It began with a phone call to the FBI field office in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, just a day after the bureau launched its latest publicity campaign aimed at capturing James “Whitey”’ Bulger.
Less than 24 hours after receiving the tip, authorities said, FBI agents and Los Angeles police arrested the infamous Boston crime boss and his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, without incident at a Santa Monica, Calif., apartment building near the beach, ending a 16-year international manhunt.
As federal and state authorities described it yesterday, the events leading to the stunning arrests unfolded extraordinarily quickly and smoothly, in stark contrast to the decade and a half of snags and dead ends that investigators encountered.
And a focus on viewers of daytime television programs may have been the key.
On Monday, the Bulger Task Force, an FBI-led team that includes State Police investigators and other federal and state authorities, launched a new media campaign. To those who had followed the fruitless search for Bulger, it seemed no more likely to succeed than earlier efforts.
The $50,000 media blitz featured, among other things, a 30-second television spot publicizing the worldwide hunt for the couple. It aired during commercial breaks of daytime shows such as “The View,” “Ellen,” and “Live with Regis Kelly.”
The ads were to run in 350 time slots in 14 cities, including Boston. They were aimed at viewers who would have been more likely to encounter Bulger’s girlfriend - 21 years his junior - than Bulger himself. The bureau, which had offered a $2 million reward for information leading to Bulger’s capture, also doubled the reward for Greig, who was wanted for harboring a fugitive, from $50,000 to $100,000.
The commercials did not air in Los Angeles, but the campaign quickly bore fruit, according to the FBI.
Shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday, someone called the Los Angeles field office as a “direct result” of the blitz, Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field office, said yesterday at a news conference at the US attorney’s office. He declined to identify the caller or provide details.
FBI agents in Los Angeles relayed the tip to the task force, whose agents and analysts were in a command post in Boston that had been operating round-the-clock since the spots began airing.
According to law enforcement officials, more than 200 tips landed at the Boston office. The tip that would eventually lead to Bulger was initially placed in the low-priority pile. But as Neil Sullivan, a deputy US marshal, sifted through all the potential leads, he settled on one that described a couple living in Santa Monica. Put this one at the top, he said.
That tip, DesLauriers confirmed, “appeared to be credible and promising.”
On Wednesday morning, officials at the command post asked agents and police in Los Angeles to begin surveillance of a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. By 4 p.m. Pacific time, the authorities had spotted “two individuals who appeared to resemble the fugitives,” DesLauriers said.
The climax came an hour and 45 minutes later. Federal and local authorities, using what DesLauriers would only describe as “a standard ruse ... nothing spectacular,” lured Bulger out of the apartment.
”Agents quickly determined that the individual was in fact Mr. Bulger, and he was placed under arrest without incident,” DesLauriers said.
He declined to specify how agents knew the man was Bulger except to say that they had photographs of him and other personal information.
The authorities then went inside the apartment and arrested Greig. They also confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as about 30 guns, including handguns and rifles, DesLauriers said.
About an hour later, DesLauriers said he received a call from John Foley, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI office in Boston, who had been monitoring the events in California. It was 9:45 p.m. in Boston.
”I have great news,” he told DesLauriers. “We got him.”
Asked to describe his feelings, DesLauriers said, “Elation is what I felt.”
Yesterday, DesLauriers said the publicity campaign was a creative, “outside-the-box” effort conceived by authorities in Boston and Washington. It targeted individuals who might have encountered Greig. Agents focused on her because it was believed that she was more social and had traits and behavioral patterns that would make her stand out.
The blue-eyed, 5-foot-6 Greig, now 60, has undergone several plastic surgeries, including a facelift and breast augmentation. Officials have said she loves going to beauty salons, was known to get monthly teeth cleanings, and adored animals.
Bulger brought shame and embarrassment to the FBI through his corrupt relationship with his onetime handler, former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. For years, there had been speculation that the bureau did not really want to find Bulger because his arrest might lead to the disclosure of more embarrassing information about the agency.
DesLauriers dismissed that notion and said the bureau homed in on the Santa Monica apartment only after the tip.
”Before we received that specific tip, we had no preexisting surveillance on that location,” he said after the news conference.