When three Massachusetts high school students wrote to notorious Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, they didn't expect a response, let alone an in-depth letter in which he told them his life "was wasted."
Mollykate Rodenbush, Brittany Tainsh and Michaela Arguin, now rising seniors at Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, Massachusetts, selected Bulger as the topic of their website for the National History Day competition earlier this year.
The theme was leadership and legacy, and the group wanted to "choose a theme that's going to stand out and stick with the judges," Mollykate, 17, told ABC News today. A few teachers recommended they look at a local figure, like Bulger, who has a decades-long criminal history in Massachusetts.
Bulger was convicted of murdering 11 people, extortion, money laundering and weapons charges in 2013, after a trial that came nearly twenty years after he went on the run after being tipped off to a pending federal indictment by a corrupt FBI agent. Police found cash secreted in the walls of Bulger's Santa Monica hideout, where he and his longtime companion spent 14 years living a life on the lam.
Bulger was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted List.
He's now in federal prison in Florida.
"We were trying to think out of the box. Take an unconventional route and do something no one else does," Mollykate said, citing George Washington and President Obama as popular choices. Instead, they wanted to "showcase someone that's a terrible person, she said, and "show that his heinous crimes ... his infamous and notorious reputation has impacted our society and the legal system."
"We tied Whitey Bulger into the leadership and legacy theme by showing him as the leader of organized crime," Mollykate said.
So the students decided to go right to the source. Mollykate said they were all on the same page about reaching out to Bulger himself for comment on his legacy.
"We didn't think there would be a consequence," she said. "The worst thing would be [if] he wouldn't reply. ... [I] definitely wasn't expecting a return from him at all."
The students contacted Bulger in February, Mollykate said, and within days, Bulger wrote a response.
The letter says:
"I'm sorry but I can't help you with your school project -- There are many people more deserving of your time and interests. I'm a myth created by the media to help them generate Revenue and to hurt a relation because they didn't appreciate his independence and daring to support an agenda they opposed.
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 + recovery.
Don't waste your time on such as I -- we are society's lower, best forgotten, not looked to for advice on 'Leadership'. I'm a 9th grade dropout from school and took the wrong road -- my brother 5 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. Had 9 children all college graduates + 4 lawyers among them. A Better Man than I.
My life was wasted and spent foolishly, brought shame + suffering on my parents and siblings and will end soon -- Advice is a cheap commodity some seek it from me about crime -- I know only one thing for sure -- If you want to make crime pay -- 'Go to Law School.'"
The letter was "very shocking," Michaela, 17, told ABC News today, and "a lot different than what we expected it to be."
"We were expecting a lot more arrogance," said Brittany, 17. "And not really [him] acknowledging his wrongdoings throughout his life."
Brittany said she was surprised to "hear him almost say sorry about hurting his family."
Michaela added, "We just wanted to find out what he thought his legacy and voice was. And even though he didn't answer that directly, he helped us more than we could ever imagine."
While the girls did not place at the state competition, they won two special awards for best use of primary sources and best project on Massachusetts history, Mollykate said.