RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

We're going to spend some time now in the world of Boston's Irish mafia. The alleged long-time boss of that mob is on his way back to Boston to face charges. James "Whitey" Bulger was arrested this week after 16 years as a fugitive. He's implicated in 19 murders. And what many people outside Massachusetts don't know is that Bulger's brother was just as powerful in his own world.

From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch has this tale of two brothers.

CURT NICKISCH: Take a guess which one of the Bulger brothers is describing himself here at the height of his power in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

WILLIAM: Autocratic, dictatorial, boss, those kinds of things.

NICKISCH: If you said the crime boss, James "Whitey" Bulger, you'd be wrong. That was the political boss, William "Billy" Bulger, telling CBS's "60 Minutes" how other people saw him. Billy held the longest-ever term as senate president, a position many here consider more powerful than the governor.

Their two paths start at the same point: 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.

TOM O: One was the church. The other road to success was politics. And the third, of course, was - what? Crime.

NICKISCH: Crime is the road Whitey took.

PETER GELZINIS: He was formidable.

NICKISCH: Peter Gelzinis has covered the Bulger mob for the Boston Herald. He says Whitey was ruthless, but also very bright.

GELZINIS: To be a criminal on the level that he operated, you have to be a successful politician, and he mastered that.

NICKISCH: Whitey's brother Billy mastered politics proper.

GELZINIS: I don't think it's an accident that they rise almost in direct proportion at the same time.

NICKISCH: Gelzinis says you 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.

Unidentified Man: What is it that you thought your brother did for a living?

BULGER: Whatever. It was vague to me.

NICKISCH: Those vague answers in 2003 outraged victims' families, but South Boston friends like Joe Oteri defended him.

JOE OTERI: We're immigrants' kids. And one thing, when you're a part of a minority group that's trying to break in and make it, is loyalty.

NICKISCH: 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 last night, Billy Bulger issued a statement on Whitey's arrest, saying, like everyone else, he's looking forward to a resolution.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch, in Boston.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.