As a young-adult fiction writer and professor at Boston University's School of Journalism, Phyllis Karas wouldn't seem to have much of an edge in tracking down Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster and America's Most Wanted mainstay who was captured by the Feds on June 22. But Karas and her collaborator, Kevin Weeks — Bulger's longtime second-in-command — published a remarkably well-timed book, Where's Whitey, just days before Bulger got nabbed.
She spoke to New York about Bulger, who pled
guilty not guilty to nineteen murders on Wednesday in Boston, and his love affair with Catherine Greigs, who joined him on the lam.
How did you start writing with gangsters, and about gangsters?
My agent said someone who looked like a leg-breaker had just walked in with a manuscript. I thought a leg-breaker was an orthopedic surgeon! I ended up writing the book Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob with Eddie MacKenzie. The book did quite nicely, and three months after it came out, I got a call from a group of lawyers who wanted to discuss a deal. I met with these guys in an "undisclosed location" — it was all so hush-hush. They were working with Kevin Weeks, who was Whitey Bulger's second-in-command for 25 years. He was in jail for participating in four murders and countless other crimes, and he was about to be released. The deal was, Kevin would tell his story to me, I'd write the book, and 50 percent of his proceeds would go to the families of his victims. God love the bankruptcy lawyers.
So Kevin, who had lived a violent life to say the least, was essentially being forced to cooperate with you?
Kevin despised the idea. He lived his whole life under the cloak of darkness, he hated Street Soldier, he hated Eddie MacKenzie. I was practically in the middle of a war myself. Writing the book [Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger's Irish Mob] with Kevin was brutal, the hardest thing I've ever done. He would get furious with me when I got details wrong. It was scary. But as soon as the last page was written, we got to be friends. He's a real quiet person now. His girlfriend and I take long walks together on the beach. It sounds absurd, but I really like the man.
What was your first thought when you heard the news about Whitey being found?
Someone saw him in Santa Monica reading a book and I thought, my God, was that my book?
Would you get updates about Whitey while he was still on the run?
Before we began writing the book, while Jimmy was on the run, Kevin saw him five times. Once in New York, they were lost looking for a restaurant, and Jimmy asked a New York policeman for directions! One of the last times they were together, in Chicago, Jimmy told Kevin, "If anything ever comes down, put it on me.”
What do you know about Catherine Greig, who was in hiding with Bulger and whose taste for plastic surgery and dental work may have led the cops to their door?
Kevin speaks very highly of her: kind, warm, smart, loyal, tough as steel. She wasn't the first woman that Jimmy took with him. Theresa Stanley, who went with him first, wasn't cut out for life on the run. Kevin brought Cathy to Jimmy, and that was sixteen years ago.
What's your favorite Whitey story?
I love the night he met up again with Cathy. He went to this park in Dorchester called Malibu Beach, if you can believe it. Kevin comes out of the car with Cathy, and Whitey strolls out of the darkness, dark clothes, dark hat. They get in the car, Whitey's driving, Kevin's in the passenger seat, Cathy's in the back, they drive around South Boston for an hour, talking. Then Kevin gets out of the car and Whitey and Cathy drive off.
What will you do with Where's Whitey?, which is a lightly fictionalized book that has Whitey Bulger as a character, now that he's been found?
We were thinking of changing it to Where Was Whitey?, but that’s too complicated with all the publicity for the present title. In the book, Joey Donahue — everyone is going to say it's Kevin Weeks — is released from prison and is forced to go look for Whitey Bulger. A lot of what we write about could easily have happened during those sixteen years he was on the run. We'll only have to change a single line: the last one. The book ends with a murder. Cathy is worried that Whitey saw her, that she saw this murder. They get into the car, she doesn't know if she's going to live or die, and they start to drive off. She says, "Where are we going now, Jimmy?" and he says, “Anywhere you want, baby.”
We want to change it to “Time to go back to California, baby."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Editor's note: This article was originally published with a photo of William Bulger, the brother of James "Whitey" Bulger.