[Part 1 of this story ran on December 5. To read it click here.]
In May of 2011, days after Osama bin Laden was captured in Pakistan, that country’s Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, publicly insisted that his government had had no idea about where the terrorist leader had been hiding. When this claim was greeted with skepticism in certain quarters in America, Haqqani countered that his story was every bit as plausible as the FBI’s claim that after 16 years, it had no idea where Most Wanted mobster “Whitey” Bulger was holed up.
At right around that same time, Angela Helton got a phone call from a friend who worked for the FBI. Would she like to make a video for the Bureau? the friend asked. Helton operated a one-woman media relations firm in South Portland, Maine, called Northeast Media Associates. As someone who always wanted to work for the FBI, who took inspiration from the TV show “Alias” and by her own admission had “a bit of a big mouth,” Helton would be the natural choice for the job.
“Of course! Hello!” she told her FBI friend, and soon Helton, whose clients included Modern Pest Services, had teamed up with Charlie Berg of Blackfly Media, a former collaborator on projects for the Portland Visitors Bureau and Madgirl World, to make what the Bureau called its first video public service announcement. The PSA, she and Berg were told, would be the latest weapon for nabbing the deadly fugitive. They were sworn to secrecy.
Agents swooped down on Berg’s home in Saco, Maine, with surveillance video and sheaves of old photographs of Bulger and his longtime companion, Catherine Greig. It was all very “Men in Black,” Berg later told a reporter for the Bangor Daily News. They soon got on like a house on fire, as the agents would take “finished video back to their superiors, run it up and down the chain, and email over revisions.” Finally, after toiling 11 to 14 hours a day, Helton, Berg and their bffs from the Bureau could rest. The PSA was ready.
On Monday, June 20, the FBI publicly announced the spot would run in 14 media markets beginning Tuesday, June 21. Less than 72 hours after that announcement, Bulger and Greig were in custody in Santa Monica, California.
The national press relayed news of the capture with almost as much thought-free fanfare as it would, six years later, the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign. But just as Mueller’s apparent long indifference to Bulger’s whereabouts deserves scrutiny, as seen in Part 1, so too does the Bureau’s lightning-quick resolution of the case, a mere seven weeks after President Obama surprisingly reappointed Mueller to lead the FBI beyond his 10-year congressionally limited term.
It’s a truism in journalism that for any big story, any scandal, the first 24 to 48 hours are key: whatever narrative takes hold then is likely to remain the story. The official story of Bulger’s capture, in general contour, goes as follows.
The Bureau’s June 20 presser and the PSA itself became news on many local TV stations, CNN and other cable networks as well as the Internet that Monday. On Tuesday, June 21, the PSA, which the FBI says it paid for, began to run during “The View,” “Dr. Oz” and other daytime television programs geared toward women.
The ad was 30 seconds long and focused on Catherine Greig. It showed photos from the 1990s and mentioned her extensive plastic surgery. It described her as “harboring” Whitey Bulger, and included pictures of them together, surveillance footage of Whitey and a reference to his violent temper.
In announcing capture of its elusive quarry, the FBI initially said little other than that the arrest came about as a result of a tip generated by the ad. It did not identify anything about the tipster, who stood to gain $100,000 for Greig and $2 million for Bulger.
According to Boston Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers, the call came into the Bureau’s Los Angeles office on Tuesday at 8 PM Pacific time. The caller gave an exact address in Santa Monica. Just after 4 PM the next day, June 22, members of the FBI and the LAPD began conducting surveillance at the address. At about 5:45, having determined it was indeed Bulger’s apartment building, they lured him out and arrested him and then Greig.
The next day, WBUR radio in Boston reported that, according to “law enforcement sources,” the tip had come from a woman in Iceland who saw a report on CNN and immediately rang up.
The Boston Globe dispatched reporters to Iceland. In October, the paper reported that the woman was Anna Bjornsdottir (aka Anna Bjorn), a graphic designer, yoga instructor, animal lover, model, actress and Miss Iceland of 1974. As “one of the world’s most beautiful and successful models” in the 1970s, according to a People magazine profile, Bjorn had appeared in one of Noxzema’s “Take it off” shaving cream ads, as well as in movies and TV shows, including “More American Graffiti” and “Fantasy Island.” She and her second husband were dividing their time between Reykjavik and Santa Monica, where they lived near Bulger and Greig.
According to neighbors, Bjornsdottir bonded with Greig over their shared devotion to a stray cat. Miss Iceland didn’t win Miss Congeniality for nothing.
