Interviews with authors Gerard O'Neill & Dick Lehr ("Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss")

Dick Lehr

Former Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe staffer Gerard O'Neill could pass as a prosecutor, right off the set of, say, Law and Order. O'Neill is polite, almost soft spoken, but there is a hint of a killer instinct lurking beneath the poised exterior coiled to jump -- perhaps just for the fun of it. Dick Lehr, also a Globe veteran, is a little smoother around the edges, befitting his day job as a Boston University professor. Until, that is, he starts to unwind about the book he and O'Neill have co-written: Whitey, the Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss. Once Lehr works up a head of steam, his enthusiasm is almost boundless. Peter Kadzis interviewed the duo about their book. Here is an edited transcript. (Read an excerpt from Whitey, the Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss here.)

Because you worked with the Boston Globe Spotlight team for so long, and because you've already coauthored another Whitey book (Black Mass) with Dick Lehr, have you ever felt that your quest to know Whitey was like Ahab hunting the white whale?
Well, it's a career endeavor. It really goes back a quarter of a century, and I think it gives us a historical perspective. Our first intersection was in 1988 when we did a series on the Bulger brothers at their height, in the Globe, and at that time we revealed Whitey was an FBI informant. With some trepidation, I might add, because all the editors were concerned it would kick off a gang war. But reveal it we did, and there was a treatment on how we got the story in Black Mass, the intersections with John Morris and Bob Fitzpatrick to confirm the fact that Bulger was an informant. And in the new book, Whitey-there's a chapter that traces the rather strong reverberations from the initial revelation. And ten years after the Globe series, thereabouts, we did Black Mass, which delved into the depths of the corruption in the Boston office of the FBI. And roughly ten years after that, we do Whitey and his end game.. So that's my historical perspective on it. We've kind of been there every step of the way. Dick has been there too.

Have you ever felt during any of those long interludes as if Whitey was taking over your life?
O'Neill: Well, it was intermittent but intense. We did a lot of other stuff. I think I did 130 investigative projects in the Spotlight team, and Whitey counts for four or five of them. So it's that proportion, but the impact, the magnitude of this was unlike anything else I've worked o

You've recently published an excellent book on Boston's more recent political history, the 20th century political history, and as you said, you've worked on 100...
O'Neill: Well actually, Rogues and Redeemers turned out to be very helpful in tracing Bulger's family, because I had to trace my own because my great-grandfather was a Famine Irish immigrant who came in through Quebec in 1849. So I worked with some of the people at the New England Historical Genealogical Society, in particular one woman, Marie Daly, who's immense talented, and she was very helpful. She actually found some records, and I know it's just about impossible because the record keeping there is so chaotic. Anyway, Daly-she's Irish, and she came through Newfoundland, and she knew that the Bulgers came from New foundland because they did some preliminary research just on their own, independently, doing sort-of-famous people. That turned out to be immensely helpful. I talked to an immigrant specialist at Memorial University in St. John's, and he had some information. We put a couple of things together and were able to get the great-grandfather back to County Wexford, which was almost exciting-how deep you can get into that. Everybody knows the Bulgers are Irish, but where specifically they came from and what the immigration journey was like and what it was like in Newfoundland is brand new.

Dick, you teach, but you're a book writer. You can include Black Mass in this answer, but writing about Whitey, as a character, as a real-life character in long-form nonfiction-what are the unique challenges he has presented?
Lehr: Well, coming off of Black Mass, the challenge when we were approached about writing his biography was, our first response was, what's left there to say, because our focus as journalists had mainly been on the FBI, and again, fraternalistically, the abuse of that power in a federal agency and all that. Whitey was a main character as being in the middle of it all as a crime boss, but it was the FBI that had, in our minds, center stage for so long, both at the Globe and then in Black Mass. So the challenge was realizing, okay, but Whitey is now-I think history's going to show-a significant crime figure in the 20th century because of his ability to corrupt the corruption FBI, a corruption that went on for decades. And so the challenge was, okay, how do we do things? How do we get the material to write the biography of someone who won't talk to us despite many efforts and despite the fact that little has been uncovered regarding the first half of his life? That was the thing, realizing that when he became an informant in '75, he was already in his late 40s. He'd lived half a life that had only been scratched at in Black Mass or Howie Carr's books or any of the gangster sagas, but no one would back into that. And the only other working material might be Bill Bulger's memoir, but that was mostly illusory, fiction, not fact. I hope I'm getting at what you're asking about.

You're doing fine. Just keep going.
Lehr: The challenge was uncovering the true facts about Whitey and his family's history and then making sense of it all. I think that's what being a biographer or a historian is all about. It's not just doing a tick-tock of "he did this" and "he did that," but trying to penetrate the pathology and the making of the monster. What made Whitey the monster that he became? And then there was the genius in his alliance with the FBI. Those were our goals, and starting out, it was a little bit scary because that hadn't been done before, and we didn't know that we were going to get the kinds of things to work with that we did get. And thank God we did.

