This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 25, 2013.
The remarkable story of gangster Whitey Bulger begins in the housing projects of South Boston and ends with his capture by the FBI in 2011 after his 16 years on the lam. By then, Bulger was wanted for 19 murders, extortion and loan sharking for leading a criminal enterprise in Boston from the 1970s until 1995. During much of that time he was also an informant and being protected by the FBI.
In their book, Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, Boston Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy trace the trajectory of Bulger's career in crime and his relationship with the FBI. They covered him for years for the Globe, and say Bulger got going early.
"Whitey talked about when he was 16 years old, he was in the back of a precinct house in South Boston, and he said a police officer jammed a gun in his mouth, and the police officer was leaning so close to him he could smell the liquor on his breath," Cullen tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Even at that tender age of 16, Whitey was clearly in the fast life, in the criminal life, and that sort of began that confrontational attitude he had with authority right there."
Cullen, who also grew up in South Boston and knew the FBI agent who was Bulger's handler from childhood, was the first to raise questions about Bulger's relationship with the FBI.
"I got a call from an FBI agent named Tom Daly," says Cullen. "He said that he had heard from one of his informants who was now in the witness protection program that we were going to do this story and that we were going to name Whitey Bulger as an informant. The agent told me that, 'It's not true, and that if you report something that's not true Whitey will not live with that.' He said, 'He would think nothing of clipping you, Kevin, and you know — you lived there.' "
Bulger was apprehended in California in 2011. He now faces murder charges in a trial in June.
On Whitey's response to school busing in Boston
Murphy: "There was a feeling in South Boston that people were unfairly labeled as racist if they were opposed to busing, and it was really this anger that a judge — a federal judge — was telling them that, 'Your children will be bused out of the neighborhood across town to a neighborhood that's higher in crime with schools that [have been] found are inferior.'
"So there was this feeling of being put-upon, and so while [Whitey's brother] Billy Bulger became one of the most outspoken political opponents of busing, Whitey was working behind the scenes ... And what we found from talking to some of his former associates is that one of the things he did was drive over to Brookline — to President John F. Kennedy's birthplace — and firebomb his birthplace. Part of the motivation was Ted Kennedy at the time was a very outspoken proponent of the need to desegregate the schools. He was very outspoken about it. And Whitey went over, and he wrote in chalk on the sidewalk, spray-painted on the sidewalk, 'Bus Teddy.' "
On the Debra Davis killing and investigation
Murphy: "It's very strange how this whole thing played out. You have this notorious gangster. He's dating this woman. She vanishes without a trace. And they did put a report in the FBI national computer database listing her as a missing person, and then mysteriously, suddenly there's an update to that report that she's no longer missing. She's been spotted somewhere in Texas, which is a complete lie. So [Davis' mother] knows someone in the FBI went into that database and altered that report."
On the legend and reality of Whitey Bulger
Cullen: "He went out of his way to build this reputation, the idea that he was a benevolent gangster, that he was a good bad guy. ... He would give turkeys to poor people. He would do things for people who were down on their luck. I think the biggest myth ... is that he kept drugs out of South Boston. ... If you look back and you go through the studies, there was just as much drug abuse and just as much drugs flowing around South Boston, if not more, than other neighborhoods. I lived there in the '80s, and cocaine was everywhere. So the idea that Whitey kept drugs out of South Boston is a joke and a myth, and is just the opposite: He actually took millions and millions of dollars in tribute and extorted money from drug dealers in South Boston. The only ones he chased out of South Boston were the ones who wouldn't pay him."
On how he became suspicious that Bulger might be an FBI informant:
Cullen: "[Former FBI agent] John Connolly was my best FBI source. John Connolly knew my family. It goes back to Southie again, and he did things and said things that made me very uncomfortable. He just kept praising Whitey and telling me how wonderful he is, and then my cousins are telling me he's killing people and he's pushing drugs all over the town, so it really bothered me. So I went to our editors in ... '87 or '88 when we first started planning the series. I said, I think Whitey's a rat. There's no other explanation for why he would be allowed to be out there. The FBI should have been after him years ago."