Incompetence helped set stage for Whitey Bulger's prison murder, watchdog report says

Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger, who was arrested in Santa Monica, California on June 22, 2011 along with his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, is seen in a combination of booking mug photos released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marshals Service/U.S. Department of Justice/Handout

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 (Reuters) - A U.S. Justice Department review found that prison officials incompetently handled the 2018 transfer of Boston mobster and former FBI informant James "Whitey" Bulger to the West Virginia prison where he was beaten to death within a day of his arrival.

The department's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, said in an internal report released on Wednesday that "bureaucratic incompetence" and "serious job performance" failures led the federal Bureau of Prisons to improperly transfer Bulger, a wheelchair-bound 89-year-old inmate with a life-threatening heart condition to the U.S. Penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia.

Bulger, who lived a double life as a mobster and a secret FBI informant before he fled Boston and lived on the run for 16 years, was found bludgeoned to death inside his cell on Oct. 30, 2018, less than 24 hours after his arrival.

Bulger was convicted in August 2013 of 11 murders, among other charges, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years.

Three inmates were indicted on felony charges for his murder earlier this year.

Prison inmates took bets on how long Bulger would survive after being transferred from a Florida prison, the report said, citing an interview with an inmate.

It noted that BOP staffers spoke openly about Bulger's transfer in the presence of inmates as if they were "talking about a football game" and more than 100 BOP staffers were advised of his transfer in advance.

The BOP failed to conduct an intelligence assessment about security risks Bulger could face, and inappropriately recommended downgrading his medical condition to facilitate his transfer to Hazelton despite his serious cardiac condition.

A BOP spokesperson said it "takes seriously the duty to protect the individuals" entrusted to its custody and that it has begun reforms to improve its medical transfer process.

'LOST THE WILL TO LIVE'

Before his transfer, Bulger was housed in U.S. Penitentiary Coleman II in Sumterville, Florida, a facility with more resources to treat serious medical conditions.

After he allegedly threatened a staffer, however, BOP officials in Coleman repeatedly sought to get him transferred, even though Hazelton does not offer the same level of medical care, the report found.

It also faulted Coleman officials for leaving Bulger housed in a solitary cell for eight months, even after he once stated he had "lost the will to live."

"The fact that the serious deficiencies we identified occurred in connection with a high-profile inmate like Bulger was especially concerning given that the BOP would presumably take particular care in handling such a high-profile inmate's case," the report said.

The report did not uncover any evidence of federal criminal violations by prison staff, and at least six people have been referred to the BOP for possible disciplinary action.

Bulger's accused killer, Fotios "Freddy" Geas, 55, was already serving a life sentence for the 2003 murders of Genovese crime family boss Adolfo "Big Al" Bruno and associate Gary Westerman.

Bulger evaded law enforcement while living as a fugitive for 16 years. He was eventually caught in Santa Monica, California, thanks to a tip from a former Icelandic beauty queen.

Bulger and his Irish-American Winter Hill gang operated for more than two decades in Boston, where he was involved with loan sharking, gambling, extortion, drug dealing and murder.

He operated with the tacit approval of FBI agent John J. Connolly, who looked the other way so that Bulger could supply information on Italian-American gangsters.

Wednesday's report found that the BOP failed to conduct an intelligence assessment because the Winter Hill Gang was not listed as an organized crime group.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and Deepa Babington

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