Inmate charged in James ‘Whitey’ Bulger death walks free - The Boston Globe (2024)

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“I feel amazing to be a free man,” McKinnon said after the hearing as he stood outside US District Court in Clarksburg with his two attorneys. Later in the day, he was scheduled to catch a flight to Florida, where he will live with his mother.

Inmate charged in James ‘Whitey’ Bulger death walks free - The Boston Globe (1)

“I wish this for nobody to find themselves in something like this,” said McKinnon, who had always maintained he had nothing to do with Bulger’s slaying. “I’m just going to go home and try to live my life.”

“I’m glad it’s over,” McKinnon’s lawyer, Brendan S. Leary said. “Yeah,” McKinnon said, “I’m glad it’s over.”

Inmate charged in James ‘Whitey’ Bulger death walks free - The Boston Globe (2)

McKinnon, Geas, and DeCologero struck binding plea agreements with the government last month, but only McKinnon’s has been made public. He was the first to plead guilty and be sentenced. He was not debriefed by the government, nor is he cooperating with authorities, according to his agreement.

McKinnon’s plea agreement contained new details about Bulger’s slaying, including the disclosure that he was alert when attacked in his cell.

“Geas and Bulger became involved in a verbal altercation. Geas then struck Bulger in the head,” according to the agreement. “DeCologero served as a lookout as Geas assaulted Bulger in cell 132.”

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DeCologero “assisted Geas in placing Bulger’s body in his bunk and covering him with bedding,” according to the agreement.

During Monday’s hearing, Assistant US Attorney Brandon Flower disclosed that authorities found DeCologero’s DNA on the blankets.

Attorneys for Geas and DeCologero attended Monday’s hearing, but declined to comment.

The hearing marked the latest chapter in a long-running saga over the government’s handling of Bulger, a notorious South Boston gangster who got away with murders for years while secretly working as an FBI informant providing information about local Mafia leaders.

Bulger was 89 when he was killed at US Penitentiary Hazelton on the morning of Oct. 30, 2018, less than 12 hours after he was transferred to the prison under questionable circ*mstances and placed in general population alongside organized crime figures from Massachusetts. He was serving a life sentence for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s to the 1990s.

McKinnon, who was born in Waltham and raised in Vermont, was released from prison in July 2022 after serving an eight-year sentence for stealing a dozen guns, then was arrested the following month for Bulger’s slaying and had remained in custody until Monday.

In an interview following his arrest, McKinnon insisted he had nothing to do with Bulger’s murder, saying, “I’m an innocent man.”

A five-count indictment alleges Geas and DeCologero struck Bulger in the head multiple times, killing him.

Bulger was in a wheelchair when he arrived at Hazelton on the night of Oct. 29, 2018. After 6 a.m. the next morning, when the doors on the unit were unlocked and inmates could walk around freely, video surveillance showed DeCologero entering Bulger’s cell, followed by Geas, according to McKinnon’s plea agreement.

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Seven minutes later they are observed leaving the cell. An officer later found Bulger in his bed unresponsive and badly beaten.

That same day, two FBI agents interviewed McKinnon, who insisted he didn’t know anything about Bulger’s slaying. That was not true, according to Flower, who said McKinnon shared a cell with Geas and overheard conversations between him and DeCologero about the attack.

However, Flower said, “We know [McKinnon} played no hands-on role in any kind of assault or homicide of Mr. Bulger.”

In accepting the plea agreement, US Chief District Judge Thomas S. Kleeh called McKinnon’s sentence “a fair, reasonable and just disposition” because federal guidelines recommend a 4- to 10-month sentence for making false statements to federal agents.

Katy Cimino, who also represents McKinnon, said he was living with his mother in Florida, where he was working and doing well when he was arrested and will return there.

Bulger’s family filed a lawsuit against the government, accusing federal prison officials of causing his death by sending him to Hazelton, but the case was dismissed.

During Monday’s hearing, Assistant US Attorney Randolph J. Bernard said prosecutors and victim witness advocates had reached out to Bulger’s relatives to seek their input on the plea agreements and sentencing, but they did not want to participate.

Kleeh asked if there were any representatives from the Bulger family seated in the gallery, but there were not.

Bulger’s brother, John, previously declined to comment on the plea deals.

In December 2022, the Justice Department inspector general issued a scathing report, concluding that mismanagement, confusion, and incompetence by the US Bureau of Prisons led to Bulger’s slaying. The report said authorities failed to consider threats to Bulger’s life from other inmates when they orchestrated his transfer from a Florida prison to Hazelton, one of the nation’s most violent prisons. Even before his arrival, inmates knew he was coming and had already placed bets on how long he would survive, according to the report. Inmates yelled “rat” for an hour after his arrival, the report says.

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After Monday’s hearing, Leary said he believed the plea agreements reflect a recognition by the government that “maybe some of the evidence wouldn’t have come in as strongly as they had hoped.”

Inmate charged in James ‘Whitey’ Bulger death walks free - The Boston Globe (3)

DeCologero, a member of a North Shore organized crime group that robbed rival drug dealers and killed a teenage girl they feared might give them up, has 2½ years left on a 25-year sentence. His change-of-plea and sentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 1.

Geas is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 6 for a change-of-plea and sentencing hearing.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her @shelleymurph.

Inmate charged in James ‘Whitey’ Bulger death walks free - The Boston Globe (2024)

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