"Whitey" Bulger sentencing is a final chapter in the life of a notorious criminal
Bulger declines to speak and refuses to look at victims as they address him
Families of victims spoke Wednesday to Bulger with anger, emotion, forgiveness
He was convicted of racketeering in August after 16 years on the run
Convicted Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger displayed no emotion, his arms by his side, as he was sentenced Thursday to two life terms plus five years as architect of a criminal enterprise that, in the words of a federal judge, committed “unfathomable” acts that terrorized a city.
The two-day sentencing hearing was a final chapter in the life of one of the country’s most notorious criminals and fugitives. A federal jury found Bulger, 84, guilty in August of 31 counts, including racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug dealing and weapons possession. The jury held Bulger responsible for 11 killings from 1973 through 1985.
“The testimony of human suffering that you and your associates inflicted on others was at times agonizing to hear and painful to watch,” U.S. District Court Judge Denise Casper said. “At times I wish we were watching a movie, that what we were hearing was not real. But as the families of victims know all too well, it’s not a movie.”
Casper also ordered Bulger to pay $19.5 million in restitution to the victims’ families and to forfeit $25.2 million to the government.
“The myth, the legend, the saga of James Bulger is now finally over,” said Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts. “Mr. Bulger, who spent 16 years on the FBI’s most-wanted list, fleeing from his crimes, was a terrorist and is a terrorist. He terrorized individuals that crossed his path, a path that was driven by his desire for power, for greed and ambition.”
The sentencing came a day after the court heard from the relatives of the people he killed and of those who were slain by accomplices in the treacherous Winter Hill Gang. Bulger, a man who lived by violence, vengeance and intimidation, would not make eye contact with the families of his many victims. They called him a coward, a rat, a punk, Satan. Bulger kept his head down, scribbling on a pad, showing no emotion.
As the judge spoke Thursday, Bulger – in an orange jumpsuit and sneakers – again showed no emotion as he looked up at her, his arms resting on the defense table. Relatives of his victims, some with tears in their eyes, filled the court.
“The scope of the callousness and depravity of your crimes is unfathomable,” Casper said.
Outside court after sentencing, relatives of Bulger’s victims reacted with relief.
“That old bastard is finally going to be in prison; he’s going to die in prison,” said Tommy Donahue, the son of one of Bulger’s victims. “Today is the first day that we can finally get on the road for closure, and it’s a good feeling. It’s bittersweet, but it’s a damn good feeling.”
Steve Davis, whose sister was killed, said he is satisfied with the sentence, but he wishes the gangster had spoken.
“I just wanted to say to him, ‘Speak up,’” he said. “You know, spit out what you have to say. … I mean, say something, be a man.”
Bulger’s attorneys plan appeal
Bulger’s lawyers, who plan to appeal his conviction, praised his composure during the emotional sentencing hearing.
“Took a lot of discipline for him not to react emotionally,” defense lawyer J.W. Carney said.
Defense lawyer Hank Brennan questioned the extraordinary length the government went to in prosecuting Bulger, including deals with murderers who provided key testimony.
“We know that it was not just a rogue agent, or one person acting alone,” he said outside court. “Why in the world do we now have a handful of murderers walking the streets? To get one man? Was that that important or was it something else? Was it to cover up the complicity? Who guards the guards at the end of the day?”
In court earlier, Casper recounted how Bulger and his associates co-opted law enforcement officers, tortured and ambushed victims, and disposed of their bodies in unthinkable ways.
“I don’t doubt you are an intelligent person,” Casper told Bulger. “But make no mistake, it takes no business acumen to take money from folks at the end of a gun.”
Casper’s ruling a day earlier opened the door for families of all 19 people found to be killed by Bulger or his associates to deliver victim impact statements.
Even without those, she said Thursday, “I want to make very clear I would have come to the same sentence I have imposed today, because the conviction the jury found at trial beyond a reasonable doubt merits the most severe penalty.”
The judge admonished Bulger for calling his trial a “sham” at one point in the proceedings and insisted that he does not represent the city he controlled with terror.
“You and the horrible things recounted by your cohorts do not and should not represent this city,” she said.
A procession of human suffering
Bulger’s victims in their statements Wednesday represented a procession of human suffering chronicling some of the darkest years of Boston history.
Steve Davis, fighting back tears and gasping for breath, struggled to address the court. His wife stepped up to help him utter the words that he said he had been holding inside for three decades. The judge asked him to take his time.
“This man has built up so much hate in my heart, I’d like to strangle him myself,” said Davis, whose sister Debra was allegedly strangled by Bulger. Her remains were exhumed from a shallow grave.
Debra Davis was the girlfriend of Bulger’s partner, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, who testified that Bulger killed her. The jury did not convict Bulger of the slaying.
