SOUTH PORTLAND — When the FBI needed help crafting a public service announcement aimed at the capture of fugitive Boston mobster James J. “Whitey” Bulger, they turned to two southern Maine media pros.
Just three days after launching the effort, Bulger and his longtime companion, Catherine Greig, were arrested late Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif., after 16 years on the lam. The FBI has said the tip leading to the arrest originated with the agency’s first-of-its-kind public relations blitz.
“I was beside myself, to say the least,” Charlie Berg, president of Portland-based production company Black Fly Media, said Thursday. “I got a call from my business partner, who was in Boston, with the news. It was 12:15 in the morning, but I knew he didn’t care. He knew I wouldn’t care.”
Berg worked with Angie Helton, president of Northeast Media Associates, a public relations firm based in South Portland. In mid-April, Helton got a call from Mollie Halpern, a former WMTW-TV reporter-turned-FBI agent.
“She said, ‘I know you’ve done some good work, would you be willing to work with us?'” Helton said. “She told me they were considering a PSA, but she couldn’t tell me much more than that.”
“Everything was pretty hush-hush at first,” Berg said, who was recruited by Helton to work on the project.
Helton said Halpern spent the next few weeks convincing her FBI bosses that a media campaign could be the push needed to catch Bulger.
But when Helton got the call from the FBI, saying “it’s a go,” she still didn’t know what she was working on. She only knew agents would be visiting Berg’s Saco home for editing. The FBI said they’d send her details.
“They sent me a FedEx of a folder, and it was just full of photos and information on Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, this is a big case.'”
The PSA focused on Greig. Agents hoped that if they turned the spotlight on her, tips might lead them to Bulger.
The FBI wrote the script, and a few weeks later pulled into the driveway at Berg’s new home in Saco to work with the duo.
“The day they all got here was kind of odd,” Berg said. “Just having four black cars pull into my driveway and men in black suits hop out and knock on my door made my pulse race a little faster.”
The shock didn’t last long. “They were all really, really great to work with,” Berg said.
Berg, Helton and the four agents worked two 14-hour days together, often skipping lunch, before the project was finished. Helton helped trim the script where it was too long, and make the dialog more conversational. Berg handled production.
Helton said the agents were very detail-oriented.
“We’d watch a draft with everyone and they’d say, ‘We don’t like that photo. Let’s change that,'” Helton said.
Helton asked one agent, Phil Toursney, who she said had been on the Bulger case for 14 years, whether he’d retire if the PSA worked.
“He said, ‘Oh man, I can’t wait for that,'” Helton said. “I’m really happy for agents like Phil who spent so much time on this.”
Berg also gave credit to the agents who worked on the case for so long, and said he’d be happy to work with the FBI again.
“Just knowing we’ve played a part in catching one of America’s most wanted is pretty satisfying,” he said.