SANTA MONICA — As the FBI chased leads on two continents, Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger spent nearly all of his 16 years on the lam in this quiet seaside city, passing himself off as just another elderly retiree, albeit one who kept a .357 Magnum and more than 100 rounds of ammunition in his modest apartment.
Bulger — the FBI’s most-wanted man and a feared underworld figure linked to 19 murders — was captured Wednesday at a Santa Monica apartment complex after one of the biggest manhunts in U.S. history.
The newly busted reputed mobster appeared before a federal judge on Thursday and agreed to be sent back to Massachusetts to face charges. Bulger’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig, also waived her right to a removal hearing. The short hearing in Downtown Los Angeles before Judge John E. McDermott ordered them transported by U.S. Marshals to Boston.
Bulger’s undoing may have been his impeccably groomed girlfriend.
Earlier this week, after years of frustration, the FBI put out a series of daytime TV announcements with photos of Bulger’s blond live-in companion, Greig. The announcements pointed out that Greig was known to frequent beauty salons and have her teeth cleaned once a month.
Two days later, the campaign produced a tip that led agents to the two-bedroom apartment three blocks from the Pacific Ocean where Bulger and Greig lived, authorities said. The FBI would not give any details about the tip.
The 81-year-old boss of South Boston’s vicious Winter Hill Gang — a man who authorities say would not hesitate to shoot someone between the eyes — was lured outside the building and captured without resistance. Greig, 60, was also arrested.
Neighbors were stunned to learn they had been living in the same building as the man who was the model for Jack Nicholson’s ruthless crime boss in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie “The Departed.”
The arrest closed one chapter in a case that scandalized the FBI.
Bulger fled in 1995 after a retired FBI agent who had recruited him as a government informant tipped him off that he was about to be indicted. Soon it was discovered that the Boston FBI had a corrupt relationship with its underworld informants, protecting mob figures for decades and allowing them to commit murders as long as they were supplying useful information.
“Although there are those who have doubted our resolve at times over the years, it has never wavered,” Richard DesLauriers, agent in the charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said after Bulger’s capture. “We followed every lead. We explored every possibility, and when those leads ran out, we did not sit back and wait for the phone to ring.”
While Bulger’s capture is the end of a long, frustrating search for the FBI, it could expose the bureau to even more scandal.
One of Bulger’s lieutenants testified in 2002 that Bulger boasted that he had corrupted six FBI agents and more than 20 Boston police officers, keeping them loyal by stuffing envelopes with cash at Christmastime.
“If he starts to talk, there will be some unwelcome accountability on the part of a lot of people inside law enforcement,” said retired Massachusetts state police Maj. Tom Duffy. “Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t want my pension contingent on what he will say at this point.”
On Thursday, more than a dozen FBI agents carried out bags of evidence from the Santa Monica apartment while neighbors and even some tourists from Boston watched. Authorities said they seized a variety of weapons, including the Magnum, and a large amount of cash.
The FBI “just started a new campaign in the Boston press a couple days ago. We were all laughing how nothing would come of it,” said Ed Dente, who was vacationing from Boston.
The new FBI announcements, which targeted 14 areas where agents thought Bulger might be, did not include the Los Angeles area. Instead, they were broadcast in San Diego, San Francisco and a dozen other locations.
Retired Massachusetts state police Col. Tom Foley, who investigated Bulger for decades, said he never believed the various reported Bulger sightings around the world, even the 2002 sighting in London that the FBI said was confirmed. Foley said it was widely believed that the FBI didn’t actively search for the mobster, at least initially.
“Apparently, they should have spent more time in this country looking for him than gallivanting overseas,” Foley said.
Damon Katz, chief counsel for the FBI in Boston, wouldn’t comment on Bulger’s living in the same place for almost the entire time he was a fugitive.