Spotlight Team 1988: Gerard M. O’Neill (editor), Dick Lehr, Kevin Cullen, Christine Chinlund, and Mary Elizabeth Knox (researcher)
Spotlight Team 1998: Gerard M. O’Neill (editor), Dick Lehr, Mitchell Zuckoff, and Shelley Murphy
When reporter Dick Lehr first heard the rumor that Whitey Bulger — gangster, son of Southie, despiser of snitches and rats — was an FBI informant, he had one thought: Sour grapes.
Local police figured Bulger must have federal protection. They had been trying to catch him for years, but Bulger always seemed to know where the bugs were planted, or when a rival gang was going to make a move. Lehr and his Spotlight colleagues just figured he was smart.
But the FBI wasn’t just protecting Bulger. Whitey’s FBI handler, John Connolly, and Connolly’s boss, the head of the Boston organized crime squad, John Morris, were actually aiding him: accepting bribes and giving him the names of people planning to testify against him. Bulger later ordered that some of those people be murdered. In the late 1980s, however, Lehr and the other Spotlight reporters didn’t yet know any of that. They knew just that Bulger had an odd ability to stay one step ahead of the law and weasel his way out of tight spots.
They began — cautiously — to dig. If they were wrong, it would be fine. There was a story there anyway on the strange paradox of the Bulger brothers: one a notorious gangster, and the other, Senate President William Bulger, one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts.
A breakthrough came when Gerard O’Neill, Spotlight’s editor at the time, had lunch with Morris, who, to O’Neill’s shock, confirmed the arrangement. “It was a real ‘Oh my God’ moment,” Lehr recalls (O’Neill died in 2019). “We’re gonna have to rearrange our understanding of Boston. The ground had shifted.” After getting confirmation from a second source, the Globe prepared to publish.
In the lead-up to publication, FBI agent Tom Daly called Kevin Cullen, one of the reporters working on the piece, to try to warn him off the story, implying that Whitey Bulger might retaliate. “He said, ‘He would think nothing of clipping you,’” Cullen recalls. Cullen, who lived in Southie, didn’t believe that Bulger would kill a reporter, but the call “was chilling because I realized how deeply the FBI was invested in this.” Nonetheless, the Globe moved him briefly into a hotel. And that wasn’t the only concern: Would the piece motivate the Italian Mafia to kill Bulger? “No one wanted blood on our hands, even Whitey Bulger’s blood,” Lehr says.
In the end, the story the paper ran in 1988 was muted. The word “informant” didn’t appear. It referred instead to a “special relationship” between Bulger and the FBI. The story was not on the front page with a blaring headline, but folded into a larger series about the Bulger brothers. Maybe it was too muted — the reporters had thought official investigations and prosecutions might follow. “We had the naive expectation that something would come of it,” Lehr says. “The role of journalism in a democracy is to expose wrongdoing. And then it’s someone else’s job.”
“No one really believed at first that Globe report,” explains Brian T. Kelly, the former federal prosecutor who eventually tried Bulger. “It was too incredible to believe that the premier criminal in Boston was, in fact, working with the FBI.”
It wasn’t until 10 years later that the full extent of the corruption was revealed. By then, Bulger was on the run — tipped off to a looming indictment by Connolly — but his associate Stephen Flemmi, who was indicted for racketeering, defended himself by saying he had been an informant for the FBI. So, in 10 months of extraordinary federal hearings before Judge Mark L. Wolf, the FBI was forced to describe in detail its deal with Bulger and Flemmi.
The Globe covered the hearings and their aftermath in vivid detail, and managed to publish long interviews with Connolly, who refused to testify in court, citing Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination (he was eventually convicted on racketeering and second-degree murder charges). Shelley Murphy, a Spotlight reporter who covered the hearings and interviewed Connolly extensively, witnessed the deep reputational damage the Boston FBI suffered. “New FBI agents who came into the Boston office talked about how it was a real black eye,” she says. “They had to work hard to try to rebuild trust within the community.”
Bulger was finally captured in 2011, and in 2018 he was murdered by fellow inmates in West Virginia. He still maintains an outsize presence in the mythology of Boston. A book that Lehr and O’Neill wrote, Black Mass, was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp as Bulger, and Bulger partly inspired Jack Nicholson’s crime boss character in The Departed.
In the end, Bulger was, in certain ways, not the real target of Spotlight’s investigative work. “Whitey Bulger, to me, was never the main character of this story,” Lehr says. “It was the FBI. That’s the public agency. That’s the institution that was corrupted.”
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