James “Whitey” Bulger tried to murder me. I am Howie Carr, the journalist who helped expose Whitey Bulger, the mob boss played by Johnny Depp in Black Mass.
I am the New York Times best-selling author of The Brothers Bulger and Hitman, which chronicle Boston mobsters, dirty lawmen and corrupt politicians. I am a columnist for the Boston Herald and I host a radio show that is broadcast on more than 25 stations throughout New England. My latest book, Killers, is a novel that explores the post-Whitey Boston underworld.
What is your view on the current state of organized crime in Boston?
Have you been reading about the Teamster indictments? Check out my column about that here. The president of Local 25 is a thug. And the FBI once grabbed 50 grand out of his father’s house. One of the indicted Teamster thugs is named Fidler, a coke dealer and armored car-robbing gang associate. His father or grandfather was Suitcase Fidler, mentioned in passing in Black Mass, and discussed in somewhat greater length in the congressional report on FBI corruption in Boston. If you want to Google it, “Everything Secret Degenerates”. Check Feb 13, 1970: Suitcase and another Winter Hill hitman are sent to California by the mafia to kill mob rat Joe Barbosa. So the tradition continues to this day in less organized fashion.
Are you concerned at all that the film release will encourage retaliation against you?
No. The gang is defunct. Most of the remaining gang members have more to fear from ho-hos and twinkies than from gangland gats.
How was Whitey Bulger able to maintain his relationship with the FBI for so long with no one taking him down? The movie portrays it as all Connolly’s doing, was that really the case?
He had six of the agents in the Boston office on his personal payroll. Through the state budget, Billy had major clout with private sector employers, including utilities. Remember, FBI mandatory retirement age was 50 then. They needed jobs. When Zip Connolly retired and became security chief for then-Boston Edison, he succeeded an ex-FBI agent and was in turn himself succeeded by another ex-Boston FBI agent. That’s why Zip always took the new SAC’s to Billy’s St. Patrick Day breakfast — to show how much clout the Bulgers had.
Is it true the movie downplayed his rage and propensity for violence?
No, he’s portrayed as the violent thug that he was. “Mostly intimidation,” that was his job, according to Johnny Martorano. But everything was compressed. He killed a lot more people than he did in the movie. A lot more. Real quote from corrupt FBI agent John Morris: “You have no idea how dangerous he is.”
How has covering the story changed your career? Would you consider that the most dangerous story you’ve covered?
Absolutely. I’ve been audited repeatedly by the state and by the feds. Democrats and Republicans. You don’t get death threats when you cover the Fake Indian, Elizabeth Warren, or Ted Kennedy running his yacht aground on Cape Cod.
Which is worse, being targeted by the powers that be or being targeted by the mob?
Tough question to answer… Both are bad but in different ways. The mob is a blue collar problem. The government is white collar. I have learned to try to live by the motto of Johnny Torrio, Al Capone’s mentor in the Chicago outfit: “We don’t want any trouble.” I gave that motto to my hitman in Killers, Bench McCarthy.
Do you think Johnny Depp portrayed him in an accurate way? Not necessarily the accuracy of the film itself, but the way he played the character.
Yeah, absolutely. Richie Castucci, an FBI informant shortly before he was murdered by FBI informants Whitey and Flemmi, said in an FBI report that Whitey was an “animal” and that he had taken over collections from Howie Winter because Howie was always giving people a pass on debts. Once in Dedham, MA, in a crowded bar, Whitey threatened to chop off a guys penis and stuff it in his mouth. Dick O’Brien, a bookie who just died, used to bring his wayward bookies to Whitey’s garage in the west end. When they would leave after Whitey lectured them, Dick would ask them where they wanted to be dropped off. They invariably replied, “The nearest barroom.” Depp captured this murderous insanity in several scenes.
What was it like writing Hitman, considering your co-author was admitted serial killer Johnny Martorano?
Johnny is a very genial companion. I did a lot of the interviewing in the Boston Herald newsroom on Sunday mornings and as one of my co-workers, Laurel Sweet, said, “If only he wasn’t so likable.”
What inspired you to expose James “Whitey” Bulger?
I saw the power that his brother, Billy Bulger, had at the State House as Senate President. And I began to do a little research. I quoted the mayor of Boston as saying, “If my brother threatened to kill you, you’d be nothing but nice to me.” After that, I started getting death threats from Whitey. When somebody threatens to kill you, it concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Dr. Johnson might say.
