GRAND ISLE, La. -- He didn’t look like a gangster. Grandfatherly was more like it, what with his receding gray hair, Bing Crosby-style straw hat, windbreaker and khakis.
He was staying on this small Louisiana resort island on the Gulf of Mexico during the off-season with his girlfriend, an attractive blonde about 20 years his junior, in a beachfront duplex called “It’s Our Dream.’’
He liked to play with neighbor Penny Gautreaux’s two black Labrador retrievers, so she didn’t hesitate to invite him to dinner when he smelled her Cajun cooking and joked, “Do you have enough for us?’’
It soon became a ritual. For months at a time in 1995 and 1996, when they visited this island 90 miles south of New Orleans, the couple who introduced themselves as Tom and Helen from New York would have dinner every night with Gautreaux, her husband, Glenn, and their four children.
They lavished the family with gifts: a stove, a refrigerator, a freezer, toys, clothing, books. Soon the children were calling them “Uncle Tom’’ and “Aunt Helen.’’
Penny Gautreaux, a 31-year-old meter reader for the town, said it was only when the FBI came calling last January that she learned “Uncle Tom’’ was one of the most wanted fugitives in the country: reputed South Boston crime boss James J. “Whitey’’ Bulger.
But investigators also got a surprise: They had a hard time convincing Penny Gautreaux and others who have encountered the charming Bulger during his time on the run that he is dangerous.
These days, he just doesn’t look like the Irish underworld leader wanted on federal racketeering charges in Boston for plotting with the Mafia to split up gambling and drug profits throughout New England.
The Whitey Bulger who is accused of holding a knife to a mortgage broker’s throat at a South Boston variety store while extorting $50,000 was driving around this remote island offering dog biscuits to strays from a bag in the trunk of his Mercury Grand Marquis.
The Whitey Bulger who was branded a reputed killer, crime boss, and bank robber by the 1986 President’s Commission on Organized Crime often shut off the Gautreaux television, lecturing them on how bad it was to expose children to violent shows, including the local news.
This Whitey Bulger wept when a dying puppy was shot in the head to end its suffering. He went fishing once and tossed back all the small fish.
When two of the Gautreaux children came home from school with a note saying they had vision problems, Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, bought them glasses.
“He was a very nice man,’’ said Penny Gautreaux, a slender brunette who doesn’t regret welcoming Bulger into her home. “He treated us like family. He was kind. He really had a nice personality. How could you not love him?’’
Keeping in touch
In the three years since a federal warrant was issued in Boston for his arrest on charges of racketeering and extortion, Whitey Bulger has blended into the American landscape.
Members of the multiagency task force assigned to find him believe his nondescript looks, ability to charm strangers, and seemingly endless flow of cash are helping him elude capture.
Investigators have a good idea of where he’s been; they don’t know where he is.
They believe Bulger, 68, and Greig, 46, are traveling around the country, staying in inexpensive motels and sometimes renting apartments. They pay cash for everything.
They’ve been spotted in New York, Louisiana, Wyoming, Mississippi -- and even his hometown of South Boston.
Money is not a problem for Bulger, who doles out crisp $100 bills from a stash tucked inside a pouch strapped to his waist. The pouch also contains a pearl-handled knife.
Investigators declined to comment on whether they know where Bulger has been during the past year. But they say that he remains in contact with associates in the Boston area in an apparent effort to retain control of his organization.
“We know that he’s making telephone calls to this area often,’’ said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Thomas Cassano, who heads the Violent Fugitive Task Force in Boston. “We know that he’s getting messages to people. He’s not doing what a good fugitive does. A good fugitive cuts all ties.’’
It’s the kind of brazen behavior that investigators hope will lead to Bulger’s capture.
Last August, responsibility for the search was transferred from the FBI’s Organized Crime Squad to the agency’s Violent Fugitive Task Force, comprised of investigators from the FBI, Massachusetts State Police, Boston Police, Department of Correction, and state Parole Board. Four investigators from the 16-member task force are assigned full-time to track Bulger.
