“What do his legs look like?”
I’d never been asked that before. I was taking a call from San Diego about Whitey Bulger. I get a lot of calls about Bulger, but this one was different.
“I need to know what his legs look like. I’m pretty sure it’s him.”
I knew Whitey carried a knife strapped to his ankle — investigators found a Velcro ankle strap at one of his places. I knew the cops going through the trash outside his Quincy place back in the ’80s figured out he was lactose intolerant. I knew his vital stats better than I know my daughters’. But I didn’t know what Bulger’s legs looked like.
I figured I’d better find out. The guy I was talking to in San Diego, who had identified himself as a law-enforcement agent, clearly had an eye for detail.
“He has blue eyes. I got close to him as he was leaving the theater and looked right into them. He was wearing a white shirt — an Oxford button-down — white shoes — New Balance — and a floppy fisherman’s-bucket hat, and shorts.”
The caller reached me a day or two after he’d gone to a matinee screening of the Martin Scorsese movie The Departed in downtown San Diego on October 6, 2006. He was so sure that in the audience he’d spotted the South Boston gangster upon whom Jack Nicholson’s character was supposed to be based that afterward he’d maneuvered his way to the front of the crowd to get a good look at the man’s face. Seeing the man’s eyes were blue, he’d tailed him for four blocks before losing him near the trolley, he said.
That he’d lost sight of a 77-year-old man was embarrassing enough — I figured the guy wouldn’t have made that up. I was impressed by his initiative; he had the makings of a real fugitive hunter. While following the look-alike, he’d called the San Diego bureau of the FBI, and that afternoon, an agent had pulled tape from a surveillance camera situated in the mall outside the theater. It showed the backside of someone going down an escalator who, the agent told him, had the same mannerisms as Bulger. (Click here to view the surveillance video.)
Now, a couple days later, my caller was seething with frustration. He’d expected that the bureau would help him flood the area — he thought he knew where Bulger had gone. He was ready to go. But the FBI wasn’t returning his calls or e-mails. Showing still more initiative, he’d gone back to the mall, retraced the path his subject had taken, flashed his credentials, and found five cameras that had captured the look-alike’s image on tape, face forward and even in close-up. He was already searching the area he thought his suspect was headed for on the trolley. He was eagerly waiting for agents to join him. He was eager to describe the look-alike’s facial features to see if it was a match.
“I’m a freaking cop and they’re not returning my calls,” he complained. The FBI didn’t return his calls for the next 36 days.
I didn’t know what Bulger’s legs looked like, but I told my man in San Diego I knew people who probably did, and that I’d get back to him. I was skeptical he’d seen Bulger, but I knew enough to take him seriously. “His legs are freckled and he has no hair on them,” he told me.
As it turns out, Whitey’s family, lovers, and rape victims may be the only ones who’ve ever seen the gangster’s legs.“He never once wore shorts when I was with him,” said Kevin Weeks, and as his right-hand man for 20 years, Weeks had seen Bulger in all sorts of positions: strangling a woman with his hands, blowing a victim’s brains out, and casually and cruelly killing another victim over the course of hours . . . but never in shorts.
The California sun has been known to loosen up a lot of people, however, and maybe “Jim,” as Bulger’s friends know him, had unburdened himself of both killing and clothing conventions. Perhaps he’s shed the long pants as easily as he discarded the 19 murder indictments and the 18 other killings Weeks says the fugitive owned up to one night. Maybe that was Whitey in shorts.
But the FBI wasn’t calling my man in San Diego, who now had a collection of videos and images of the subject that the bureau didn’t even know about. The fact that his Bulger look-alike hadn’t taken his hat off in the movie theater had my caller convinced and pumped him to go looking.
“They don’t even call me,” my West Coast contact fumed. “They bungle-f’d the whole thing.”