>> READ: Excerpt from Whitey, the Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss. <<

How did you go about getting what you needed in this challenge?
Lehr:  Regarding Whitey himself, I feel like we hit the lottery when-I think it was mid to late fall of 2011-we realized that his vast prison file had been unsealed through the Alcatraz Project. That was over 500 pages of unbelievable material that had never been seen or used before. What had been outlined in our original outline-you know, the prison years-for like one chapter suddenly blew out into four or five.

And then there's a lot of what I would call creative reporting in terms of trying to understand Whitey, the juvenile delinquent, was gaining access to-I write about it both in the body of the book but also in the acknowledgements-the pioneering Glueck Study of Juvenile Delinquency in Boston, which I'd read about. It's this amazing archive of firsthand accounts of Whitey's peers. There were 500 boys in the study from South Boston, and when Whitey was thirteen and fourteen, people he knew were in the study. And that was an unbelievable window into getting access to these notes, these raw notes from interviews with these boys with their families, talking about the mean streets of Boston in 1942 or 1943 and the names of the gangs and where they hung out and the dialect the used. So much of this is lost to time. And then realizing that's the stage to put Whitey in, and he was doing what all these other boys were doing. He wasn't in the study because-of course he wouldn't be-because he never got sent away to Lyman Reformatory for Boys because he always avoided getting any kind of serious punishment. The Gluecks and all their researchers and social workers, they got the boys in the study by going to the juvie halls. But it was a way to triangulate and to write about Whitey's world. So that's another key example.

Did the prison files lead to the LSD experiments?
Lehr: Yes. The LSD thing had always been sort of floating and connected to Whitey. Well, suddenly we had Whitey's own prison file that gave us new documents about that, including a numerical count of how many times he tripped. But beyond that that, working with what CIA files that have survived. The lead doctor in that study, very prominent doctor in his time, Dr. Carl Pfeiffer-discovering that a bunch of inmates-Whitey wasn't in the lawsuit, but a bunch of the other inmates in the early ‘80s sued Pfeiffer, the CIA, and the government. Well, that lawsuit went nowhere, but deep in some archive at Georgia, I had the file pulled. And in that was this 208 page deposition of Dr. Pfeiffer revealing unbelievable new detail about Whitey's LSD project. So you comb, you braid all that together. Then, the other great resource is learning, realizing, discovering while he was in Atlanta-Whitey was in Atlanta, which is where the LSD project was-Atlanta was a prison that had quite an extraordinary inmate magazine. Actually, Time magazine called it the best in the country or something like that. Tracking down that and finding that they're archived at, I think, Ohio State University, and then the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, having them sent to me here at BU. And in that-talk about a resource both about the LSD project, but broader than that. Just a day in the life of prison, describing specific things that we knew about Whitey. Where he lived-suddenly I'd find an article about that. Those are the challenges, and that's how we met them. There's others, but I hope that gives you an example.

Did you and Gerry profile Whitey?
Lehr: We got working with a genealogist to take the family back to Ireland. Never been done before. We teamed up, and again, it's in the acknowledgements. Very early on-I think it was crucial-we teamed up-I don't know if you've heard of her or not-but a forensic psychiatrist named Dr. Alison Fife, who I had known previously from Judgment Ridge. She was a terrific sounding board. She's-I think it's for the government, but she goes both sides-you know that Wayland trial that's on right now about that boy who allegedly killed his girlfriend? That trial? She's part of that trial. She's studied the criminal mind for a couple of decades now; she's one of the more prominent forensic shrinks. She was huge in generously sharing her time with me, as we'd dig stuff up about Whitey's life and his father and their relationship and all that, She was a sounding board to help and to develop a psychological profile of the guy. And I think that's what you do when you're in our shoes and trying to write a book like this.

Gerard O'Neill

Why do you think Boston has such an appetite for Whitey? Why is the taste so insatiable?
O'Neill: Well, you know, he's the ultimate bad guy. He's got a mystique that none of the mafia guys really ever had. He thought he was able to carry off, until his real history came out, that he was one of the good bad guys. It's mythology for sure, but he presented himself as a Robin Hood of sorts. If you came from Old Harbor Housing Project, then he'd look out for you. The real canard, the dangerous myth, was that he was keeping drugs out of South Boston. So he did have a stature and a mystique that none of the other crime figures had.

Lehr: I think because it's Boston, and Boston has an insatiable appetite for all things Boston. That's a big overlay, whether it's the Red Sox or the Celtics, sports or politics. But I think one of the things is Whitey's longevity. This is a guy whose name recognition goes back to coming out of prison in the mid-‘60s and really starts to expand the name recognition in the ‘70s and just keeps ever expanding in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and obviously up to being one of the ten most wanted in his capture. He's become, we argue, and I don't think it's an argument, but I think history's going to show he's one of the most significant crime figures in the 20th century because of his longevity, because of his hands-on murderous ways, but most importantly because you have to say the FBI in the same breath as you say Whitey Bulger. He's at the center of the worst informant scandal in FBI history. And that's a big deal. So I think there's a fascination with that. in the ‘80s, he had a Robin Hood kind of persona, the good bad guy, that he fostered and that the FBI, namely John Connolly, fostered. So the iterations of the masks of Whitey Bulger-from that to being an informant? Oh my God; I don't believe it. To being the killer and all that came tumbling out in the ‘90s at the Wolf hearings and beyond? And then Charlie Gasko for 14 years in Santa Monica? The many faces of Whitey Bulger. I just think that there's a lot of ways that people find a way into the story.

