Notorious Boston gang chief James “Whitey” Bulger was found murdered in his cell at the federal high-security prison in Hazelton, West Virginia on October 30, the morning after being arrived there from a Bureau of Prisons transfer center in Oklahoma City.
Bulger was the chief organized crime figure in New England, in part by informing to federal law enforcers on his Cosa Nostra rivals for about 15 years. Bulger was tipped off in late 1994 by his FBI handler of an impending indictment and evaded a federal manhunt for 16 years (spending 12 years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and having a $2 million reward posted on him).
Arrested in 2011 while living under an alias with his longtime girlfriend in Santa Monica, California, he was charged with over 30 crimes, including involvement in 19 murders in three states, narcotics, racketeering, extortion, and other offenses. Before and after his trial, extensive evidence emerged of Bulger’s informing and corruption of state, local and federal agents.
Given two life sentences plus five years in 2013 for involvement in 11 murders and numerous other crimes, first served time in a federal prison in Arizona, and four years ago moved to the Coleman II federal prison in Florida. In poor health and using a wheelchair, Bulger was reportedly transferred after being disciplined for threatening an employee at Coleman, though an attorney who had represented him said Bulger was seeking to gain entrance to a medical center where he could receive better treatment.
Instead, he arrived at Hazelton on October 29 and was found beaten to death shortly after 8:00 the following morning. According to press accounts citing unnamed law enforcement sources, he had been beaten with a sock-wrapped footlocker padlock, had his eyes gouged with homemade knives, and his tongue at least partly cut. The facial disfigurements are the type of punishments meted out to informers.
Prison video surveillance did not capture the killing but did show four inmates walking toward Bulger’s cell early that morning, then waking back soon after, with their clothing apparently stained. When guards found Bulger’s body, they noted bloodstains in the cell appeared to have been mopped.
Immediate suspicion focused on two inmates originally from Massachusetts with reason to dislike Bulger. One is Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a 51-year-old man who had worked as an organized crime hitman and frequently voiced his hatred of informers. The other is Paul DeCologero, a member of a Massachusetts North Shore crime gang run by his uncle. Both of these inmates are serving life sentences at Hazelton for murders in Massachusetts.
Transferring Bulger to the Hazelton penitentiary was, one unnamed official said, like handing him a death sentence. That facility reported close to 300 attacks on staff or inmates last year, and Bulger’s death was the third killing of an inmate there since this April.
Just five days before Bulger’s arrival, five members of Congress wrote Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to point to an unacceptable level of violence and understaffing at Hazelton. The Corrections Information Council, a Washington-based non-profit that visited the facility early in the month cited widespread violence there even beyond the killings.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.