According to sources familiar with the probe, a federal grand jury in Boston recently subpoenaed some of Bulger’s friends from Boston, New York, and Louisiana in an effort to pressure them to testify against him. They’re being asked about his travel habits, his recent exploits, and the source of his money.
Investigators believe Bulger’s generosity to the Gautreaux family and others while on the lam is motivated by self-interest. They say he uses impoverished families who unwittingly make it easy for him to evade detection. He ingratiates himself with gifts that buy loyalty.
It was only when Penny Gautreaux was called before the federal grand jury in Boston in November that she admitted Bulger bought her a stove, refrigerator, and freezer.
“He wanted to give [them] to us as a gift for cooking for him,’’ Gautreaux told the Globe. She said Bulger has called her twice since leaving this island in July 1996, but she hasn’t talked to him since the FBI traced him to Louisiana a year ago. She said she doesn’t know where he is hiding.
Scoffing at investigators’ speculation that Bulger used her family to hide, Gautreaux said Bulger was genuinely affectionate to them and his gifts went beyond money.
“He gave us inspiration and courage,’’ said Gautreaux, crediting Bulger with motivating her husband to start his own carpentry business.
“He’d say, ‘Get off your lazy butt; you’ve got beautiful kids. You need to make something out of your life,’ ” Gautreaux said. “If my husband was sitting down drinking coffee, he’d say, ‘Go to work.’ Stuff I couldn’t make him do, he could.’ ”
Gautreaux has to return to Boston this week with her husband and 18-year-old stepson to testify in front of the grand jury again, and she resents the FBI for forcing her to do so.
She refuses to believe Bulger is as bad as the FBI makes him out to be. “I figured they made it bigger than what it is,’’ she said. “Really, I hate them more than him.’’
Ready to run
Penny Gautreaux is not the only one to see the good in Whitey Bulger. At the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project in South Boston where Bulger, the eldest of six children, was raised, people recall acts of kindness. They say he delivered turkeys to poor families at Thanksgiving, and once bought a puppy for a little boy whose dog had been hit by a car.
And for years while fraternizing with local mobsters, Bulger was secretly working for ``the good guys.’’
The FBI admitted last year in federal court that Bulger was an FBI informant from 1971 through December 1990. He’s been credited with leaking information that helped the FBI send the hierarchy of the New England Mafia to prison.
But when the Massachusetts State Police began building a case against Bulger, the FBI joined the probe that resulted in the current federal racketeering indictment.
On Jan. 4, 1995 -- three years ago today -- a federal warrant was secretly issued for Bulger’s arrest. Bulger, his longtime associate Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, and reputed New England Mafia boss Francis “Cadillac Frank’’ Salemme were charged with extortion.
Racketeering indictments followed a week later, alleging that Bulger was shaking down drug dealers and collecting weekly payoffs from bookmakers.
A tip that the trio was planning to flee sent the FBI and State Police scrambling to arrest them on Jan. 5, 1995, but only Flemmi was nabbed that day. Salemme was captured seven months later hiding out in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Where was Whitey? On vacation.
Investigators now know that Bulger and another girlfriend, Theresa Stanley, a woman he’d lived with for 30 years in South Boston, were traveling around the country. They had spent time in San Francisco and were staying at Le Richelieu Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter from Dec. 26, 1994, through Jan. 2, 1995.
“They were driving back to Boston when he heard there was a warrant for him and turned around,’’ said one investigator.
Investigators suspect Bulger and Stanley stayed at a hotel in Connecticut or western Massachusetts for several days while he figured out what he was going to do. Surrendering was not an option. He had spent nine years in federal prisons, including Alcatraz, for bank robbery from 1956 to 1965, and was determined never to return. He was ready for a life on the run; he already had an alias.
So when the FBI issued a nationwide alert for James J. Bulger of South Boston, he quickly became Thomas F. Baxter of Selden, N.Y., a town on Long Island.
Investigators said Bulger began using Baxter’s identity long before he was on the run, even before the real Thomas F. Baxter of Woburn died in January 1979. Bulger obtained a Massachusetts license with his own photograph and Baxter’s name, birth date, and Social Security number. He renewed it every four years.