How tied was Billy to Whitey, in terms of illegal activities or knowing what Whitey was doing and not contacting the police, etc?
Well, he took the phone call from Whitey after he (Whitey) went on the lam in 1995. (Eddie Phillips, the Senate door-opener who owned the house where the call came in, just died at age 72. The joke was, Billy liked Eddie because he was one of the very few guys at the State House who was shorter than the 65″ tall Corrupt Midget, Billy Bulger.) State Trooper at Logan Airport who stopped Whitey from taking 50gs in cash out of the country was booted out of his plum assignment after he refused to turn over a report to a Dukakis aide. St Police Lt. Col. who put a bug in Whitey’s garage would have been force to retire via outside section inserted anonymously into state budget (Gov. King vetoed the rider). Billy asked new mayor Ray Flynn to make gangster FBI agent Zip Connolly Boston Police commissioner. (A shocked Flynn turned him down.) Before Congress, Billy said he sometimes stopped Whitey on his “madcap adventures”, like planning to kill a guy who was planning to run against Billy. I could go on…
Did you ever meet or see Whitey in person?
I saw him almost everyday in mid to late 1980s because I had to drive by the liquor store on my way between jobs. I never went in the liquor store for obvious reasons. But Stevie Flemmi, Whitey’s partner and fellow FBI informant, told me later that, “Whitey was always talking about you.” My editor in New York just told me that Johnny Martorano told him my life really was in danger back then. I did speak to Billy though.
Have you noticed any changes in radio or dealing with publishers nowadays?
Neither publishing nor radio are what they used to be. Nor, for that matter, are newspapers or TV. Everybody is basically a freelancer now. I’d rather publish my own books, because I have platform to sell them on with my radio show. And, by the way, I own my radio show now. There aren’t anymore safety nets.
How did Whitey Bulger try to murder you and how has that impacted your life since?
Kevin Weeks, Whitey’s 300-lb Fredo, has expanded the story more than he’s expanded his waistline over the last fifteen years. First they just knew where I lived, then they were going to put a little C4 in a basketball and blow me up, then they were going to shoot me from a graveyard across the street from my house. Lately, Weeks has been saying they were going to use 40 lbs of C4 that they got from a crooked FBI agent to kill me. That FBI agent is still alive, by the way, and he’s even fatter than Kevin Weeks.
Was Ray Liotta too busy for Whiteys role? Seems like they put a ton of make up on Johnny just to make him look like Ray Liotta with blue eyes.
Listen, he’s dead ringer. I used to see Whitey every day outside that liquor store staring at me. Depp got it, just from studying those state police surveillance videos outside the Lancaster Street garage.
There seems to be somewhat of a discrepancy as to whether or not Whitey actually was an informant. The film appeared to downplay that, save one scene. Do you believe Whitey was cooperating or was the cooperation a plant by the FBI in order to break up the gang?
He was a RAT! From 1960 on, he ratted out the members of his own bank-robbing gang. His protector in prison was House Speaker John McCormack of Southie. Billy was with the McCormacks in politics. McCormack got Zip Connolly on the FBI by writing a letter to his pal, J. Edgar Hoover in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, McCormack was retiring and, in what appears to be one of J. Edgar’s final favors to Mr. Speaker, he instructed the Boston office to recruit Whitey as an informant, even though he was a small timer handling afternoon dog bets at wonderland. This revisionist history about him not being an informant is utter BS. The feds introduced 900 plus pages of his rat work at trial.
When is a movie about you coming out and who would play you? I’d rather hear your story than that of a child raping mass murderer.
Thanks… A few years ago a guy in Hollywood bought the option to Brothers Bulger. He wanted to make it a long form cable TV drama, like Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. They want a 3-year “story arc” and it was easy to put together from true incidence in Brothers Bulger and some of my other books. But he never could sell it. I hope Netflix is paying attention… I still have his number.
I’m curious how you can complain all the time about the “beautiful people” when you have homes in Wellesley and Palm Beach, two cities known for being full of the beautiul people you claim to despise?
Don’t forget, I used to work in Kennebunkport, ME. And I’m a graduate of Deerfield Academy, where I learned the famous words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
Is there anything not in the movie or well known about the whole thing that you would like to say?
