The myths of 'Whitey' Bulger

By Dick Lehr
Globe Staff / July 19, 1998
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Back in the 1970s, Whitey Bulger became an FBI informant.

Until the FBI acknowledged that fact a year ago, the notion of Bulger the Rat was unthinkable. But with the release of once-secret FBI files, two decades of Bulger mythology have unraveled.

Myth: Bulger was the ultimate stand-up gangster who not only demanded loyalty from his own but viewed snitches as the lowest form of life. Indeed, a Bulger soldier, John "Red" Shea, once described what he would do to an informant, starting with a bat. "I'd take my best swing across his head," Shea said. "I'd watch his head come off his shoulders . . . Then I'd take a chainsaw and cut his toes off."

Reality: Bulger was an informant for nearly 20 years.

Myth: He wasn't really an informant. His FBI handler, John Connolly, says that when he and Bulger got together in 1975, "He told me, `I will not be called an informant. I will be your strategist.' "

Reality: Wordplay aside, Bulger was an FBI informant.

Myth: Even if it has turned out he was a longtime FBI informant, Bulger only ratted on the Mafia, not his own. For instance, Connolly repeatedly has told others that Bulger set the terms for his cooperation, quoting Bulger: "I'm never hurting any of my friends or [IRA members] . I'll only consult with you on these [expletive] people -- the LCN [La Cosa Nostra]."

Reality: Though Bulger did concentrate on the Mafia, he also provided information about his own associates.

The Bulger informant reports included mention of such non-Mafiosi as Howie Winter, Joe McDonald, Jimmy Sims, and Johnny Martorano, all members of Bulger's Winter Hill gang. He said that automatic weapons held by Joe McDonald were for the IRA. There is even information about his partner, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi. Bulger reported in 1979 that Flemmi was so incensed about a beating his daughter suffered at a nightclub in Kenmore Square he "may whack out" the owner and burn down the club.

Myth: Bulger was unequivocally against drug dealers, a poster boy for antidrug efforts, especially in Southie. In a 1980 FBI report, a self-serving Bulger told the FBI he "is not in the drug business and personally hates anyone who does; therefore he and any of his associates do not deal in drugs."

Reality: The only drug dealers Bulger despised were the ones who had not paid him a fee; Bulger reputedly extorted huge profits from dealers, including in South Boston.

Myth: Prior to his 1995 indictment, Bulger had not been arrested in three decades -- proof of a charmed life and his legendary savvy in outfoxing investigators.

Reality: Though cunning, the lucky charm in his life was the protection the FBI provided him. Because he was an informant, the FBI did not target him. It also warned Bulger about bugs and investigations other agencies were mounting against him. In sworn affidavits, Flemmi last year cited more than a dozen leaks he and Bulger received from the FBI over the years.

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