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Suspect in Whitey Bulger murder has been in solitary ever since

Fotios "Freddy" Geas, shown in 2009, is a suspect in the slaying of James "Whitey" Bulger in 2018.Don Treeger/The Republican via AP

More than 3½ years after notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was beaten to death by inmates within hours of his arrival at a federal prison in West Virginia, no one has been charged with his murder and federal authorities have not released any information about the investigation.

But ever since the Oct. 30, 2018, slaying at US Penitentiary Hazelton, one inmate eyed as a suspect has been held in solitary confinement, locked up for 23 hours a day in conditions that his son and lawyer contend are inhumane and punitive.

Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 55, a Mafia enforcer from West Springfield serving a life sentence for two gangland murders, has been held in the prison’s Special Housing Unit, commonly referred to as solitary confinement, where inmates are removed from the general population and placed in a cell alone or with another inmate, with most rights taken away. He is restricted to a cement cell except for one hour of recreation six days a week, and is limited to two 15-minute telephone calls a month, his son and lawyer said.

“We’re just asking for him to be treated like a human,” said Geas’s son, Alex, 27. “It’s like being held like a POW at Guantanamo.”

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He said his father has repeatedly asked to be transferred, even if it means being sent to the nation’s highest security prison in Colorado, where Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and other convicted terrorists are held, because he believes anything would be less restrictive than his current situation. Geas’s son said his father wrote in a letter this month that he has been told that high-ranking prison officials don’t oppose his transfer, but that it has been blocked by the US attorney’s office in West Virginia.

“There’s no end in sight, no clear-cut explanation,” Alex Geas said. “It’s just like this purgatory.”

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Stacy Bishop, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in the Northern District of West Virginia, said in an e-mail that the investigation into Bulger’s death is ongoing. She declined to comment on whether prosecutors are blocking Geas’s transfer or why he remains in solitary confinement.

The US Bureau of Prisons’ public affairs office did not respond to inquiries.

Daniel D. Kelly, a Springfield attorney who represents Geas, said it’s punitive to keep him in solitary for so long, saying he has been “warehoused” with no television, limited access to books, and a wind-up radio that frequently breaks.

“There’s no reason to keep him there,” said Kelly, questioning whether officials want his mental health to deteriorate or are trying to “get a contrived jailhouse confession.”

He questioned why the investigation has taken years when the witnesses must all be inmates or prison employees.

“The whole thing is shrouded in some whole new level of mystery,” Kelly said.

Bulger, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s to the 1990s, was publicly identified in the late 1990s as a longtime FBI informant who provided information against local Mafiosi.

Yet Bulger, 89, was transferred under questionable circumstances from a Florida prison to Hazelton, among the nation’s most violent prisons, and placed in general population alongside Massachusetts organized crime figures, including Geas and Paul J. DeCologero, 48, of Lowell. Less than 12 hours after arriving, Bulger was beaten to death in his cell with a padlock stuffed in a sock.

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Geas and DeCologero were captured on video surveillance entering Bulger’s cell about two hours before he was found dead, according to several people briefed on the attack. They were immediately placed in solitary confinement, along with Geas’s cellmate, Sean McKinnon. Last summer, after media reports questioned why the three inmates remained in solitary confinement, DeCologero and McKinnon were transferred to other prisons and placed in general population. At the same time, Geas was told he was also being transferred and was placed on a bus, only to be rerouted back to Hazelton, according to his son.

During a brief telephone interview last week, McKinnon, 35, who was recently released to a federal halfway house to finish the last few months of an eight-year sentence for stealing guns, described his nearly three years in solitary confinement as “a horrible thing.”

“You sit in a cell for 23 hours a day, with one wind-up radio,” McKinnon said. “It’s mentally and physically draining.”

There was a window in his cell, but it was frosted so he couldn’t see through it, he recalled. He said he would slip complaint forms through the food slot that were meant for the prison system’s central office, but never got a response.

McKinnon, who grew up in Vermont, said FBI agents tried to question him at the prison a few hours after Bulger was killed and again after he was transferred out of Hazelton last year. Both times he declined to talk and asked for a lawyer, he said.

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“We were the only three Boston guys in that unit,” McKinnon said. “They singled us out.”

He declined to comment on Bulger’s slaying but described Geas and DeCologero as “good guys” who did not deserve to spend so long in solitary.

“That’s just the BOP being spiteful,” he said.

Opponents of solitary confinement say the practice is cruel. Under international human rights law, solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days is prohibited.

“Incarcerated people will often tell you that one of the most painful things about solitary confinement is the uncertainty of when or if they’ll get out,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.

Some courts and several states have put limits on its use, Fathi said, and during his campaign, President Biden pledged to end the practice in federal prison with limited exceptions, such as protecting the life of a prisoner.

Cameron Lindsay, a former warden at three federal facilities, said brief stints in solitary can be useful for controlling a volatile situation among inmates, but it’s unusual to subject inmates to years of isolation. Keeping Geas in solitary appears to have a “punitive aspect,” he said, especially given the unanswered questions around the government’s decision to transfer Bulger to Hazelton, which Bulger’s family equated to a death sentence.

Bulger was in a wheelchair, had suffered numerous heart attacks, and had previously been held in units designated for inmates such as informants or pedophiles who were believed to need protection from other inmates.

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“The transfer of Whitey Bulger to USP Hazelton and placing him in general population was one of the most shocking decisions I’ve seen in 32 years of working in corrections and as a consultant,” Lindsay said. “People have a right to know why this decision was made. Was it an error or was it more nefarious?”

Bulger spent his last months before the transfer at USP Coleman II in Florida in solitary confinement after a verbal confrontation with a nurse. Prison officials changed his medical classification, claiming his health had dramatically improved, paving the way for his transfer to Hazelton, which provided fewer medical services.

In January, a federal judge dismissed a wrongful death suit filed by Bulger’s family against the Bureau of Prisons and prison officials alleging Bulger “was subjected to a risk of certain death or serious bodily injury by the intentional or deliberately indifferent actions” of prison officials. The judge found that prison officials cannot be held liable for Bulger’s transfer because they are protected from suits involving decisions they make while exercising their discretion.

A federal appeals court is weighing an appeal by Bulger’s family. Hank Brennan, who represented Bulger and now represents his family in the civil suit, said the family filed the suit to force the government to reveal what happened.

“We were looking for the truth,” he said. But if the suit is not reinstated, “we know we are never going to find it.”


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.