Whitey's Payback

Article excerpt

Byline: T. J. English; English is the author of The Savage City.

Mob boss Whitey Bulger might be behind bars, but as his trial approaches, former associates, FBI agents, and victims' families speak about why he might get away and how Boston has never recovered.

Of all the murders James "Whitey" Bulger is alleged to have committed, the killing of Debra Davis stands alone. Bulger is alleged to have strangled her with his bare hands.

Davis, 26, was the girlfriend of Bulger's gangster partner, Steve Flemmi. Bulger and Flemmi were concerned that Davis, a blonde beauty, had learned that they were both informants for the FBI. One night in September 1981, Flemmi, 46 at the time, brought Davis to a house on Third Street in South Boston, or "Southie," a tight-knit neighborhood that served as the base of Bulger and Flemmi's criminal operations. After nearly nine years together, Davis wanted out of the relationship. Flemmi wanted her out also, but not in the way Davis planned.

Waiting in the house was Bulger, 52 years old, who suddenly emerged from the shadows and wrapped his hands around Davis's throat. She struggled to break free. Squeezing tightly, Bulger dragged Davis down to the basement, where he finished her off. Afterward, using a pair of pliers, Flemmi pulled out Davis's teeth so that the body could not be identified by dental records. They later trussed and wrapped up the body and dumped it in a shallow grave near the Neponset River in Quincy, Mass.

Steve Davis never got the chance to say goodbye to his sister. She disappeared seemingly without a trace. Several times Flemmi went to Steve's mother's house in tears, professing not to know where Debra was, but that was it.

Looking back now, Steve has some regrets. He had his own run-ins with the law, and knew all about Bulger and Flemmi. "I tried to warn her," he remembers. "I said, 'Your boyfriend is not a nice guy. He's dangerous. People fear him.' She would say, 'Yeah. But what's he gonna do to me?'?"

The Davis family suspected Bulger and Flemmi of having killed Debra. Her mother had conversations with FBI agents who claimed they were investigating the disappearance, but they seemed more interested in what she knew about Flemmi than the whereabouts of Debra. Steve wanted to talk to the FBI with his mother, who was meeting with agents at strange locations and odd hours, but she said no. Steve says, "When an agent told her, 'You have nine other kids to worry about now,' she took that as a threat and stopped meeting with them."

It took nearly 20 years for the Davis family to learn that Debra had been the victim of a homicide, and that Bulger and Flemmi were the culprits. The details of the killing, and Bulger and Flemmi's role as top-echelon informants for the FBI, was revealed by Flemmi in the late 1990s, when he was arrested and became the biggest snitch in the history of the Boston underworld. In court, Flemmi described the murder in grisly detail. Meanwhile, Bulger was on the run, where he remained for 16 years, living for a time near the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., until he was spectacularly apprehended last June.

Steve Davis remembers the day he learned Bulger had been captured. He watched Bulger being transferred from Santa Monica, where he had been living with his female companion, Catherine Greig. Davis thought, it's not a done deal. With the power Bulger has had in politics and with the FBI, he could find a way to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Now Davis is fixated on what he'd do to Bulger.

"I'm an eye-for-eye kind of guy," says Davis. "I'd do to him what he did to my sister ... They talk about closure. Fuck closure. Give me 15 minutes with Bulger and I'll give him closure. I'll shoot him in the fuckin' head."

Since last June, when news of the capture of Bulger and Greig first settled over Boston, the city has been stewing in its own juices. Family members of Bulger's many alleged victims (he is charged with 19 murders) want the full weight of the criminal-justice system brought to bear on him. …