I understand the limitations of a Hollywood film, but it would have been nice to see a little bit more about Billy Bulger and what happened to the people, not just cops, who crossed Whitey Bulger. For instance, one guy, John E. Powers, the first Democrat State Senate President since the Civil War, also from South Boston, later got a court house job and was Whitey’s boss when he had a no-show job at the court house in Pemberton Square. Powers fired Whitey, saying a gangster shouldn’t have the keys to the DAs office. When Billy became Senate President, Powers and his top assistants had their pay frozen in the state budget for at least 5 years. This is what Judge Daher meant when he told a reporter how balless Mike Dukakis was when he was running for president in 1988: “How can he stand up to the Russians when he can’t stand up to a corrupt midget?” I’d like to have seen more of that in the movie. But again, that’s why a long form dramatic TV series would have been a more appropriate vehicle. (Are you listening, Netflix?)
When you say “tried”, do you mean threatened or did you actually have to fight for your life in a confrontation? I saw the movie, I’m surprised there wasn’t more on how you helped expose him.
The movie was only 2 hours long. Bulger’s reign of terror spanned 40 years. There weren’t all that many fist fights. They carried guns. For more on the plot against me, check out the 60-minutes interview Kevin Weeks, Whitey’s grave-digger, did.
Is Bulger still involved with organized crime? Does he have any pull from prison?
No, but I think he’s probably a big man on campus at his current lock-up in Sumterville, Florida. That’s the worst thing about this movie, that it no doubt increases Whitey’s stature in the can. Note, however, that his galpal Catherine Greig was just indicted again for refusing to tell what she knows about where he stashed his money. He must still have millions out there. They found safe deposit boxes in Montreal, London, Dublin and Clearwater, Fla. Think how many more there must be.
Which chowder do you think is the best: New England, Manhattan or Rhode Island? When is the last time you went to the Big E?
I was at the Big E last week. Had a blast. As always.
New England, obviously, although I insist that no flour be added. If a spoon can stand up in the chowder, it has ben adulterated. Rhode Island chowder is not bad, but I was weaned on the Maine variety. Manhattan chowder — an abomination!
If you were ever to meet Whitey in person what would you say to him?
I say, “Whitey, I’m a free man and you’re gonna die in prison. You thought you were so smart, but all the people you tried to screw, not just me, but everybody else, the Martoranos, Pat Nee, Howie Winter, we’re all walking around, and you’re not.”
How do you think he was able to stay hidden for so long? I can’t even hide from my ex girlfriend.
Good question. I think the lesson here is, if you spend thirty years establishing false identities and putting several million dollars cash in safety deposit boxes around the world, and then the FBI gives you an 18-month head start, during which time they don’t even ask the woman you’ve been traveling with what your aliases are, chances are the trail is going to go a little cold. I’m not suggesting this, but Whitey did have a way of dealing with, if not his own ex-girl friends, Stevie’s…
How did you feel when Whitey was finally arrested? Any remorse for his sentence considering his age when taken in?
You’re kidding right? The guy presided over a reign of terror for 20 years or so. When he was arrested in 2011, my book about Martorano, Hitman, had just come out. It had spent two weeks on the NYT best-seller list and then dropped off. As soon as I heard the news, my first (or maybe second) thought was, Hitman is going to be one of those rare books that falls off the list and then pops back on. And it was. It was a very happy day. I gave an interview to channel 4 in Boston at 2:30 AM. I knew the reporter. He called me up and said, “I knew I wouldn’t be waking you up.” And he was right.
What did you feel at the moment you found out that another human being wanted to have you murdered?
I’d always read about these kinds of situations like Phenix City, Alabama, or the Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle getting shot, or Victor Reisl getting acid thrown in his face, but I’d never dreamed it could happen to me. The follow-up thought was, I can’t even go to the cops. Who am I gonna go to? The FBI? Most of the State Police were honest but cowed. Ditto the BPD. Then the only thought was, how am I going to get through this? By myself…
When will your radio show get syndicated and widely available? Do you still do the Chump Line?
I’m on 25 stations throughout New England. We also stream online. We’ve got an app. You can subscribe to podcasts. Since I went independent last November, our network has grown steadily. You can find more info at HowieCarrShow.com.
Whats your opinion of the movie? Do you think it would have been better if it was based on your novel “Brothers Bulger”?
Brothers Bulger wasn’t a novel. It was real. I still hope that someday it will be transferred in some form to film and that a more complete story of what Boston was like in those days will be told. The one thing I will say about Two Weeks is that he had a really good line in court when a lawyer said, how could all this happen in America. He put down his crueller, wiped the jelly dripping off his chin, and answered with his mouth full: “We weren’t in America, we were in Boston.”