Prison authorities claimed James “Whitey” Bulger’s health had improved dramatically before they sent him to the West Virginia prison where he was murdered last month, brutally beaten by inmates just hours after he arrived.
But the gangster’s own words, like a voice from beyond the grave, tell a different story.
In a series of letters written over the past several years to a former convict who, like Bulger, served time at the Alcatraz penitentiary, the ex-South Boston crime boss described a litany of worsening health problems that included several heart attacks and blackouts.
“Could barely breath [sic] pain so bad couldn’t think too straight,” Bulger wrote from his cell at the US Penitentiary Coleman 2 in Florida in the early hours of July 10, 2017, describing an episode that felt like a heart attack. “Friend pushed me down to medical — first off wanted oxygen.”
In detailed, handwritten missives, Bulger confided in Charlie Hopkins, 86, of Florida, who shared some of the correspondence with the Globe this week. Hopkins, who served 11 years in prison for kidnapping, initially wrote to Bulger after hearing that the former gangster had paid for the funeral of a mutual friend.
In the July 2017 letter, Bulger wrote that he had rebuffed the medical staff’s offer to take him to a local hospital, where he knew he would be shackled to a bed.
“I prefer to stay here and hope to get a peaceful death,” Bulger wrote, “one of those he Died in his Sleep kind.”
But instead of waiting out his time in the Florida prison, Bulger, 89, was transferred to the US Penitentiary Hazelton, a West Virginia facility that offered fewer medical services and where two inmates had been killed in recent months.
The state of Bulger’s health is at the heart of the mystery surrounding his killing. Bulger spent the past five years at “medical care Level 3” prisons — in Arizona and then in Florida — that offered specialized care for “fragile” inmates who require frequent treatment, the Globe has reported.
Bulger was no longer strong enough to walk and was relying on a wheelchair when authorities at the Florida prison sought permission in April to transfer him to a federal medical center that provided around-the-clock care, according to prison records. After that request was denied, authorities claimed Bulger’s health had dramatically improved, making him eligible to be transferred to Hazelton, a Level 2 care prison that provided significantly more limited medical services.
That decision perplexes Hopkins, who said he felt obligated to share Bulger’s letters to shed light on his friend’s health situation.
“He told me three or four times in the past 18 months that he was having blackouts,” he said. “A couple of times he felt sure that he was dying. He was able to get a nitro pill in his mouth and that would start bringing him out of it.”
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson declined to comment on why Bulger’s health status was changed, but said Bulger was transferred out of the Florida prison “due to a direct serious threat made by him against a staff member at that facility.”
A prison official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter, said Bulger told a female nurse “your day of reckoning is coming.”
Prison records show Bulger was originally given 30 days in solitary confinement for the infraction in February, but authorities kept him there until his transfer in October.
The prison official who is familiar with Bulger’s record as an inmate said the Florida prison considered Bulger a nuisance and lowered his needed care level to make it easier to transfer him.
Federal authorities are investigating why Bulger, a longtime FBI informant who provided information against local Mafiosi, was sent to Hazelton and placed in general population alongside Massachusetts organized crime figures.
The gangster was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for participating in 11 murders while running a sprawling criminal organization from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Bulger arrived at the high-security prison in Bruceton Mills, W.Va., at 6:45 p.m. on Oct. 29. The following morning, officers found his bloodied body wrapped in a blanket. He’d been beaten with a lock stuffed in a sock, according to officials. Nobody has been charged with the slaying, but four inmates have remained in isolation while investigators scrutinize their actions.
News of Bulger’s death stunned Hopkins, who hadn’t heard from Bulger since early this year. When Bulger stopped answering his letters, Hopkins said, he assumed the old gangster had become too ill to write, unaware he had spent months in isolation at Coleman before being transferred to Hazelton.
Hopkins said he was speaking out and sharing the letters “to try to get justice for Whitey, for what they did to him.”
He said there was “no excuse” for officials to upgrade Bulger’s health status and send him to Hazelton and that he hoped “to get justice” for what was done to his friend.
“They knew what would happen if they put him in a place like that, and I think that was the sole purpose of transferring him,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins landed at Alcatraz in 1955 for his role in a cross-country robbery and kidnapping spree led by a notorious Massachusetts bandit named James Francis Hill, known as “3 Gun.” Unlike Bulger, Hopkins said he stayed out of trouble after prison, working in Florida as a carpet installer until his retirement in 1995.
Hopkins said he never crossed paths with Bulger, a convicted bank robber who arrived at Alcatraz shortly after his transfer to another prison, but they bonded through letters.
Hopkins said he began writing to Bulger because he was impressed after reading of Bulger’s generosity to another Alcatraz prisoner, Clarence “The Choctaw Kid” Carnes, a Native American who had been convicted of murder at 16 after his accomplice killed an attendant while they were robbing a gas station. Bulger learned that Carnes had been buried in a pauper’s grave after his death in 1988, and paid $10,000 to have his body exhumed and given a proper Choctaw burial in his hometown, Daisy, Okla.
“There was a better side to Whitey,” said Hopkins, recounting a letter in which Bulger described the sadness of visiting days at the Florida prison, as children cried when they had to say goodbye to their fathers.
In many of his letters, Bulger complained that prosecutors cut controversial deals that allowed killers to go free in exchange for their testimony against him, yet prosecuted his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, whose only crime was joining him on the run.
Frequently, he complained about his failing health.
“I dread going back into the hospital again,” Bulger wrote in neat cursive on May 23, 2017, at 3:35 a.m. “Its in town and naturally lots of security – shackles and chains through them and into end of the bed and left hand with cursed black box invented by some “inmate” with heavy padlock. I’ve been in that situation 3 times — heart attacks — have had 4 — running out of my 9 lives.”
He said the black box contraption intended to keep him from escaping was heavy and hurt his shoulder.
“Would like to get one of those easy deaths — go in your sleep — no black box and hospital wouldn’t be an ordeal,” he wrote.
He signed off, “Charlie stay Healthy — want last man standing to be you or I — Your Friend Jim Bulger.”