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Alumna writes the book on ‘Whitey’ Bulger

Shelley Murphy

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For nearly as long as James “Whitey” Bulger—the infa­mous Boston gang­ster and FBI infor­mant who was on the lam for 16 years—has been in the news, Shelley Murphy has been reporting on him.

Murphy, who grad­u­ated from North­eastern in 1980 with a degree in polit­ical sci­ence, cov­ered the Bulger case for The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe, where she now reports on orga­nized crime, home­land secu­rity, and legal affairs. She returned to her alma mater yes­terday to dis­cuss her new book, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gang­ster and the Man­hunt That Brought Him to Jus­tice, which she co-​​wrote with Globe colum­nist Kevin Cullen.

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Reporter Shelley Murphy signed copies of her book for stu­dents Clinton Lowell and Julie Katzeff. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

“There’s much that’s been written about ‘Whitey,’ and there are a lot of books about him, but we wanted to find out what made him tick,” Murphy said. “How do you have one brother become so suc­cessful and another take such a wildly dif­ferent course?” she added, refer­ring to William Bulger, who served as pres­i­dent of both the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts and the Mass­a­chu­setts State Senate.

The book is based on new reporting, including let­ters pro­vided to them by Bulger’s prison friend Richard Sunday.

During her hour­long lec­ture at Snell Library, Murphy recounted her cov­erage of the Bulger case, including Bulger’s rela­tion­ship with the FBI and the cir­cum­stances of his 2011 arrest; the gangster’s attempts to reha­bil­i­tate his image; and his per­sonal feel­ings about the authors.

“He hates us. That was one of the most stun­ning things to me,” Murphy said, explaining that she sought to cover the noto­rious figure fairly. “I thought if you write the truth, people would respect that. He said a lot of things about me—he called me a traitor, because I grew up in Dorch­ester and went to South Boston High School, and I lot of other things I won’t repeat.”

According to Murphy, Bulger devel­oped a vit­ri­olic dis­trust of the gov­ern­ment after his impris­on­ment in the 1950s and ‘60s for armed rob­bery and hijacking, where he unknow­ingly par­tic­i­pated in a CIA exper­i­ment in mind con­trol by taking LSD. Still, he devel­oped strong ties to the Boston FBI, which in the 1970s and ‘80s was focused on taking down the Italian mafia. He and agent John Con­nolly had devel­oped a friend­ship as chil­dren, Murphy said, growing up in the same South Boston housing project where Bulger got his start in crime.

“From a very early age, he cul­ti­vated his image as a neigh­bor­hood good guy,” Murphy said. “A good bad guy. He quickly cul­ti­vated this rep­u­ta­tion in South Boston of ‘Of course he’s a gang­ster, but he’s our gangster—how bad could he be?’”

Bulger main­tains he was a gang­ster “with scru­ples,” according to Murphy. Though he is charged with 19 counts of murder, he adamantly main­tains that he did not kill the two female vic­tims he stands accused of mur­dering in a forth­coming trial. He also says he was never an FBI infor­mant, but rather a strate­gist or ana­lyst, which Murphy called “more a matter of semantics.”

The book has received pop­ular reviews and has sold well both locally and nation­ally, ranking 14th on The New York Times best­sellers list. Tuesday’s meet-​​the-​​author event, co-​​sponsored by the School of Jour­nalism, North­eastern Libraries, and the North­eastern Book­store, began with an intro­duc­tion from jour­nalism pro­fessor Bill Kirtz, who praised the book.

“It’s a real fan­tastic read,” Kirtz said. “It doesn’t read like just a series of articles—it has a real nice flow to it.”