Whitey’s Flight

The FBI agent who shared a seat with the gangster on his long plane ride home to Boston.

whitey bulger phil torsney

FBI agent Phil Torsney says that after 16 years in hiding, Bulger was desperate for attention. / Photograph by Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald/Polaris

Retired FBI agent Phil Torsney is in no hurry to see Black Mass, the Whitey Bulger biopic out September 18. You could say he’s been there, done that: Torsney’s detective work helped lead to the gangster’s June 2011 arrest in California after 16 years on the lam. When the FBI flew Bulger back to Boston, Torsney sat with him.

It was a long flight. They got to know each other.

“I’d arrested a lot of people in my day,” Torsney says. But Bulger stood out: “There’s something missing there, behind the eyes.”

Bulger was eager to brag about how he’d evaded capture for so long. He told Torsney that he and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, chose Santa Monica because they could blend in among the many transients, from vacationers to vagabonds. They paid homeless people for ID cards; Bulger got a car in one man’s name. When the man died, Bulger drove to his neighborhood, wiped the car down with alcohol, and walked away, leaving the keys.

Torsney was impressed. “That’s the kind of fugitive that doesn’t get caught,” he says.

Despite having stayed out of sight for so long, Bulger was vexed when Torsney stopped looking at him. “We flew over the Grand Canyon, and I took a glance out the window,” Torsney says. “He darkened up, like, ‘Hey, don’t you know who you’re talking to here?’ He wanted to be the center of attention.”

In fact, Whitey had been the center of Torsney’s attention for years, as he worked as part of the federal government’s Bulger Fugitive Task Force. A break in the case came when Torsney decided to refocus on Greig. Knowing that Greig had breast implants, Torsney wondered: Could they track down the implants’ serial numbers in case they matched an autopsy report or a database of failed implants?

Torsney and his partner, Tom MacDonald, learned where Greig had her surgery. Subpoenas produced her surgeon’s records—including very clear photos of Greig’s face, better than anything the FBI had seen before. Publicizing those images brought in the tip that led to the arrests.

On the plane, Bulger complimented Torsney on his idea of tracking Greig. “You guys should have done that a long time ago,” he remarked.