BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. — Gabrielle Hanks was driving into town with her son Tuesday morning when she saw an ambulance heading toward the federal penitentiary, its sirens off but lights flashing.
“I told my son, ‘Something happened at the prison,’ ” Hanks said.
At the Mill Place Restaurant, the cook burst into the kitchen with the gruesome tidings: The country’s most famous geriatric gangster had been offed a 10-minute drive away.
They were talking about it at the Family Dollar store and at the flower shop: James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster whose story they know from films and television, was beaten to death at the federal prison nearby.
“We didn’t know he was even there — didn’t have a clue,” said Sue Wolfe, the owner of Country Stems & Petals Floral, in the postage-stamp-sized downtown about seven miles away from US Penitentiary Hazelton, where Bulger was found dead Tuesday morning.
The tale of Bulger has always been a sordid story about Boston, with an intermission in California, where he lived an old man’s life on the lam. But Tuesday, the saga came to an end in an unexpected place: Bruceton Mills, W.Va., shocking a tiny town tucked next to the Cheat River.
“This guy, he’s taken other people’s lives. He didn’t belong here. He just didn’t belong here,” said Hanks, the manager of Pine Run Service Center, a gas and food depot, a quarter-mile from the facility. “They made sure of that.”
The cashier at Pine Run, Tyler Imes, said she spoke with a guard whose roommate, another officer, had seen Bulger’s body.
“He said they did a real number on him,” said Imes, 23. The guard told her Bulger had only been in the facility for 11 hours before he was killed.
On Wednesday, the road leading toward the Federal Correctional Complex was blocked off with barricades, and a group of at least seven officers, most wearing bulletproof vests and snug black beanies, stood guard. The complex is just off the highway, across from a hotel whose guests mostly come on the weekends, during visiting hours at the prison.
The officers at the penitentiary call the prison “Misery Mountain,” said John Driscoll, a retired 68-year-old produce warehouse manager who now works at Pine Run.
“They’re very understaffed,” Driscoll said. “I’ve heard a couple guards say they’re working too many hours of overtime.”
The depot is popular with the correction officers who come in during shift changes. At lunchtime, it’s typically bustling with guards snacking on pizza, potato soup, and cheeseburgers. But the place was unusually quiet Wednesday.
Guards who wanted to put in a food order had called Wednesday night and asked Imes, the cashier, if any reporters were nosing around the place, asking questions. She told them yes, and the officers steered clear.
Imes, who is originally from Wisconsin, said the area around the prison is quiet, a place for hunting and riding four-wheelers.
“This is a real simple place,” agreed Hanks, who moved to the area three-and-a-half years ago from Virginia. “People here are good people. If you break down at the side of the road, within 10 minutes someone is going to pull over to help you. They’ll go out of their way to help you.”
The killing was a front-page story in The Dominion Post — “Infamous Gangster Killed at Hazelton” — along with an article about a man who admitted to strangling a 13-year-old cat. The paper was folded neatly on the counter at The Mill Place Restaurant in Bruceton Mills.
“We were like, of course Hazelton gets put in the paper for something like this,” said Amber Friend, 36, a waitress there.
Bruceton Mills and the Hazelton prison are closely intertwined, and prison guards come downtown for haircuts or drinks at a smoky bar with a single pool table called the Post Office Lounge. The prison is a source of jobs in the area, along with places like Allegheny Wood Products, the area’s farms, and mining.
It can also be a source of unease, with headlines about killings — there were already two this year at the prison, before Bulger — and complaints over staffing shortages.
“We’ve been reading about how they’re short on staff, but I didn’t realize they were that short,” Friend said. Still, she added, her cousin works there and likes it: “He knew that he was helping out by being there, watching, protecting.”
Others around town were processing how close they had been to what happened.
Rick Liller, 62, a Jehovah’s Witness who runs a maintenance business, said he had been inside the maximum-security part of the prison Tuesday morning, where he was leading a group of prisoners in a session about “being courageous in a world that has basically gone crazy.”
“I went in there as usual to conduct my group,” Liller said, before a prison chaplain interrupted the session about 15 minutes in. “He says we have to pack it up, everything’s going on lock-down.”
At the time, Liller said, he was told the lock-down was happening because two inmates were found somewhere they were not supposed to be. It was only later that his wife, Rebecca, called to tell him a mobster had been killed in the prison.