>> READ: Excerpt from Whitey, the Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss. <<

How would you characterize Whitey's relationship with Boston's political culture?
O'Neill: Well, he certainly had direct access to it through his brother, Bill, and their rise wasn't quite simultaneous, but it was. . . They hit their strides in the mid-‘70s, and then they peaked in the mid-‘80s, so he certainly was abreast of political developments through Billy. And Billy always had it that he was his brother, and "I'll be loyal to him," but it was fairly distant. In fact, all the new research that we're able to find shows how intimately they were involved while Whitey was in prison and what a fierce advocate for Whitey Billy was. Whitey is a political animal; he's very astute in his dealings with people. He's almost like a politician himself. So it was just a matter of personality and access.

What is it, or what was it in the South Boston air that has produced, such firm political instincts? Even on the corporate level, as well as in politics and law, there's a lot of leaders from Southie.
O'Neill: It's true. They are very insular to begin with. There is a camaraderie as long as you're from Southie. They've had a lot of experience in fighting with the city hall and knowing, learning the political ropes. They're very intensely in their territorial imperatives. So I think of just being Irish and naturally garrulous and having to fight for everything that they've ever got because it's part of the double-edged sword of being so insular. They know how to pave the way with politics and the law. Look how strongly they fought off bussing. It was futile for so long, but the fight becomes a thing. They're good fighters; they're scrappy. That's a hard-scrabble place, so it's a proving ground.

You mentioned Bill Bulger's advocacy for his brother while Whitey was in prison. Is that really unusual? Do you think the Senate President's conduct, do you think Bill Bulger's conduct toward his brother was on the line, or at any point did it become out of line?
O'Neill: Well, you can't ignore the punitive legislation singling out the state police leadership that was causing Whitey so much trouble in the early ‘80s. It is a red flag of some sort. It's almost a sure thing that Bill was involved in that. I mean, where would it come from anyway? It was so particular. And you have what Stevie Flemmi says about it, and he had no reason to lie about that. And Bill would have reason to deny it, even though he was testifying under oath in Congress. So there's definitely a political nexus between the two. Bill would always have it that he was his brother and he would support him, but he kept his distance because they were in such distant worlds. I just don't think that was the case; I don't think the record reflects that. I think they were intimately involved, both while Whitey was in prison and while he was at large.

How about Whitey's relationship with the rest of the family? In your view, did he use his family?
O'Neill: You know, the generic point is that he uses everybody, and he is a utilitarian guy, a narcissistic guy. His whole frame of reference about everything is me, myself, and I. But he used Jackie-it's amazing that Jackie does six months and Catherine Greig does eight years. Jackie Bulger was moving money around for Whitey. He was creating phony IDs. He was extremely proactive in identity crime and harboring crimes. So he used Jackie. Now, what his relationship is with his sisters? I don't know. I just don't know that. Whitey lived with his mother until she died in 1980, so he was there from '65 to '80 in Old Harbor with her, despite all his other liaisons with women.

Is there another chapter in the Bulger saga after the trial? Is there more unplowed ground?
The other big question is, where's all his money? They found $800,000 in his apartment in Santa Monica, and law enforcement has estimated his net worth as being between 10 and 20 million dollars. We saw several things, particularly when his extortion of drug dealers was in the millions. So I think one concern is, where is that money? And if it's recovered, can the victims' families get their hands on it? If anybody's earned that blood money, it's the victims' families that suffered so much.

My quick, uninformed assumption is it's offshore somewhere.
O'Neill: Well, he opened up four or five safety deposit boxes. He had them in London, in Dublin, and he had them in Clearwater, Florida, and who knows where else. He did a lot of traveling with Theresa Stanley in the Southwest, on the West Coast, and he was in Europe with her, and they were in Italy and France too. So I just don't know whether he'd be comfortable leaving money in a French or a Belgian bank, not knowing when he could get back to claim it. What he did-he was implying to the marshals, when they were flying him back after his arrest, that he had stashed some money with various friends, but then he clammed up about it.

Why do you think he even mentioned that?
O'Neill: Just to tantalize. Just to be playful Whitey.

Did you ever meet him?
O'Neill: When we were doing the two brother series back in '88, I tried. I talked to Billy about it; Billy kind of chortled about what an outlandish request that was. But there was like a day or so when it was possible, and then the word was no, that it wouldn't work. We thought about trying to go through Will McDonough [the late Boston Globe sportswriter was a childhood friend] at that point; Will wasn't too interested in that either. So Whitey wasn't exactly available, as we say.

READ MORE: Whitey Bulger coverage from the Phoenix archives.

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