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Twist in Whitey Bulger murder case: Inmates at West Virginia prison knew in advance he was coming

Five hours before the notorious gangster arrived at USP Hazelton, one of the suspects told his mother in a recorded phone call that they knew he was on his way.
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Inmates at the prison where James “Whitey” Bulger was killed knew in advance that the notorious gangster was being transferred there, according to a transcript of a phone call between one of the suspects and his mother. 

“We’re getting ready to get another higher profile person here tonight,” Sean McKinnon told his mother on Oct. 29, 2018, according to a partial transcript of the call read by federal prosecutors in court Monday. 

McKinnon went on to identify the arriving prisoner as Bulger, the former Boston crime boss. 

Sean McKinnon.
Sean McKinnon.Family photo

“Stay away from him, please,” his mother, Cheryl Prevost, replied, 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 stunning security failure for the federal prison system. The previously undisclosed revelation that USP Hazelton inmates were tipped off to Bulger’s arrival raises additional questions about the federal Bureau of Prisons' handling of his transfer to one of the country's most violent prisons.

“It’s just absurd that this happened,” said Vito Maraviglia, a former Bureau of Prisons investigator who spent more than two decades investigating inmates for gang affiliations and other potential threats to determine where they should be placed inside federal prisons. 

Maraviglia said he would have “raised holy hell over” Bulger being placed in the general population of a prison like USP Hazelton.

The Justice Department last week announced charges against McKinnon, 36, and two Massachusetts men with mob ties: Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 55, a mafia hitman who was sharing 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 around Bulger’s killing.

Shortly after the cell doors opened up on their unit at 6 a.m., the three suspects met in the cell belonging to Geas and McKinnon. Six minutes later, all three walked 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 they left at 6:13 a.m., all three men returned to the cell belonging to Geas and McKinnon, according to Nowalk.

She said the government’s case is bolstered by three jailhouse informants. One of them said DeCologero, who goes by Pauly, told him that Bulger was a snitch, according to Nowalk. Bulger acted as an FBI informant while he led the largely Irish mob in Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s. 

“Pauly said as soon as they saw Bulger come into the unit, they planned to kill him,” Nowalk said at the hearing, according to a transcript obtained by NBC News. “And then Pauly told this inmate witness that Sean McKinnon was the lookout.”

DeCologero also said that he and Geas used “a belt with a lock attached to it” to beat Bulger to death, according to Nowalk. Many news outlets, including NBC News, had previously reported that the men were believed to have used a lock stuffed inside a sock to kill Bulger.

Geas, DeCologero and McKinnon were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, as well as other offenses. Geas and DeCologero were also charged with aiding and abetting first-degree murder, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. McKinnon, who had previously told NBC News he had nothing to do with the killing, was charged with making false statements to a federal agent.

At McKinnon’s court hearing, prosecutors said the phone call between McKinnon and his mother showed that he knew ahead of time that Bulger was coming to his prison.

McKinnon’s lawyer noted that the transcript of the call makes clear it wasn’t just McKinnon who knew about Bulger’s impending arrival. 

“The entire unit was alerted that Whitey Bulger was coming to the unit,” said the lawyer, Christine Bird.

Maraviglia, the former prisons investigator, said it’s not uncommon for inmates in a housing facility to find out about new arrivals ahead of time. Prison officials will often speak to the potential cellmate of a new arrival to ensure that there won’t be any problems. 

News of a high-profile inmate’s arrival could also have leaked out from a staff member. But Maraviglia said he thinks it’s unlikely that it may have been done intentionally to put Bulger in harm’s way. 

“It’s more likely incompetence,” Maraviglia said. “We have a lot of incompetence in the Bureau of Prisons.”

The bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how McKinnon and the other inmates would have known that Bulger was being transferred to their facility.