HARTFORD, Conn. — Notorious crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger, who used murder, terror and corruption to build a sprawling criminal network, was beaten to death Tuesday in a federal prison in West Virginia, and authorities suspect other New England mobsters may be responsible, law enforcement sources said.
Bulger had been beaten almost beyond recognition, law enforcement sources said.
Authorities who spent careers trying to stop Bulger were scrambling to learn what had happened Tuesday when news broke around noon that he was found dead at the federal, maximum-security Hazleton prison at Bruceton Mills, W.Va., where he had been transferred a day earlier.
William J. Powell, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, confirmed Bulger, 89, and in failing health, was dead and said through a spokesman that his office would investigate the circumstances.
"No other information will be released at this time," Powell's office said.
The U.S. Bureau of Prison said Bulger "was found unresponsive" at 8:20 a.m. and that emergency life-saving measures by prison staff were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead by the county medical examiner.
"The Federal Bureau of Investigation was notified and an investigation has been initiated," the bureau of prisons said in a statement.
However, one of the law enforcement sources said federal investigators have begun looking at gangsters from New England who are confined at the Hazleton prison. There are at least two inmates from New England serving sentences at Hazleton for mob-related murder convictions.
USP Hazelton is a high security facility that houses 1,270 male offenders and is part of a larger federal prison complex.
Bulger was serving a life sentence for 11 murders and dozens of other crimes.
He had been held in a high-security prison in the federal correctional complex at Coleman, Fla. Because of deteriorating health and a heart condition — Bulger was using a wheelchair in prison —law enforcement sources said he was moved in recent days to a prisoner transportation hub in Oklahoma City and was being considered for admission to the federal prison medical center at Springfield, Mo.
When Bulger's health issues failed to qualify him for admission to the medical center, one of the sources said, he was transferred to the Hazelton high-security institution in West Virginia, where inmate-on-inmate violence has been an issue of growing concern.
On Oct. 18, U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., called for an investigation of the Hazelton facility after the violent deaths of two Washington-area inmates in the last year and reports of "brutal treatment of others."
Bulger used a corrupt relationship with a handful of FBI agents and other law enforcement officers to take over a small-time gang of hoodlums in his native South Boston and turn it into one of the country's most powerful criminal mobs.
The FBI's Boston office listed Bulger as a top echelon informant. But in his case, it was never clear who was informing to whom. Bulger routinely turned over his criminal competition — from nickel and dime Irish thugs in his native South Boston to powerful figures in the Italian mafia — and in return, was given secret law enforcement intelligence he used to murder anyone informing on him.
When law enforcement finally caught on to Bulger in the 1990s, someone in the FBI tipped him to a pending indictment, and he disappeared for 16 years, eluding an intensive, global dragnet. He was finally located after a tip to a tabloid television program led agents to the Santa Monica, Calif., apartment where he was living with a longtime girlfriend. Stashed inside was more than $800,000 in cash and an arsenal of firearms.
After a sensational, monthslong trial in federal court in Boston in 2013, a jury convicted Bulger of 11 murders in the 1970s and 1980s while running a national criminal enterprise that collected millions of dollars from gambling, extortion and drug trafficking.
Among other things, the jury put Bulger at the center of an ambitious plot by his Winter Hill gang and a retired Boston FBI agent named H. Paul Rico to penetrate the U.S. pari-mutuel industry by taking over the World Jai Alai company. At the time, jai alai had a significant presence in Connecticut.
Bulger signed on to the murderous jai alai plot even though he worried from the outset that the law enforcement attention it was certain to generate would be his undoing. Bulger was right. Four of the murders and two of the murder conspiracies of which he was found guilty were related to his gang's attempt to shoot its way into World Jai Alai.
The first to die was World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler. Then Winter Hill associates Brian Halloran and John Callahan were gunned down after Bulger's corrupt FBI handler, agent John Connolly, told him the two were or were likely to become witnesses against him in the Wheeler murder.
The fourth victim was Michael Donahue, an innocent bystander who happened to be sitting in a car with Halloran when Bulger opened fire with a machine gun, in broad daylight, on a busy South Boston street, yards from the shiny new courthouse where his two-month trial took place.
For the career of violence, Bulger was sentenced to two life sentences.
"The scope, the callousness, the depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable," U.S. District Judge Denise Casper told Bulger at his sentencing. "The testimony of the human suffering that you and your associates inflicted on others was sometimes agonizing to hear and painful to watch."
Bulger sat mute during most of his closely followed trial, but occasionally livened things up by flinging obscenities at witnesses who displeased him. When the jury returned the verdict that would take him off the streets forever, he stood silently and watched.
The conviction, and years of investigation preceding it, revealed not only the grotesque violence for which Bulger and his partners were routinely responsible, but the degree to which he had corrupted the local FBI office. There was testimony Bulger paid an agent a quarter million dollars and, in return, repeatedly received information he used to kill witnesses.
The verdicts also shattered whatever remained of the Bulger myth — a myth cultivated by Bulger and his friends in federal law enforcement — that one of the country's most violent criminals was really a "good" bad guy, a hoodlum with a blue-collar heart who, among other things, kept drug dealers out of Irish-American South Boston, his power base.
Bulger was expected to take the stand during his trial in the summer of 2013, but later changed his mind.
"And my thing is, as far as I'm concerned, I didn't get a fair trial," Bulger said, when he revealed he would not testify. "And this is a sham. And do what youse want with me. That's it. That's my final word."