Infamous Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was caught by the FBI this week, after sixteen years on the lam. Bulger, an FBI top ten Most Wanted person, is wanted for 19 murders and for his connection to a series of crimes in eastern Massachusetts.
In his prime, Whitey and his Winter Hill Gang controlled the Boston underworld. They collected money from all of the city's criminals and killed anyone who didn't cooperate. Like many established crime organizations, they were ingrained, seemingly untouchable.
But Bulger's actions eventually caught up with him, and the Feds organized a plan. So, in 1995, Bulger, with the help of a friend in the FBI, dodged federal officers. The known crime boss, informant, and public enemy escaped the law.
For the FBI, it was a major embarrassment. For me, a young kid in Boston, it was a nightmare come to life.
The New England media stuck on the Bulger story for months. His brother was, at the time, the president of the University of Massachusetts and one of the Bay State's most powerful people. Some speculated that Billy Bulger was hiding his brother, perhaps in a cabin in the Berkshires.
As the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, Whitey Bulger had a number of friends and allies spread around the Hub. His muscle and right-hand man Steve The Riffleman Flemmi was behind bars, but unknown mobsters were still on the loose. Surely, Bulger was holed up with his associates somewhere.
Whitey could have been anywhere, lurking near the foggy docks of South Boston or creeping behind the Irish Catholic brownstones of West Roxbury. He might have even been dead. No one knew. The Riffleman wasn't talking.
I grew up in Medford, right next door to Somerville, home to the real-life Winter Hill, where the gang got its start. I even played Little League on the Winter Hill team. Medford is known for being the place where cops rob banks. It is also the only place where the FBI has successfully video tapped a mafia initiation ceremony. Organized crime was an understated part of life in the suburbs just west of Boston. Even as a kid, I understood that it was there, although I didn't understand what it meant.
For those months of frantic searching, Bulger was like the boogeyman. We were afraid. The mob boss could have been hiding around the corner, waiting to nab an unsuspecting child. Somewhere out there in the night was a monster. And if we weren't good, he was coming to get us.
And then there was the Rifleman. Now that's a nickname that will stimulate a child's imagination. Nicknames in gangster movies aren't even that scary. Although Flemmi was behind bars, the idea that there were real people in the world like him, mass murderers quietly making people disappear in places like Somerville and Medford, or dropping bodies into the midnight harbor where they sunk beneath the New England aquarium -- one of my favorite places to go as a child -- was horrible.
My parents did not need to scare me into doing my homework or not staying out too late. Whitey Bulger was somewhere, and although he was missing, he was always present. Everyone talked about him, and as kids, we took the information we overheard and turned it into playground whispers.
Bulger was out there. But now he's in there, secured behind bars and no longer haunting the Boston streets of my childhood.