Why you should care
Because you thought your job was hard.
After getting a bachelor’s in education, Joe Pistone, a Jersey boy, was making his mark as a teacher in the mid-1960s: grading papers, taking attendance and telling kids to quiet down. But Pistone had a secret: He had always wanted to be a cop. Not all that remarkable of an aspiration for a blue-collar kid from Paterson whose mother was religious and whose father was a bar owner. What was remarkable? Pistone’s zag away from the zig of beat work, leading him right to the Office of Naval Intelligence; by 1969, smack dab in the middle of the Age of Aquarius, the then-30-year-old had joined the FBI.
“While Hoover [the head of the FBI] kept himself busy chasing petty crooks, he continued to ignore the reality of the Mafia,” writes Olindo Romeo Chiocca in Mobsters and Thugs. But by 1972, J. Edgar Hoover was dead, and in 1974 Pistone not so coincidentally got transferred to New York, where the first dance on his card was the truck hijack squad, a gig he was well-suited for given that between teaching and agenting he had learned how to drive 18-wheelers.
[Pistone is] a rat that acts like his life is over because he turned out to be a cop posing as a gangster.
By 1976 Pistone had seen the truck thieves busted open with 30 arrests and a proof of concept even the FBI couldn’t ignore. Given that the bust had been described in Pistone’s testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee as one of the largest and most profitable rings ever, and with all roads from it leading back to the Mafia, the way forward was pretty clear. Pistone, now known as Don Brasco — a name he read somewhere and that jibed with his Sicilian heritage — was going to see how far he could go inside and undercover.
“The Brasco case, and even the Queen case [William Queen went deep undercover in the outlaw motorcycle gang world for more than two years], hit on something super effective,” says a recently retired, 30-year narcotics enforcement vet who now teaches police departments how to conduct physical surveillance. “But it takes its toll, and when you’re sitting at a funeral across from someone’s widow or kid …”
The first thing on the FBI’s list? To flush any and all mentions of Joe Pistone from their records. The second? To get Don “Donnie the Jeweler” Brasco connected to the likes of Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, made men in the Bonanno crime family, one of the five major New York crime families. Studying for the role, Pistone took classes in gemology, where he picked up the street values of precious stones, and learned how to pick locks and disable alarms. As part of the full-on Method approach, he spent time with real-life jewelers so that he could believably walk the walk and talk the talk. A failure to do so in that crowd often meant the most severe sanction: death.
“You can lie, you can steal, you can cheat, you can kill and it’s all legitimate,” Pistone said Lefty told him when his alias asked, “Why do I want to be a wiseguy?” And so it went, and went well, for six years, with near misses that were carefully re-created — 80 to 85 percent on the money, according to Pistone — in Donnie Brasco, the 1997 movie that had Johnny Depp playing Brasco to Al Pacino’s Lefty. But by the end of July 1981, a year that was supposed to see Brasco be made a full-fledged member of the mob, the FBI pulled him out and busted everybody.
More than 100 were arrested — many who weren’t were killed by their associates for being lax enough to get duped — and Pistone was no longer Brasco. He was now a guy with a $500,000 contract out on his life, who had seen his wife and kids only a handful of times over the previous six years and needed 24-hour protection (our attempts to get in touch with him yielded naught). It was a game changer for the mob, though, and nearly broke the back of New York’s organized crime families. Even if Pistone’s kids had to change schools and names no fewer than three times, he regretted little — apart from disrupting his family’s lives. “I was an FBI agent,” he told Arsenio Hall in the late ’90s. “I was a good guy.”
An assessment not shared by his former brothers in crime. A known Philly-based mob associate whose heyday coincided with Pistone’s investigation dismissed the “good guy” as “a rat that acts like his life is over because he turned out to be a cop posing as a gangster.” In 2016 might there be a chance Pistone could finally relax? “Not a chance,” the associate says. “We got long memories, and $500,000 is still a lot of money.”