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Plot thickens in Whitey Bulger murder case with transfer of 2 prisoners

In the hours after Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger was found beaten to death in his prison cell, three inmates were hauled away to solitary confinement. There they remained for two years, eight months and more than 20 days, as the investigation into Bulger’s murder dragged on.

But earlier this week, two of the prisoners, Paul DeCologero and Sean McKinnon, were transferred out of the federal prison in West Virginia, according to online records and family members. The man left behind, a former Mafia hitman named Fotios “Freddy” Geas, remains in solitary.

Fotios “Freddy” Geas appears for a court proceeding in his defense in the Al Bruno murder case, in Springfield, Mass., on April 14, 2009.Don Treeger / The Republican via AP file

The transfer of DeCologero and McKinnon marks a fresh twist in the federal prison system’s most high-profile investigation. It also sparked renewed outrage from Geas’ family over what they consider to be his inhumane treatment behind bars.

“Enough is enough,” said Geas’ son, Alex, 26. “It’s 23 hours a day in a cement cell with no connection to the outside world.”

Alex Geas said he last spoke to his father, who gets two phone calls a month, three weeks ago. He said his father doesn’t complain to him about his captivity, but he has made clear that he doesn’t want to be kept in limbo any longer.

“Two and a half years is insane,” Alex Geas said. “It really is inhumane. If they had the evidence, go ahead and indict him. If not, transfer him and release him out of solitary.”

The 89-year-old Bulger’s battered body was discovered by prison guards about 8:20 a.m. on Oct. 30, 2018.

Nearly three years later, no one has been charged with the crime and questions remain over how the notorious mobster and longtime FBI informant ended up in a prison unit with at least two other gangsters from Massachusetts, Geas and DeCologero.

McKinnon, who hails from Vermont and was locked up for stealing guns from a firearms store, was Geas’ roommate at the time of Bulger’s killing. He was moved into a cell in a special housing unit, commonly known as solitary confinement, where inmates are segregated from the general population and denied privileges such as access to TV, regular phone calls and time in the yard.

Sean McKinnon.Courtesy McKinnon family

Inmates placed in special housing units sometimes share a cell; McKinnon spent much of his time in solitary in the same cell as DeCologero.

McKinnon’s mother, Cheryl Prevost, told NBC News that he called her on Wednesday from a facility in Atlanta and said prison guards had rousted him and DeCologero out of bed about 2:30 a.m. the day before.

“They said, ‘Get your stuff. You’re going out of here,’” Prevost said. “He had no idea he was leaving.”

As of Friday afternoon, McKinnon, 35, who has severe ADHD, was being held at a federal facility in Oklahoma that acts as a transfer point for inmates.

His mother said he was struggling to adjust to a loud and chaotic detention facility after spending so long in solitary.

“I’m surprised he’s even functioning,” Prevost said.

During their call on Wednesday, Prevost said she suggested to her son that the prison transfer could mean he won’t be charged in Bulger’s killing.

“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to talk about it,’” Prevost said. “He was just glad to get out.”

McKinnon, who is serving a seven-year sentence, is set to be released from prison in July 2022. He previously told NBC News that he knows nothing about the killing of Bulger.

DeCologero, 47, has five years left on his 25-year sentence on racketeering and witness-tampering charges. As of Friday afternoon, he was being held at the federal prison in Atlanta.

Efforts to reach DeCologero’s family were not successful.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia said she had no new information to provide.

Geas, 54, is serving a life sentence for his role in several violent crimes, including two gangland murders.

A fourth inmate, an upstate New York man who shared a cell with Bulger the night before the killing, was held in solitary for more than five months before he was released to state custody in 2019.

Former mob boss and fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger in 1953 and 2011 booking photos.Boston Police; U.S. Marshals Service

Bulger, the leader of Boston’s Irish mob, spent 16 years on the run before he was captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, California. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2013.

The older, wheelchair-using gangster was killed less than 12 hours after he arrived at the West Virginia prison in a transfer from a federal penitentiary in Florida. The decision to transfer Bulger to a notoriously violent prison and place him with the general population has drawn criticism from former wardens and other ex-prison officials.

The slow pace of the Bulger murder investigation has also raised questions.

Bob Hood, a former federal Bureau of Prisons chief of internal affairs and former warden at the ADX Florence “supermax” prison in Colorado, said it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the decision to move McKinnon and DeCologero. Hood said there are several aspects of the case that he still doesn’t understand.

Why were they kept in a segregated housing unit for so long? Why has no one been charged in such a high-profile case after nearly three years?

“I’m dumbfounded by all of this,” Hood said.

For Hood, the most critical question is not who killed Bulger but how did the Bureau of Prisons allow it to happen.

“We might not ever know who physically killed him, but what we do know is the system killed him,” Hood said.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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