Sammy Nickalls
Updated June 29, 2015
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An infamous mob leader has sent an apologetic confession letter from prison. Not to someone he did wrong, or to a loved one—but to three high school girls he never even met.

Brittany Tainsh, Michaela Arguin, and Mollykate Rodenbush are 17-year-old high school juniors from Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, Mass. The girls entered in the National History Day competition, which highlights legacy and leadership, and they wanted to do something unconventional that would stand apart from their competitors, the Boston Globe reports.

So they decided to create a website about James “Whitey” Bulger, a South Boston gangster sentenced to two life terms for the murder of 11 people, after being a fugitive from justice for over a decade. Bulger headed Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, “known for drug-trafficking, murder-for-hire, and illegal gambling,” according to the Washington Post.

So when the girls chose to focus their research on the crime boss, they turned their research into a quest for answers. The girls wrote to the now-85-year-old Bulger in a Florida federal penitentiary, asking him several questions about his experiences and his views on his own legacy. And he did write back—but his letter, dated February 24th, was totally shocking.

“I’m sorry but I can’t help you with your school project — There are many people more deserving of your time and interests,” Bulger explained in the letter. “I’m a myth created by the media to help them generate Revenue [sic] and to hurt a relation because they didn’t appreciate his independence and daring to support an agenda they opposed.”

Bulger urged the girls not to focus on him for his project, explaining that there are other “heroic” people who would be better suited for their research. “May I suggest you and Molly create a website about the heroic service men of Mass. that are patients in, for instance, Walter Reed Veteran Hospital — good men isolated from society due to war wounds — life for some in pain and loneliness — hearing from school girls that care would do wonders for their morale and recovery,” he wrote.

Bulger continued about his past, saying that he’s a high school dropout and “took the wrong road.” “. . . my brother [five] years younger applied himself in school and worked hard and spent 40 years in Mass State House and retired and was the President of Mass Senate in State House for second term and President of U. Mass after Retirement [sic],” he explained. ” [My brother had nine] children all college graduates and [four] lawyers among them. A Better Man [sic] than I.”

Bulger then explained that his life was “wasted and spent foolishly,” and that he “brought shame and suffering on my parents and siblings.” “I know only thing for sure,” he wrote. “If you want to make crime pay — ‘go to law school.'”

The girls posted the letter on a website they created, chronicling Bulger’s life and crimes. “It wasn’t what we were expecting at all,” Tainsh, who found the handwritten note in her mailbox, told the Boston Globe. “He did not really reply to any of our actual questions. He was very apologetic.”

“The part that’s cool about the letter is not that we got a response from this crazy man Whitey, but it was just that he actually responded to us at all,” Arguin told WBZ NewsRadio 1030. “Because he doesn’t really respond to a lot of people even though a lot of people think he likes the attention.”

What really got them was the tone of the letter—a sad, remorseful look on his life that he cannot take back. “I think the most interesting aspect of the letter is that he was almost regretful and nostalgic, but not in a positive way,” Rodenbush told the Boston Globe.

The girls placed first in the district competition but didn’t place in the state competition. However, they received two special awards for best use of primary sources and best project on Massachusetts history.

“It was a completely different side to what [Bulger] shows to everyone else,” Arguin told Boston Globe. “It was kind of weird we kind of had an impact on him, three high school girls. You wouldn’t expect that. It was really shocking.”

This story completely blows us away. These three teenagers fearlessly elicited a response from someone who’s been criminal mastermind and a mystery to so many. They turned a school project into a search for real answers. And like true journalists, they discovered in the response they received, a surprising honesty. While Bulgar didn’t explain his motives for his grotesque actions, he did elicit a tenor of regret nobody would have expected. All it took was three brave young women—with a clearcut future in reporting—to ask the right questions.