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'Look for the woman' ploy leads to Bulger Effort targeting companion nabs Boston mobster

Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger did almost everything right in evading capture for 16 years.

The notorious mobster's run from the law was remarkable for its longevity, largely because of the unremarkable new identity he built for himself while on the lam.

He adopted an unassuming lifestyle, paid for everything with cash, didn't drive a car, limited his social contact to small talk and adhered to the mob code of silence. Federal agents tracked him to his lair last week only after targeting the one part of his past that Bulger didn't leave behind -- his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

By all accounts, the two did little to arouse suspicion, posing as two retirees living in a bland white 1970s apartment complex in Santa Monica amid other buildings of the same era.

Bulger -- who fled Boston in 1995 after a retired FBI agent who had recruited him as an informant tipped him to a pending indictment -- was believed to have millions of dollars stashed in secret accounts, and investigators found $800,000 hidden in the apartment. But the couple didn't live lavishly. They paid $1,145 cash several days in advance each month for a rent-controlled unit, while newer neighbors paid more than twice as much. Greig shopped at a 99-cent store.

Bulger, now 81, has been linked to 19 murders, including the strangling of an associate's girlfriend who knew he was a snitch and the murder of a man shot so many times his leg was almost severed from his body.

Bulger's flight, along with the racketeering indictment naming him and other major mob figures, was big news. Questions arose over his ability to stay one step ahead of the law and over his brother, William, Massachusetts Senate president and one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

His fugitive status only grew when the FBI was forced to acknowledge in court two years later what had been long-whispered in law enforcement circles: The Boston FBI bureau had a corrupt relationship with its informants and looked the other way as they knocked off associates.

Between the time of his flight and settling on the West Coast, Bulger had about two years to reinvent himself.

In the fall of 1995, the couple checked into a hotel as "Mr. and Mrs. Tom Baxter," according to an FBI affidavit unsealed last week. They spent time on Long Island and lived six weeks in an apartment in the fishing village of Grand Isle, La., in 1996.

Their travels ended in this sun-splashed beach city about 15 years ago when, as Charles and Carol Gasko, they moved into unit 303 of the Princess Eugenia Apartments.

As they reinvented themselves, Bulger and Greig stuck to a low-key lifestyle that didn't invite attention. They didn't appear to have visitors, never spoke of family and limited conversations to superficial chit chat.

Greig was the more outgoing of the two while Bulger was sometimes cranky and reclusive. Barbara Gluck, a tenant down the hall, described Greig as sweet and lovely. They would chat pleasantly until Bulger barked at Greig to stop talking with her. "It was like she was hanging on to a time-bomb," Gluck said. "At one point, she said, 'He has a rage issue.' "

Santa Monica, a dynamic city of nearly 85,000 just miles from Los Angeles, may have been an ideal location to hide in plain sight, said Jack Cluff, a former U.S. marshal.

Many fugitives get caught because they hole up in a remote location where locals get curious or where they get cabin fever and spill their story to the wrong person, Cluff said. Others are brought down by informants or because they've run out of money and connections -- problems Bulger didn't have because of his wealth and fearsome reputation back home.

While Bulger had several fake identifications, he didn't have a car, avoiding the risk of a traffic violation or accident that might lead to the discovery of his true identity.

His thick white beard also dramatically changed his appearance from his Boston days and the photos the FBI circulated publicly for years.

In the end, however, Bulger was like almost every other fallen fugitive in one way. About 85 percent are brought down by a girlfriend or former girlfriend, Cluff said.

After many failed efforts to net the couple, including searches in 19 countries and a campaign to reach out to plastic surgeons who might have altered their appearances, the FBI last week tailored its latest campaign around Greig, 60, who was wanted for harboring a fugitive.

Public service announcements, aired during programs aimed at women, asked for information leading to her whereabouts.

The ads weren't aired in Los Angeles, but news coverage produced a tip that led agents to the Gasko apartment. A call was placed to Bulger telling him someone had broken into his on-site storage unit.

He fell for the ruse. When Bulger went to check on his property, agents were there.