“I never told them a (expletive) thing. I bought (expletive) information, I didn’t sell it.”
— James J. “Whitey’’ Bulger, speaking to his brother Jack, during a recorded conversation at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility last September.
WHEN WHITEY made the bombshell claim he’d never been an FBI informant — an assertion his defense attorney parroted last week outside of federal court — Bulger watchers everywhere were taken aback. Many wondered what Whitey had up his sleeve and whether, at 83 and mostly confined to a tiny cell, he’d lost his mind.
Whitey’s comment is, without question, an eye-popper — given the vast public record proving otherwise, including rulings by no fewer than four federal judges. But a surprise? No. Having researched the long life of the infamous crime boss for a new biography, I found Whitey’s obscenity-laced tirade was the latest evidence of the narcissism of an apparent psychopath who, without conscience, will do or say anything to achieve his goals, no matter how twisted they might seem to the sane.
Whitey’s assertion fit a lifelong pattern of seeking to soft-pedal his monstrosity by assuming the mask of a tough guy but not such a bad guy — which, in his crime world, he’d label as “good, bad guy.” One early example comes in a 1956 letter he wrote just after he began a federal prison sentence for bank robbery. The recipient was the new dean of the Boston College Law School, the Rev. Robert F. Drinan.
“I am no angel, but . . . ’’ Whitey wrote in seeking Drinan’s help, a pitch in which he portrays himself as an altar boy who doesn’t belong behind bars amid so much depravity. It’s a catchy line that becomes, in effect, a Whitey refrain to rebut so much that comes later. Just fill in the blanks: I am no angel . . . but I am no rat, no killer of the innocent (Debra Davis, Deborah Hussey), no drug lord in my beloved South Boston. Even back in 1956, decades before his unholy alliance with the FBI and his corrupt FBI handler John Connolly, newly discovered FBI records show that after his arrest the 26-year-old Whitey was an informant against his fellow robbers.
Over the disturbed and disturbing arc of his life, Whitey has pretended to be the ultimate stand-up gangster, loyal protector of his neighborhood, his gang, and his family, when the historical record now reveals loyalty to no one but himself. Following his arrest in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., he wrote letters to former neighbors who knew him as Charlie Gasko, urging them not to believe what they read in the papers: Again, I am no angel, but I’m not such a bad guy, certainly not the murderer the media, the prosecutors, and my former partners say I am.
Take another example from his prison years. Following his transfer in 1959 to Alcatraz, Whitey realized that to get off The Rock he needed to straighten out. He strategically adopted the guise of model inmate and delicate-eared prison prig. In one prison report, a prison official observed Whitey Bulger had become vocal with guards about the inmate sins around him, writing that Whitey “resents bitterly any disparaging remarks made by others about religion, country, and womanhood.’’
Contrast that to Whitey’s recent chat, where Whitey drops the f-bomb four times in four sentences while talking to his brother Jack. But in Alcatraz it worked; the good, bad guy (with an assist from House Majority Leader John W. McCormack) won a transfer off The Rock after just over two years. The average stay was eight.
Then consider the hoopla a few years back when Whitey’s former cohorts disclosed in court testimony that in the mid-1970s Whitey had invoked his brother Bill Bulger’s name to explain why he’d met with FBI agent John Connolly. Whitey certainly couldn’t mention he was working out an informant deal. Instead, Whitey reported that Connolly, also from Southie, was offering to help him “stay out of trouble’’ at the behest of his brother. In 2003, Bill Bulger denied under oath he’d ever told Connolly to assist Whitey. The media’s interest at the time was understandably centered on whether Bill Bulger had said anything of the sort. But in terms of Whitey that missed the point. The point was that Whitey said his brother had said those things. Whitey was willing put his brother’s good name in play — and at risk — to sell his cover for his meeting with FBI agent Connolly.
Now comes this: I was never an FBI informant. It’s a claim requiring Whitey to discard John Connolly like a piece of used tissue. The same Connolly who served so loyally as his FBI protector all these years, even while he went down, now serving a long prison term for his role in a Bulger gang murder in Miami.
To Whitey, he’s no longer John Connolly. He’s “(expletive) John Connolly.’’ That’s how Whitey referred to Connolly recently while talking to his brother. Because, according to Whitey logic, Whitey’s troubles are now Connolly’s fault. Connolly’s the one who created the mountain of FBI paperwork showcasing him as a prized informant; he’s the one who, before his own conviction, went on TV and radio multiple times to announce Whitey was a gangster, but he was the FBI’s gangster. To serve Whitey’s needs, he casts Connolly as the true villain — with Whitey now recast as the victim of Connolly’s bottomless corruption. That’s the argument Whitey is making when he asserts he was never an FBI informant. He may not be an angel, but never an FBI informant. Not him. He’s the stand-up gangster, the good, bad guy.
Shocking? Yes. Surprising? No. It’s Whitey being Whitey.
Dick Lehr is a professor of journalism at Boston University and coauthor, with Gerard O’Neill, of “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss,’’ which was published this week.