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DOJ watchdog finds missteps by prison officials ahead of Whitey Bulger's killing

Whitey Bulger is taken from a Coast Guard helicopter to an awaiting Sheriff vehicle after attending federal court in Boston, on June 30, 2011.
Stuart Cahill
MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images
Whitey Bulger is taken from a Coast Guard helicopter to an awaiting Sheriff vehicle after attending federal court in Boston, on June 30, 2011.

Inmates at the federal prison where James "Whitey" Bulger was killed hours after arriving knew ahead of time that the convicted mob boss was being transferred to the facility and were taking bets on how long he would survive, according to a report released Wednesday by the Justice Department's inspector general.

Bulger, who led Boston's notorious Winter Hill Gang and was serving two consecutive life sentences, was found dead in his cell at the Hazelton federal prison in West Virginia less than 12 hours after he arrived there in October 2018.

His killing sparked questions about the circumstances of his death and the federal Bureau of Prison's handling of his transfer to Hazelton from another lockup in Florida. Of particular concern was the decision to place Bulger, who was 89 years old, in poor health and a notorious FBI informant, in with the prison's general population.

In a nearly 70-page report examining the issue, the inspector general says it did not find that BOP employees acted improperly or with malicious intent, but the watchdog did find that the BOP committed a string of missteps. The IG is referring at least six BOP employees for disciplinary actions.

In 2018, Bulger was serving his sentence at the Coleman federal lockup in Florida. The facility provided level 3 medical care, which was necessary for Bulger's well-documented health issues, including heart conditions.

After Bulger allegedly threatened a nurse there, Coleman officials tried to get Bulger transferred. Eventually, they managed to secure a move for him to Hazelton.

More than 100 BOP officials knew of Bulger's impending transfer to Hazelton, the report says, and agency personnel spoke openly about it within earshot of inmates there, which violated BOP policy and put Bulger in danger.

The watchdog said the large number of officials with knowledge of Bulger's impending transfer made it impossible to determine which BOP employees were responsible for leaking news of his arrival.

But the news was widely enough known at Hazelton that inmates were openly discussing it. One inmate, for example, talked about Bulger's imminent transfer during a phone call hours before the mob boss arrived. Other inmates mentioned Bulger's transfer in emails sent days ahead of his arrival.

One man, identified as Inmate 3, told the inspector general's office that he overheard other inmates discussing Bulger's transfer weeks ahead of time.

"Inmate 3 told the OIG that he eventually also heard multiple BOP officers speaking openly about Bulger coming to Hazelton, as if they were 'talking about a football game,'" the report says. "Inmate 3 further stated that both the inmates and staff were speculating about—and inmates were betting money on—how long Bulger would stay alive at Hazelton."

Several inmates on Bulger's compound were in the Genovese Crime Family, which the Inmate 3 says had "beef" with Bulger, according to the report.

The report says one Unit Manager at Hazelton asked to have Bulger assigned to his housing unit at the lockup. The official told the watchdog that he believed he had the best staff and would be able to handle Bulger's case best.

The Unit Manager told the inspector general that he was unaware of any potential threats to Bulger in the unit.

When Bulger arrived at Hazelton, he told officials there that he was not a member or a gang and did not have conflicts with other gangs, the report says. BOP officials told the inspector general that he wanted to be housed with the general population at Hazelton.

Bulger was found dead in his cell on Oct. 30, 2018. A medical examiner determined that he was killed by blunt force injuries to his head.

Three inmates, including a Mafia hitman, are facing federal charges in Bulger's death.

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Ryan Lucas
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.