When I was younger, my family used to frequently visit relatives in Arkansas. (Except, of course, when we were actually living in Arkansas but that’s another story…) Any time that we were driving to Arkansas for a visit, we would always stop at this little park in Oklahoma. We’d eat lunch and then I’d run into the rest stop and I’d look at this big aquarium that was full of gold fish. And then after looking at the aquarium, I’d run over to the corner where they had all of the latest wanted posters and I’d look at who the FBI was searching for that year.
What always fascinated me was that, while there were always new faces posted in that corner, there were also posters that stayed up there for years. And, in my own weird little way, seeing those posters became something of a ritual that I always looked forward to. What fascinated me was reading about how each of these dangerous fugitives could be identified. One guy, for instance, was described as being a fancy dresser and a big tipper and, since I had heard horror stories about being a waitress from several of my relatives, I wondered how bad the guy could be if he was a big tipper. I was always interested to see who was thought to be in Mexico and who may have escaped up to Canada and I’ll admit that there was a part of me that always wondered if maybe they could be in Oklahoma, eating at that very park!
From the first time I saw James J. Bulger’s poster in the corner, it made an impression on me. First off, there was his picture, which made him look like an assistant principal. Then there was his long list of aliases. (Even back then, I was obsessed with lists and names.)
And finally, there were all of his identifying details.
For instance, the poster told me that he was fluent in several languages. The poster said that he had recently been sighted in Europe, which I often fantasized about visiting. It said that he was traveling with his girlfriend and that both of them loved animals….
I loved animals!
And, of course, then I would notice that this cultured and multilingual animal lover was wanted for 19 counts of murder, drug trafficking, extortion, and a whole lot of other things. The list of crimes told me that this James “Whitey” Bulger was not a good man but the identifying traits suggested something else.
(Another reason that Whitey made an impression on me is that he looked a lot less scary than Osama Bin Laden, who — the last few times we stopped at that rest stop — had invaded the corner…)
So, that was my first impression of Whitey Bulger.
My second impression came about a few years later when I read that the demonic gangster played by Jack Nicholson in The Departed was reportedly based on Bulger. I’m not sure if the real life Bulger used to carry around someone else’s severed hand but still…
And finally, my third impression came from the documentary that I watched last night on Netflix, Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger. After spending 12 years in that corner, Bulger was eventually arrested in Florida and returned to his hometown of Boston, where he was put on trial for all of the crimes that had been listed at the top of that wanted poster. Veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger was in Boston for the trial, interviewing Bulger’s defense attorneys, a guy who calmly talked about a number of murders that he committed with Bulger, and the relatives of several of Bulger’s victims. Bulger himself even got a few words in, calling up his defense attorneys from jail and doing his best to present himself as being a gangster with a code of honor.
Indeed, from the start of the trial, Bulger’s main concern seems to be with convincing people that he had a code of honor. He has no hesitation about admitting to being guilty of most of the charges against him. What upsets him is that people are saying that he was a FBI informant and that’s why, for so long, he was able to avoid going to jail despite committing crimes in broad daylight. Bulger’s argument is that the Boston FBI fabricated evidence of him being an informant in order to cover up the fact that he was paying all of them off.
(Bulger also suggests that he was given blanket immunity by a special prosecutor in return for saving the prosecutor’s life.)
It’s an interesting suggestion. (Since the FBI refused to interviewed for the documentary, we only get Bulger’s side of the story.) However, regardless of whether or not you believe Bulger’s claims, the documentary makes clear that — whether they were on his payroll or using him as an informant — the FBI essentially allowed Bulger to spend several years doing anything and killing anyone that he wanted. By the end of the film, you can understand why the families of Bulger’s victims are often just as angry at law enforcement as they are at Bulger.
Whitey is a good documentary and it’s currently available on Netflix. If you’re into true crime, like I am, you’ll enjoy it. At the very least, I’m thankful that this documentary shined a little bit of light on that corner.