Unremarked during any of the breathless reporting at the time were a number of curiosities, not least that, by the FBI’s timeline, it would have been 4 AM in Reykjavik when Bjornsdottir happened to catch CNN’s news report on the FBI’s ad and lunged for the phone. As it turned out, of the hundreds of calls that the FBI says it received in response to the ad campaign, the only call from a Santa Monica resident was that one from the erstwhile, and faraway, Miss Iceland.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Angela Helton exclaimed upon hearing the news that the ad she’d produced had had such stunning success. Her exuberant cry unwittingly summarized the response of those familiar with Whitey’s long history with the FBI, especially residents of the city of Boston.
Despite the suggestion in the Bureau’s statement that its eureka moment in cracking the case came when it decided to focus the search on Greig instead of Bulger, this was not the FBI’s first Greig-centered campaign. In May 2010, it took out an ad in “Plastic Surgery News,” an industry trade journal, which featured old photos of Greig and even the serial numbers of her breast implants.
News of that ad, the FBI’s first public effort of any kind in years, was greeted with derision in Boston, where its esoteric appeal was considered to be mainly an effort to convince the public that the FBI was actively seeking Bulger. Initially, the PSA approach was considered the same, doomed to fail but intended to convince the public that the FBI was still even interested.
After the first flush of excitement that the infamous mob boss had been caught, Boston reporters grew agitated. At a news conference in Boston they peppered Special Agent DesLauriers and federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz with questions that quickly soured the feds’ triumphal mood. Because Whitey had previously been sighted in the LA area and was actually arrested there, why had the Bureau run the ad in locations like Biloxi and Milwaukee but not in Los Angeles? The official response – the ad ran “in California” (it did, in San Francisco and San Diego) – was not satisfactory. You run the ad in cities near a location where Whitey has been seen but not in the city itself?
And where were the booking photos? Although that question is audible throughout recordings of the press conference, Prosecutor Ortiz ignored it until it was the only one left. “We don’t release booking photos,” she brusquely replied. Although in some cases the Justice Department had not released booking photos (like that of former presidential candidate John Edwards arrested for campaign finance violations), the very same week of Bulger’s arrest the booking photos of two alleged New Jersey terrorists (Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte) were disseminated widely. Ortiz’s response only raised more questions. After all, no booking photos, presto, no possible comparison with the PSA.
At this point, the Iceland connection had not yet been reported, but the FBI got defensive. It released a statement refuting press reports that the tip initially received low priority, given the time lag between when the FBI got the call and when it deployed agents at Bulger’s address. It issued a fuller press release, noting that the PSA “focused on the 60-year-old Greig’s physical appearance, habits, and personality traits and…[had] other details including her love of animals.”
The PSA, though, is silent on Greig’s habits and personality. Beyond its 20-year-old images, it suggests nothing about the 60-year-old Greig’s appearance. It also makes no mention of her love of animals. It does include a single photograph of Greig and Bulger wearing huge sunglasses and walking a dog.
Perhaps the Bureau’s PR department is just shoddy and muddled up what the PSA actually contained and what was in its own press release of June 20. The latter mentioned that Greig, a former dental hygienist, was likely to have good teeth, that she was five foot six, had blue eyes, frequented beauty salons and “loves dogs and all kinds of animals.” None of those details, along with Whitey’s own enthusiasm for animals and books about Hitler, appear in the PSA.
So what are the odds that at 4 AM in Iceland, a yoga instructor who vacations in Santa Monica caught the CNN report, glimpsed Greig’s much younger face, zeroed in on the animal angle from what at best would have been a quick reference and immediately made the connection? This, while having no prior reason to associate the elderly couple with Bulger or organized crime.
What are the odds, moreover, that among Greig’s many neighbors – especially retirees who saw her and Bulger on a regular basis, interacted with them and were acutely familiar with the woman’s passion for stray cats – not one would have also seen the PSA on CNN and made the split-second connection?
In fact, those residents could not believe that their two neighbors were the notorious couple. Their apartment building manager, who was quite friendly with Bulger and routinely interacted with him, never recognized the gangster, despite having attended Boston University. Miss Iceland is not known to have any Boston connection.
As incredible as all that seems, it is not as if the FBI had never previously received a tip about Bulger in Santa Monica. In 2008, after “America’s Most Wanted” aired a segment on the wanted criminal, a viewer called in saying he’d seen a man who looked like Whitey playing chess on the Santa Monica beachfront. The show’s creator, John Walsh, confirmed that the tip came in and was passed on to the FBI. The FBI did nothing.