“This son of a b**** should look every one of his victims in the eye when they speak,” Davis said. “You piece of s***, look at me!” Bulger looked up at the front of the courtroom, raising his hand from a pad he scribbled on and began to turn slowly. He shot a brief glance at the podium but then turned to look at the judge. Davis, weeping, did not notice.
Patricia Donahue recounted the life of her husband, Michael, a World War II vet and Boston cop. He was an innocent bystander shot by Bulger. She was shaky and teary but regained her composure when talking about her husband. “He was always happy,” she said. “It drove me crazy.”
At Bulger’s trial, Donahue and her three sons often sat in the front row. When Bulger said he would not take the stand, Donahue yelled, “Coward!” – a word that was repeated by some at Wednesday’s sentencing.
She said of her late husband: “He would cook a prime rib so well done you didn’t know what you were eating. … Michael was kind and thoughtful. He’d send me long-stem roses for birthdays and anniversaries. He’d also send them when he was in the doghouse.”
Bill O’Brien said he was born four days after his father, William O’Brien, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on Boston’s Morrissey Boulevard. His mother could not attend the funeral. According to trial testimony, Bulger was in one of the cars in the drive-by shooting.
“Every time I drive that boulevard, I think of the horror that man went through,” he said. “Every time I pass the spot he was killed, I bless myself twice, seal it with a kiss and look up to him. One for him, one for me.”
Sean McGonagle, the 49-year-old son of Paul McGonagle, who was killed in 1974, called Bulger “Satan.” The electric chair, he said, would be too good for him.
“In ‘75 you stooped to an all-time low when you called my house and said, ‘Your father is not coming home for Christmas,’” McGonagle said. He recalled that when he asked the caller who was on the phone, Bulger responded: “This is Santa Claus.”
“My father was no Boy Scout,” he said, “but he was a better man than you will ever be.”
Theresa Bond, the daughter of Arthur “Bucky” Barrett, who went missing in 1983 after a dispute with Bulger, politely asked, “Mr. Bulger, could you please look at me?” He never looked up.
“I just want you to know that I don’t hate you,” she said. “I do hate the choices you made. … I hate the choices our government has made that allowed you to rule streets.”
Bond added, “Hours before (my father) was murdered, he was praying, from what I understood, to a picture of a little girl. … That was me. … You will be summoned to the highest judge. A lethal injection would be too easy of a punishment.”
She addressed him one more time. “Mr. Bulger, do you have remorse for taking my father’s life?”
Bulger did not look up.
“I think you do,” she said. “I forgive you.”
Prosecutor: ‘There are no mitigating factors’
Federal prosecutors urged Casper to hand down a life sentence for the longtime fugitive, calling him one of the city’s “most violent and despicable criminals.”
In a November 7 sentencing memorandum, Ortiz, the U.S. attorney, wrote: “Presiding over a massive criminal enterprise, Bulger extorted dozens of individuals, flooded South Boston with cocaine, shot innocent people, strangled women, murdered his competitors, corrupted FBI agents, and then ran away and hid for 16 years.”
She added, “There are no mitigating factors, and defendant Bulger has no redeeming qualities which would justify any sentence below the one called for by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the applicable case law and statutes.”
Bulger didn’t testify at his trial, complaining the proceedings were “a sham.”
Bulger was captured in California in 2011, a decade and a half after skipping town ahead of a pending indictment. After he fled, investigators learned that the longtime head of South Boston’s Winter Hill Gang had been an FBI informant and that Bulger’s FBI handler had not only tipped him off to the charges, but also gave up another informant, who was later killed.
Meanwhile, Bulger’s brother William had risen from the family’s blue-collar Irish neighborhood to become president of the state Senate and head of the University of Massachusetts. But in 2003, he was forced to resign the school’s presidency after admitting to a congressional committee that he had spoken to his brother while Whitey was on the run, though he denied any knowledge of his whereabouts or alleged criminal activity.
Whitey Bulger denied being an informant, even as he insisted that he’d had an immunity deal with the former head of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force in New England. Prosecutors countered that with a 700-page file outlining how Bulger provided information on murders, drug deals, armed robberies and criminal fugitives that led to several arrests.
The tale became the basis for the Oscar-winning film “The Departed,” which starred Jack Nicholson as a character modeled on Bulger.
At the trial, Bulger snarled, hissed and scowled at prosecutors and witnesses. At one point, he and onetime enforcer Kevin Weeks shouted obscenities at each other when Weeks called Bulger a “rat” during his testimony.
But Weeks told CNN after the verdict that the Bulger who sat at the defense table was a shadow of the underworld legend he’d once known.
“He wasn’t the same guy I knew,” Weeks said. “I mean, he’s a lot older, but he had no life in his eyes. He was subdued. He had changed. He just kind of lost his spark.”
CNN’s Kristina Sgueglia reported from Boston, while Ray Sanchez reported and wrote in New York. CNN’s Matt Smith, Greg Botelho and Deborah Feyerick contributed to this report.