In 1990, Bulger obtained a New York driver’s license as Thomas Baxter, then renewed it in 1994. For his address, he used the Selden home of cousins of a trusted South Boston associate.
But while Bulger was prepared for the fugitive life, sources say Stanley was not. In mid-January 1995, Bulger returned to the Boston area and dropped off Stanley in Hingham.
Then he promptly picked up Catherine Greig, a dental hygienist who grew up in South Boston and was living on Hillcrest Road in Quincy. Bulger had been having an affair with Greig for more than a decade while living with Stanley, according to investigators.
Bulger and Greig surfaced Jan. 17, 1995, in Selden, where he bought a new black 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis under the name Tom Baxter. He paid $13,000 by bank check and traded in a 1991 Mercury Sable.
Three days later, Bulger and Greig were in Grand Isle, an island that advertises itself as “The Cajun Bahamas’’ and brags that it is one of the world’s 10 best fishing spots.
Most of its 1,500 year-round residents -- a population that swells to more than 6,000 in summer -- earn their living shrimping or working on offshore oil rigs. There are seven full-time police officers; the chief never wears a uniform.
It’s only 3 feet above sea level, so homes are built on pilings, some at least 9 feet high in case of flooding.
There are a couple of small supermarkets, and two restaurants open during the off-season. There are no banks, just one ATM. The island is connected to the mainland by a long drawbridge.
``The only people who go there are going there,’’ FBI Supervisory Special Agent Cassano said. ``You can’t find it by accident. There’s only one way onto the island and the same way off. It’s an odd place for them to be.’’
Police Chief Roscoe Besson Jr. smiles ruefully at the memory. When FBI agents arrived here last January with posters offering a $250,000 reward for Whitey Bulger, he recognized the fugitive’s photo right away.
Twice in 1996, Besson was slowing traffic outside the elementary school at 7 a.m. when he stopped cars on Louisiana Highway 1 to let Bulger cross the street.
“I stopped the traffic and let $250,000 get across the street,’’ he said. Bulger nodded politely once and waved another time. “If he had taken off running, I’d have been on him like gravy on rice.’’
But Bulger didn’t run. He strode confidently toward the beach for his morning walk.
“If I see a guy with long stringy hair, nasty looking, I stop them,’’ Besson said. “I want to know who they are. Tom [Bulger] was clean-cut. I’d see him walking. This is a tourist community. He and Helen were just traveling around.’’
In fact, Greig frequently went to the police chief’s daughter, Chrisel Page, to have her hair cut and colored -- L’Oreal light ash blonde or extra light platinum blonde.
Greig walked alone to Page’s salon. And now, Page speculates that Bulger stayed away when he saw the police car belonging to her husband, a deputy for the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s department, parked in the driveway outside the shop.
Greig was a nice lady and a generous tipper, Page said: ``I enjoyed her company.’’
It’s unclear how long Bulger and Greig stayed here during their first visit, but in June 1995 they were driving their Grand Marquis with New York plates in Sheridan, Wyo., where they bought jewelry on an Indian reservation. Three months later, they were spotted in Gulfport, Miss. And from Sept. 25 through Oct. 1, 1995, they were back on Long Island, N.Y., staying at a Best Western motel in Holtsville.
Then in October 1995, while the FBI was chasing tips that Bulger was as far away as Ireland or as close as Cape Cod, the cocky fugitive was back in South Boston.
From a pay phone inside Conley Terminal, a freight dock, Bulger called the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., to speak to an official who dealt with Bulger when he was an informant.
“You double-crossing [expletive],’’ Bulger screamed at John A. Morris, who once supervised the FBI’s organized crime squad in Boston and was then assigned to the training academy.
Bulger accused the FBI of trying to smear his brother, then-Senate President William M. Bulger, by falsely suggesting that the brothers were in contact while he was on the lam.
A search for Bulger in South Boston, prompted by that call, was fruitless. The first week of November 1995, Bulger was back in Grand Isle, staying at the Water Edge Motel.
A television segment devoted to Bulger on ``Unsolved Mysteries’’ aired later that month. But if anybody here watched the show, they didn’t recognize polite Tom Baxter as the wanted gangster from Boston.
