Of all the murders James “Whitey” Bulger is alleged to have committed in his 20-year run as the Mob boss of Boston, the killing of Debra Davis stands alone. Whitey is alleged to have strangled the woman with his bare hands.
Davis, age 26, was the girlfriend of Bulger’s gangster partner, Steve Flemmi. Bulger and Flemmi were concerned that Davis, a blonde-haired beauty, had learned that they were both informants for the FBI. One night in September 1981, Flemmi, 46 at the time, brought Davis to a house on Third Street in South Boston, or “Southie,” a tight-knit neighborhood that served as the base of Bulger and Flemmi’s criminal operations. Flemmi and Davis had been arguing. After nearly nine years together, Davis wanted out of the relationship. Flemmi wanted her out also, but not in the way Davis planned. Waiting in the house on Third Street was Whitey Bulger, 52 years old. Bulger suddenly emerged from the shadows and wrapped his hands around Davis’s throat. She struggled to break free. Squeezing tightly, never letting go of her neck, Bulger dragged Davis down to the basement, where he finished the job. Afterward, using a pair of pliers, Flemmi pulled the teeth from Davis’s head so that the body could not be identified by dental records.
They later trussed and wrapped up the body and dumped it in a shallow grave near the Neponset River in Quincy, Mass.
Steve Davis never got the chance to say goodbye to his sister. She had disappeared seemingly without a trace. Two or three times Flemmi came to Steve’s mother’s house in tears, professing not to know where Debra was or why she had disappeared, but then they didn’t hear from him anymore.
Looking back now, 30 years later, Steve, at age 53, has some regrets. He had his own run-ins with the law, and, from neighborhood scuttlebutt and street knowledge, knew all about Bulger and Flemmi. “I tried to warn her,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Your boyfriend is not a nice guy. He’s dangerous. People fear him.’ She would say, ‘Yeah. But what’s he gonna do to me?’”
The Davis family suspected Bulger and Flemmi of having killed Debra, but they didn’t know for sure. Debra’s mother had conversations with FBI agents who claimed they were investigating the disappearance, but they seemed more interested in what she knew about Flemmi than the whereabouts of Debra. Steve wanted to talk to the FBI, to go with his mother, who was meeting with agents at strange locations and odd hours, but she said no. Says Steve, “When an agent told her, ‘You have nine other kids to worry about now,’ she took that as a threat and stopped meeting with them.”
It took nearly 20 years for the Davis family to learn that Debra had been the victim of a homicide, and that Bulger and Flemmi were the culprits. The details of the killing, and Bulger and Flemmi’s role as top-echelon informants for the FBI, were revealed by Flemmi in the late-1990s, when he was arrested and later found his calling as the biggest snitch in the history of the Boston underworld. In court, Flemmi described the murder, the removal of teeth, and how they wrapped up the body of Debra Davis and buried it near the river. While Flemmi sang his treacherous song from the witness stand, Bulger was on the run, where he remained for 16 years, living, as we’ve now learned, for most of that time near the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. When he was spectacularly apprehended last June, Bulger had $822,198 cash hidden in the wall of his condo and an arsenal of 30 guns, including semiautomatics, a machine gun, and a sawed-off shotgun.
Steve Davis remembers the day he received word they had captured Whitey. A cousin called: “They got him!” Davis watched the early reports of Bulger being transferred from Santa Monica, where he had been cohabitating with his companion, Catherine Greig, while on the lam. He heard of the multitude of charges that Bulger would now be facing. Davis thought then and still thinks: It’s not a done deal. With the power Bulger has had in politics and with the FBI, he could find a way to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Now Davis is less fixated on what will happen to Bulger in court than he is on what he’d do to Bulger if he got his hands on him.
“This guy controlled the entire criminal justice system in the state of Massachusetts. And he’s still got that attitude. He’s going to be cute. He’s going to try to manipulate people, just as he’s always done.”
“I’m an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy,” says Davis. “I’d do to him what he did to my sister … They talk about closure. Fuck closure. Give me 15 minutes with Bulger and I’ll give him closure. I’ll shoot him in the fuckin’ head.”
In Boston these days, revenge is a dish best served cold. Since last June, when news of the capture of Bulger and Greig first settled over the city like a bad weather pattern, the city has been stewing in its own juices. Family members of Bulger’s many victims (he is charged with 19 murders) have been vocal in their demands that the full weight of the criminal-justice system be brought to bear on Whitey. Federal prosecutors have begun strategizing: in July, all of the racketeering counts in the indictment against Bulger were dropped, so that the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution team can zero in on the multiple murder charges. Their thinking is, this way, the road to justice will be accelerated and less encumbered by Bulger’s staggering multitude of criminal acts stretching back to the mid-1960s and across the country, with outstanding murder indictments in Florida and Oklahoma.
