Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Long and Frustrating Hunt for One of America's Most Wanted (Psst: He's Not a Terrorist)

James Bulger's story reads like the plot of a thousand mobster films. An Irish-American boy grows up in the poor neighborhood of South Boston — Southie — turns to a life of crime and ends up leader of the Irish Mob. Smart, charismatic and generous to those he liked, Bulger — whose blond hair earned him the nickname Whitey — was both feared and revered. At the height of his power in the 1980s, he was allegedly taking a share of almost every drug deal and racketeering operation in Boston.
But since 1995, Bulger, now 81, has been on the run. He fled the city, and probably the U.S., after receiving a tip from the FBI agent he had worked with as an informant that an indictment for federal racketeering was on its way. In the years that Bulger — who is also accused of 19 counts of murder, extortion and drug dealing — has been a fugitive, several of his Mob associates have been arrested and, in some cases, served time. The FBI handler who helped him escape, John Connolly, is currently in prison for his role in the 1982 killing of a businessman who was about to testify against members of Bulger's gang. 
There are more than 60,000 fugitives worldwide at any given time, most of whom manage to disappear across international borders, according to Interpol, the global police body tasked with facilitating cooperation among its 188 member countries. And only a small fraction of those fugitives are high-profile crime figures like Bulger. It may have been a stretch when, speaking to the U.S. magazine the Atlantic on May 2, the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. excused his government's inability to track down Osama bin Laden by pointing to the FBI's failure to find Whitey. But the long, fruitless hunt for Bulger is a perfect example of just how hard it is to track a criminal who has fled to another country.
In 2000 the FBI's Boston branch created a unit with the single purpose of finding the runaway Mob boss. Since then, a team has been following leads across the U.S. and to South America and Asia. Currently the task force thinks he could be in Europe. But even there, where criminals are up against some of the world's best-organized police forces, the search is painfully slow. International crime fighting is painstaking work, and even democracies that cooperate with one another on a whole range of policy matters are reluctant to give up their national prerogatives when it comes to law enforcement. 
If Bulger went home to Southie today, he'd find the place much as he left it. The streets are still lined with dollar shops, liquor stores and squat, run-down wooden homes. But Bulger isn't going home. In January 1995 the FBI was readying racketeering charges against him. When former FBI agent Connolly, who had become close to the mobster, heard about the indictment, he warned his old friend. Bulger and his girlfriend Catherine Greig drove out of Southie for good. Almost everything the FBI knows about their movements since has come from interviews with people who knew Bulger, along with clues picked up from searches of his Boston properties. The file on Bulger runs to more than 13,000 separate documents. By talking with FBI task-force members (many of whom asked to remain anonymous for the safety of their families) about what's in that file, it's possible to build a picture that could give clues as to the kind of life Bulger's living.


The FBI gave TIME's Jumana Farouky a CD with the last known recording of James Bulger's voice. Listen to it here.

Download |
It's not an easy case. In 2001, Bulger's younger brother William — the former president of the Massachusetts state senate for a record 18 years — testified before a federal grand jury in Boston that he had spoken only once to Whitey after he fled, soon after the escape. Six years later, federal prosecutors decided not to press charges in a criminal investigation into whether William had obstructed efforts to find his brother. "It's really difficult to get people to talk to us, because of political patronage and a community over in South Boston that owes loyalty to the Bulger family," says Richard Teahan, coordinator of the Bulger task force.

A few people have been talking, though, and indeed, what they've said suggests Bulger could be in Europe. His old Mob associates told the task force he used to say that when it came time to split, he would go there. As far back as the late 1970s, Bulger had been collecting fake passports and setting up bank accounts and safe-deposit boxes in various cities around the U.S. and Europe. "He knew that at some point, based on his criminal history, he was going to have to become a fugitive for the rest of his life," says an investigator on the case. "He talked about that openly with his associates."
Bulger holds an Irish passport — obtained through his parents, both Irish immigrants to the U.S. — so traveling to and from Europe would be easy for him. And once inside the Schengen zone of 25 European countries, travel is passport-free. (Neither Ireland nor Britain, though, is a member of the Schengen zone.) From at least as far back as 1986 until 1994, Bulger traveled to Europe once or twice a year. Each time, the FBI believes, he took with him large amounts of cash, totaling tens of millions of dollars. The last confirmed sighting of Bulger was in London in 2002, by a businessman who also remembered seeing him working out in the gym of the Méridien Hotel in London's Piccadilly Circus eight years earlier. So while the hunt for Bulger continues around the world, the task force is keeping a close eye on Europe. The team has an idea of which country Bulger is possibly living in but won't say for fear of alerting him. "That would be putting our playbook out there," says Teahan.

Without the authority to investigate beyond the U.S., the FBI is at the mercy of Europe's police in its search for Bulger. It's a problem faced by any law-enforcement agency working across borders — which, in the days of the Internet and globalization, is all of them. "Fugitives are mobile and opportunistic," says Ronald K. Noble, secretary general of Interpol. And because many of them fund their flight from the law by committing more crimes, that often means "multiple criminal charges in more than one country, therefore involving multiple jurisdictions, different legal systems and linguistic differences." These days, the best way for police agencies to catch a fugitive is to work together. "This is important when criminals ignore borders and when criminal networks establish links that span the globe," says Noble.
Organizations like Interpol and Europol (the European Police Office) find their jobs have become a little easier over the past decade, thanks to E.U. legislation that has simplified the process of bringing international criminals to justice. When the European arrest warrant was introduced in 2003 — replacing often convoluted bilateral extradition agreements — the time it took to get a suspect extradited went from as long as a year to as little as 10 days. (When Swedish authorities wanted to question WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on sex-crime allegations late last year, it was a European arrest warrant that allowed British police to hold him in custody while Sweden pushed for his extradition.) 
Meanwhile, since 2000, police agencies have been allowed to set up joint investigation teams that let one nation's police force extend some of its powers to another for a limited time. "We're seeing organized-crime groups becoming more fluid, multinational and multiethnic," says Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, which deals with 14,000 cross-border operations a year. "The E.U. has given us the tools and built the architecture to help us get a grip on organized crime. Now it's up to us to use these capabilities to their maximum."
But while Europe's police forces have the tools to work together, they don't always use them. Sometimes the impulse to protect sources or the hesitancy of investigators to work alongside people they don't know — and so don't trust — overrides the need for cooperation. "You still have the old-school detectives who are reluctant to work on investigations that are outside their own jurisdiction," says Wainwright. "But now there isn't a single major criminal case that isn't international in nature. The reality of the challenge has changed."

Have You Seen This Man?
He loves dogs and doesn't use credit cards. He may be on heart medication. He has a thick Boston accent that he probably couldn't hide even if he tried. These are the things the FBI wants people to know about Bulger, the traits they hope someone will recognize in the elderly man living down the street.
Bulger, for example, may have cultivated a nice-guy demeanor, but he probably still has a controlling streak. The task force has heard stories of his taking people to dinner and then yelling at the waitress if her bra strap was showing. "He takes over every conversation," says one task-force member. "If you were to use the wrong fork, he would correct you on that. He can't help himself." 
Those are the kinds of details the FBI hopes will ensnare him. Bulger can dye his hair or shave his mustache, but changing his personality isn't as easy. "He's a person who does things very deliberately," says another investigator on the case. On the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, Bulger is described as "armed and extremely dangerous." As a young man, he carried a knife in his boot, and "he could still be doing that now," says the investigator.
But Bulger is also an octogenarian and, as far as anyone knows, hasn't committed a crime in over 15 years. Those on the task force say that's irrelevant: the U.S. has no statute of limitations for murder. "There are a lot of families of the victims, and you can't close the door to them," says one investigator. "They want to see him brought to justice." 
In South Boston, Bulger still casts a long shadow. Locals don't talk to strangers about him, so at home, his infamy is his best protection against ever being caught. In Europe, he would be just an old man with an accent. That anonymity makes it easy for him to avoid suspicion. But those tracking him hope that one day it will also prove his undoing.



Post a Comment