Monday, July 4, 2011

On Whitey Bulger and the Fourth of July

JAN: So here it is Fourth of July and, at least in Boston, all we are talking about at our outdoor barbecues, is Whitey Bulger. The nations MOST WANTED CRIMINAL - once Osama Bin Laden was caught and killed. Frankly, I'm not as creative when it comes to imagining international conspiracy, so I only gave so much thought to how Osama was living in that suburb undetected for all those years. But I am obsessed with Whitey and have endless interest in every surprisingly new development.

For you non-New Englanders out there who don't know Whitey, he was the inspiration for the Jack Nicholson character in The Departed. He ruled the roost in Boston crime for decades and outsmarted the FBI pretending to be an informant. He was captured recently, with his girlfriend, by the FBI in Santa Monica, where he'd been living the good life in a rent-controlled apartment near the sea for FIFTEEN years.

But here's what I find most surprising. 1. How good looking he was in his youthful mug shot. I mean, I've never seen anyone look that good in a mug shot before. I guess the good looks help explain his early male prostitute stint, but even Johnny Depp in his fake mobster role as Donnie Brasco wasn't
quite the pretty boy Whitey was.

2. That, despite his good looks. Catherine Grieg would to go on the lam infinitely with him. I mean, he had just dumped or maybe been dumped by his previous girlfriend, Teresa Stanley, and despite his ready access to cash, it meant a life of laying low and looking over your shoulder. Not to mention sleeping with a murderer, who had killed other bad guy's ex-girlfriends for knowing much.

3. That he had the chutzpah to come back to Boston to deal with "unfinished business." I mean, clearly his assessment of law enforcement and FBI was correct - they were lame. But BACK TO BOSTON? And to think all the trouble we go to -- to make our bad guys actions believable.

So my question to my fellow crime writers is this. What do you find most fascinating or surprising about the Whitey Bulger saga, and what part would you be afraid to use in your novels because its just so damn unbelievable?

HANK: Well, this just in. We had quite a week here--since my husband Jonathan and his law partner and another attorney had absolutely been tapped to represent Bulger in the extortion case. So we had a couple of days of very serious discussion about how that would change our lives, and whether it was exciting, or ..or what. Can you IMAGINE the cool stuff he'd learn? And of course, he agreed to do it--for a defense attorney, it's the case of the century, even though you'd do NOTHING else for years.

But in the end, the government asked that case be dismissed, leaving the other case in another court with a different judge--who appointed a different lawyer. The bad news..and the good news.

HALLIE: Here's what amazed me: He's "hiding out" in Santa Monica?? Taking daily walks on the 3rd St. Promenade?? That is like a few blocks from the Shangri-La, a funky old hotel where we like to stay.

It sure will be interesting to see who he takes down with him this time. I'm glad no one I know is representing him. He's one scary SOB, I don't care if he is 80.

JAN: Wow Hank, that's pretty darn close to the criminal celebrity of the decade (excluding Osama, of course) But I think Hallie is right, maybe he's the one client you want to get away.

JULIA: Hank, poor Jonathan must be disappointed! I can imagine you're a bit relieved, though. As a New Englander, I'm watching with wide eyes and bated breath. After all the speculation on where he was hiding, it turns out he wasn't any different than your granddad, was he? A condo in a sunny vacation community, trips to Mexico, long-time ladyfriend...okay, your granddad probably didn't have close to a million in cash and a bunch of fake IDs.

As a crime fiction writer, I'm taking away three lessons: 1. It's a lot harder to stay hidden for a long period of time. That's why Bulger's arrest is such a news event. Most fugitives don't make it a year, let alone sixteen. 2. He had help from law enforcement, not just during his reign as mob boss, but in "retirement." We like to write about honest and hard-working cops, agents and investigators, but it's important to remember there are folks out there who can be bought. 3. Bulger moved in an entirely male world, but in the end, the only person he could trust was a woman. And she's remained close-mouthed and faithful to the end. Hmm.

ROBERTA: Totally out of it here, I thought you were talking baseball Jan:). Most amazing thing to me is the woman. Would like to do a psychological interview of her and see what her thought processes were like...what an awful, scary way to live...