Justice in court is one thing, and outside the courtroom something else entirely. Forty years ago, when Jim Bulger first rose to power in the city’s organized-crime structure, he did so as the result of a gangland revenge war that lasted almost a decade. From the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s, mobsters and innocent bystanders were shot, knifed, strangled, and mangled. Sixty-six murders were attributed to this internecine gang war, a tit-for-tat series of killings that were more about underworld retribution than anything else.
When it was all over, in 1975, Bulger emerged as a key powerbroker. It was also around this time that he secretly began to work as an informant for the FBI, under the supervision of Special Agent John Connolly. Bulger fed Connolly information about the local Mafia, with whom Bulger did business. In return, Connolly tipped off Whitey about local law-enforcement investigations in which he was a target, which gave Bulger a tremendous edge throughout his long criminal career.
And then there was the brother, State Senator William “Billy” Bulger, who for close to 20 years was the most powerful politician in state government. Billy sometimes ran interference for Whitey by inquiring about law enforcement investigations involving his brother and making implied threats.
Over the decades untold people, both criminals and average citizens, were drawn into and/or burned by what The Boston Globe christened the “Bulger Mystique.” Many are now looking for justice. But to those who know Whitey best, their concern is how Bulger might try to use his current predicament to exact revenge on his enemies.
“Since at least the early '90s, he’s had a strategy for when he got pinched,” says Kevin Weeks, who stood alongside Bulger as his right-hand man when the gangster was at the height of his power. “It’s his nature to be manipulative. Machiavellian. He’ll be looking to hurt people who hurt him. To even scores. He will want to rewrite history.”
At one point in his life, Weeks looked up to Bulger as if he were a big brother or an uncle. At the age of 19, he was handpicked by Whitey to serve as his “muscle.” When Bulger wanted someone physically threatened or assaulted, Weeks was his man. Brawny and physically capable, Weeks broke bones, once beating a man who owed Bulger money so brutally that he shattered the bones in his own hand. Weeks was also frequently called upon to help Bulger and Flemmi dispose of the bodies of their many murder victims.
In 1999, after Bulger went on the run and Flemmi began to spill his guts to the feds, Weeks cut his own deal with the government. He literally told investigators where the bodies were buried, including the body of Debra Davis, whom Weeks had helped bury. Weeks testified in court and served five years in prison. He was paroled in 2004 and lives once again in Southie.
Of his time with Bulger, Weeks says, “I ain’t gonna lie to you, I had some exciting times with the guy. We had fun out on the street. But then we all found out he was a rat for the FBI. I felt betrayed. And for a while I was angry. But I’ve had time to think about things. Mostly, I blame myself.”
What Weeks remembers best about Bulger is this: “He was a hard guy, tough as nails. A stone-cold killer. I know he’s 82 now, but still, he’s in great shape, mentally strong. I hear they’ve got him in protective custody to protect him from other inmates. But don’t put it past him: he might try to kill somebody himself. Put a shank in his hand, and he’d know what to do with it.”
Richard Marinick is another former South Boston criminal who had dealings with Bulger. Marinick is unique. In the early 1980s he was a Massachusetts state trooper. He then crossed over to the other side of the law and became a criminal, an armored car robber. Eventually, Marinick got busted on an armed robbery charge and served 10 years at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, but before that he had numerous encounters with Bulger.
It was a rule of the Boston underworld that any criminal activity that took place in Whitey’s jurisdiction, he was supposed to get a cut. Bulger heard that Marinick’s crew was making scores locally, and he wanted a piece of the action. Remembers Marinick, “I’m walking along the street in Southie one day, and Bulger’s car pulls up. He says, ‘Get in.’ I’m sitting in the back seat, face to face with Jimmy. He says, ‘You’re a health nut, right, a healthy guy?’ Bulger was into good health, eating right, taking vitamin supplements; we’d talked about it before. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘what you’re doing now is not very healthy.’ He explained to me, ‘Our primary line of business is racketeering. Our secondary line of business is killing people. You do not want to be part of our secondary line of business … I will kill you and run your body through the meat-grinding plant. I will grind up your body, put it in a plastic bag, and leave it on your mother’s doorstep.’
The whole time Marinick was receiving this threat from the city’s preeminent mob boss, he noticed that he was wearing a chain around his neck—on the outside of his T-shirt—that had on it a silver Christ’s head with two red rubies on either side. “As he’s yelling at me, I see that Christ head looking at me and, I swear, it looked like those two red rubies were glowing.”
