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Fugitives Can Run, but Can’t Hide

On Wednesday, the FBI arrested noto­rious Boston gang­ster James “Whitey” Bulger and his com­panion in Santa Monica, Cal­i­fornia, after the couple averted author­i­ties for more than 16 years. We asked Jack Levin, the Brud­nick Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Crim­i­nology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, to assess the role of tip­sters in cap­turing fugi­tives, the dif­fi­culty of living life on the lam and Bulger’s place among the world’s most noto­rious criminals.

This arrest came just three days after the FBI launched a wide­spread pub­licity cam­paign to solicit new leads to Bulger’s where­abouts. What role do tip­sters play in catching fugitives?

Some­times, law enforce­ment under­es­ti­mates the will­ing­ness of ordi­nary cit­i­zens to assist in the appre­hen­sion of fugi­tives, not nec­es­sarily for a big reward but only out of com­pas­sion for the vic­tims. Having said that, Whitey Bulger’s arrest is only one of a long list of mur­ders, abduc­tions and acts of ter­rorism that have [been solved] thanks to input from the public.

The tele­vi­sion pro­gram America’s Most Wanted has helped the police arrest hun­dreds of fugi­tives, based on tele­phone tips from con­cerned viewers. The D.C. Snipers, who ter­ror­ized the East Coast for three weeks in October 2002, were caught thanks to a tip from a res­i­dent who spotted the killers’ car parked in a rest area off of Inter­state 95. The Unabomber was arrested when his mother and brother rec­og­nized the writ­ings in Theodore Kaczynski’s man­i­festo in the Wash­ington Post and decided to inform the FBI.

Where does Bulger rank among the world’s most noto­rious criminals?

Bulger’s alleged body count — 19 — places him among the most noto­rious crim­i­nals in his­tory. We tend to think of Bulger as a mob­ster, not a serial killer. Yet, he allegedly took numerous lives, not unlike David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam (six vic­tims), Dennis Rader, also known as the B.T.K. killer (10 vic­tims) or John Wayne Gacy, also known as the Killer Clown (33 vic­tims). Money or pro­tec­tion, not sexual sadism, may have been Bulger’s motive. But this does not exclude him from being called a serial murderer.

How does a fugi­tive for almost two decades go about living a so-​​called “normal” life?

In order to stay on the loose for 16 years, Bulger must have exer­cised extreme cau­tion not to be iden­ti­fied. It will be inter­esting to deter­mine whether he had plastic surgery, wore a dis­guise or dressed dif­fer­ently. His ability to blend into his envi­ron­ment may have depended on his con­nec­tions with other res­i­dents. He must have had enough money to lead a normal life without attracting attention.

Other fugi­tives who avoided appre­hen­sion over a lengthy period were aided by friends and allies. Take, for example, Eric Rudolph, who planted a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and blew up abor­tion clinics and a gay night­club. He man­aged to remain on the lam for five years, hiding in the hills of North Car­olina and aided by shelter, food and money from res­i­dents who agreed with his politics.

– By Kara Shemin

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