On June 23, 2011, one of the most feared gangsters in the United States—namely James (“Whitey”) Bulger—was finally captured in Santa Monica, California, after having been a fugitive for sixteen years. How did Whitey Bulger become to be the feared and later much despised Boston mobster? Who helped him along the way? What role did his politically well-connected brother, Billy Bulger, play in promoting Whitey’s criminality? Finally, did Whitey receive help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and if yes, then what was the nature of this help? These are the sorts of questions that are thoroughly addressed in this fast-paced and exciting book about one of the most notorious criminals of our time.
The story is told primarily by Massachusetts State Police investigator Thomas J. Foley with some assistance from John Sedgwick. Foley begins by describing his early life, his entry into the State Police, and the passion he had for working on the Whitey Bulger case. Although the nature and the extent of Whitey’s criminality increased over time, we learn that Whitey had last been in prison in 1965. “Since then, he hadn’t been touched by law enforcement. Never questioned, never indicted, never arrested” (p. 11).Why not? To find out, Foley joined an organized crime intelligence unit of the Massachusetts State Police and began his investigative work in right earnest.
His painstaking work with his competent team of fellow officers unearthed several clues, led to many wiretaps, and was responsible for producing a comprehensive picture of the many nefarious activities of Whitey. However, we are told that on more than one occasion, the FBI either offered no help or actually attempted to sabotage Foley’s investigation. In Foley’s words, the FBI was “killing off [his] investigation into the criminal activities of Whitey Bulger, an investigation that was supposed to be joint” (p. 104). Why was the FBI doing this? Foley began to wonder whether the FBI was actually doing all it could to protect certain mobsters like Whitey.
More painstaking detective work by Foley and his team led to an inescapable conclusion. “Whitey Bulger was an FBI informant and Flemmi [Whitey’s closest associate] was, too” (p. 136). This conclusion was both astounding but, at the same time, inexplicable to Foley. He spends quite some time explaining the meaninglessness of this FBI strategy. He credibly argues that “when you enlist an informant, you never take the top guy” (p. 136). Even so, this finding about Whitey’s informant status explained a lot of the FBI’s reluctance to cooperate with Foley and his team.
Even though years of careful detective work resulted in the State Police nabbing Whitey’s odious associate Flemmi, the FBI tipped Whitey off to the dragnet that had been cast for him by the State Police. As a result, Whitey managed to slip out of Boston, never to return to his old haunts voluntarily. With Whitey on the run and the FBI not cooperating, Foley and his itinerant team changed strategy and successfully nabbed other leading lights of the Boston underworld. They then used the information subsequently gleaned to make more arrests and to discredit a key FBI operative—John Connolly. Even though Foley and his team were successful in closing down the unsavory operations of many mobsters, the ultimate prize—Whitey—eluded them. Unfortunately for Foley, he retired from the State Police in 2004 and Whitey was captured by the FBI in 2011, the same agency that had aided and abetted him for so many years.
This book contains a few errors of both commission and omission. Specifically, there are some typographical errors, there is insufficient explanation of the documented changes in the FBI’s behavior on p. 121, and there is no discussion of the rationale for the behavior of the contract killer Martorano on p. 215. This notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the fact that this is a generally lucid book that tells an engrossing tale about one of the most feared gangsters of contemporary times.