Shortly after James “Whitey” Bulger arrived at a West Virginia prison on a fall night in 2018, correctional officers led the 89-year-old South Boston gangster through the compound and past two inmates playing cribbage in a cell tucked under a stairway.
One of them was Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia enforcer from West Springfield serving a life sentence for two gangland murders. The other, Sean McKinnon, from Vermont, was in prison for stealing a dozen guns.
“I heard the unit door open, popped my head out, and saw an old guy in a wheelchair,” McKinnon said in an interview with the Globe, recalling his first glimpse of the notorious inmate. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s him!’ ”
It was a fleeting moment. Bulger didn’t look over as he was wheeled to a cell for inmates with disabilities at the end of the tier. It was about 10 p.m., an hour after all the cells in the unit at US Penitentiary Hazelton were automatically locked for the night, according to McKinnon. He and Geas spent that night in the cell they shared, separated from Bulger by about a half-dozen cells.
Some 10 hours later, on the morning of Oct. 30, 2018, correctional officers found Bulger bludgeoned to death in his bed in cell 132.
In a federal indictment handed down last month, prosecutors allege that McKinnon acted as a “lookout” while Geas and Paul J. DeCologero, of Lowell, entered Bulger’s cell and struck him in the head multiple times, killing him. Prosecutors allege the trio knew of Bulger’s transfer before he arrived at the prison and plotted to kill him.
But in the telephone interview last week from the Seminole County Jail in Sanford, Fla., McKinnon insisted he had nothing to do with Bulger’s murder. And he provided new details of what happened in the hours before and after the slaying.
“I’m an innocent man,” said McKinnon, who had been released from a halfway house in July after finishing his eight-year sentence on the gun charges, only to be arrested in August on the Bulger murder charges. He had been living with his mother in Ocala, Fla., but was ordered held without bail until his trial.
“They basically painted a picture to make me look as bad as they could to get my bond denied,” he said.
Prosecutors allege that surveillance video shows that at 6:06 a.m., minutes after the doors on the unit were unlocked and inmates were free to walk around and go to breakfast, Geas and DeCologero entered Bulger’s cell. McKinnon meanwhile sat at a table with a view of the cell and the officers’ station “to be on the lookout,” a prosecutor alleged in court last month.
Seven minutes after Geas and DeCologero entered the cell, according to the video, they are spotted leaving. There is no footage of what happened inside the cell, but prosecutors revealed in court that three inmates have said that Geas, DeCologero, or McKinnon made admissions to them about Bulger’s slaying.
All three men were charged with conspiracy to kill Bulger. Geas, 55, and DeCologero, 48, also are charged with first-degree murder, which carries the potential death penalty, while McKinnon, 36, is accused of lying to the FBI about Bulger’s slaying when he claimed he knew nothing about it.
In the interview, McKinnon insisted he did not serve as a lookout, but rather was sitting with five other inmates watching the morning news on television because it was part of his daily routine. He acknowledged that the table was located across from Bulger’s cell, but said he never saw Geas and DeCologero enter the cell and was unaware of the attack.
“I never seen anybody go into that cell,” McKinnon said. He said he can’t afford to hire a lawyer, and he and his mother have created a GoFundMe page to raise money for his defense.
During McKinnon’s bail hearing last month, a federal prosecutor said that before Bulger arrived at Hazelton, word already had spread among inmates that he had been transferred there, and Geas, DeCologero, and McKinnon quickly plotted to kill him. Assistant US Attorney Hannah Nowalk disclosed that McKinnon had called his mother five hours before Bulger arrived at the prison to tell her he was coming, then was spotted meeting with Geas and DeCologero in his cell just before the early morning attack.
But in the Sept. 8 interview, McKinnon said that Bulger’s transfer was not “a secret thing,” and that nearly every inmate on the compound had learned of it before his arrival. He said he was told about it by another inmate, whom he didn’t identify, but said it wasn’t Geas or DeCologero.
Prisoners are given five sets of pants and shirts labeled with their last name and registration number. So inmates working in the laundry room, who generally get an advance list of new arrivals, would have recognized the name — Bulger — and most likely spread the word, McKinnon said.
He said there was nothing unusual about his call to his mother, adding, “It’s not like I was the only one calling home saying, ‘This dude is coming to the compound.’ ”
And even though McKinnon’s mother had urged him to stay away from Bulger during their Oct. 29, 2018, phone call cited by prosecutors, McKinnon said he believed they would cross paths because all of the white inmates in the unit shared a table during meals.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy, I’m going to meet an infamous person,’ ” McKinnon said. He said he had read a couple of books about Bulger, knew that he had evaded capture for years as one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, and “thought it was kind of cool.”
McKinnon also contested the government’s claim that he, DeCologero, and Geas met on the morning of Bulger’s slaying to plot his murder. He said that DeCologero had been his cellmate before he was switched to Geas’s cell several days before Bulger’s slaying. He said it was part of their normal routine for the three of them to meet and go to breakfast together.
Bulger’s family has accused Bureau of Prisons officials of causing Bulger’s death by transferring him to Hazelton under questionable circumstances and placing him in general population alongside organized crime figures like Geas and DeCologero. In January, a judge dismissed a wrongful death suit filed against prison officials by the family.
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.
He also had suffered numerous heart attacks and was in declining health when prison officials changed his medical classification, claiming his health had dramatically improved, paving the way for his transfer from a federal prison in Florida to Hazelton, which provided fewer medical services.
Geas has been held in solitary confinement at Hazelton since Bulger’s slaying. DeCologero, a member of a North Shore organized crime group that robbed rival drug dealers and killed a teenage girl they feared might give them up, has four years left on a 25-year sentence and is at a Virginia penitentiary.
Early Monday, McKinnon was moved from the Florida jail and was being transferred to a jail in West Virginia, according to his mother.
McKinnon said he wasn’t involved in any plot to kill Bulger.
“Nobody confessed to me, nobody told me nothing,” he said. “I had no knowledge there was any harm going to come to the man.”
He said he was unaware that anything happened to Bulger when Hazelton was placed on lockdown at around 8:30 a.m. the morning of the slaying. Correctional officers came to his cell, he said, ordered him and Geas to “cuff up,” and placed them in “the hole.”
About three hours later, FBI agents visited McKinnon and Geas in solitary confinement and questioned them about Bulger, and whether they knew who he was, according to McKinnon.
He said he told them, “He was popular. They made movies about him.”