EASTHAM, MASSACHUSETTS (AP) — One of the jurors who convicted notorious crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger said she regrets her decision after learning that he was an unwitting participant in a covert CIA experiment with LSD.
Bulger terrorised Boston from the 1970s into the 1990s with a campaign of murder, extortion, and drug trafficking, then spent 16 years on the run after he was tipped to his pending arrest.
In 2013, Janet Uhlar was one of 12 jurors who found Bulger guilty in a massive racketeering case, including involvement in 11 murders, even after hearing evidence that the mobster was helped by corrupt agents in the Boston office of the FBI.
But now Uhlar said she regrets voting to convict Bulger on any of the murder charges.
Her regret stems from a cache of more than 70 letters Bulger wrote to her from prison. In some, he describes his unwitting participation in a secret CIA experiment with LSD. In a desperate search for a mind control drug in the late 1950s, the agency dosed Bulger with the powerful hallucinogen more than 50 times when he was serving his first stretch in prison — something his lawyers never brought up in his federal trial.
“Had I known, I would have absolutely held off on the murder charges,” Uhlar told The Associated Press (AP) in a recent interview. “He didn’t murder prior to the LSD. His brain may have been altered, so how could you say he was really guilty?” At the same time, Uhlar said she would have voted to convict Bulger on the long list of other criminal counts, meaning he still would likely have died in prison.
Uhlar spoke publicly about her regret before but said her belief that the gangster was wrongly convicted on the murder charges was reinforced after reading a new book by Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. The book digs into the dark tale of the CIA’s former chief chemist and his attempts to develop mind control techniques by giving LSD and other drugs to unsuspecting individuals, including colleagues, and observing the effects.
“It was encouraging to know I wasn’t losing my mind, thinking this was important,” Uhlar said. “It told me, this is huge. I mean, how many lives were affected by this? We have no idea.”
Gottlieb’s secret programme, known as MK-ULTRA, enlisted doctors and other subcontractors to administer LSD in large doses to prisoners, addicts and others unlikely to complain. In Bulger’s case, the mobster and fellow inmates were offered reduced time for their participation and told they would be taking part in medical research into a cure for schizophrenia.
“Appealed to our sense of doing something worthwhile for society,” Bulger wrote in a letter to Uhlar reviewed by the AP.
But nothing could have been further from the truth.
“The CIA mind control programme known as MK-ULTRA involved the most extreme experiments on human beings ever conducted by any agency of the United States (US) government,” Kinzer said. “During its peak in the 1950s, that programme and its director Sidney Gottlieb left behind a trail of broken bodies and shattered minds across three continents.”
After Bulger was found guilty by Uhlar and the other jurors, a federal judge sentenced him to two life terms plus five years.
But his life behind bars ended a little more than a year ago, at age 89, when he was beaten to death by fellow inmates shortly after arriving in his wheelchair at the Hazelton federal prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. No criminal charges have been filed.
Although much had been written about the CIA’s mind control experiments before Bulger’s trial, Uhlar said she knew nothing about them until she began corresponding with the renowned gangster following his conviction.
Uhlar started writing Bulger, she said, because she was troubled by the fact that much of the evidence against him came through testimony by former criminal associates who were also killers and had received reduced sentences in exchange for testifying against their former partner in crime.
“When I left the trial, I had more questions,” she said.
After Bulger started returning her letters, Uhlar noticed he often dated them with the time he had started writing in his tight cursive style. “He always seemed to be writing at one, two, or three in the morning and when I asked him why, he said it was because of the hallucinations,” Uhlar said.
When Uhlar asked him to explain, Bulger revealed what he had already told many others: that since taking part in the LSD experiments at a federal prison in Atlanta, he’d been plagued by nightmares and gruesome hallucinations and was unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time.
“Sleep was full of violent nightmares and wake up every hour or so — still that way — since ‘57,” he wrote.
“On the Rock at times felt sure going insane,” he wrote in another letter, referring to the infamous former prison on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, where he was transferred from Atlanta. “Auditory and visual hallucinations and violent nightmares — still have them — always slept with lights on helps when I wake up about every hour from nightmares.”
The mobster also recalled the supervising physician, the late Carl Pfeiffer of Emory University, and the technicians who would monitor his response to the LSD, asking him questions such as, “Would you ever kill anyone? Etc, etc.”
That question struck a nerve with Uhlar. After hearing from Bulger about MK-ULTRA, “as if I should have known about it,” she visited him at a Florida federal prison on three occasions to discuss the experiments and started reading everything she could find about them.
At one point, she reviewed the 1977 hearings by the US Senate Committee on Intelligence, which was looking into MK-ULTRA following the first public disclosures of the top-secret programme.
The hearings included testimony from CIA director Stansfield Turner, who acknowledged evidence showing that the agency had been searching for a drug that could prepare someone for “debilitating an individual or even killing another person”.
“That’s just horrifying, in my opinion,” Uhlar said. “It opens up the question of whether he was responsible for the murders he committed.”
According to at least two of the several books written about Bulger and his life of crime, associates including corrupt former FBI agent John Morris said they assumed Bulger would use the LSD experiments to mount an insanity defence, if he were ever caught and tried.
But in 2013 Bulger’s Boston attorneys JW Carney Jr and Hank Brennan unveiled a novel defence in which they admitted Bulger was a criminal who made “millions and millions of dollars” from his gangland enterprise, but was enabled by corrupt law enforcement officers, especially those in Boston office of the FBI.
Neither Carney nor Brennan would comment on their decision — attorney client privilege outlasts a client’s death. But Boston attorney who represented numerous organised crime defendants Anthony Cardinale said he would have opted for an insanity defence, in part because of the abundant evidence against Bulger. “I would have had him come into court like Harvey Weinstein, all disheveled, and in a wheelchair,” he said.
Cardinale acknowledged there would have been challenges to presenting an insanity defence, including the fact that Bulger spent 16 years outwitting several law enforcement agencies, before he was captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, California.