As a negotiator, Bulger’s tactics were simple. “He absolutely terrified people, made them literally piss and shit in their pants,” says Marinick. “His high was making people afraid of him; that’s how he got pleasure from what he did.”
Marinick, like Weeks, sees Bulger as an obsessive manipulator and schemer, proclivities he is now likely to apply to his current predicament as an incarcerated criminal and potential defendant.
Among criminals in Boston who interacted with Bulger both as a rival and a partner, few were in as privileged a position as Patrick Nee. Like Bulger, Nee grew up in South Boston at a time when it was very much an insular Irish enclave. A former Marine who served in Vietnam in the early-1960s, Nee returned home in 1965 just as the Boston gang wars were heating up. He was a prominent member of the Mullen Gang, who clashed with Bulger’s crew, led by the Killeen brothers, Donald, Eddie, and Kenneth. On multiple occasions, Nee and Bulger tried to kill one another, with Whitey shooting at Nee and Nee stalking Bulger with a rifle. Today, whenever he is asked if he has any regrets in life, Nee responds, “I wish I’d killed Whitey Bulger when I had the opportunity.”
By the 1980s, Nee was in business with Bulger. They took part in an arms- smuggling operation in an attempt to send weapons to the Irish Republican Army. Nee was arrested and served eight years in prison. Afterwards, he began to have suspicions about Bulger. “I knew something wasn’t right,” he says. “Others were getting arrested and sent to jail, but Bulger and Flemmi never seemed to get touched. We knew they had a relationship with Connolly; our understanding was that they were paying Connolly, he was on the take. But we didn’t know Whitey and Stevie were rats, supplying Connolly and the feds with information about us.”
Whitey’s power, says Nee, was based on his ability to play the game. “He was a master at keeping everyone in the dark. He had his relationship with Howie Winter in Somerville [Mass.], with the Italians in the North End, with us in Southie. And he made sure we didn’t know what he was doing with those other groups.”
When asked what Bulger will do now that he’s been caught and faces seemingly insurmountable charges, Nee says, “All I know is that Bulger probably planned for this. He was always five or six steps ahead of everybody else.”
Bulger may want to exact revenge and manipulate his current predicament, but the question remains: does he have any cards to play? His court-appointed attorney is J. W. Carney, a respected Boston lawyer known as the patron saint of hopeless cases. Carney’s last big case involved John Salvi, who shot up two abortion clinics in suburban Boston, killing two and injuring others. Salvi was found guilty at trial and sentenced to life without parole. Currently, Carney’s law firm is pouring over more than 17,000 pages of discovery material related to the Bulger case delivered to them by the U.S. Attorney’s office. At a press conference in front of the Moakley courthouse in Boston, Carney told reporters, “I am always at the direction of my client, and I will do whatever Mister Bulger instructs me to do.”
Bulger’s choices are limited. He could possibly plead guilty to the murder charges in exchange for a better deal for Greig, his companion, who is facing five years in prison for aiding and abetting a fugitive. He might also cop a plea to avoid the death penalty, like Flemmi did. Or he could throw a Hail Mary pass and go to trial.
Paul Griffin is an attorney who represented the family of Debra Davis in a civil lawsuit against the FBI and U.S. government. The suit alleged that the Davis family and other families of Bulger and Flemmi’s victims were entitled to damages, since the U.S. Justice Department had virtually underwritten the criminal careers of two notorious mobsters. Griffin is a former Boston cop. He believes that Whitey currently faces insurmountable odds. “Any plea that he agrees to, he gets a telephone pole shoved up the ass. If he goes to trial, he gets a telephone pole shoved up the ass.”
Bulger’s maneuverability is hindered by the fact that all of his criminal co-conspirators have already cut deals with the feds. Flemmi pleaded guilty to 10 murders in October 2003 and was spared a lethal injection in exchange for his testimony. He is currently serving a life term in prison. Johnny Martorano, another prolific hitman who did murders with Bulger, confessed to 20 killings in 1999. In exchange for his testimony, he received a light 14-year prison sentence and was released in 2007. Kevin Weeks also cut an immunity deal with the feds, and will likely be called to testify against his former mentor in the Boston underworld.
“I hope Bulger enjoyed his years on the run,” says Anthony Cardinale, a criminal defense attorney who was among the first to uncover the Bulger-Connelly informant relationship. “Because now he’s late to the game. All of the others have made their deals, told their version of events. Bulger is facing a solid wall of discovery evidence going back decades, and there’s no one left for him to take down.”