By all accounts, Bulger and Greig love dogs. Greig, who left her beloved black poodles Gigi and Nikki in South Boston, carries a bag of biscuits in the trunk.
“They will stop and pat dogs on the side of the road,’’ said one investigator. “The people they have befriended on the road are usually people they met through the dogs.’’
That’s how they met the Gautreaux family. A brush fire near the Gautreaux house in the fall of 1995 prompted Bulger and Greig to stop their car to watch. They fed biscuits to Penny Gautreaux’s dogs, and asked about places to rent.
She directed them to “It’s Our Dream,’’ a beachfront duplex they rented for about $400 a month from Dec. 13, 1995, through Feb. 13, 1996, paying with $100 bills.
Soon the couple was having dinner at the Gautreaux house, often bringing groceries. He loved Penny’s fried potatoes, and urged her to teach his girlfriend to cook them.
“So he’s probably eating fried potatoes right now,’’ Gautreaux said. “He loved to eat.’’
It was very important to Bulger that they sit together for a family dinner. Bulger often chided Penny Gautreaux to stop eating on the sofa in front of the television.
When their puppy was dying from a birth defect and a veterinarian suggested they put it to sleep, Gautreaux said Bulger thought lethal injection was a cruel way to die. He thought it more humane to shoot the dog, but couldn’t watch as Glenn Gautreaux killed the dog in their backyard.
“He turned his head while my husband shot the dog,’’ Gautreaux said. “He had more than a tear.’’
Bulger and Greig also loved to shop. At least four times a week they traveled to the Wal-Mart SuperCenter, the closest big department store, 40 miles north in Galliano and open 24 hours a day.
They took different Gautreaux children with them each time and bought things for them. It’s also the store where Greig bought her prescription contact lenses, and where, authorities suspect, Bulger used a pay phone.
Gautreaux didn’t think it was odd when Bulger bought them expensive appliances. The family needed them, she said; besides, he was just showing his appreciation for the time he spent with them.
Lanny Schexnailere, owner of Island Appliance Sales, said the freezer, stove and refrigerator cost a little more than $1,900; Bulger paid with $100 bills.
“I was introduced to him as Uncle Tom,’’ said Schexnailere, who met Bulger at a barbecue at the Gautreaux home. Somebody told him that Bulger was a long-lost uncle of the Gautreauxs. “Supposedly he left when he was a baby and was raised by other people,’’ he said. “I figured maybe he made it big and came back to help the family.’’
Bulger left the island in February 1996, but when he returned in May of that year, there was tension during his visits to the Gautreaux house.
The retired parents of Glenn Gautreux’s ex-wife were now staying with the family, and immediately clashed with Bulger.
“He had this attitude like he was the boss,’’ said Thomas “Black’’ Rudolph, 64, Gautreaux’s former father-in-law. He complained that Bulger was rude, often whispering to Penny and Glenn in his presence. And Bulger insulted Rudolph’s wife, Mary, by saying her cooking wasn’t as good as Penny’s.
“He thought women should be seen and not heard,’’ said Mary Rudolph, recounting how Bulger claimed that all he had to do was clap his hands and Greig would jump. The Rudolphs said Bulger teased them, saying, “I have control of my woman.’’
Mary Rudolph admitted, “I think he was joking. He was trying to be a macho man.’’
Still, the Rudolophs didn’t appreciate Bulger’s humor. “I said I worked every day of my life since I was 15 years old and he said he never had to work, he had people working for him,’’ Tom Rudolph said.
Irritated by Bulger’s constant boasting about how he’d traveled around the world and was in great shape, Tom Rudolph challenged him to a push-up contest.
Rudolph dropped to the floor and did three one-handed push-ups, then vowed to do a one-handed push-up for every one that Bulger could do with two hands.
Rudolph said Bulger declined the challenge, claiming to be older than him. But when Rudolph slapped his driver’s license on the table and demanded to see Bulger’s, he refused to show it.
Despite their dislike of Bulger, the Rudolphs spoke warmly of Greig, who spent most of her time playing outside with the dogs and children. She gave the Labs baths and took them to the vet.
