The killing of notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger on Tuesday in a federal penitentiary in Hazelton drew heightened attention to complaints of inadequate staffing and control at the facility in West Virginia.
The death of the 89-year-old Bulger, convicted in 11 murders and numerous counts of racketeering, is being investigated as a homicide, federal prosecutors said. His was the third violent inmate death since April, and all are under review by the FBI.
In April, Ian Thorne, 48, who orchestrated the fatal stabbing of an inmate while serving time in the District’s old Lorton Reformatory, died at Hazelton. In the other case, Demario Porter, 27, who was convicted on gun-related charges, died there in September.
Both men were from the District and were among the roughly 200 inmates from the District who are at Hazelton, which prison officials said has about 1,600 inmates.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office investigate all killings in federal institutions.
Bulger’s death less than a day after he was transferred from a facility in Oklahoma has raised questions about why he was moved and what provisions were made for his safety and that of other prisoners. Bulger, arrested in 2011 after spending 16 years on the run, made many enemies when it was revealed that he had been both an organized-crime boss in the Boston-area and an FBI informant whose bureau handlers gave him wide leeway to commit crimes.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who represents Washington in Congress, had demanded on Oct. 17 that the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inspector general investigate the Hazelton penitentiary over the deaths of Thorne and Porter.
“We haven’t heard back from the inspector general, but if we can’t get one after [Bulger], I’m not sure they ever do an investigation,” Norton said. “We were confident it was lawless when we wrote our letter, but now that Whitey Bulger has been killed 24 hours after he arrived there, finally Hazelton will get some attention.”
Officials with knowledge of the investigation into Bulger’s death told The Washington Post that the elderly inmate, who used a wheelchair and was in poor health, had suffered head trauma. Bulger was found between 8 a.m. and 8:20 a.m. in his cell, bleeding profusely, according to two prison employees familiar with the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of West Virginia said in a statement that the death is being investigated as a homicide but would not comment further.
No suspect has been publicly named in the investigation of Bulger’s death.
According to prison records reviewed by The Washington Post, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a 51-year-old inmate who has mob affiliations, was placed in administrative detention at 12:11 p.m. Tuesday.
Court records show that Geas is serving a life sentence after two murder convictions and was a Massachusetts-based associate of New York’s Genovese crime family, which has been associated with extortion, loan sharking and murder. A private investigator told the Boston Globe that “Freddy hated rats.” Bulger earned that title after his relationship with the FBI was exposed.
Bulger had spent four relatively quiet years at the Coleman II penitentiary in Florida, where he had few documented disciplinary issues.
He was cited in 2015 for a lewd sex act in front of a guard, and in March this year, he was disciplined for making a threat, according to the prison records reviewed by The Post. Bulger reportedly told a female health-care staffer in late February that “your day of reckoning is coming,” according to a prison worker with knowledge of the episode.
The threat landed Bulger in the special housing unit, a part of the Coleman prison reserved for inmates who need additional supervision.
What remains unclear is why Bulger was moved out of Coleman eight months after the remark. No other offenses appear in his disciplinary record. Federal corrections officers — who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity — said it was unusual for someone of Bulger’s advanced age and frail health to be moved after one minor offense. The prison where he ended up, Hazelton, is classified as a lower-level facility for medical-care capabilities within the federal prison system.
Bulger’s death has focused a national spotlight on Hazelton and long-standing complaints by the labor union representing correctional officers that there are too few guards to keep the institution safe. The killing has galvanized efforts by lawmakers to force a broad investigation into the deaths and conditions there.
Six days ago, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin III, wrote to the U.S. attorney general, calling the deaths of Porter and Thorne “unacceptable.” He noted that Congress had appropriated an extra $7 billion for the Bureau of Prisons for 2018 salaries and expenses with the intention of bolstering full-time staffing.
The union representing correctional officers at Hazelton has complained for years that the prison is poorly staffed and repeated that claim this week.
J. David Cox Sr., the national president of the Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement that Bulger’s death, “while concerning, is unsurprising. Federal prisons across the country are suffering from severe under staffing, and the situation is perhaps no more dire than at Hazelton.” He said recent cuts have forced the staff “to work under conditions where teachers, administrative assistants, and accountants fill in shifts as officers and first responders to violent incidents.”
The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to questions about staffing or the complaints by Norton and Manchin.
Local news reports and statements from authorities at the prison have cited other killings dating to the mid-2000s. At least two of the victims were District residents, including a man convicted in three murders who had just begun serving a 93-year sentence.
Porter had been serving a 15-month sentence for illegal gun possession in the District, and also for violating terms of parole from an earlier armed robbery conviction.
Thorne was killed during a fight on April 2, the Bureau of Prisons said. He had been at Hazelton since January, serving 20 years for solicitation to commit murder. The Post wrote in 2000 that Thorne was convicted of setting up the killing of a man in 1997 in Lorton; the assailant was sentenced to 30 years.
Thorne was in Lorton after being convicted of dealing drugs in Northeast Washington. In prison, he was dubbed the prison “strongman” for running a network of inmate drug smugglers and enforcers, according to court files cited by The Post.
Paul Duggan contributed to this report.