A pretty, peaceful hideaway

By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2011

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Life on the lam for crime boss James “Whitey’’ Bulger and his longtime girlfriend was not luxurious, but when they did stop running, it was in a lovely setting.

Santa Monica, the city by the sea where they chose to hide, has temperate weather and an easygoing lifestyle. Their neighbors were nice but not nosy. Their third-floor apartment, just blocks from the beach, had no ocean view, but allowed them to enjoy ocean breezes.

And thanks to local rent control laws, Unit 303 was a bargain: two bedrooms, two baths, for $1,145 a month. Building manager Joshua Bond said the couple had been living in the apartment for 15 years and had paid their rent with cash.

A portrait of Bulger and girlfriend Catherine Greig as a pleasant enough, modest-living older couple who kept to themselves began emerging yesterday.

It was, by all descriptions, a nondescript life under the aliases Charles and Carol Gasko that included twice-daily walks, often along the beach, at sunrise and again as the sun was setting, according to neighbors.

Still, small details suddenly loomed larger to the people who had no idea they were living alongside a mobster accused of multiple murders: how Bulger, 81, always had a baseball cap or small fedora pulled low on his face and never went anywhere without big dark sunglasses; Greig, 60, chatting with a woman about the same age and being admonished by Bulger to get moving. That Bulger declined to pet someone’s adorable small dogs was recalled as almost sinister in retrospect.

“He wasn’t that typical Santa Monican who looks up at you and makes the full facial contact,’’ said Seth Rosenzweig, a novelist who recently moved down the hall from Bulger’s apartment and pays $2,600 a month for his almost identical unit. “They were the neighbors who closed their door and were on the other side of it.’’

All apartments in Santa Monica fall under rent control, which holds annual increases to a certain percentage rate but allows landlords to raise rents to market rates once a tenant gives up a unit. So while Bulger paid $1,145, a similar unit in the building that had experienced turnover would cost more than $2,600 a month today.

Bond had a gentler impression of the couple who once gave him a cowboy hat as a gift. “I knew them as my nice old couple neighbors,’’ said Bond, 28, who moved into the building 4 1/2 years ago.

The building with a sign out front declaring it the Princess Eugenia apartments is plain beige with small balconies with wrought-iron railings. The entire entryway is exposed to the street by glass doors, and the name Gasko was on the exterior intercom system, along with other tenants. Yellow roses bloom in a front garden, and the shrubbery is tall.

Nothing about the Princess Eugenia stands out in a section of Santa Monica where apartment buildings with names fancier than their architecture abound. Other units on Bulger’s floor have plush cream carpet, small galley kitchens, and a location that is almost impossible not to envy.

Bulger may have wanted to maintain a low-key presence, but he moved into a building just blocks north of the start of the 3rd Street Promenade, a mix of shops, restaurants, movie theaters, and street performers that draw crowds nightly and can be difficult to navigate on summer evenings.

He lived just south of Montana Avenue, with its even pricier outlets catering to a high-end clientele, where celebrities can often be spotted shopping or grabbing a coffee drink at Starbucks, Coffee Bean, or Peet’s.

The famed Santa Monica Pier is within walking distance.

The neighborhood where Bulger and Greig lived is neither at the high end of Santa Monica real estate nor at the bottom. It is mostly renters and condo owners, ranging from young families to octogenarians such as Bulger who have been there long enough to pay enviable rents.

The younger tenants who heard what the Boston transplants paid each month could only shake their heads.

More than a few tenants used the word spry to describe Bulger, who they said was thin and looked younger than his age. Rosenzweig said Greig, having let her blond hair go white, appeared older than in the photographs released by the FBI in hope of generating tips about their whereabouts.

Another third-floor neighbor, Barbara Gluck, said that contrary to news reports, Greig did not appear “done up’’ and was without the teased hair, a tan, and long nails often associated with a mobster’s moll. Another tenant, an 88-year-old woman who declined to give her name, said she could not believe Bulger, who she knew as Charles, was alleged to have committed 19 murders.

“It kills me,’’ she said. “They were such nice people.’’

Their kindness, she said, included Greig delivering mail and newspapers to others in the building.

As for Bulger, she said he was always kind to her, but never said much.

“Just hello, how are you, and that’s it,’’ she said. “Very handsome — he must have been very good looking when he was younger.’’

Gluck, who has lived in the building since 1996 and was a photojournalist in Vietnam, said she often saw the couple coming and going and that she would chat with Greig. She described Bulger’s decades-younger girlfriend as “a very lovely person.’’

She had less kind words for Bulger.

“He, on the other hand, was kind of a rage-a-holic,’’ she said, describing how he would shout at Greig to “get moving’’ when she stopped to talk.

Still, Gluck said she was able to tip Greig off that organic vegetables could be had for a bargain several days a week at a 99 Cent Store.

Apparently even a mobster with hundreds of thousands of dollars at his disposal appreciates a bargain, and in rent-controlled Santa Monica he got it until Wednesday night.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Katherine Landergan contributed to this report.

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