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"They finally got the rat": Former Whitey Bulger soldier John "Red" Shea reacts to Whitey's capture

"I have this recurring dream all the time. I see him in New York. I see him walking down the street. And I pull him aside into a doorway. And I ask him, ‘Why? Why would you be an informant? Why would you do that? Something you've always preached against?' And then, that's when I snap his neck."

That's John "Red" Shea, five years ago, describing what he'd do if he ever happened to bump into his former boss and mentor, Whitey Bulger, on the street.

As it happens, he perhaps came closer than he'd realized to actually having that encounter.

On Wednesday night, as he was getting ready for bed, the Southie native got a text message from a friend: "They finally got the rat."

He couldn't believe it - not least because of where they nabbed him.

"I was like, 'Holy shit,' " says Shea. "Because where he was caught, in Santa Monica, I was just out there with my friend at his house, working on the screenplay for Rat Bastards, and it was only three blocks away from there. It's fuckin' ... it's just crazy."

The screenplay he's writing is based on his memoir, Rat Bastards: The Life and Times of South Boston's Most Honorable Irish Mobster (William Morrow, 2006). In it, the one-time drug runner for Bulger, Inc., writes about his complicated relationship with the man who once served, he says, as a surrogate father.

"I was in awe," he told me back when his book first came out. "He was the legend. He was the king. Who wouldn't want to be like Whitey?"

As Bulger enlisted the teen, first to run errands, and, later, to run trunkfuls of cocaine between Key West and Southie, he imparted paternal lessons. "Don't drink too much. Watch how you drive. Don't drive fancy cars. Keep yourself clean-cut. Don't lose your temper like that.' I appreciated all that," said Shea. "He was always saying, ‘Read a book, John. Read a book. Make sure you read a book, John. Reading's really good for ya.' Those things stay with a guy who's never had a father."

Another ostensibly unshakeable code? In Southie, a rat is the lowest form of life.

And so when he was arrested, in 1990, Shea refused to turn. He did his time. "I walked in a man, and I'll walk out a man," he wrote. "I would rather die than become a rat. I would show Whitey he was right. He could count on me."

Shea was in prison when he found out Bulger had been colluding with the FBI for years.

"It was one of the hardest pills I've ever taken in my life," he told me in 2006. "I could have given him up in a heartbeat and done no time. I could have. But I didn't. I defended him. To the very end."

Today, Shea seems almost nonplussed by the news.

He always figured he'd see Whitey's name splashed across the papers again someday, but that "it would be in death, not with him getting caught alive - and by death, I mean natural causes."

Asked how he thinks Bulger pulled it off, these 16 long years on the lam, Shea says, "He definitely had help. And those are the people who have to worry."

After all, Bulger has proven he has no compunction about selling out his associates. And if not him, then "his girlfriend. If she has that information, she might use that to get herself out of trouble."

Shea, himself? Nowadays, he sleeps the sleep of the just, he says. "My life has changed. I took the right course, being the man that I was and not opening my mouth, and I'm happy about that.

"Now I'm a full-fledged author. I just wrote this young adult book, A Kid From Southie [WestSide Books], that's loosely based on my life, and having a guy like Whitey draw me in, and getting involved with organized crime, and having to make some choices, and trying to get out.

"It's a raw story," he says. "It's a tough story. But it's a real story. Kids that are growing up in urban areas and are faced with these issues, hopefully, they can get ahold of this book."

As for the movie adaptation of Rat Bastards, "we're working on it now. We're lining up investors. The investors had started stepping up recently - and now I'm sure they're going to step up even quicker. Hopefully we can start something in the fall."

I ask Shea about that dream he had. If he could see his erstwhile father figure today - 81 years old, reportedly in poor health, in shackles - would he still have the same violent retributive impulse?

"To be honest with you, I don't wanna say exactly how I'd react, because people are going to take it for what it is," he says. "But it probably wouldn't be nice. Let's just put it that way. It wouldn't be nice."

>> READ: Full coverage of Whitey Bulger from the Boston Phoenix archives <<

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