashed the bug; over the
monitor, it sounded as if a hurricane had hit. Then the monitor failed to
filter out radio transmissions. "We'd hear all the comings and goings of the
ambulances across the city, it was terrible," said a trooper. "Whitey would be
in the middle of a sentence and all you'd hear is, 'Unit 10, you're needed at
In the end, they listened in for about 30 days, but right off the troopers
sensed Bulger was onto them. "Once we installed the device, all the
conversations that were taking place in the open bays stopped," said one
official. "All of a sudden, in the middle of the summer, they start having
people get into cars to have talks."
And the talk they overheard was not the stuff of criminal cases. One time,
Bulger rambled on about how he hated the television show "The Rookies"
because the Irish cops were portrayed as fools. The gangsters constantly
listened to radio station WEEI and, "Whenever they'd hear a story about a
crime, they'd stop and discuss the social significance of it. They'd be
saying, 'You can't walk the streets anymore. . . it's terrible how bad the
crime is.' We'd be rolling on the floor laughing."
When one gangster told another who was going on vacation to be careful not
to drive improperly "because those state troopers out there, they do a great
job, they don't miss a trick," the troopers suspected something was amiss.
Then Bulger began showing up less, so the troopers, convinced he knew about
the bug, tailed him. For three months, they watched Bulger and Flemmi make
calls from the pay phones outside Howard Johnson's in Dorchester. But that
autumn, as soon as they bugged those phones, Bulger became a no-show.
"The day we were authorized to turn on at the pay phones, they stopped
going there," said a trooper.
As a last resort, they tried to put a bug into the car Bulger and Flemmi
drove. The car's alarm sent the troopers scrambling. A second attempt --
involving a ruse in which troopers would act as if the car was stolen, tow it
away and then install a bug -- collapsed when Flemmi threw a fit at the
trooper who pulled him over, shouting that their ploy to bug the car was
In less than 12 months, three swings, three misses.
Three years later, the Drug Enforcement Administration got in on the act.
During drug probes in 1983, the agency kept bumping into Bulger's ghost.
''Whitey's name always came up in one respect or another," said one official.
"Consistently you would hear the stories that they (traffickers) operated
out of the piers of South Boston and that they were operating with Whitey's
sanction and would have to pay him some money through some of his people."
By mid-1984, after months of careful planning, DEA agents inserted a bug in
the windowsill of a condominium where Bulger was living in Quincy, the
Louisburg Square complex. Mostly, all they got was a television blaring.
The drug agents, however, did succeed where state troopers had failed: They
managed to hide a listening device in the panel of Bulger's car door. Instead
of a TV, agents heard a car radio.
"He would not talk to anybody unless the radio was blaring," said an
investigator who worked on the case.
But Bulger's apparent genius for evasive action did not end there; not long
after the bug was installed Bulger drove his car into a South Boston garage
and ordered a mechanic to take the door apart. They found the tiny microphone,
forcing agents to rush over to retrieve the government equipment.
"We got everybody else we wanted to, except Whitey," noted a federal
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 9/20/1988.
© Copyright 1988 Globe Newspaper Company.