“I really enjoyed Helen because Helen was very quiet,’’ Mary Rudolph said. “She was always a loner. We walked on the beach one time and she said something about missing New York. Helen was nice.’’
The Rudolphs said Bulger once made Penny Gautreaux cry when he sternly corrected the children. But Gautreaux insisted she welcomed Bulger’s efforts at discipline.
“He cared for them and that’s why he was strict,’’ Gautreaux said. “If I was as strict as him, maybe my kids would listen.’’
Gautreaux said Bulger was good to her 18-year-old stepson, 10- and 9-year-old daughters, and 6-year-old son. He held the younger children on his lap and read to them. He bought them books and toys, including the Milton Bradley game “Twister.’’
The Rudolphs said Bulger once treated them and Penny and Glenn Gautreaux to dinner at a fine restaurant, located just off-island in Fourchon.
When the hostess tried to seat them at a table in the center of the room near other diners, Bulger insisted on a table in a darkened corner. He ordered wine for the group, drank a couple of imported beers, and picked up the tab.
From May 19 through July 7, 1996, Bulger and Greig rented a two-bedroom home on Cott Lane, a dead-end street around the corner from the Gautreauxs.
Henry and Barbara Wellman, retirees who owned the house and lived next door, said he paid $1,700 in advance with $100 bills.
The Wellmans described the couple as “quiet, polite, articulate, and clean as a whistle.’’
Bulger gave Henry Wellman copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine after he read them.
Barbara Wellman said Greig implied Bulger was retired, telling her, “Well, he never could travel all his life, and finally he can, and he never wants to go home.’’
“To be perfectly honest,’’ Henry Wellman confessed, “I wish we had more tenants like them. They didn’t bother anyone. If they’re criminals, I don’t know which side I’m going to go on.’’
But it appears Bulger’s infamous temper was evident on at least one occasion.
Henry Wellman recalled with a chuckle that Bulger once tangled with a group of men who constantly hung out across the street, drinking beer and staring at everyone who walked by.
Glaring from his deck at the men who were leering at Greig while she walked to their apartment, Bulger snapped, “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen a real woman before?’’
Wellman said, “I was proud of him. To tell you the truth, I liked him. He didn’t give me any reason not to.’’
When Bulger and Greig left Grand Isle on July 7, 1996, they left behind clothes and an iron that are now in FBI custody.
“He said they were going to San Diego,’’ said Henry Wellman, adding, “which probably means they’re in the Caribbean.’’
Actually, Bulger’s next stop was back on Long Island. That same month, FBI agents missed Bulger but found the Grand Marquis he had bought there 18 months earlier.
In the 18 months since he had bought the car, Bulger had driven 65,000 miles. Receipts found inside the Marquis led investigators to Louisiana for the first time. But again, Bulger was gone.
Last May the FBI offered a $250,000 reward for Bulger’s capture and announced a criminal charge against Greig for harboring a fugitive.
There have been reports that Bulger may have traveled around the country for years prior to his January 1995 indictment, stashing money and possibly fake identifications in safe deposit boxes. But investigators also suspect Bulger is relying on a trusted associate to routinely funnel him cash.
“We don’t know the source of the money, and if we did it would probably be a lot easier to track him,’’ FBI Supervisory Special Agent Cassano said.
Federal authorities seized $1.9 million that Bulger claimed as his share of a 1991 Mass Millions jackpot, and $199,000 from a safe deposit box and two bank accounts he held in Boston.
Recently, investigators located a bank account belonging to Bulger in Clearwater, Fla., where he owns a condominium. They are in the process of trying to seize that money.
Investigators believe Bulger is a millionaire from gambling, loansharking, and drug profits.
The Violent Fugitive Task Force has recently placed ads with Bulger’s photograph in USA Today, Soldier of Fortune magazine, and the South Boston Tribune announcing the reward. They’ve posted more recent photographs of Bulger and Greig on the FBI’s Internet website.
Tips keep coming, but Bulger remains elusive -- a friendly man in a hat and sunglasses cruising around the country.