In July of 2011 this fellow, Keith Messina of Las Vegas, complained to the Boston Herald: “They are saying someone in Iceland found Whitey? Who is that person? I found Whitey three years ago. I didn’t make the call for the reward. I just wanted the guy caught. But now the FBI is lying and saying the reward is going to Iceland. I saw the guy. I did the right thing and called. I left my name and number. I should be at least entitled to something.”
Walsh, no doubt protective of his access to the Bureau, took pains to say that Messina’s tip had no specifics, but the man never got a call from the Bureau to elaborate. And how specific would one need to be when, as it turned out, Bulger and Greig lived only a few blocks from the beach – and, incidentally, about five miles from the FBI’s Westwood office?
It was not until August 1, and then only after Reuters had filed an FOIA request, that the US Marshals Service released the mugshots. By that time the national media caravan had moved on, and national consciousness with it. In Boston, though, where Whitey’s story has legs to this day, the pictures were major news. Bulger, completely bald, bearded and looking more like a monk than a wiseguy, was indistinguishable from pictures on the PSA or the Most Wanted list. Lyndsey Cyr, the mother of his only child, said publicly that she would never have recognized him. Upon close and prolonged inspection, Greig’s nose and mouth bear a trace of her youthful photos, but the 30-second PSA gave its viewers no such time to linger.
It is worth mentioning that numerous studies on memory, facial recognition and eyewitness reliability have shown that people have an extraordinarily difficult time accurately identifying a person’s face, even when no significant time has passed. Again, what are the odds that a person caught unawares by a news report at 4 in the morning would accurately identify a face from 20-year-old photographs briefly glimpsed?
Anna Bjornsdottir got the $2 million for Bulger, according to the Boston Globe (the FBI says the full $2.1 million went to more than one person). She has never spoken publicly about the case. When confronted by Boston Globe reporters in Reykjavik, she fled into her apartment building. Her husband, Halldor Gudmundsson, a long time CEO of Iceland’s largest ad agency, has also been silent, except to send an email saying that Anna values her privacy.
She’s not likely to fear retribution, as reports in the Icelandic press indicate that she returned to visit her old haunts in Santa Monica even after her identity was disclosed. Whitey is in jail, officially a rat, hated by his former associates, so there is no danger there. Her story is worth additional media millions, yet she has not cashed in.
Although the official version of Whitey’s arrest was ultimately grudgingly accepted by Boston media, chiefly because they could never prove otherwise, many in Boston have never accepted it, and interest in anything Bulger persists. Dick Lehr is the co-author of the book “Black Mass,” and is also considered the gold standard of journalists following the Bulger saga. He followed up in 2013 with “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss.” There Lehr writes that an argument with Whitey over Bjornsdottir’s stated admiration for Barack Obama was an additional factor in her recognizing him. Bulger’s anger and subsequent refusal to acknowledge her reportedly made quite an impression on her.
While Whitey’s famous temper was mentioned in the PSA and his racist attitudes were legendary to those who already knew him, an argument over Barack Obama being translated into recognizing him as a crime boss from a 30-second ad sounds farfetched. How many elderly, cranky white men would have had exactly the same attitudes in 2011?
The superintendent of Bulger’s building, Joshua Bond, told Lehr about a similar run-in he’d had, but the dispute did not lead him to imagine he was fighting with a fugitive organized crime kingpin. Lehr never spoke personally to Anna Bjornsdottir, and has said that the Obama incident was confirmed by “sources.” While Bulger’s neighbors might have provided this information, it might also have come from law enforcement intent on convincing a skeptical public with information that can’t be disputed, understanding that the stray cat fable alone was a real stretch.
The Bulger manhunt “was the most expensive in FBI history…whatever we asked for, we got,” according to a former Boston Police Department detective and member of the Bulger task force until 2003. That makes it hard to believe that, as the FBI told Lehr, the Bureau didn’t run the ad in Los Angeles because it couldn’t afford the media buy.
Whitey had been on the lam for sixteen years when all of a sudden the Bureau hired a tiny shop in Maine to produce an advertisement in a process that required breakneck speed. Why the urgency? Why suddenly work 11- to 14-hour days to produce a public service announcement? Politicians of both parties and the media at large have never fully grasped the depths of the Bulger-FBI scandal and the dark shadow it should cast on Bob Mueller’s reputation. Did Mueller’s confirmation meeting with Obama stimulate this rapid-fire publicity campaign? Had the Pakistani ambassador hit too close to home and taken away leverage in one of the US’s most complicated foreign policy relationships?
Nobody believes Pakistan’s government knew nothing about Osama Bin Laden’s lair. Why should anyone believe that the FBI knew nothing about Bulger’s retirement home location until a former beauty queen in Iceland picked up the phone?