James “Whitey” Bulger was always a sucker for animals.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the notorious South Boston gangster stopped to buy a puppy while driving cross-country during his first year on the run. At least, that’s what he claims.
“Ogden, Utah — when I first went on the lam around 1995 I stopped there for a couple of days — I felt the altitude when climbing up on rocky cliff,” Bulger reminisced in a letter to a novelist who had written to him from the mountain desert city in northern Utah.
“I remember being in a mall — we were looking at puppies in pet store — there was a little boy with his mother who wanted a certain puppy — we bought it for him (with mother’s consent). Hope it all worked out for all concerned — real nice little boy.”
Alison McLennan, a Quincy native who moved to Utah after graduating from high school, received the handwritten missive from Bulger shortly after he was captured in 2011 after more than 16 years on the run.
She has never made the entire letter public until now, a release timed to the premiere of “Black Mass,” a Hollywood blockbuster starring Johnny Depp as Bulger.
“I think once Hollywood gets a hold of something, reality becomes transformed into entertainment,” McLennan said. “I just want to balance the Hollywood portrayal with the voice of the real guy writing from prison. That’s not so glamorous.”
While Bulger’s murder and racketeering trial was underway in Boston in the summer of 2013, McLennan posted an item on a hometown blog, Indie Ogden Utah, about his clandestine visit to a local pet store.
The item drew little attention until last fall, when someone identified only as Nicky posted an intriguing, albeit unconfirmed comment on the blog: “I believe that I was the boy that Mr. Bulger and his wife bought the puppy for in Ogden, Utah. And he gave my mother a large roll of cash, which amounted to over eleven thousand dollars.
“He helped us in a time of need, and I know that he is made out to be the personification of evil by governmental entities and certain individuals, but I found him to be a man of heart and soul.”
The commenter did not respond to repeated inquiries from the Globe.
Bulger’s lawyer, Hank Brennan, said he was familiar with the puppy story, but declined to provide any information about it.
Bulger, who turned 86 this month, is serving two life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Florida for participating in 11 murders, including the strangulation of a woman, while running a sprawling criminal organization from the 1970s to the 1980s that raked in millions from drug trafficking and extortion.
The longtime FBI informant was warned by a corrupt former agent to flee just before his 1995 racketeering indictment and spent years on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list until he was arrested in Santa Monica, Calif., in June 2011, living in a rent-controlled apartment with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig. The FBI found $822,000 in cash and 30 guns hidden inside the walls of the couple’s apartment.
Bulger is suspected of buying many of the guns in Nevada and Utah while he was a fugitive, according to court filings, which make no reference to puppies.
McLennan, 44, who never met Bulger, said she wrote to him at the Plymouth jail shortly after his arrest to tell him that she had written her first novel, “Falling for Johnny,” which was about to be released and included a character modeled after him.
“I think I was a little bit worried,” said McLennan, who feared he would dislike her portrayal of him. She said she was stunned when he replied and had chills thinking about him walking around Ogden in 1995, though she didn’t live there at the time.
“I totally believed the bit about the dog,” said McLellan, adding that the Pet Palace, where Bulger claimed he bought the puppy, was operating inside the Ogden City Mall in the 1990s.
“I didn’t think he was just saying it to make him sound like a nice guy. I think he compartmentalizes all the horrible things that he’s done.”
Bulger’s love of animals is well established. During his first year on the run, he and Greig offered dog biscuits to strays from a bag in the trunk of their Mercury Grand Marquis while driving around Grand Isle, La.
And it was Greig’s devotion to a homeless cat in Santa Monica that caught the attention of a neighbor, who later recognized Bulger and Greig and called in the tip that led to their capture.
One former Bulger associate, who didn’t want to be identified because of privacy concerns, said he knew Bulger traveled through Utah during his first year on the run and believed his claim that he bought a dog for a boy.
“He hurt a lot of people but he enjoyed helping people, too,” the associate said. “It made him feel good.”
But he doubted Bulger gave $11,000 to a stranger, he said. “I did scores with him, and I didn’t get 11 grand,” he said.
In his letter to McLennan, postmarked Sept. 12, 2011, Bulger complained that “many books full of lies have been written about me. I don’t trust reporters or writers.”
He wished her luck with her book, though he said he preferred nonfiction.
As for his future, Bulger said he would not consider suicide and made a reference to the electric chair, writing: “its ‘Ride the Thunderbolt’ or life in Max.”
He asked McLennan if she had seen the sculpture, “The End of the Trail,” of an Indian warrior on a horse, bent over, carrying a spear.
“Reminds me of someone,” he wrote.