West Virginia prison inmates knew in advance he was coming
Inmates at the prison where James “Whitey” Bulger was killed knew in advance that the notorious mobster was being transferred there, according to a transcript of a phone call between one of the suspects and his mother.
“We’re preparing to bring in another more high-profile person tonight,” Sean McKinnon told his mother on Oct. 29, 2018, according to a partial transcript of the appeal read by federal prosecutors in court Monday.
McKinnon then identified the arriving prisoner as Bulger, Boston’s former crime boss.
“Stay away from him, please,” replied his mother, Cheryl Prevost, according to prosecutors.
The call took place at 3:30 p.m., according to prosecutors.
Bulger, 89, arrived at the prison in Hazelton, West Virginia, five hours later at 8:30 p.m. He was found bludgeoned to death at 8:07 a.m. the following morning.
Bulger’s death was a staggering security failure for the federal prison system. The previously undisclosed revelation that inmates at USP Hazelton were tipped off about Bulger’s arrival raises additional questions about the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ handling of his transfer to one of the nation’s most violent prisons. .
“It’s just absurd that this happened,” said Vito Maraviglia, a former Bureau of Prisons investigator who has spent more than two decades investigating inmates for gang affiliation and other potential threats to determine where they should be placed in federal prisons.
Maraviglia said he would have “raised holy hell” for Bulger to be placed in the general population of a prison like USP Hazelton.
The Justice Department announced charges last week against McKinnon, 36, and two Massachusetts men linked to the mob: Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 55, a mob hitman who shared a cell with McKinnon , and Paul DeCologero, 48, who was a member of an organized crime gang led by his uncle.
Speaking at a detention hearing for McKinnon on Monday, prosecutors described what the surveillance system captured inside the prison, providing the most detailed account yet of the circumstances surrounding Bulger’s murder. .
Shortly after the cell doors of their unit opened at 6 a.m., the three suspects met in the cell belonging to Geas and McKinnon. Six minutes later, all three are out, according to prosecutor Hannah Nowalk.
DeCologero and Geas entered Bulger’s cell; McKinnon sat at a table with a view of that cell and the officers’ station, Nowalk said.
DeCologero and Geas remained in Bulger’s cell for seven minutes. After leaving at 6:13 a.m., the three men returned to the cell belonging to Geas and McKinnon, according to Nowalk.
She said the government’s case is supported by three prison informants. One said DeCologero, who goes by Paulie, told him Bulger was a snitch, according to Nowalk. Bulger acted as an FBI informant while leading the largely Irish mob in Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
“Paulie said as soon as they saw Bulger walk into the unit, they planned to kill him,” Nowalk said during the hearing, according to a transcript obtained by NBC News. “And then Paulie told this detained witness that Sean McKinnon was the lookout.”
DeCologero also said he and Geas used “a belt with a padlock attached” to beat Bulger to death, according to Nowalk. Numerous news outlets, including NBC News, previously reported that the men allegedly used a padlock stuffed in a sock to kill Bulger.
Geas, DeCologero and McKinnon were charged with conspiracy to commit first degree murder, along with other offences. Geas and DeCologero were also charged with aiding and abetting first degree murder and assault causing grievous bodily harm. McKinnon, who previously told NBC News he had nothing to do with the murder, was charged with making false statements to a federal agent.
During McKinnon’s hearing, prosecutors said the phone call between McKinnon and his mother showed he knew in advance that Bulger was coming to his jail.
McKinnon’s attorney noted that the call transcript makes it clear that it was not just McKinnon who knew about Bulger’s impending arrival.
“The whole unit was alerted that Whitey Bulger was coming to the unit,” attorney Christine Bird said.
Maraviglia, the former prisons investigator, said it’s not uncommon for inmates at a housing facility to be notified in advance of new arrivals. Prison officials will often talk to a newcomer’s potential cellmate to make sure there won’t be any problems.
News of the arrival of a high-profile inmate could also have been leaked by a staff member. But Maraviglia said he thought it was unlikely it was done intentionally to put Bulger at risk.
“It’s more likely incompetence,” Maraviglia said. “We have a lot of incompetence in the Bureau of Prisons.”
The office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how McKinnon and the other inmates would have known Bulger was being transferred to their facility.