For years, the ex-con and former drug kingpin John "Red" Shea would walk the streets dreaming of ways to exact revenge on Whitey Bulger, his onetime mentor in the notorious Winter Hill Gang. Shea had gone to jail for 12 years to protect his boss, only to find out later that Bulger had been regularly selling out fellow mob men to the FBI. Shea was tormented by the question of which distant locale Bulger might be hiding in.
As it turns out, it wasn't distant at all. Those streets Shea had often walked while obsessing about Bulger’s whereabouts were actually in Santa Monica, where he and Hollywood producer Ken Kokin, a longtime resident, were hashing out a screenplay about Shea's time with Bulger. As Shea walked, he was unwittingly roaming the same neighborhood that Bulger, arrested last week on suspicion of nearly two dozen murders, had called home for 16 years.
"All that time I'd been thinking about Whitey, and it was like 'Holy ... he's been right here,'" said Shea, 45, by phone Saturday. "But I don't think I ever passed him," he added. "I would have recognized those eyes.
At age 20, Shea met and became a prized protege to Bulger, who partly served as the model for Jack Nicholson's coolly sadistic Frank Costello in "The Departed." A Southie kid who showed preternatural ability in the boxing ring (he once knocked down Micky Ward in a bout), Shea had risen quickly through the mob ranks, learning quickly at the feet of Bulger. Within the space of five years, he was put in charge of a vast drug ring.
But in 1990, Shea's ascent ended abruptly when the FBI arrested him and charged the mobster with multiple counts of cocaine trafficking. Rather than shave years off his sentence with a plea deal, Shea refused to rat out Bulger or other associates, an act that would later earn him the moniker "South Boston's most honorable Irish mobster."
Shortly after he was released from prison in 2002, Shea wrote a book, "Rat Bastards," about his experiences with Bulger. The memoir had an unlikely champion: Mark Wahlberg, who wrote its foreword.
A hardscrabble Dorchester kid who had himself done time in prison, Wahlberg had tried to get in touch with Shea while the mobster was in jail. The actor had been sent a script about a gangster named “Johnny Blue Eyes,” a character based on Shea, and Wahlberg wanted to learn more about him. Although Shea declined to meet Wahlberg in prison — "I wasn't ready to talk about my story yet," he said — and the script was never made into a movie, the two wound up forging a friendship after Shea was released. Wahlberg would eventually bring Shea to the set of “The Departed” to educate him and other cast members about mob life.