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Kevin Cullen

New Bulger film good, with one large flaw

It was kind of weird to walk into the gorgeous Coolidge Corner Theatre the other night and see the scowling face of Whitey Bulger staring out from a movie poster.

The last time Whitey went to Brookline with a purpose was 1975, when he firebombed Jack Kennedy’s birthplace. Last week, he was back in Brookline, at least on film, as the purposeful subject of a documentary by Joe Berlinger.

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And the film is pretty good, certainly not because I make a few cameos in it, but because it gives voice to some of Whitey’s victims — the Donahue family, the Davis family, the star-crossed Stippo Rakes, who allegedly was slain by some deranged business associate in the middle of Whitey’s trial.

It is also right on the money in pointing out that, after all these years, after the millions spent on Whitey’s trial, we still don’t know enough about the extent of corruption by the FBI and the Justice Department when it came to enabling Whitey.

But with the film already a hit at Sundance and about to be shown elsewhere and on CNN, there’s a necessary qualifier. The film quite intentionally, quite cynically, and quite inaccurately suggests that Whitey’s unsubstantiated claim that he wasn’t an informant is legitimate.

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In fact, in the film, that claim is not seriously challenged by the existing, overwhelming evidence, and the resulting impression, especially for those not familiar with the facts of the case, is so sympathetic to Whitey as to be outrageous.

At one point, Whitey claims he is a victim in all this.

This is more than unfortunate, because I think Berlinger, a serious, accomplished filmmaker, while trying to be fair to all sides, wanted his documentary to stand out by emphasizing something that hasn’t got much currency elsewhere. In his defense, Berlinger says those of us who have spent much of our professional lives chasing Whitey and exposing him for what he is are too invested in the prevailing narrative to honestly and objectively consider that Whitey was not an FBI informant.

Um, no, that’s not true. Serious journalists go where the evidence takes them. The reason why serious journalists who have spent years investigating Whitey and his protectors in the FBI have concluded he was an informant is because there is a mountain of evidence showing that, while there is only his word — the word of a serial murdering sociopath — that he was not.

I would point out that a series of judges, beginning with one of the few heroes in this sordid tale, Judge Mark Wolf, also concluded Whitey was an informant.

If Whitey wasn’t an informant, why did the FBI allow innocent men like Roger Wheeler and Michael Donahue to be gunned down in public to protect him? Why would the FBI simply ignore the disappearance and presumed murder of innocent women like Debbie Davis and Debbie Hussey to protect somebody like Whitey Bulger?

Whitey’s claim that the FBI protected him because in the 1970s he saved the life of a US prosecutor named Jerry O’Sullivan is so ridiculous it is hardly worth examining. But for argument’s sake, let’s do so.

The idea that the local Mafia would even consider taking out the chief of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force, especially years before any of the local Mafia leadership even had a hint they would be arrested in 1983, is ludicrous. That kind of hit would have to be approved at the highest level of the Mafia, in New York, because the ramifications of such a hit would be felt nationwide.

And while it is preposterous to think the Mafia would do it — such a hit would hardly stop a prosecution — the idea that the Mafia’s resolve to murder a high-ranking federal prosecutor would be abandoned because of the supposed threat to the Mafia posed by one measly hoodlum from Southie is a joke.

All that said, I think the feds were wrong to fight so hard to exclude Whitey’s defense from his trial on the basis it had no substantiation, written or otherwise. I think Judge Denise Casper was wrong to approve that exclusion. Allowing Whitey and his lawyers to mount such a preposterous defense would have made him look even more pathetic than he turned out to be when he refused to take the stand.

Whitey wants you to believe his FBI handler John Connolly made up his entire 700-page informant file, to cover his tracks of taking money from Whitey. I suppose that’s theoretically possible, but I’ve read each of those reports, and they contain information about Whitey’s rival gangsters in Southie that John Connolly couldn’t possibly know. One of those implicated by Whitey, Jimmy Lydon, said Connolly didn’t know the personal information that Whitey did.

There is a LOL moment in the film, when Whitey, talking on the phone with his lawyer, Jay Carney, says he was shocked to learn his partner in crime Steve Flemmi was an informant.

Think of Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” saying how shocked, shocked he was to find gambling going on in Rick’s Cafe, just before he accepts his winnings from the night before.

In separate interviews, both Flemmi and Connolly gave almost identical accounts of how Whitey and Flemmi sat together with Connolly, feeding him information. Connolly gave his account to my colleague and coauthor Shelley Murphy in 1998, while Flemmi gave his account to DEA Agent Dan Doherty and State Police detective Steve Johnson in 2003, when he agreed to cooperate against his former criminal associates.

For those inclined to believe that Connolly and Flemmi cooked their stories, little of what Connolly told Murphy was publicized before Flemmi began cooperating in 2003.

So Flemmi and Connolly lied about that, and Whitey told the truth? When has Whitey Bulger ever told the truth? How about when he swore to his brother, the politician, that he would never get involved in drugs? At his trial, Whitey’s lawyers admitted, nay, bragged, that he made millions from marijuana and cocaine trafficking. He poisoned his own neighborhood. Of course, he admitted that, hoping the jury would give him the benefit of the doubt and acquit him of murdering Debbie Davis and Debbie Hussey, because the inconvenient truth of him killing women sort of messed up his carefully constructed narrative of being a gangster with scruples. In the end, the jury convicted him of murdering Hussey and couldn’t reach a finding on Davis.

At a panel discussion after the Brookline screening, Jay Carney repeated the canard that Whitey wasn’t allowed to testify in his own defense. That’s baloney. Whitey chose not to take the stand, mainly because he knew the first question by prosecutors on cross-
examination would be for him to explain all those FBI reports from 1956 that show he gave up two of his accomplices in a series of bank robberies that landed him in prison.

Whitey’s spin on that story is that he pleaded guilty to those bank jobs to spare his then-girlfriend from being indicted as an accessory. But the records show Whitey had his girlfriend be publicly identified as the rat against his accomplices while he confirmed their identities privately to the FBI.

I’m sure, if he had the courage to take the stand, Whitey would have said those records were all lies, all made up by the FBI. Again, everybody’s lying except Whitey.

Berlinger is sensitive to all this criticism. Over a beer, he stressed that only 14 of the film’s 130 minutes are devoted to Whitey’s claim that he wasn’t an informant.

But, as my former colleague and fellow Whitey biographer Dick Lehr points out, everything that Whitey and his lawyers claim is unsubstantiated, and if true would have to be based on a vast conspiracy, stretching over a half century, necessitating the participation of many people who didn’t know each other.

“It’s not the number of minutes; it’s the proportionality,” Lehr said. “Let Whitey have his say, but don’t legitimize the absurd by making it a major theme and allowing headlines about it to draw attention to the film. It’s intellectually dishonest.”

Not surprisingly, Joe Berlinger takes offense at that suggestion. He stressed that he believes Whitey Bulger is a vicious killer. He just believes the government was much worse than Whitey’s trial established.

On that, we agree. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Whitey was a rat. No amount of obfuscation and hype can change that.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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