A wrongful death lawsuit that the estate of James “Whitey” Bulger plans to file against the federal government could end up helping the families of Bulger’s victims whose own efforts to collect from the government have been stymied, lawyers said Monday.
Bulger’s estate plans to file a suit against the government for transferring him to a West Virginia prison where he was killed by fellow inmates within hours of his arrival in late October, according to the gangster’s lawyer.
The 89-year-old former South Boston crime boss owed millions of dollars in restitution and forfeiture judgments to the government and the families of his victims, making it unlikely that Bulger’s estate would receive any compensation from its planned lawsuit.
Former federal prosecutor Brian T. Kelly, who was part of the team that won Bulger’s 2013 conviction for participating in 11 murders, said it was ironic that the estate of a man who killed so many people would pursue a wrongful death case, but he said it could prove to benefit his victims.
“It’s important for the victims of his many murders to get compensated, so to the extent his estate recovers any money it should all go to the victims’ families, not Bulger’s family,” Kelly said.
Bulger’s attorney, Hank Brennan, told The Wall Street Journal he is preparing to file a wrongful death and negligence suit against the government on behalf of Bulger’s estate to determine why the US Bureau of Prisons transferred him from a Florida prison to US Penitentiary Hazelton, where he was placed in the general population.
Bulger was in a wheelchair and had suffered repeated heart attacks, yet was sent to a facility that provided fewer medical services and where two inmates had been killed in recent months.
“It’s important for the family and the public to know why the prisons decided to wheel an 89-year-old man with a history of heart attacks into one of the most dangerous prisons in the country,” Brennan told the newspaper, which on Sunday reported on his plans to sue the government.
Brennan said Monday he would have no further comment.
Federal authorities are investigating why Bulger, a longtime FBI informant who provided information against local Mafiosi, was sent to Hazelton and placed alongside Massachusetts organized crime figures.
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, officials said.
No one has been charged with the slaying, but four inmates have remained in isolation while investigators scrutinize their actions.
Mary Callahan, whose husband, John, was lured to Florida by Bulger and his crew in 1982 and killed, said she appreciates the Bulger family’s desire for answers because nobody deserves to be murdered.
“Money will never buy back what we lost as far as our loved ones, never. But anybody can use money,” Callahan said. If Bulger’s estate prevails in the suit, the money should go to Bulger’s victims, she said.
Bulger was ordered to forfeit $25.2 million to the government after his 2013 conviction, and a settlement earmarked millions of dollars for the families of his victims.
But Callahan said the families received only $48,811 each, money that came from assets seized from Bulger.
When Bulger was captured in Santa Monica, Calif. in 2011, along with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, after 16 years on the run, investigators seized $822,000 stuffed in the wall of his apartment. Later, authorities auctioned off the couple’s belongings, raising additional money.
Under a court-ordered agreement, proceeds of the auction and cash seized from Bulger was split among the families of 20 people murdered by Bulger or his crew and three extortion victims.
The families of many of Bulger’s victims filed wrongful death suits against the government, alleging officials allowed Bulger to get away with murder while working as an FBI informant. The gangster was convicted of killing several informants after a corrupt FBI agent warned him that they were cooperating against him.
Most of the wrongful death suits were dismissed after the courts ruled they were filed too late and the families should have known sooner that the FBI was liable for the slayings.
New Hampshire Attorney William Christie, who won a $3.1 million wrongful death suit against the government on behalf of John McIntyre, who was killed by Bulger in 1984, said the cases are difficult and the law tends to protect the federal government.
“Whitey Bulger was a villain, there’s no doubt about that, but for his family I can understand why they’d want answers,” Christie said. “If someone is in prison the government has an obligation to make sure they are safe; they are there to be punished for their crimes not to be brutally murdered.”
If Bulger’s estate wins a judgment, that money should go to his victims, he said, while adding prosecutors could move to seize any award to the estate for the government.
“The argument would be that Bulger wreaked such havoc and caused such harm for the individual victims of his crimes and their families that it’s only just and fair — to the extent his estate came into additional money — that money would go to his victims rather than the federal government,” Christie said.
Patricia Donahue, whose husband, Michael, was gunned down by Bulger in 1982 while giving a ride home to a man the gangster was targeting, won her wrongful death suit against the government, only to have it dismissed by a federal appeals court that ruled she filed it too late.
“It is a shock to think the [Bulger] family is suing,” Donahue said. “Now they have a taste of what we’ve gone through . . . and how frustrating it can be.”
Donahue said she hopes the Bulger family wins its suit and the money goes to all of Bulger’s victims.
“I’m sure the other families hope they win,” she said. “Whatever money I get would go to my kids.”
Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.