Four pairs of used, yellowing sneakers with strained laces, scuffed at the toes and lined with sweat, sit in the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, carefully arranged by the U.S. Marshals Service ahead of a highly anticipated asset-forfeiture auction. The aging Asics were recovered in 2011 from the Santa Monica hideout of the notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig.
Bidding on the sneakers starts at $20. Although they are intrinsically worthless, they’re expected to bring well into the hundreds.
They are one out of an estimated 135 lots, made up largely of household items belonging to the two, and they line the back wall, pinned between jewelry and rows of books. On the second floor of the convention center, two security Labradors lick their paws, exhausted from a morning of sniffing around a conference room filled with Christmas decorations, jewelry cases, and racks of crumbled clothing.
With the exception of several pieces of jewelry, the forfeited assets reflect a simple life on the lam in a cramped apartment more than they do the legacy of an organized-crime boss. There’s office furniture, garment bags, and nine wide-brimmed hats. Dozens of books, broken into multiple lots, show Bulger’s curiosity about World War II and the industry he helped create. His personal copy of American Mafia, by Thomas Reppetto, is for sale.
Most of the stuff is, well, crap. But its former owners make it significantly more valuable, a boon to the Marshals Service and the Department of Justice. Proceeds of the auction will be funneled into the DOJ's asset forfeiture fund to pay court-ordered restitution to Bulger’s many victims. Bulger was indicted on 19 counts of murder and found guilty of 11. Both he and Greig are in prison.
In the 2015 fiscal year, the marshals said, they sold $43.3 million in personal property and another $69.5 million in real estate. Because many of the auctions are done at the local level, in nearly 100 districts, there’s no exact record of how many are held annually, though the marshals offer a conservative estimate of 400 to 500 a year.
Unlike private auctioneers, the Marshals Service doesn’t take provenance into account when deciding on a lot’s opening price. That’s why the bidding for 30 books owned by Bulger, including seven mafia-related titles, will begin at $90. The market, not the marshals, will dictate how high it goes from there. All the government can do is advertise the sale.
Pricing low might work in the marshals' favor, said Darren Julien, owner of Julien’s Auctions, of Los Angeles, which frequently deals in memorabilia.
“You want them to be conservative so it draws people in, but you don’t want it to look too inexpensive,” he said. “When it comes to putting values on things, it’s not a science. I sometimes call them guesstimates.”
The merchandise didn't impress Patricia Donahue, whose husband, Michael, was killed by Bulger. "I just wanted to see if it looks the same here as it does online, like a yard sale," she said. "It's like an insult to the victims. I'd be very surprised if any of these things sold."