Legendary Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, a ruthless killer who was also a longtime FBI informant, was savagely murdered in prison on Tuesday. Since then, reports have trickled out suggesting he was beaten to death with what inmates call "slocks” (a lock in a sock) while still in his wheelchair before possibly having his eyes partially gouged out with shanks at United States Penitentiary Hazelton, a high-security Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility located in the mountains of West Virginia. One federal official even told CNN his assailants tried to chop off his tongue.
The brutal encounter reflected the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog mentality Bulger was known for—and, of course, his enduring reputation as a snake.
After being transferred from USP Coleman II, a place known as a protection yard for targeted inmates in sunny Florida, Bulger didn’t even make it 24 hours in Hazelton, considered one of the roughest and most vicious penitentiaries on the Eastern seaboard. Full of mafiosos, gangbangers, gun thugs, hitmen, drug lords, armed robbers, and killers, virtually anyone in the federal Bureau of Prisons—I did 21 years there—will tell you Hazelton houses the most hardcore criminals from Bulger's home city of Boston due to its proximity to the Northeast. It also saw at least two other inmate-on-inmate-killings reported earlier this year, and has been subject to staffing shortages.
In hindsight, the "rat," as prisoners would have called him, never stood a chance.
“If misery had a face or body or any type of appearance, than it would probably look like United States Penitentiary Hazelton,” Andre Cooper, a man serving three life sentences in Maryland for racketeering, drug dealing, and homicide told VICE via email. “An up-to-date penitentiary, in structure and build, but a place still ran by the old rules of prison and life. No snitches or any type of low-life individuals who didn't act like men were allowed to walk the yard.”
Cooper said he spent three years at USP Hazelton, and recalled the prison as the “most political” he’d done time at during his 16 years of confinement in the federal system. The way he told it, convicts and officers alike walk around with their head on a swivel just waiting for the next vicious fight, stabbing, riot, or killing to happen. That’s how convicts carry it at Hazelton. “It was just a way of life there and every body knew and respected it,” Cooper said. “It’s not surprising for a person like Whitey Bulger to get hit so fast. Especially with how tense, serious, and honor-driven Hazelton is.”
Race defines life in prison, and when a high-profile rat like Whitey hit the yard, it’s likely nonwhite inmates were waiting to see what the white boys might do to him. If they didn't clean up the situation by running him off the yard, making him check into the hole (a.k.a. solitary), or even beat him down and shank him, they would have lost clout and respect in the system, as most convicts call federal prisons. Meanwhile, in the BOP, there are scores of convicted prisoners known as the "Boston Bandits," most of whom are convicted bank robbers or lower-level mob associates, go-hard gun thugs and criminals from the same streets Whitey once ruled. To be part of the Bulger hit—to take out Whitey—would put any one of them on the map for eternity. After all, prisoners earn stripes on the inside for neutralizing rats and pedophiles.
Sure enough, the Boston Globe reported that 51-year-old mafia hitman Fotios “Freddy” Geas, serving a life sentence for murdering Adolfo “Big Al” Bruno and a lower-level henchman, was a chief suspect in Bulger’s murder. Besides being a Boston native who might hold special enmity for Bulger—the Globe reported that he "hated rats"—Geas appeared to enjoy special clout in the prison before the attack.
“I was in Hazelton from 2013 to 2016,” John Broman, who served 15 years in the feds for a bank robbery and wrote for VICE from the inside, told me. “I walked the yard with Freddy when there was problems. Hazelton is broken down into two sides; blue and red. I was on the red side, where we had different units and shot-callers—all political bullshit that comes with being white and not affiliated [with a gang]. Freddy was on the blue side, and was the undisputed shot-caller whose decision was final.”
The federal prison system is also divided down into "cars," which amount to the area you’re from or the gang you rolled with before you came in. New York and Boston run together at Hazelton, Broman said, those cities boasting deep numbers on the pound. “Freddy, running the yard for as long as he did, would only need to snap his fingers and say, "go," and there’d be no shortage of Boston guys ready to become famous for hitting the biggest rat in the towns history,” he argued.
It’s well-known in the system that Whitey couldn't walk the major yards. Since his conviction, he’d made the rounds of safer spots, but when he finally hit USP Hazelton, a place that applied the old rules of checking criminals' paperwork to see if they were a snitch or sex criminal, Whitey was like a sitting duck.
“He got what he had coming to him," Nicholas "Sawed Off" McDougal, who's serving 12 years in federal prison for armed robbery, told VICE. “All those years running shit, when really he was just telling on his competition to take them out, have caught up to him. Don't get me wrong: he was a vicious killer. But at the end of the day a rat, too. He escaped capture from the feds for a long time, but most of the time your past catches up with you. His did."
Robert Rosso contributed reporting for this story.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.