How 'Whitey' Bulger Greased Palms For His Freedom

Originally published on June 25, 2011 10:25 am
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FBI: Mr. Lehr, thanks so much for being with us.

DICK LEHR: Thank you.

: So, was this in a sense what the CIA might call blowback? You recruit a guy like this and he winds up biting you?

LEHR: Absolutely, in a big way. It's a big bite, because we're not talking about a single case that may have been compromised by improper leaks. We're talking about a trail of corruption, a way of life in Boston regarding the FBI and "Whitey" Bulger that went on for nearly two decades.

: Remind us how and why and how he wound up getting recruited. Because he, I mean he was a thug from an early age. They certainly didn't teach him that.

LEHR: Yeah. the FBI, you know, going back to the mid-1970s, the FBI had a hankering for thugs. It was part of a national effort to recruit underworld figures as what they call top echelon informants to help them in their highest priority - which was fighting organized crime, the LC and the Italian Mafia. And "Whitey" Bulger, as a fairly high-ranking thug in the Boston underworld fit that profile nicely.

: It also, the key pivotal element here, the recruiter was an agent also from South Boston named John Connolly and that's where "Whitey" ruled. And John Connolly grew up in South Boston. "Whitey" Bulger was a few years ahead of him. Connelly was friendly with the Bulger family. He's often in the past talked about as a young boy meeting "Whitey" Bulger and saying that it felt like meeting Ted Williams. And I think that kind of captures the perverse way that Connolly was looking at things.

: Mm-hmm. Where is John Connolly now?'

LEHR: He's in a federal prison convicted of murder, and it was a murder that the Bulger gang committed. They killed a man who was offering to cooperate against the Bulger gang and Connolly was convicted with tipping the gang off about that.

: Give us some idea of how brutal "Whitey Bulger" could be.

LEHR: Well, I don't think he'd thing twice about blowing your brains out, frankly. And as they dug up bodies and as some of the members of his own gang turned state's evidence and sort of downloaded what they knew, it, you know, your jaw just dropping further and further at the fact that they would in a pre-DNA period, pull out the teeth of his victims, cut off their fingers in an effort to make it difficult if not impossible to identify the victims if their bodies were ever found. Stories just started piling on one another in terms of his grotesque manners.

: Mr. Lehr, this 16-year chase for "Whitey" Bulger - is there anything to suggest that for at least some of it the bureau didn't have their heart in it?

LEHR: As time went on and, you know, kind of turning a page in history almost, you know, there's been a real turnover in the Boston office and in the FBI nationally. Some of the agents working on this now I think were in junior high when this all went down.

: Mr. Lehr, is there anybody - the police department and the FBI and the Boston power structure that "Whitey" Bulger can drop a dime on now?

LEHR: Oh, I absolutely think so. But there's no question that the problem went way beyond John Connolly and his corrupt supervisor John Morris. Yeah, he could drop a dime if he wanted to talk.

: But probably couldn't make a deal?

LEHR: You know, what's he going to get out of it? He's done. If he ends up talking I think it's going to be for another reason - of ego, I'm 81, it's time for payback and let it rip.

: Dick Lehr, who's a former reporter for the Boston Globe and wrote the book "Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob," speaking with us from WBUR in Boston. Mr. Lehr, thanks so much.

LEHR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.