Breaking News emails
Receive current news and special reports. The news and stories that mattered provided the days of the week in the morning.
By Andrew Blankstein, Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro
Boston detective James "Whitey" Bulger, who had been suffocated and beaten to death in his jail cell, was wrapped in a blanket and placed in bed to make him look asleep, several police officers told NBC News Thursday.
Bulger's killers went so far as to rest their head on the pillow after repeatedly using a padlock to push it into a sock, officials said, informing about the case.
The grim details show for the first time efforts to hide the murder of the 89-year-old wheelchair gangster, who was found to be unresponsive at around 8:20 am in Hazelton, West Virginia, on Tuesday.
The investigators are committing several potential suspects, including a New England mafia hitman who is reportedly detesting foreclosures, and investigating why a prisoner as prominent as Bulger was taken into the populace.
The officers said the federal investigation is also investigating the circumstances that forced Bulger to move from a Florida penal facility to West Virginia, where violence and staff shortages prevailed.
In the last six months, two more inmates have been killed in Hazelton, and the number of workers has led union officials and politicians to demand a new wave of employment to strengthen security.
The prison announced Thursday that it has suspended the inmate visits until further notice. No further information was provided.
Bulger, who was driving the Irish crowd in Boston while tipping the FBI to weaken his rivals, arrived the night before his assassination at West Virginia Prison.
He was deported north after experiencing several violations in the Coleman prison in Florida.
Bulger was cited for masturbating in front of a male employee in 2015 and threatened a nurse in February this year.
"Your day of reckoning is upon us," he told a worker, according to a law enforcement agency.
Bulger was put in solitary confinement and stayed there until October 23, when he was transferred to a transfer facility in Oklahoma.
The geriatric gangster arrived in Hazelton at 18:45. Monday night according to prison records.
A prison staff member told NBC News that Bulger was rolling out of a prison bus in his wheelchair. Records show that he was taken to his cell at 9:53. According to the statement of a prison employee, the home furnishings were already locked up at this time.
But when a new inmate arrives in a residential area, the other inmates are usually notified, said the employee.
"It's almost as you see it in the movies," the worker said.
According to the law enforcement authorities, Bulger agreed to be accommodated to the general population.
But the once dreaded mob boss and FBI informant did not last long there.
The nocturnal closure will be canceled at 5am after the prisoner count. The inmates are then released from their cells to go to the dining room and offer a prisoner the opportunity to attack a fellow inmate.
According to law enforcement information, Bulger did not react in his cell when he did not show up for breakfast.
Federal investigators are investigating Bulger's medical classification when he was transferred to West Virginia. There are four levels of medical care at the Bureau of Prison, with the higher number representing worse health.
Documents received from NBC News show that Bulger, who was struggling with heart problems, was ranked second in West Virginia, a lower level than other federal prison facilities. The documents also show a code indicating that his medical treatment has been completed, allowing referral to the general population.
The prison staff reported to NBC News that it was not uncommon for an elderly or ill inmate to be transferred to Hazelton because of its proximity to the JW. Ruby Memorial Hospital in nearby Morgantown.
However, some prison staff and union officials said they were surprised that Bulger was housed in a regular residential building, rather than an area where senior inmates are separated from the general population.
Hazelton Prison is known to be one of the country's most violent inmates, said Rick Heldreth, president of the union's union of 420 prison inmates.
"I found it unusual that this particular inmate, given the scale of the violence and the nature of the inmates housed there, was placed in the general population of our facility," Heldreth told NBC News.
"That decision would have been far above us."
Heldreth said Bulger's reputation as a wool coat would have made him particularly vulnerable to attack.
"In the general population, you are in a housing unit with 120 inmates and you have full access to them," Heldreth said. "I know how he was classified in the court system, and that's not good for our inmate population."
The prison suffers from a staff shortage that started in 2017 when the Trump government ordered a federal hiring ban, union representatives said.
Since then, employees who have left the facility for reasons of age or for other reasons have not been replaced, so that, according to the union, a staff of once 880 employees drops to 797 employees.
The prison forced the prison to occasionally put prison fighters, teachers, and other employees in officer roles to fill gaps, Heldreth said.
The money was used to fill more than 40 open law enforcement officers, but no recruitment was made, union officials said.
The Federal Office for Prison said it was working to fill a total of 36 vacancies for a correctional officer.
"With regard to the recent violence at FCC Hazelton, the BOP has sent a team of professionals to the complex to assess operational and corrective action procedures and identify actions that address all relevant facts that may have contributed to the incident ", the agency said in a statement. "The team will make recommendations to the BOP management to help mitigate identified risks."
Just four days before the Bulger assassination, Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.V., sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressing concern over "failing to comply with clear congressional instructions for hiring full-time law enforcement officers" at Hazelton and other facilities.
"Another inmate was killed in the same facility in West Virginia last month, and within only five months of the second murder in that facility," Manchin wrote regarding Hazelton. "This is unacceptable."
Union officials in prison said the low staff numbers had dire consequences.
"We will never stop everything. Prisons are inherently dangerous places, "Heldreth said. "But the more personnel you have, the better the chances of finding a weapon or stopping a fight or attack before it becomes deadly."
Another trade union official, Justin Tarovisky, said the drop in the number of prison officers had jeopardized the safety of workers and inmates.