James “Whitey” Bulger, the violent Boston mobster serving a life sentence for taking part in 11 murders, was reportedly beaten to death Tuesday in a federal prison in West Virginia.
The killing occurred a day after Bulger’s transfer from a penitentiary in Oklahoma.
News accounts from the Boston Globe, NBC News, CNN and other media outlets cited unnamed federal sources confirming that Bulger was found murdered early Tuesday while housed at the Hazelton high-security prison in northeastern West Virginia.
The New York Times reported that two prison employees claimed that inmates beat Bulger to death, and one employee said the assailants “were thought to be ‘affiliated with the Mob.’” The Times also reported that a top law enforcement official who handles organized crime cases said a federal official had stated “that an organized crime figure was believed to be responsible for the killing.”
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Pulice said in a statement that prison staff discovered Bulger unresponsive at 8:20 a.m. today, life-saving measures were unsuccessful and the inmate was pronounced dead by the local medical examiner. The FBI has launched an investigation.
The prisons bureau did not mention a cause of death, or whether Bulger had been killed. The 89-year-old Bulger had been in poor health recently, suffering from heart problems.
A spokesperson for the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, said authorities had just transferred Bulger from the Oklahoma federal prison to Hazelton on Monday. Bulger’s trip to the transfer facility in Oklahoma came after he served time at a federal penitentiary in Sumterville, Florida.
James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, born of Irish descent in Boston in 1929, was one of the most notorious mobsters of his era and famously enjoyed 16 years of freedom on the lam, from 1994 to 2011, while wanted in Massachusetts for alleged racketeering.
He exhibited an early proclivity for violent acts while a “Southie,” a resident of the tough streets of South Boston. He joined gangs, earned his first arrest at age 13 and served a stint in a youth reformatory. It did little for him. He did jail time for assault and theft as a young man. In 1956, a conviction for robbing banks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Indiana got him 20 years. He languished in federal prisons in Atlanta, Alcatraz, Leavenworth and Lewisburg until his release in 1965.
While incarcerated, he missed the deadly war waged by rival Irish gangs in Boston in the early 1960s. Once back in society, he sided with the Killeen gang and soon committed his first homicide. He rose to a high level within the Winter Hill Gang and then reigned as boss from 1979 through the early ’90s. Bulger and his gang hijacked trucks and shook down narcotics distributors, loansharks and bookmakers, demanding a piece of their takes. He blocked the heroin trade from entering South Boston. He trafficked in firearms, once supplying weapons to the Irish Republican Army that was fighting the British government in Northern Ireland.
Bulger and his group also committed murders, at least 19 of them, in gangland disputes. He kept an alliance on the surface with the New England Mob, the Patriarca family, while quietly informing on them to the FBI, which first recruited him in 1974.
His longevity and success in organized crime in Boston was in part thanks to the protection he received as a high-level FBI informant, working with FBI agent John Connelly Jr., a childhood friend of his in Southie. Connelly accepted money from Bulger, took his side against the Patriarca family and warned him about informants without detection from 1975 to 1990.
Bulger eluded the law after fleeing Boston in 1994 based on a tip from Connelly, who learned that the Drug Enforcement Agency was about to arrest him. Bulger’s travels as a fugitive included visits to Canada and England. His freedom came to an end in 2011 when police arrested him in Santa Monica, California, where he lived for years in a townhome with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig.
Federal prosecutors were ready for him. On July 6, 2011, a judge arraigned him on 48 federal charges, including 19 charges of murder. Two years later, a jury found Bulger guilty of 31 of the counts, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion conspiracy, money laundering, possessing illegal guns, and taking part in 11 murders. His sentence was two consecutive life terms in prison, plus five years. Connelly received a 40-year sentence on murder charges.
Bulger was in the news in June when his former gang cohort and fellow FBI informant Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, now 84 years old, mentioned him while testifying as a witness in Boston for federal prosecutors in the murder trial of convicted killer Paul Weadick and former New England crime boss Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme.
Flemmi, himself convicted of 10 murders and serving a life sentence, testified that while with the Winter Hill Gang, he and Bulger used information provided by Connelly to identify and kill several informants.
He described on the stand seeing Salemme’s son, on Salemme’s orders, choke and kill a Boston nightclub owner they feared might inform on them in 1993. Flemmi added that he and Bulger provided payoffs to seven FBI agents in Boston, including Connelly, whom Flemmi claimed received about $235,000 while they worked with him as informants for 15 years.
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. He is the author of Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age and Lost Las Vegas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.