In the hours after Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger was found beaten to death in his prison cell, three inmates were hauled away to solitary confinement. There they remained for two years, eight months and more than 20 days, as the investigation into Bulger’s murder dragged on.
But earlier this week, two of the prisoners, Paul DeCologero and Sean McKinnon, were transferred out of the federal prison in West Virginia, according to online records and family members. The man left behind, a former Mafia hitman named Fotios “Freddy” Geas, remains in solitary.
The transfer of DeCologero and McKinnon marks a fresh twist in the federal prison system’s most high-profile investigation. It also sparked renewed outrage from Geas’ family over what they consider to be his inhumane treatment behind bars.
“Enough is enough,” said Geas’ son, Alex, 26. “It’s 23 hours a day in a cement cell with no connection to the outside world.”
Alex Geas said he last spoke to his father, who gets two phone calls a month, three weeks ago. He said his father doesn’t complain to him about his captivity, but he has made clear that he doesn’t want to be kept in limbo any longer.
“Two and a half years is insane,” Alex Geas said. “It really is inhumane. If they had the evidence, go ahead and indict him. If not, transfer him and release him out of solitary.”
The 89-year-old Bulger’s battered body was discovered by prison guards about 8:20 a.m. on Oct. 30, 2018.
Nearly three years later, no one has been charged with the crime and questions remain over how the notorious mobster and longtime FBI informant ended up in a prison unit with at least two other gangsters from Massachusetts, Geas and DeCologero.
McKinnon, who hails from Vermont and was locked up for stealing guns from a firearms store, was Geas’ roommate at the time of Bulger’s killing. He was moved into a cell in a special housing unit, commonly known as solitary confinement, where inmates are segregated from the general population and denied privileges such as access to TV, regular phone calls and time in the yard.
Inmates placed in special housing units sometimes share a cell; McKinnon spent much of his time in solitary in the same cell as DeCologero.
McKinnon’s mother, Cheryl Prevost, told NBC News that he called her on Wednesday from a facility in Atlanta and said prison guards had rousted him and DeCologero out of bed about 2:30 a.m. the day before.
“They said, ‘Get your stuff. You’re going out of here,’” Prevost said. “He had no idea he was leaving.”
As of Friday afternoon, McKinnon, 35, who has severe ADHD, was being held at a federal facility in Oklahoma that acts as a transfer point for inmates.
His mother said he was struggling to adjust to a loud and chaotic detention facility after spending so long in solitary.
“I’m surprised he’s even functioning,” Prevost said.
During their call on Wednesday, Prevost said she suggested to her son that the prison transfer could mean he won’t be charged in Bulger’s killing.
“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to talk about it,’” Prevost said. “He was just glad to get out.”
McKinnon, who is serving a seven-year sentence, is set to be released from prison in July 2022. He previously told NBC News that he knows nothing about the killing of Bulger.
DeCologero, 47, has five years left on his 25-year sentence on racketeering and witness-tampering charges. As of Friday afternoon, he was being held at the federal prison in Atlanta.
Efforts to reach DeCologero’s family were not successful.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said it does not comment on individual inmates' housing conditions due to privacy, safety and security reasons. "However, we can share the BOP is committed to accommodating the needs of federal offenders and ensuring the safety and security of all inmates in our population, our staff, and the public," the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia said she had no new information to provide.
Geas, 54, is serving a life sentence for his role in several violent crimes, including two gangland murders.
A fourth inmate, an upstate New York man who shared a cell with Bulger the night before the killing, was held in solitary for more than five months before he was released to state custody in 2019.
Bulger, the leader of Boston’s Irish mob, spent 16 years on the run before he was captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, California. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2013.
The older, wheelchair-using gangster was killed less than 12 hours after he arrived at the West Virginia prison in a transfer from a federal penitentiary in Florida. The decision to transfer Bulger to a notoriously violent prison and place him with the general population has drawn criticism from former wardens and other ex-prison officials.
The slow pace of the Bulger murder investigation has also raised questions.
Bob Hood, a former federal Bureau of Prisons chief of internal affairs and former warden at the ADX Florence "supermax" prison in Colorado, said it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the decision to move McKinnon and DeCologero. Hood said there are several aspects of the case that he still doesn’t understand.
Why were they kept in a segregated housing unit for so long? Why has no one been charged in such a high-profile case after nearly three years?
“I’m dumbfounded by all of this,” Hood said.
For Hood, the most critical question is not who killed Bulger but how did the Bureau of Prisons allow it to happen.
“We might not ever know who physically killed him, but what we do know is the system killed him,” Hood said.