BOSTON — For more than a decade, Boston's favorite fugitive mobster hasn't shown his face in his hometown, but James "Whitey" Bulger is very much a presence around here these days.
No fewer than four new books examine the 76-year-old crime lord's underworld empire, and he is the inspiration for "The Departed," a Martin Scorsese movie due out in the fall and filmed around Bulger's old stomping grounds in South Boston.
Bulger skipped town in December 1994 with federal agents about to arrest him in connection with 21 killings, racketeering and various other crimes.
The continuing influence of the longtime head of the notorious Winter Hill Gang can also be seen in other ways, such as when his youngest brother lost his state pension this month. The state's highest court took away John P. "Jackie" Bulger's $5,326-a-month retirement payment after ruling that he had helped his big brother elude authorities.
Whitey Bulger, said public relations consultant Marty Burke, has become a mythic figure in this city: "He's Boston's real 'man who never returned.' "
Burke, in line at a signing party for one of the new Bulger books, said he was buying "Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger's Irish Mob" because he grew up with the author, Bulger mob lieutenant Kevin Weeks. And, Burke said, he went to Harvard with Weeks' two older brothers. The youngest member of the Weeks family of South Boston opted to earn his education on the streets.
"That's how it is in these Irish Boston families," said Burke, 57. "One brother might be a priest, one brother might be a policeman and one brother might be a gangster. In this case, two brothers went to Harvard and one went to work for Whitey Bulger."
Weeks turned government witness and spent five years and three months in prison for murder. His book was part of a deal with plaintiffs in a civil suit against him. A portion of his profits will go to the mothers of two women killed by Bulger and buried by Weeks.
"They are the ones that said my life story is an asset," said Weeks, 49, who co-wrote the book with Phyllis Karas. "I have spent my entire life walking quietly and avoiding attention. This is not something I sought out."
Weeks writes that he last saw Bulger in 1996, on a bench at Penn Station in New York.
Bulger promised to stay in touch, Weeks said, but it was their last contact. Weeks said the story of a vicious criminal and drug lord who took pleasure in killing and who casually tore families apart continued to fascinate people because Bulger was such an enigma.
"People can't figure him out," Weeks said. "He's a criminal who would cooperate with the feds against rivals and friends alike. And in Boston, he's almost like a hero -- the guy who got away with it. In Boston, people say, 'Good for him, he beat the feds at their own game.' "
But Bulger's shelf life as an icon may be coming to an end, said the author of "The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century," another of the new books.
"As soon as he's caught, that's the end," said radio personality Howie Carr, who also writes a column for the Boston Herald. For 25 years Carr has written about Whitey Bulger, the criminal, and his brother William M. Bulger, former president of the Massachusetts Senate and former president of the University of Massachusetts. The third brother, John, served for many years as clerk-magistrate of Boston Municipal Court.
Carr said he believed Whitey Bulger was living outside the country, and almost certainly would be apprehended: "I got to think at some point his luck is going to run out."
For John "Red" Shea, who ran Bulger's drug trade, the fabled mob chief was a role model.
"He was a guy who was feared and respected. He had money," Shea said. "He walked on the street and everyone looked at him in awe. I didn't have a father growing up, so he was a father figure to me in a way, and also a mentor. He was someone I could confide in."
Shea, author of "Rat Bastards: The Life and Times of South Boston's Most Honorable Irish Mobster," said Bulger was paternal enough to take him aside and tell him to lose his rat-tail hairdo.
But when law enforcement put the heat on Bulger's drug business, it was Shea who took the rap, serving 12 years in federal prison.
Patrick Nee, one of Bulger's street crime rivals, said that until they decided to work together, he and Whitey made a practice of trying to kill each other.
"I had him once in 1971 in Charlestown," Nee said, referring to a gritty area on the Boston waterfront. "I just couldn't get a clear shot. One of my biggest regrets is that I missed him. He was trying to get a shot at me that day too."
They reached an uneasy alliance, said Nee, author of "A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Boston Mob-IRA Connection." Nee, 61, helped run Bulger's gambling operations.
"We all thought at various times we had him figured out, and we were dead wrong," he said. "He was always five steps ahead of us. He was operating at an entirely different level than we were. There was nothing he wouldn't do to advance himself. In an amoral world, the criminal world we lived in, he wrote a whole new chapter."
Nee, who spent 11 years in prison, said that if he knew where Bulger was and told the authorities, "I'd be a millionaire -- that's the amount of the reward they've got out for him."
In the forthcoming Scorsese film, Jack Nicholson portrays the Bulger-like character.
Weeks said co-star Leonardo DiCaprio consulted with him "to make sure he got the feel for criminals in South Boston."