“You can’t have a society when people who uphold the laws violate them,” he said. “The FBI will have to live with a black mark for a generation in my humble opinion.”

But both the bureau and US Attorney Michael Sullivan continue to proclaim they are winning the war. “History doesn’t help us capture James Bulger. It distracts us from our purpose,” Sullivan pronounced in 2002 on the eve of the eighth anniversary of Bulger’s escape from justice.

When Sullivan said that, he threw the weight of his office behind defending the FBI from continuing questions as to why, given the bureau’s history of failure, the job of finding Bulger shouldn’t be turned over to the far more expert US Marshal’s Service. And he rebuffed the State Police/DEA team that had paired up with the federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak in cracking the case, finding the bodies, and turning Weeks and the killing lot of Bulger’s mobsters into government witnesses. That team’s efforts have been scattered to the winds.

“They were taken off the case upon the FBI’s insistence, when Kaiser was in charge, and told they could not conduct a fugitive hunt,” says Tom Foley, the former colonel of the State Police who led the team.

“To take your best people and move them further away instead of putting them in charge of directing the fugitive hunt is a huge mistake,” Foley observes. “The FBI is relying on agents who are new to the area and even new to the FBI. It’s like nothing changed.”

Yet at the bureau, Kaiser touts his improvement of the FBI’s relationships with law-enforcement agencies as a great accomplishment.

“If the FBI were a football team, they’d have the best offensive line in the league,” says former special agent Bob Fitzpatrick. “They never stop attacking.”

Back in San Diego, the cop who’d spotted the look-alike was hungry and driven in the best tradition of fugitive hunters. When he finally got through to the FBI’s specialist in investigating Bulger sightings in Southern California, he says, she was dumbfounded that he had pulled the five images of the Bulger look-alike from surveillance cameras while she had only the one. She’d spent hours looking through video and missed them all.

“I don’t think she knew what he looked like,” the cop told me. And because she waited until October 21 to get a better download from one of the surveillance cameras, the three-week-old video had already been erased, he says.

Instead, the agent distributed a still photo of Bulger to a group of Navy Seals, in case they spotted him because they train on the beach so much. The photo was old vintage, he says, when the bureau first handed it out in 1995.

Was it Bulger? One long-time associate who’s seen the video clips says he’s “70-30 it’s not.” A little too thin, a little too young, the guy is wearing shorts, after all. And there’s something else.

“On the escalator, the guy is holding onto the handrails. I was with him 25 years and he would never touch the handrails. He was always worried about germs.”

Worrying about germs was a luxury when he was back here in Boston, because he never had to worry about the FBI then. And he may not have to now.

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  Topics: News Features , Mike Sullivan (Hockey), U.S. Marshals Service, James "Whitey" Bulger,  More more >
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  •   HOLLOW JUSTICE  |  October 05, 2011
    When Whitey Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica, California, this summer, it may have seemed that a new day had dawned for the local FBI and for the Justice Department.
    I get a lot of calls about Bulger, but this one was different.

 See all articles by: DAVID BOERI