The Old Man Next Door

The last days of America’s most wanted mobster, James “Whitey” Bulger

It took jurors five days to convict Bulger of 31 of the 32 counts he faced. The 19 killings attributed to him were “racketeering acts,” which meant, technically speaking, that this hadn’t been a murder trial. Yet some families were denied the satisfaction of seeing Bulger at least convicted of complicity in their loved ones’ deaths. The jury declared that prosecutors had “not proved” Bulger had committed seven of the murders named in his indictment; in an eighth alleged murder—Debra Davis’s—the jury brought in a “no finding” decision. Some jurors later stated that key government witnesses included men who had once formed Bulger’s killer elite and were too unreliable to be believed when blaming every one of the 19 murders on him. Family members of the victims were crushed. “My father just got murdered again, 40 years later, in that courtroom,” said William O’Brien, whose father Bulger had been accused of shooting.

The trial’s sole “no finding” verdict was especially painful for Steve Davis. “It was like being told you’ve got incurable cancer,” he says, describing the moment he heard the pronouncement in court. “ ‘No finding’ is something you get for a speeding ticket. My sister wasn’t a fucking speeding ticket. I can take ‘not guilty’—but ‘no finding’? I’m not a drinker, but since that verdict I’ve been drinking. It sucks.”

Davis is hoping the Boston district attorney will file murder charges against Bulger for the eight deaths for which he was acquitted. He has also worked with a writer on a book about Debra’s murder and, like the rest of Boston, awaits Bulger’s sentencing in mid-November. That day could see the former king of Southie condemned to spend his remaining years in prison, a place where informers are considered to be among the lowest life-forms. (“I don’t think anybody likes it” is what Flemmi said on the stand when he was asked about being called a rat. “I don’t think Mr. Bulger likes it, either.”)

Did Bulger really believe the trial could end with his acquittal? At best, he could have inflicted some damage on the government and somehow made the case that he wasn’t a rat but a consumer of FBI intelligence in Boston—which in Bulger’s day was a buyer’s market. Only Bulger’s diary, if he still kept one, could reveal his thought process or the full extent of his dark secrets.

It’s certainly hard to imagine how any film could capture the real Whitey Bulger, the
acid-damaged Irish patriot who might well believe he is a Robin Hood. It could show a man killing people because he believes their money should be his. A camera could record the shootings, stabbings, and strangulations. It could render the teeth being pulled out, along with the burials and reburials. But how to explain the nap that follows each murder?

The trial’s revelations and verdicts won’t change the opinion of Bulger and Greig’s Santa Monica neighbor Catalina Schlank. “They may have been bad people in Boston, but here they were completely nice,” she says. “Through the influence of TV and movies we’ve formed an idea of how a mafioso looks. He did not look like that. He was handsome—I never saw his bald head.”

This feature originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine