'Whitey' Bulger, Scorsese inspiration, caught after 18 years


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The Independent US

One of America's most wanted men is finally under lock and key, after a long-running FBI manhunt ended with the arrest of James "Whitey" Bulger, the mob boss whose life inspired several books and Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film The Departed.

The 81-year-old was apprehended several thousand miles from the mean streets of Boston where he once presided over a sprawling criminal empire. Investigators acting on a tip-off found him living quietly alongside fellow retirees in an apartment complex near the beaches of Santa Monica, on the west side of Los Angeles.

Bulger was due to appear in court last night. Prosecutors said they would apply for him to be sent back to the East Coast, where he is accused of carrying out at least 21 murders during the 1970s and 1980s. He also faces charges of racketeering, kidnapping, extortion and several other serious crimes.

The arrest came 16 years after Bulger fled Boston, leading police on a merry dance through Ireland, France, Thailand and Spain. His last known sighting was in London, which he visited in 2002 to withdraw a portion of his ill-gotten fortune from a safety deposit box held by a private bank near to Piccadilly Circus.

Bulger owed his nickname "Whitey" to a distinctive shock of grey hair, and had been the most senior homegrown crook on the FBI's "10 most wanted" list for most of the past decade. He was discovered just days after the Bureau launched an expensive TV and print advertising campaign seeking to determine his whereabouts.

As the inspiration for the ruthless boss played by Jack Nicholson in The Departed, James Joseph Bulger was the son of working class Irish immigrants. As a teenager, he joined a street gang called "the Shamrocks" and was arrested several times during the 1940s for a string of assaults and robberies.

In 1956, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for armed robbery, but was released after just under a decade. After returning to Boston, he fought his way to the top of the city's most feared criminal organisation, the Winter Hill Gang. His greatest coup was perhaps achieved in 1990, when Bulger is believed to have orchestrated one of the biggest art heists in history: the theft of 13 paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and Manet from a Boston museum.

Despite his prolific criminal activities, Bulger was also a longstanding FBI informant, supplying information about the rival New England Mafia. To the embarrassment of the FBI, his disappearance in 1995 was prompted by a corrupt agent who tipped him off that he was about to be indicted. He was able to remain on the run thanks to contacts in the dissident Irish Republican movement, and financed a globetrotting lifestyle with the contents of safety deposit boxes secreted in banks across major cities.

His girlfriend, Catherine Greig, may have unwittingly been the author of Bulger's downfall. An eccentric woman, who had undergone heavy plastic surgery, she was the subject of the FBI's adverts. "There is someone in the United States or elsewhere in the world who knows Catherine Greig as a neighbour, friend or co-worker," claimed the commercial. Within days a tip-off led police to flat 33 in the Princess Eugenia apartment complex near Santa Monica beach. There they found a large amount of cash and several weapons.