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Elusive neighbor keeps the FBI at bay

Published Sep. 13, 2005

The neighbors in Bayside Gardens II wonder about Whitey Bulger.

White hair, great tan, muscular for a guy in his 60s. He hates carpet. The inside of his condo is all tile.

"He spent a fortune in that place," Aldo Praeg said. "He retiled the whole thing, every square inch, even the stairs."

The other thing about Whitey: No one ever sees him.

"It's a shame," said Praeg, one of few who has spoken with him. "That nice condo, and nobody's ever there."

Neighbors aren't the only ones interested in James J. "Whitey" Bulger. Federal authorities want the so-called "Don of South Boston" on racketeering charges. They also want his condo.

One of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, Bulger wears many hats: reputed Mafia boss, government snitch, lottery winner and, since April 1993, owner of a condominium with a sweet view of Clearwater Harbor.

Bulger's local address is Unit 216, Bayside Gardens II on Sand Key. Neighbors haven't seen him for years, but FBI agents have been around to chat. Bulger dropped from sight in January 1995 just before the indictments came down.

The government says Bulger helped unite New England's Irish and Italian crime rings and ran gambling, extortion, drug-running and loan-sharking operations.

The U.S. Department of Justice is trying to seize the $160,000 condo, saying its purchase can be traced to money-laundering transactions.

"And here we thought this was a decent neighborhood," cracked Carl Williams, a retired restaurateur who owns the condo beneath Bulger's.

It turns out that "Whitey" is a frequent topic of conversation at poolside parties in Bayside Gardens. The talk is fueled by his occasional appearances on TV: America's Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries and, most recently, CNN's Impact.

"The FBI asks, "You ever see him?' No, but we talk about him all the time," retired newspaper editor John Murphy said.

Theories abound as to Bulger's whereabouts. The Cayman Islands? An Ireland hideout set up by the IRA? The bottom of Boston Harbor?

"I have a feeling he sleeps with the fishes," Murphy said.

The FBI doesn't think so. A Boston-based task force is tracking Bulger's movements and has posted a quarter-million dollar reward for him.

"Is he alive? Absolutely. Certainly," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Thomas Cassano, head of the task force. "Finding him is a very, very high priority."

On the lam

Investigators think Bulger, 68, and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, 46, have spent three years crisscrossing the country, renting rooms and paying cash. They've been spotted in New York, Wyoming and Mississippi.

Cassano said the couple spent months in 1995 and 1996 in a $400-a-month beachfront duplex on Grand Isle, La., south of New Orleans. They shopped at Wal-Mart a lot. Bulger told neighbors he was retired and traveling around, which was pretty much true.

FBI agents don't know where their fugitive is, but Florida wouldn't be a surprise.

"He's keeping his nose clean," Cassano said. "He kind of fits into the picture, especially in places like Florida where there's a lot of retired people."

Bulger was called a reputed killer, mobster and bank robber by the 1986 President's Commission on Organized Crime. Prosecutors say that, among other things, he held a knife to a mortgage broker's throat while extorting $50,000 in 1989.

He barely caused a ripple at Bayside Gardens, built on the strip of island between Belleair and Clearwater beaches.

No one knew him. People were pleased to see him buy a condo in 1993 because its previous owner was years behind on utility and maintenance fees, said Aldo Praeg, president of the homeowners' association at the time.

This is how Praeg and his wife remember it:

Athletic for his age, Bulger was jogging along the water one day when he came upon the two- and three-story town houses of Bayside Gardens. He liked the layout.

Bulger, who served time in Alcatraz in the '60s for robbing banks, didn't like the nearly 20 high-rises elsewhere on Sand Key. Too boxy.

The gray-haired man with the Boston accent asked a female resident whether any units were for sale. She pointed one out. After buying it, he sent the woman a thank-you of flowers and champagne.

"He was generous and polite to the ladies," Irene Praeg said.

His visits were rare.

FBI informants

Bulger was indicted in January 1995 along with reputed New England mobsters Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi and Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme.

Flemmi was arrested in a Boston restaurant. Salemme skipped town and even skipped his son's funeral before being arrested in pajamas the following August at a West Palm Beach home.

Now Flemmi's lawyers are trying to get the case thrown out. In hearings this past week, they've contended the FBI gave Bulger and Flemmi immunity for crimes the two Irishmen committed because they were informing on rival Italian mobsters.

FBI agents testified that Bulger and Flemmi were informants for decades but that the FBI never gave them carte blanche to commit crimes.

Amy Rindskopf of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston said prosecutors are trying to seize nearly $2-million Bulger won in the Massachusetts Lottery in 1991, nearly $200,000 from a safe deposit box and two Boston bank accounts, and Bulger's bank account in Clearwater.

Local FBI spokesman Brian Kensall said Tampa Bay-area agents interviewed Bulger's neighbors on Sand Key. Before then, few of the empty-nesters and early retirees knew he had been an underworld figure since the 1950s.

John Murphy knew. The former newspaper editor from Portland, Maine, recognized the muscular man who strode by him in a black tank top a few years back.

Murphy, who ran countless "Whitey" stories in his paper, lives two doors down from Bulger's condo, which takes up the second and third floors of a non-descript town house.

Murphy repeated what he told the FBI:

"He blew in and out of here. I don't think I'll ever see him again."