For many, the deep stain of the Bulger years will never be expunged until his alliance with the government is exposed and supervising agents in the FBI are prosecuted or at least publicly excoriated. Bulger’s case agent, John Connolly, is in prison on obstruction of justice and second-degree murder charges stemming from his relationship with Bulger. Connelly’s supervisor, John Morris, pleaded guilty to taking $7,000 in bribes and gifts from Bulger; he was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. But others in the FBI and the political arena who facilitated Bulger’s “unholy alliance,” from Boston to Washington, D.C., have never been held accountable.
Retired FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick, a lonely voice during the Bulger years who tried to call attention to corruption in the bureau’s Boston office, has always maintained that the culpability should be spread far and wide. “I don’t believe in the rogue-agent theory,” he says. “Connelly didn’t do it alone. His dealings with Bulger were facilitated by the entire system.”
For nearly a decade, Fitzpatrick tried to right the ship. A veteran special agent who served at the academy as an instructor on how to develop informants, Fitzpatrick was sent to Boston by his supervisors to evaluate Bulger’s “suitability” as an informant. Specifically, there had been complaints by the Massachusetts state police that an investigation they had initiated into Bulger’s gambling operations was being undermined by the Boston FBI, who were leaking confidential details to Bulger.
Fitzpatrick was brought by John Morris, who supervised the FBI’s organized crime squad in Boston, to see Bulger at his condo in Quincy. “On the way there, in the car, Morris can’t stop telling me what a great guy Bulger is. He was overselling the guy, which made me suspicious.”
When Fitzpatrick met Bulger, the mob boss was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and sunglasses, even though they were indoors, standing in Bulger’s kitchen. Fitzpatrick extended his hand for Bulger to shake, but Whitey wouldn't take it. “He proceeds to tell me what a tough guy he is, starts bragging about his prison experiences in Leavenworth and Attica.” Bulger bristled when Fitzpatrick referred to him as an informant; he made it clear that although he would supply the agents with underworld scuttlebutt, he would not testify in court.
“I got the impression that he was withholding,” says Fitzpatrick. “The meeting was a half hour to 45 minutes. I cut it short. It was clear to me that Bulger could not be trusted, and that he likely had a propensity for violence. He was dangerous.”
The FBI agent filed a two-page report recommending that Bulger be “closed” as a confidential informant (C.I.). Not only was the report overruled, but thus began a long period in which Bulger-related cases initiated by Fitzpatrick were mysteriously derailed. “We had four Bulger-related informants murdered, as we now know, by Bulger and Flemmi. Information about C.I.’s was leaked to Bulger by our own people in law enforcement.” After five years of trying to close Bulger, Fitzpatrick became frustrated. “I was becoming a pain in the ass to people. I was bucking the tide. I started to feel as though I wasn’t part of the team. I lost my trust in the system.”
In the years since the Bulger House of Horrors began to collapse, Fitzpatrick has emerged as a rare good guy in the story, and his concerns have been proven correct. Now Fitzpatrick worries that Bulger will resume his Svengali-like gaming of the system. “This guy controlled the entire criminal justice system in the state of Massachusetts. And he’s still got that attitude. He’s going to be cute. He’s going to try to manipulate people, just as he’s always done.”
Like many people who had encounters with Jim Bulger over the years, Fitzpatrick is clear about how he would like to see things play out for the most infamous mobster in Boston history. “I hope they fry the bastard,” he says.
The prospect of a trial has many in Boston licking their chops. Howie Carr, a popular radio personality and author of a bestselling book on the Bulger brothers, thinks that a long criminal proceeding with many witnesses would be good for the city. “There are still a lot of loose ends,” he says. Carr cites, for instance, the death in 1995 of Catherine Greig’s younger brother, David. He was found dead in his Cape Cod apartment, shot through the heart. The death was ruled a suicide, which is all well and good until you realize that the first person at the scene was Whitey Bulger, and a gunshot through the heart is a most unusual way to commit suicide.
Of all the loose ends relating to the Bulger story, some of the most intriguing involve Billy Bulger. “I would like to see Billy indicted,” says Carr. The feeling among many is that Whitey would do almost anything to protect his brother.
With subpoenas being rendered and grand jury hearings underway, the U.S. attorney’s office appears to be focusing on who may have aided Bulger while he was a fugitive. Fresh criminal charges stemming from Bulger’s years on the run could be used to implicate others, perhaps, say, Billy Bulger, which would aid prosecutors in their efforts to demythologize the Bulger Mystique once and for all.
Editor's Note: A shorter version of this same article appears in September 19th issue of Newsweek.