Whitey Bulger's Life on the Lam: Rage and Dementia?

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Reuters

James "Whitey" Bulger in a photo released June 23

When news of James "Whitey" Bulger's arrest on Wednesday evening first hit, his choice of Santa Monica, Calif., as hideout came as almost as big a surprise as the end to his 16 years as a fugitive. Bulger, a former crime boss who fled Boston in 1995 as he was about to be arrested for murder, extortion and drug dealing, had spent years on the FBI's most wanted list. He was thought to have escaped to Europe, but as it turned out, he'd spent the entire time living with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, in a two-bedroom apartment three blocks from the beach and two blocks from the Third Street Promenade shopping mall — two of Santa Monica's biggest tourist attractions. According to law-enforcement officials who specialize in tracking fugitives, it shouldn't really have been a surprise at all.

"It all comes back to what you're used to," says Geoff Shank, assistant director of investigative operations for the U.S. Marshals Service, which began assisting the FBI in the hunt for Bulger seven months ago. "If you're a big-city guy, you're going to end up in a big city. If you're a wilderness guy, you're going to be hanging out in the woods."

According to Bulger's neighbors, the 1000 block of Third Street is an ideal spot for an older couple to blend in. "It's full of young professionals and active older folks," says Stephen Hall, a Boston native who lives a couple of blocks from the Bulger apartment. "You can see how he'd fit in." There's a convalescent home across the street, and according to Chris Thompson, a resident of the Bulgers' building, there are many elderly people in the immediate vicinity. "There are a lot of retirees who have lived here for 20 or 30 years, even in this building," he says.

For a fugitive, blending in is of tantamount importance. "Those who stay on the run the longest remain completely incognito," says Shank. "You don't get into a fistfight. You don't get into a fender bender."

Staying incognito for Bulger meant leaving Boston — a city where he had a high profile and was both revered and feared. California was distant enough from his native environs but not so far that he would have been tempted to make a move that would have alerted law enforcement. Fugitives have a strong pull toward home, and if Bulger had fled the country, he might have later been tempted to return — a scenario that often snags criminals who are on the lam.

Bulger and Greig, who were living under the names of Charlie and Carol Gasko, had many things working in their favor. Bulger's age meant he was fairly sedentary, which likely worked to his advantage because his social footprint was small. According to neighbors, the couple didn't have a car and they walked everywhere. "She went out at very early hours," says Catalina Schlank, a neighbor who has lived in the building for 35 years and who observed that Greig always did the grocery shopping, walking the eight blocks to and from the supermarket.

Schlank and another longtime resident of the building, Barbara Gluck, both said Greig told them Bulger had Alzheimer's. She also told Schlank that he suffered from depression. The neighbors observed controlling behavior on Bulger's part — at one point, Greig refused to keep the key to Schlank's apartment as a neighborly gesture, saying that her husband wouldn't like it. Gluck says she witnessed Bulger behaving even more overtly hostile. "I got the feeling from several encounters that he was a rageaholic," Gluck says. "[Greig] was a lovely person, and when I would say hello, he would say, 'Don't talk to her!' "

Neighbors who didn't know Bulger and Greig were shocked to have been living in the midst of such a dangerous criminal but understood why the couple was drawn to Santa Monica. "You can walk to the beach, go to good restaurants," says Stephen Martin, a resident who works as the concierge for the Beverly Hills Hotel. "Maybe he wanted to be in a quiet area and live out the rest of his life as if nothing happened in the past."

In the end, the FBI focused its attention on Greig, launching a media campaign geared toward acquaintances of hers. And it was Bulger's relationship with her that led to his arrest — again, part of a long recognized pattern. Two people living or traveling together increases the risk for exposure, according to Shank of the U.S. Marshals Service. "If he was with his girlfriend the entire time and he was able to stay under the radar, kudos to him," he says. "He did a good job as a fugitive." But his luck has run out.