fb-pixel Skip to main content

Whitey Bulger’s family blames federal prison system for his slaying

The family of slain Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (above, in 1994) is filing a wrongful death claim against the federal government following his death in prison last year. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

The family of James “Whitey” Bulger filed a claim with the Justice Department Friday, demanding $200 million from the government for his brutal murder last year at a federal penitentiary in West Virginia.

“We believe that James Bulger was deliberately placed in harm’s way,” the Bulger family said in a statement released to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the claim Friday. “There is simply no other explanation for the transfer of someone in his condition and inmate status to be placed in the general population of one of the country’s most violent federal penitentiaries.”

Attorneys Hank Brennan and David Schoen, who represent the Bulger family, did not respond to telephone calls or e-mails from the Globe. In December, Brennan said Bulger’s estate planned to file a wrongful death suit against the government for transferring the 89-year-old to the US Penitentiary Hazelton, where he was beaten to death by fellow inmates on Oct. 30 less than 12 hours after his arrival.

The claim filed Friday is an administrative step, required by law, before a suit can be filed.


In an e-mail, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the agency will not discuss pending litigation.

“The United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI are investigating the death of James Bulger as a homicide,” the statement said. “To protect the integrity of the investigation, no further details will be released at this time.”

The former South Boston gangster was serving a life sentence following his 2013 conviction for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Several relatives of Bulger’s victims expressed mixed opinions Friday about Bulger’s violent death, but all said they suspected foul play by the government.

“What happened to Whitey was wrong,” said Mary Callahan, whose husband, John, was killed by Bulger and his crew in 1982. “It certainly looked like what they call a setup.”


She said she hopes the family’s suit is successful, primarily because the government won a $25.2 million forfeiture judgment against Bulger and vowed to split any assets seized from him among the families of his victims. To date, she said, her share has been $48,811. She said any money awarded to Bulger’s estate should go to his victims.

Christina DiIorio Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office , said Friday that prosecutors had no direct knowledge about the Bulger family’s claim, but “we are monitoring the situation and if it is possible to recover funds for the victims, we will certainly take the appropriate actions.”

The Globe has previously reported that letters Bulger wrote in the months before his death indicated he was in a wheelchair, suffered numerous heart attacks, and was expecting to be transferred from US Penitentiary Coleman II in Florida to a federal medical facility.

Instead, the Bureau of Prisons reclassified his health status, indicating he had vastly improved, paving the way for his transfer to Hazelton, which offered fewer medical services and where eight other inmates had been killed since 2014.

Bulger, who had been publicly identified as an FBI informant who provided information against the Mafia, was placed in the general population, which included several organized crime figures from Massachusetts.

Two of those figures, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia hitman from West Springfield serving life for two gangland murders, and Paul J. DeCologero, part of a Mafia-aligned group, are suspected of beating Bulger with a lock stuffed in a sock, according to several people familiar with the investigation. Nobody has been charged with Bulger’s slaying.


Patricia Donahue, whose husband, Michael, was shot to death by Bulger in 1982, said she thinks the Bulger family has a good case.

“I think the government knew what was going to happen to him,” said Donahue, adding that Bulger never should have been transferred to Hazelton. “The same thing was done to him that he did to other people, but that doesn’t change the fact that the government is responsible for that.”

Both Donahue and Callahan filed wrongful death suits against the government, alleging corrupt FBI agents protected Bulger and leaked information that led to their husbands’ deaths. But their cases were dismissed on statute of limitations grounds.

Donhaue said she hopes the Bulgers prevail because authorities should be held responsible for Bulger’s murder, and any money the Bulgers get should go to the families of Bulger’s victims.

Steve Davis, whose 26-year-old sister was strangled to death in 1981, was conflicted about the Bulger family’s claim. The jury that convicted Bulger of 11 murders and found him not guilty of seven others, couldn’t reach a verdict on whether Bulger killed Debra Davis.

“I’m glad he died the way he died,” Davis said. But, Davis said he understands the family’s grief. His brother, Ronald, died at the state prison in Walpole in 1981 and Davis is convinced it was a murder orchestrated by Bulger and his associate, Stephen Flemmi.


The Davis family won a wrongful death suit against the government for his sister’s murder after years of litigation. He said the Bulgers should expect a long legal battle.

“Everything we’ve lived in the last 40 years, it’s just starting for them,” Davis said.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley. murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.