One of the men charged in the killing of James “Whitey” Bulger inside a West Virginia prison said in an exclusive jailhouse interview that all the inmates in his unit knew in advance that the notorious gangster was being moved there.
Bulger, 89, was found beaten to death less than 12 hours after he was placed in his cell at the USP Hazelton federal prison, one of the most violent penitentiaries in the country.
“Everybody knew he was coming,” Sean McKinnon told NBC News in a phone call from a Florida jail.
McKinnon, 36, is accused of acting as a lookout while two other inmates rushed into Bulger’s cell and beat him with a lock on the morning of Oct. 30, 2018.
At a detention hearing last month, prosecutors said McKinnon told his mother in a recorded phone call before Bulger was moved to the prison that the Boston mobster was set to arrive there, suggesting he had inside information that played a role in the killing.
McKinnon told NBC News that Bulger’s impending arrival at USP Hazelton was an open secret in his housing unit.
“I heard it from another inmate — not even one of the guys from Massachusetts,” he said. “It wasn’t like I got this secret news. I was just a little fish in the sea.”
The federal Bureau of Prisons has received sharp criticism for its decision to place Bulger in the general population of a penitentiary where two inmates had been killed in the previous six months. It remains unclear why an inmate like Bulger, an elderly, former FBI informant, was moved to a prison like USP Hazelton.
“What did they think was going to happen?” said Jack Donson, a retired Bureau of Prisons official who spent most of his 23 years at the agency screening inmates set to enter the federal prison in Otisville, New York. “There was a breakdown at every level.”
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons declined comment.
Prosecutors say two men, Fotios “Freddy” Geas, 55, and Paul J. DeCologero, 48, killed Bulger minutes after all the cell doors on their unit were unlocked ahead of breakfast.
Geas and DeCologero were both involved in organized crime in Massachusetts. Geas, a mafia hitman, was serving a life sentence for murder. DeCologero was serving a 25-year sentence after being convicted of racketeering and witness-tampering.
McKinnon was from New Hampshire and had no known affiliation with organized crime, according to local authorities. He was in prison for stealing guns from a firearms store and selling them in exchange for drugs, and he was locked up in the same cell as Geas.
Once the unit's doors opened at 6 a.m., DeCologero went into the cell shared by Geas and McKinnon, according to prosecutors. The three men walked out a few minutes later, with Geas and DeCologero heading straight into Bulger’s cell. It took them only seven minutes to murder the once-feared crime boss and leave his cell, prosecutors said.
During that time, McKinnon was sitting at a table that provided him a view of Bulger’s cell and the guard station, according to prosecutors.
In his interview with NBC News, McKinnon said he was in fact sitting among a group of other inmates watching television.
“There were 10 other guys there with me,” he said.
McKinnon professed his innocence and said he believes he’s been targeted in a “witch hunt.”
“I’m an innocent man caught up in the wrong stuff,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, which is handling the case, declined to comment.
Bulger was moved to the West Virginia penitentiary from a prison in central Florida known as a safe haven for government witnesses and others likely to be targeted by fellow inmates.
He was almost 90 years old with a history of heart problems and high blood pressure, and he needed a wheelchair to move around.
According to prison records, he was designated to be transferred after he threatened a nurse. But he only arrived at Hazelton USP after someone had inexplicably changed his medical classification to a level that indicated he was in relatively good health, the records show.
Bulger was wheeled into his cell after 8:30 p.m. on the night of Oct. 29. 2018. He was found dead the following morning at 8:07 a.m., prosecutors said.
Nearly four years after the killing, Geas, DeCologero and McKinnon were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
Geas and DeCologero were hit with additional charges: aiding and abetting first-degree murder, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. McKinnon was also charged with making false statements to a federal agent.
In the interview, McKinnon said FBI agents interviewed him twice in the following years. He said he had no information to provide to them.
“I don’t know nothing. I wasn’t part of nothing. I don’t know what they did that morning,” he said, referring to Geas and DeCologero.
McKinnon was out of prison, living and working in Florida when he was arrested in connection with Bulger’s murder.
He said he found out about the charges after he was tricked into showing up at the federal courthouse in Ocala.
Earlier in the day, his parole officer called him on the phone and said he needed to come in to fill out some paperwork. McKinnon said he was told he could finish his shift at work. But soon after he arrived at a federal courthouse, two U.S. marshals pulled him aside and handcuffed him.
“It was a heartbreak,” McKinnon said.
“I did stupid things when I was younger,” he added. “But I’ve been trying to make up for that by living as a productive person and now it’s been ripped away.”
He said his mother set up a GoFundMe account in the hope of raising enough money to hire a private attorney.
“These are the worst kind of charges — conspiracy,” McKinnon said. “It’s going to be the fight of my life.”