Later this month, Johnny Depp will kickstart the Academy Awards movie season with his South Boston Irish thriller Black Mass. The fall is when movie studios begin releasing their more prestigious fare, in the hopes of garnering nominations for next year’s Oscars.
Depp is already getting buzz for his portrayal of ruthless Irish crime boss Whitey Bulger, who was on the run from authorities for years. He’d been accused of a slew of crimes during his bloody reign as a criminal kingpin. Bulger eventually became one of the most wanted men in America, right up there with Osama bin Laden.
This -- as well as South Boston’s notorious insularity -- lent a mythic air to Bulger. So much so that even while Whitey was on the run, another Hollywood A-lister, Jack Nicholson, played a character similar to Bulger in the blood-soaked Martin Scorsese film The Departed.
Bulger, now 85, was finally apprehended in June 2011 in Santa Monica, California, along with his girlfriend Catherine Greig.
The reason for the high price on Bulger’s head was not his crimes alone. Bulger had famously been brought in as an informant for the FBI, only to continue committing crimes and luring FBI agents themselves to the wrong side of the law.
That’s where the case against Bulger gets murky. No one claims Whitey was a saint. But with all of the attention focused on the legendary gangster, it is getting easy to forget that federal law enforcement officials acted quite horribly throughout this whole ordeal as well.
In other words, it’s possible that Irish American crime fighters behaved nearly as badly as the Irish American criminals.
A new book by celebrated Irish American writer T.J. English (The Westies, Paddy Whacked), entitled Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him (William Morrow) takes a close look not just at Bulger’s misdeeds, but also the misdeeds of those who are supposed to put the bad guys behind bars. It expands on reporting English did for Newsweek about the Bulger case a few years ago.
Of the FBI agents lured to the dark side by Bulger, the focus thus far has been on Irish American John Connolly, who grew up in the same housing project as Whitey and was convicted of numerous crimes rooted in his twisted relationship with Bulger.
A different Irish American figure English looks at closely in his book is Jeremiah O’Sullivan, who held a number of high profile law enforcement posts in both Washington and Boston.
English notes that way back in 1977, O’Sullivan was serving as head of the U.S. Attorney’s organized crime strike force. Connolly informed O’Sullivan, who died in 2009, that he had an informant in South Boston who could help build major criminal cases against Italian American Mafia figures.
According to Connolly, O’Sullivan said he wanted to meet Bulger, a highly unusual move for such a high-ranking law enforcement official.
“O’Sullivan was one of the best things that ever happened to Bulger,” English wrote in Newsweek. “In 1979, when an investigation targeted an array of mobsters on charges of fixing races at horse tracks, O’Sullivan dropped Bulger and (Bulger’s partner in crime Stephen J.) Flemmi from the indictment. As Flemmi would later put it, ‘We believed we were authorized to commit crimes as long as we didn’t kill anybody. That’s what we were told.’”
Now, of course, men like Connolly and Flemmi did not get where they are -- in prison -- by telling the truth all the time. Nevertheless, as English’s book suggests, it seems there were many more bad guys in South Boston than just Whitey Bulger. And not a few of them were law enforcement officers.
“I did not believe that (disgraced FBI agent John) Connolly was a totally innocent man,” writes English, who interviewed many key South Boston figures while also attending the Bulger trial before writing Where the Bodies Were Buried.
“But there was in the government’s pursuit of Connolly the whiff of an attempt to make him the fall guy for the entire system’s corrupt relationship with Bulger.”
There might even be another Hollywood movie in all this.
* Contact [email protected]