Let’s not jump into any wrong-headed promotional campaigns just yet. Even though “Santa Monica: We’ll Leave You Alone” is a bumper sticker that might appeal to lots of people looking to get away from it all . . . and I mean all of it. “Surf Fed-Free!” might speak to the 18 to 35 mob boss demographic. I’m going to pitch “Santa Monica: The Perfect Place to Fade Away,” which was how one network TV reporter put it a few days after James “Whitey” Bulger, a reputed Boston gangster that was an FBI Most Wanted fugitive for more than a decade, was captured in the Santa Monica apartment he shared with his long-time girlfriend Catherine Greig. A heinous criminal picked our town as a place where he could quietly blend in. For years.
Bulger’s resume indicates he was something of a ‘people person,’ in that the people he couldn’t kill, he corrupted with money. Working both sides of the fence, Bulger fed information to the FBI about other mobsters and when they were busted it shored-up Bulger’s own empire. In the course of all that, Bulger got FBI agents to work for him, helping him to hide. But regarding that first technique, of killing his enemies: Bulger fled Boston in the mid-1990s when he was about to be arrested for his role in nearly two dozen murders starting back in the early ‘70s. There’s one account of a man nearly cut in half by the number of bullets fired into his torso. And if you lived in the 1000 block of Third Street in our city, this dude was your neighbor for many years. Maybe now you understand why they never answered your invitation to go Christmas caroling.
Does it mean anything, this discovery of such a dark and sinister element right under our noses? Any event that makes any portion of the greater L.A. area seem low profile or even somehow a hideout probably strikes us as a little funny because L.A. is where people come to make noise and become known; making their own lives grander and more compelling than stupid old everyday life, and leaving us spinning in their foamy wake as they zoom past us. What kind of smile crossed Bulger’s aging face when he watched local TV news fetishize Lindsey Lohan’s parole violations as the notorious mob killer sat chillin’ in Santa Monica.
What of the neighbors who only recently realized that the cranky old man who shouted at his female companion every once and a while was a figure worthy of portrayal in a Martin Scorsese gangster film? There’s no record that in 15 years anyone ever called the police in regard to Bulger and Greig. Maybe that’s some sort of minimum standard for being good neighbors. Follow that up with never cranking up your stereo or creating wafting clouds of pot smoke . . . and maybe everyone just leaves you alone. People who ran into her seemed to have liked Greig, one of them calling her “lady like.” In fact, Greig’s passion for keeping up her looks appears to have been what led to the couple’s capture. So we can at least give them a few points for keeping Santa Monica beautiful during their stay.
It shouldn’t come as news that respectable-appearing people sometimes turn out to have gotten where they are by dark means. Although it’s at least interesting to think about Bulger and Greig walking around in our sunshine, blending right in with citizens who didn’t kill to get where they are, but might have at one time or another considered that tactic. What is the flavor of a fat steak served in an expensive restaurant and paid for with earnings from adult films, or from a series of same-looking movies that feature teens being gored with agricultural equipment? Likely the same as that steak being paid for in any other way, but maybe you get my point about any good-size crowd in a busy L.A. restaurant. That one of those tables could have been Bulger and Greig, savoring the pork chops or ordering another bottle of wine, shouldn’t really surprise us all that much.
What did strike me as something of an eye-opener is the possibility that Santa Monica’s low-key, quiet demeanor may have worked as a shield of comfort for someone who deserved to be rotting in jail. Of course one element of criminal behavior is taking advantage of what can be had from the good behavior of others. Santa Monica residents may, generally, keep to themselves and their own business rather than peeking through their curtains like a nosey sitcom neighbor. But will every observation we make now be informed by the fact that Whitey Bulger and his moll successfully hid out in our town for years? “Those new folks in apartment 9 seem nice. But let me ask, does he look a little, you know, Boston mafia to you?” There might be second thoughts about those eating more than their share of free samples at Whole Foods. “That guy is making a meal out of those Bolivian cheese cubes. Somebody should say something, but . . . he looks like he’s packin’ heat.”
Another dimension of Bulger’s capture that impressed me was the degree to which crime drama in our entertainments hews to the reality of a successful ‘bust.’ There was, in fact, a lot of cash hidden in the walls; dreamy bundles of it. There was money hidden in other places and in offshore accounts, just like in the movies. There were guns in the apartment. There’s a related but almost opposite angle as well: all the facial recognition, computer-driven, wire-tapping, futuristic gear in the world proved secondary to sustained police work and some luck with a tip. It turns out that prompting human curiosity still gets the job done, regardless of how wireless we get. Ultimately, someone simply recognized Whitey’s girl. That they walked among us and weren’t captured for years reminded me of the Mr. Rodger’s theme song: “Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood? They’re the people that you meet each day.”
Contact Steve Stajich