In this courtroom sketch, James "Whitey" Bulger, left, and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, are shown during their arraignment in Los Angeles.
In this courtroom sketch, James "Whitey" Bulger, left, and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, are shown during their arraignment in Los Angeles. Bill Robles/AP
Alleged mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger is on his way back to Boston to face charges. Arrested after 16 years on the lam, Bulger is implicated in 19 murders linked to a brutal crime ring.
What many people outside Massachusetts don't know is that Bulger's brother may have been just as powerful in his own world.
William "Billy" Bulger held the longest ever term as state senate president, a position many in Boston consider more powerful than the governor.
Their two paths start in a working-class family in the immigrant neighborhood of South Boston during the Great Depression. The Bulger brothers lived in the projects. Historian Tom O'Connor grew up in the Catholic neighborhood, too, and says in those days there were three ways for the powerless to gain power.
"One was the church," O'Connor says. "The other road to success was politics. And the third of course was, what?, crime."
Crime is the road Whitey took, and he was formidable in that role, according to
Peter Gelzinis covered the Bulger mob for the Boston Herald. He says Whitey was ruthless, but also very bright.
"To be a criminal on the level that he operated, you have to be a successful politician, and he mastered that," says Gelzinis.
Whitey's brother Billy mastered politics proper, and Gelzinis says, "I don't think it's an accident that they rise almost in direct proportion at the same time."
He maintains that people were afraid to cross the legislator, knowing who his brother was. And he says police feared if they went after the criminal brother, their budgets would get cut.
But when Whitey fled Boston in 1994 to avoid arrest, pressure grew on the politician to say what he knew. Billy asked for immunity before testifying before Congress.
When a congressman asked, "what did you think your brother did for a living?" Billy Bulger replied, "Whatever — it was vague to me."
The vague answers in 2003 outraged victims' families, but South Boston friends like Joe Oteri defended him.
"We're immigrants' kids," he said. "And one thing, when you're part of a minority group that's trying to break in and make it is loyalty, loyalty to the group mmbers. He was his brother. He was loyal to him. And he loves his brother."
But the longer his brother he loved was on the lam, the more Billy Bulger's political powered weakened. Eventually, he was forced out.
Late Thursday, Billy Bulger issued a statement on Whitey's arrest, saying, like everyone else, he's looking forward to a resolution.