Commentary: Whitey Bulger and the lure of those on the lam

Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger's booking photo.
Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger's booking photo. AP Photo/WBUR 90.9

I'm sure I'm not the only person who entertained a momentary twinge of regret Wednesday night when I heard that James "Whitey" Bulger, the legendary South Boston gangster, had been apprehended after 16 years on the run.

There's something about the fugitive experience that holds our lawless imaginations in thrall, and with a capture of this sort, a dim candle gutters out somewhere in our private romantic firmaments.

It's a momentary experience for the sensible and the moderately mature, because there's absolutely nothing about Whitey Bulger even vaguely romantic or slightly sympathetic. Murder for hire, loan sharking and extortion were the pillars of his career. There's nothing clever or amusing about those lines of work; they're up-close-and-personal sorts of crimes that attract sadists and sociopaths, and there's more than ample evidence that Bulger is both.

Knowing that, why the vague stirring of remorse over his capture — let alone the calls reportedly coming into some Boston talk shows in which listeners wonder whether Whitey could have been all that bad or repeat hand-me-down stories of his purported kindnesses to those he didn't victimize?

The romantic notion of the fugitive runs deep and old in Western culture. Robin Hood may be its first expression, and it's fascinating to note that the longer a fugitive eludes the authorities, the more likely it is that stories of his "Robinesque" attributes will attach themselves like narrative barnacles to his story. It isn't the individual and actual fugitives who are admired but the vicarious and exhilarating fantasy — however momentary — of a life lived beyond the reach of authority.

It's fascinating, moreover, to see how this undercurrent of sympathy persists in the face of what seems to be inevitably deflating reality. Bulger, for example, was said to have prepared for life on the lam by frequent trips to learn the cultures of other countries, salting false passports and cash in countries around the world. As the years went by, he was "spotted" in Dublin, walking through the lobby of an elegant London hotel and attired in an impeccable suit in Washington. For years the FBI reported that its last "credible" sighting had him in London in 2002.

We know now that shortly after fleeing Boston with his companion, Catherine Greig, the pair settled in a slightly shabby rent-controlled apartment a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. Bulger, now 81, took walks in the nearby park, trailed after Catherine on her trips to the local farmers market and reportedly spent most of his time lying on the couch watching television as he slipped more deeply into senile dementia.

It's hard, in fact, not to be struck by the similarity to that "other" fugitive recently brought to well-deserved justice — Osama bin Laden. For years, we were told — and his legions of admirers wanted to believe — that the "emir" was eluding the combined might of the Western powers, riding a white horse through mountain passes and taking his night's rest in remote caves in Pakistan's tribal highlands.

As it turns out, he was — like Bulger — hiding in what amounted to prosaic plain sight: in a shabby walled compound whose inhabitants reportedly subsisted on what vegetables they could scratch from their little garden and a weekly goat delivered from outside. Bin Laden, at the end, was a bent old man, sitting shrouded in a blanket with a TV remote control, watching recordings of himself.

The other deflating reality has to do with the fantasy of pursuit. We all carry a film model in our minds of an all-knowing, always active authority that tracks fugitives like Bulger and bin Laden. In fact, those efforts are sometimes far less fearsome than they seem. As former FBI official Robert Wittman told the Los Angeles Times' Jason Felch last week: "There was an entire squad in the Boston FBI office called the Whitey Bulger squad. They spent 20 years looking for him all over the world, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to find him. The whole time he was in California." Bin Laden was a quick walk from a Pakistani military academy.

None of the sensible among us entertains the least sympathy for murderous thugs like Bulger, let alone a creature like bin Laden; it's the fantasy of the fugitive life that resonates. Is there anyone, after all, who somewhere in the anarchic corner of his heart doesn't hope that D.B. Cooper has found contentment on some gentle beach?


Timothy Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at timothy.rutten@latimes.com.