Retired DEA agent details Whitey Bulger surveillance
BOSTON -- Federal agents and Boston police tailed James "Whitey" Bulger and his cohorts in 1989 and 1990, using old-fashioned legwork, high-tech gadgets, and even a plane, in an effort to bust them for extorting money from drug dealers, according to a published report.
And even though the effort resulted in federal cocaine charges against 51 people, Bulger was never charged, according to an interview in Thursday's Boston Globe with a retired Drug Enforcement Agency agent who participated in the surveillance.
Agents watched Bulger, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi and Kevin Weeks through binoculars; tried to listen to their conversations using high-tech bugs, including one in Bulger's car and one buried in a park where they used to meet; and tracked them using a small plane.
The surveillance even included tense face-to-face encounters.
"In retrospect, a lot of us didn't know what a dangerous man he was," said Mike Swidwinski, a retired special agent now living in Michigan.
Swidwinski also provided photos, never before seen by the public, including one of Bulger petting a dog and another of him relaxing in a lawn chair at a park.
Bulger, 77, the leader of the notorious Winter Hill Gang and also an FBI informant, has been on the lam for 12 years since being indicted of federal racketeering charges. He is wanted in 19 murders and is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
Investigators involved in the surveillance operation were suspicious that the FBI hindered their attempts to get Bulger, Swidwinski said.
Bulger's FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr., was convicted of racketeering in 2002 for protecting Bulger and Flemmi and leaking them information. Connolly was never charged with compromising the DEA investigation.
"Either he is a highly intelligent person, or he just kept getting tipped off," Swidwinski said.
The operation led to tense moments. Once, while Swidwinski was watching Bulger through binoculars, he noticed that Bulger was looking back at him with his own binoculars.
The agent drove off to avoid a confrontation as Bulger and Flemmi started walking toward his vehicle, he said.
On another occasion, agents pulled over Bulger's car to retrieve a bug they had planted.
"My only bragging rights is I think I'm the only guy in history who ever took Whitey Bulger out of a car at gunpoint," said Swidwinski, 57, who retired two years ago after 22 years with the DEA.
He said he grabbed Bulger's car keys and noticed they were attached to a devil's face pendant with the words "Born to Raise Hell."
Retired Boston police detective Frank Dewan, who worked alongside Swidwinski in the investigation, said one day as he followed Bulger, Bulger turned around and began following him "just to let us know that he knew we were there," he said.
Agents also used a small plane to monitor conversations picked up by a bug in Bulger's car.
But the bug yielded nothing of value because Bulger apparently suspected it was there.
Bulger also knew of the plane, said Weeks, who struck a deal with the government and is now free after serving five years for assisting Bulger in five murders.
"You'd look up in the sky and see this plane doing figure eights over us," Weeks told the newspaper. "We'd drive to the Cape, we'd be on the highway, and we'd see the plane."
Weeks said he and Bulger were aware of the surveillance because they had police scanners in their cars tuned to the DEA's frequency.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)