Legendary Mobster Hides In Plain Sight

For 16 years, authorities pursued the legendary crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger. When his capture was announced Thursday, it came to light that one of the most wanted men in America was living out a relatively public life in the upscale California community of Santa Monica. Robert Siegel talks with former U.S. marshal Victor Oboyski about how one goes about hiding in plain sight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Which is more remarkable: the fact that James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster, is finally in custody, or the fact that he managed to elude capture for 16 years? Bulger was picked up on a tip last night, in Santa Monica, California.

In an age when the ATM takes your picture; when you have to show I.D. at the airport, the train station, the car rental; and when a common cell phone is a more sophisticated tracking device than just about anyone possessed when Bulger first went on the lam, 16 years sounds like a pretty good run for staying under the radar.

Vic Oboyski is a retired supervisory deputy U.S. marshal who's put a lot of thought into tracking fugitives. And we have tracked him down to a train somewhere south of Stamford, Connecticut. Welcome to the program.

Mr. VIC OBOYSKI (Retired, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshall): That's where I am.

SIEGEL: Mr. Oboyski, let me ask you first: If Whitey Bulger had been an al-Qaida leader hiding out in Pakistan, we would all say that he must have had a lot of help from others. Do you think that Mr. Bulger needed a lot of help from other people to avoid arrest for so long?

Mr. OBOYSKI: He would need a lot of help. Most important thing he would need is money. Money would be able to feed his fugitivity(ph) and keep him on the run.

SIEGEL: But coming by money is not that easy to do off the radar nowadays, is it?

Mr. OBOYSKI: Not really, but if you have somebody sending you money - we had a Mafia guy up in Connecticut that was getting $5,000 a month, by one guy who was bringing it up to him. That was enough to sustain him. This was in the '80s. Also, a lot of these fellows, they're smart. They plan. They know that sometime they may have to take off, so they'll bankroll money and they'll have money set aside.

SIEGEL: He also, of course, needs an identity. Is it still that easy to steal and use an entire identity that can get you through life?

Mr. OBOYSKI: Yes, it really isn't that hard. They have books on it. You can get a book in the library. So getting an identity and blending into an area really isn't all that difficult, not in today's day and age.

SIEGEL: And when you think about somebody who manages to evade capture for several years, do you think the most challenging time is typically at the beginning, to avoid the law-enforcement officers who are going after you then? Or does it get harder with the years?

Mr. OBOYSKI: The beginning part would be the most trying time because at that point, the fugitive is on the move. He's on the run, basically trying to get himself established and to hide. And that's when law enforcement, all their attention would be on him or her at that time.

As time goes on, and the case goes colder and colder - like any other criminal case - then the fugitive actually will be able to settle in and get himself established.

Very similar to the way the marshals want the witness security people to do; you know, anonymous person, just a face in the crowd.

SIEGEL: Now, as best as I understand it, Mr. Bulger was arrested after some public service announcements were put out on local television. And they described not just him, but his girlfriend. And that seems to have been critical here.

Mr. OBOYSKI: Yeah, a lot of times that's the best thing to do - is to find out who the fugitive is with. I had a mob case, a fellow was a Mafia guy wanted in Staten Island. And we received a photo of his wife - who was an attractive, young blonde - in a bikini. And she was really, deeply tanned. DEA got us a photo.

You know, he was just another little fat Italian guy from Staten Island. But when we showed her photo, people recognized her right away. Wasn't too long that we showed it at a hotel and they go, oh yeah, I've seen her coming and go. Well, then once we knew she was coming and going, we said, let us know when she's here. Two weeks later, she was there and sure enough, we made the arrest.

SIEGEL: That's Vic Oboyski, retired supervisory deputy U.S. marshal, who was speaking to us from an Amtrak train headed south of Stamford, Connecticut, toward Newark, New Jersey. It must have gone under a tunnel at that point because we didn't have time to thank him.

We were talking about life on the run, one day after the arrest in California of the Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger.

(Soundbite of song, "Ready or Not")

DELFONICS (Singing Group): Anywhere you go, my poor heart is going to know, baby. Hey, baby. You can't hide from love, no. Ready or not, here I come. You can't hide.

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