Crime Lord-FBI Informer Among 10 Most-Wanted -- Boston Kingpin Vanished In 1995, Wanted For Murder

BOSTON - Where's Whitey?

Boston's home-grown parlor game - this city's equivalent of Elvis sightings - took on new impetus recently when crime lord and one-time FBI informant James "Whitey" Bulger was named to the FBI's 10 most-wanted list. The hunt for the 70-year-old career criminal - a near-mythic figure who disappeared in 1995 after being indicted on racketeering charges - gained more momentum when Bulger was implicated in some of the deaths of up to 20 people rubbed out by a Mafia hit man.

Conceding that it was "highly unusual" for a former informant to join the 10 most wanted, U.S. Attorney Donald Stern called the plea agreement his office struck with hit man John Martorano an important step toward bringing Bulger to justice.

"It can only help," Stern said in an interview. "Every local police department and state police agency throughout the country will now have Whitey Bulger's name and picture on the wall."

On Sept. 15, bolstering the government's position, U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf refused to uphold a claim by Bulger's sidekick Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi that the FBI promised the pair immunity in exchange for information. He did, however, bar authorities from using some key evidence gathered via eavesdropping.

A Boston institution

The case of Bulger and his confederates offers a fascinating window into the exploits of what was once the nation's most organized network of Irish mobsters, who fought for turf with rivals in the New England Mafia.

For decades, Whitey Bulger ruled as South Boston's version of a supreme godfather. You needed shoes for your kid? Whitey took care of it. Trouble with the Boston Housing Authority, manager of the neighborhood's numerous housing projects? Whitey took care of it. Some guy roughed up your daughter? Whitey took care of him, you better believe it.

"You had a husband giving a wife a hard time, that's the stuff you went to him for," said Peggy Davis-Mullen, a South Boston native who represents her community on Boston's City Council. "Even growing up, there was this dichotomy. You knew that he was a guy that was involved in organized crime, but you also had - I've got to be honest with you - regard for the man. I don't know what he did when he was doing his business, whatever his business was, but I know that he was a guy on the street and that he was good to people that were poor."

But while handing out favors to the needy, Whitey also was busy running crime in the area that residents call Southie and in other parts of the region. "A reign of terror," said journalist and former Boston mayoral candidate Christopher Lydon. "Twenty-plus years of thug-ocracy."

In many ways, Southie, with its 30,000 residents, is separate from the city that surrounds it, cut off by water as well as fierce neighborhood politics. When the schools of the largely Irish-American community were forcibly integrated by busing in the 1970s, South Boston became infamous as the northernmost outpost of racial hatred and tension.

Drugs, bookmaking, extortion . . .

Bulger controlled the community's drug trade and ran a well-known band of crooks called the Winter Hill Gang, which had an impressive trade in bookmaking, extortion, racketeering and money-laundering. "He was in charge," said Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of "All Souls," a new memoir about growing up in South Boston. "Nothing illegal happened without his stamp of approval."

But since at least the mid-1970s, federal officials say, Whitey Bulger was a confidential informant for the FBI. No one in South Boston would have dreamed then that Bulger was snitching, but information that has tumbled out since his disappearance shows he maintained a cushy relationship with FBI agents over 20 years.

Without agreeing to testify, Bulger provided information that led to the apprehension and conviction of numerous important criminals. Such information, some agents say, helped crack the hold of powerful mobsters, including the Patriarca crime family, for whom John Martorano was a capo and hit man.

Lengthy negotiations led to the plea agreement with Martorano unsealed here last month. He bartered a guilty plea to 10 murders in Massachusetts - as well as one in Oklahoma and another in Florida - for a prison sentence of 12 1/2 to 15 years.

Although Martorano's plea documents refer to 20 murders "aided and abetted" by "John Doe No. 1" and/or "John Doe No. 2," Stern said it would "not be unreasonable" to substitute the names of Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi for the two Does. Eighteen of the murders Martorano describes were committed in Massachusetts, the last in 1976. Most of the victims were rival mob members.

Flemmi, 64, is incarcerated on a variety of charges. His lawyer, Kenneth Fishman, blasted the deal with Martorano as a desperate move.

"The government is clearly trying to deflect attention from its own conduct over a period of 30 years during which it utilized Mr. Flemmi and later Mr. Bulger in its so-called `war on organized crime' and then shamelessly abandoned them by reneging on its promises," Fishman said.

Meanwhile, Stern said the hunt for Whitey Bulger remains a priority. His departure was so clean that authorities suspect he had prepared for it for years.

His icy intelligence has helped Bulger stay ahead of what Stern insists is "a very active fugitive investigation." Bulger is also disciplined and determined, authorities say. For a time, for example, he is known to have lived in a Louisiana trailer park. Less adaptable crime lords, they note, might have considered that a comedown.

Bulger was spotted most recently in 1997 at an Irish festival in West Palm Beach, Fla., and in 1998 in Sloan, Iowa. After that, said Stern, "the trail has gone cold. What we are hoping for is a break or two."

Fat chance, said MacDonald: "They'll never find Whitey."