Bulger wrote to a juror who convicted him that he would be dosed with LSD, monitored by a physician, and repeatedly asked leading questions like: "Would you ever kill anyone?"
One of the jurors who helped convict Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013 has now said that she regrets that choice after learning that he was an unwitting participant in a secret CIA experiment involving LSD during the Cold War.
Bulger was involved in at least 11 murders, extortion, racketeering, and drug trafficking — but he is not known to have ever killed anyone before the CIA dosed him at least 50 times with the powerful, mind-altering hallucinogenic while he was a prisoner in Atlanta in the 1950s. He agreed to be part of the program, called MKUltra Project, in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Following his 2013 conviction, Bulger wrote in some of his 70-plus prison letters to juror Janet Uhlar that the fact that he was pressured to join the CIA’s program was never mentioned by his lawyers during his trial. He believed that this information might help explain why he became as violent a man as he did.
According to Uhlar’s new interview with the Associated Press, Bulger’s participation in the CIA’s covert experiments may not only account for at least some of his violent behavior, but could even suggest that he was wrongly convicted.
“Had I known,” Uhlar said of the CIA experiments, “I would have absolutely held off on the murder charges. He didn’t murder anyone prior to the LSD. His brain may have been altered, so how could you say he was really guilty?”
The CIA’s quest to develop mind-control drugs began in the 1950s and they often chose test subjects they believed society wouldn’t miss. The agency typically targeted addicts, vagrants, or incarcerated criminals like Bulger (Some say even Charles Manson was one such subject).
Bulger joined the project under the promise of a reduced sentence in exchange for his involvement. He was told this was merely a study focused on finding a cure for schizophrenia.
The CIA “appealed to our sense of doing something worthwhile for society,” Bulger wrote in one of the letters to Uhlar.
But once Bulger signed on, the CIA reportedly maintained no concern for his wellbeing.
Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer’s book Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control expounds on the CIA’s sheer indifference about what happened to the individuals involved in MKUltra.
“The CIA mind control program known as MKUltra involved the most extreme experiments on human beings ever conducted by any agency of the U.S. government,” he wrote. “During its peak in the 1950s, that program and its director, Sidney Gottlieb, left behind a trail of broken bodies and shattered minds across three continents.”
Bulger was no exception.
He wrote that after he took part in the experiments in Atlanta, he was never the same. “Auditory & visual hallucinations and violent nightmares — still have them — always slept with lights on helps when I wake up about every hour from nightmares.”
His nights were plagued by horrific dreams, violent hallucinations, and anxiety so strong he couldn’t sleep.
“Sleep was full of violent nightmares and wake up every hour or so — still that way — since ’57,” he wrote to Uhlar from prison. “On the Rock at times felt sure going insane,” Bulger wrote, referring to his time in prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
In another chilling letter, Bulger described more of his experiences while in the program:
“In minutes the drug would take over, and about eight or nine men — Dr. Pfeiffer and several men in suits who were not doctors — would give us tests to see how we reacted. Eight convicts in a panic and paranoid state. Total loss of appetite. Hallucinating. The room would change shape. Hours of paranoia and feeling violent. We experienced horrible periods of living nightmares and even blood coming out of the walls. Guys turning to skeletons in front of me. I saw a camera change into the head of a dog. I felt like I was going insane.”
Bulger also recalled in one of the letters that the supervising doctor, Carl Pfeiffer of Emory University, would not only monitor his physical response to the drug but would also ask him leading, arguably influential questions such as, “Would you ever kill anyone?”
Bulger ultimately spent 16 years on the lam after authorities tipped him off regarding an impending 1994 arrest before he was finally caught in 2011 in Santa Monica, California where he had been living with his girlfriend. He was sentenced to two life terms plus five years in 2013.
In the end, Bulger was beaten to death by inmates at the age of 89. He had just arrived in his wheelchair at Hazelton federal prison in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia in June 2018.
No criminal charges were filed. His claims against the CIA are likely to suffer a similar fate.
After learning about James “Whitey” Bulger’s unwitting participation in MKUltra, read about how MKUltra managed to control a dog’s mind during the Cold War. Then, learn about the most outlandish CIA programs of the Cold War.