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Editorial

Bulger was a monster, but federal government must answer for his death

In this Nov. 13, 2013, file courtroom sketch, James "Whitey" Bulger sits at his sentencing hearing in federal court in Boston.
In this Nov. 13, 2013, file courtroom sketch, James "Whitey" Bulger sits at his sentencing hearing in federal court in Boston. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

James “Whitey” Bulger died the way he lived: as a symbol of federal government failure.

Probably nobody’s sad to see Bulger gone — least of all anyone in Boston. But the brutal murder of the aging gangster in West Virginia federal prison on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after he arrived there, is an outrage that can’t be brushed off as just deserts or rough justice.

Authorities are investigating the killing, and reportedly focusing on Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a fellow inmate from West Springfield with mob ties, and North Shore gangster Paul J. DeCologero. The suspects’ affiliations come as no shock: Bulger had plenty of enemies, especially in Massachusetts, and especially in the Mafia.

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But while punishing the killer or killers, authorities also need to look at least as hard at the decisions by federal prison officials that left Bulger exposed.

The Globe has reported that the wheelchair-bound Bulger asked to be placed in the general prison population when he arrived in Hazelton, W. Va. But why did the Bureau of Prisons agree? Did anyone check to see who would be in proximity to him? And how did the killer or killers learn he was there so quickly? A third prisoner with Massachusetts organized crime ties, Paul Weadick, is also housed at Hazelton, raising still more questions why Bulger was transferred there in the first place.

Considering Bulger’s history with the once-corrupt FBI office in Boston, it’s especially troubling that he came to a violent end in a way that’s sure to revive conspiracy theories. To be clear, there’s no evidence that anyone purposefully put him in harm’s way or tipped off the killers. But that history — Bulger bribed Boston FBI agents, several of whom went to prison themselves — increases the need for transparency around the murder.

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At the West Virginia prison, Bulger’s homicide was the third this year. The guards’ union and local officials have raised concerns about understaffing. That might be part of the explanation. Prison violence in general deserves federal scrutiny, and if it takes a high-profile death like Bulger’s to focus attention on the issue, so be it. According to federal statistics, the deaths of 130 federal inmates between 2001 and 2014 were classified as homicides; across all federal and state prisons, the number of homicides annually has crept up from 56 in 2005 to 83 in 2014.

No prisoners should die the way Bulger reportedly did, beaten to death with a padlock wrapped in a sock. The assault was bad enough that the 89-year-old was reportedly unrecognizable. The severity of the beating was supposedly gangland retribution for the years Bulger spent as a secret informant against the Mafia.

It goes without saying that Bulger was a monster. But the fact that he was so universally loathed isn’t a reason to look the other way. If anything, his notoriety was a reason why the prison should have been more careful with him — he was an obvious target. It does no disservice to Bulger’s victims to demand a real investigation into how he ended up on the receiving end of the kind violence he once meted out to others.