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Whitey Bulger’s death in prison exposed “deeply troubling” failures, Justice Dept watchdog report says


Washington — The prison death of notorious Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger less than 12 hours after he arrived at a West Virginia prison was precipitated by several factors — inadequate medical evaluations, intelligence gaps about the gang Bulger once led and widespread anticipation of his arrival at the new facility among both prison staff and inmates, according to a new Justice Department watchdog report. The inmates even took bets on how long Bulger would stay alive, according to a report released Wednesday by a Justice Department watchdog. 

James 'Whitey' Bulger Mugshot
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger mugshot in 2011. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images)

Donaldson Collection / Getty Images


After an eight-month effort by prison officials to move the 89-year-old mob boss, he was killed at a federal prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, in October 2018, allegedly beaten multiple times by fellow inmates — including one apparent associate of a New York crime family — upon his entry into the general population.

The Justice Department inspector general’s report released on Wednesday does not directly probe Bulger’s alleged murder — three suspects are to stand trial later this month — but it does expose a damaging and “deeply troubling” process that preceded the homicide. And although the investigation did not find evidence of criminal wrongdoing and did not establish malicious intent on the part of prison employees, the findings have been submitted to the Bureau of Prisons and the conduct of at least six officials has been referred for any actions BOP deems appropriate.

One of America’s most-wanted criminals, Bulger eluded law enforcement for decades. He was finally apprehended in 2011 and convicted in 2013 of 11 murders and other felonies that sent him to prison for the rest of his life. The former mob boss and noted FBI informant was accused of multiple murders in the 1970s and 80s, extortion, money laundering and weapons crimes.

While incarcerated in U.S. Penitentiary Coleman in Florida, Bulger was accused of threatening a nurse in 2018, prompting prison officials to both place him in solitary confinement and initiate a transfer to Hazelton, a change in prison facilities that required them to downgrade his medical status to accomodate Hazelton’s requirements. 

According to the report, Bureau of Prison officials failed to “accurately represent” the 89-year-old Bulger’s serious health ailments — which included a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation — and “contravened” a BOP medical director’s guidance based on Bulger’s medical record. They “downplayed Bulger’s cadiac incidents,” the report alleges and stated his chest pains were induced by anxiety.

Those decisions ultimately cleared the way for Bulger’s transfer to Hazelton after three failed requests, which the report says were indicative of confusion among the staff that were attributed to “inconsistencies” between written procedures and practices. The “flawed” medical guidelines were among many of factors influencing the inspector general’s 11 recommendations for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). 

The report also highlights a notable intelligence gap in the BOP’s processing of Bulger’s transfer — the Winter Hill Gang, which he notoriously led for years, was not listed as a recognized organized crime unit in the BOP’s “Security Threat Group Roster.” 

Despite Bulger’s long criminal history and fame, the report says one official told them that “there was no information in BOP’s databases indicating that Bulger was a gang member or a law enforcement cooperator.” 

Such designations normally prompt an integlligence review by the bureau to determine if any threats from fellow gang or rival gang members exist within a prison facilty, but according the report, because the Winter Hill Gang wasn’t included on the  list, “there was no reason to believe that Bulger could not be placed at Hazelton.”

 Bulger’s lengthy stay in Coleman’s single housing unit caused him to say he had “lost the will to live” and, according to the watchdog, and may have contributed to his desire to be placed in the new facility’s general population — among the men who are accused of his murder. The report indicated Bulger himself requested that he be placed in the prison’s general population, free from any enhanced security, and prison officials acquiesed to what they said was his “adamant” request. 

Inmates and over 100 Bureau of Prison staff were aware of Bulger’s pending arrival to Hazelton in October of 2018, the report indicates, alleging prisoners likely caught wind of the mob boss’ transfer by overhearing prison employees discussing it. In one instance, on October 29, just before Bulger was escorted into the housing unit, an inmate wrote in an ongoing email, “if i[sic] dont [sic] call you tomorrow then we are locked down for probably 30 days cause [sic] we got word whitey [sic] bulger [sic] is coming to the yard tonight..you [sic] remember him as the boig [sic] boston [sic] irish [sic] mobster leader who was just caught afew [sic] years ago..well hes[sic] been a government witness for 20 years aso[sic] yeah you already know…” 

The inspector general’s office interviewed an inmate who said “the entire prison” knew Bulger was being transfered to Hazelton, and that “both the inmates and staff were speculating” about “How long Bulger would stay alive in Hazelton.” According to the inmate, such discussions were based on their understanding that numerous inmates in Bulger’s compound were known to be in the Genovese Crime family. The inmate went on to tell investigators that after Bulger arrived, inmates were heard yelling “rat,” alluding to Bulger’s time as an FBI informant. 

But it was not just the inmates who appeared interested in Bulger’s arrival. The report explains Bulger’s unit manager in Hazelton, identified only as Unit Manager 2″ volunteered to have the noted crime boss under his supervision due to Bulger’s “broad publicity status.” Interviews conducted by the OIG revealed the some unit managers were more experienced handling such high-profile inmates than others and Unit Manager stated he was best equipped to handle Bulger’s incarceration. 

Fotios “Freddy” Geas, Paul “Pauly” DeCologero, and Sean McKinnon were indicted in August on conspiracy to commit murder charges, accused of bludgeoning Bulger in the head multiple times, resulting in his death. Geas and DeCologero allegedly beat the elderly crimelord as McKinnon stood lookout in the federal facility. Bulger was found unresponsive in his cell. 

Geas, according to information contained in the report, was an alleged associate of the Genovese organized crime family in New York, but prison officials told investigators at the time of Bulger’s transfer, there was no indication he posed a threat.

According to court transcripts reviewed by the Associated Press, prosecutors say McKinnon told his mother on a phone call shortly before Bulger came to USP Hazelton in October 2018 that inmates were preparing for the arrival of a “higher profile person.” After McKinnon told her that it was Bulger, she told him to stay away from the gangster, prosecutors alleged, another indication that the inmates knew the notorious criminal was going to be entering their ranks. 

McKinnon is also accused of lying to investigators. All have pleaded not guilty. 

As a result of the inspector general’s report, the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement that it has “initiated several improvements to its medical transfer system, including enhanced communication between employees involved in the process, multiple trainings for personnel, and technological advancements.” 

BOP said it does not provide information relating to staff investigations or possible disciplinary actions.

In a statement, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said, “The fact that these serious deficiencies occurred in connection with a high-profile inmate like Bulger was especially concerning, given that the BOP would presumably take particular care in handling such an inmate’s case. In our view, no BOP inmate’s transfer, whether they are a notorious offender or a non-violent offender, should be handled like Bulger’s transfer was in this instance.”