JAN: I agree Roberta, but can't help wondering, what's the back story with Teresa Stanley, did he ask her to go with him first and did she say no? Did he dump her to take Catherine? Were these babes duking it out over who got to go into hiding with him?

Julia, you sound like my husband, who is certain that Whitey was making payments to Law Enforcement and then missed a payment....

How about the rest of you? Any conspiracy theories? Any plot ideas? How does the Whitey Bulger saga hold up to your own rules for crime writing? And importantly, is early Whitey Bulger as good looking as early Johnny Depp?

Happy Fourth of July everyone. We have a great week. Tomorrow Julia interviews Linda Castillo, bestselling author of Breaking Silence, Wednesday, Talk show host Robin Kall, of Reading With Robin fame, talks to us about why people read, and Thursday, professional private investigators Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman guest blog about their investigative techniques.


  1. As was well said by Frank Phillips in today's Boston Globe, the fascination with Whitey's evil empire was compounded by the parallel "good" political empire of his brother. Toss in the high-level FBI involvement, and you've got a slew of wonderful story lines for multiple books. Whose do you think will be first?

  2. My theory is that Catherine Greig turned him in.

    She'll be absloved of everything..shs could say she was coerced, terrified (as well she should have been, since Whitey is reputed to have strangeld a wman iwth his bare hands), and abused.

    So I think she calls the FBI and they put out that promo (produced by a former producer of mine) and poof, suddenly there's a sighting.

  3. Yes, I love the parallel Billy Bulger story, too, Sheila, and I like how you put the "good" in quotes.

    Oh Hank, that sounds entirely plausible. Slip through the fingers of the FBI, brought down by an argument over who takes out the garbage.....

  4. Hank, I like that theory. Especially since he was 'lured' out alone.

    Love Sheila's idea - the 2 brothers, good and bad. Very different book, depending on which one you make the protagonist.

  5. My takeaway and possible inspiration for a plot: the nerve it would take to hide in plain sight.

    Talk about tension -- knowing every minute of every day that a false step could mean you'd be sleeping in a prison bunk, not a comfortable bed in an apartment near the beach.

    Can you imagine the number of times over the years they must have wondered if they were about to be caught? Did their palms sweat when a police cruiser showed up in the rear view mirror? How did they manage to appear nonchalant when going through customs, or even security at an airport?

    (That would be a funny story, no? TSA agents recognize and bring down FBI's most wanted criminal when he brazenly tries to smuggle six ounces of shampoo onto a plane.)

    I'm sure Whitey's emotional makeup is different than ours (in fact, different from most everyone's). He probably got off on the danger.

    But Catherine? Setting aside for a moment the question of how terrifying it must have been to live with him, how did she handle the stress of hiding in plain sight for so many years?

    Happy Fourth, everyone.

    Brenda B.

  6. We visited Santa Monica last Octber, right before Bouchercon. We walked the pier and took lots of photos. As soon as Whitey was captured I took out the photos to see if he was in the background of any of them, but he wasn't. I'm fasinated by Cain and Abel aspect of it too.

    Have a great 4th.

  7. Sorry, I totally missed this one--apparently I fell off the radar.

    The only thing I knew about this case was learned from watching The Departed, but all very interesting psychology, I agree. Can't imagine living like that for fifteen years, although he seems to have aged pretty well . . .

    On the better-looking quiz, I think I'd still have to go for Johnny Depp:-)

  8. I became more familiar with the Bulger brothers than I ever wanted to be when I was the chair of the Edgar best fact crime committee. All those books called I cheated the mob, I left the mob, I didn't leave the mob, I married the mob and most about Whitey Bulger.
    And most soooo boring.

    And I've just looked at my Kapcha word is biblypol. Fascinating... the book police? City of books?

  9. Brenda -
    Good point. I bet he did get off on the danger, while Catherine suffered. More support for Hank's point!

    Ruth - Too bad you didn't snap him -- wouldn't that photo be a collector's item.

    Today's Globe story - referenced by Sheila - points out that Billy Bulger benefited by the shadow of Whitey. So in effect, the entire state of Massachusetts was in some degree ruled by Whitey. Yikes.