Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - THE WHIRLWIND
Chapter 2 - THE BEGINNINGS
Chapter 3 - PREPARATIONS
Chapter 4 - HITTING THE STREET
Chapter 5 - BROOKLYN: THE COLOMBOS
Chapter 6 - THE BONANNOS
Chapter 7 - TONY MIRRA
Chapter 8 - LEFTY
Chapter 9 - MILWAUKEE
Chapter 10 - THE ACCIDENT
Chapter 11 - FRANK BALISTRIERI
Chapter 12 - SONNY BLACK
Chapter 13 - KING’S COURT
Chapter 14 - COLDWATER
Chapter 15 - DRUGS AND GUNS
Chapter 16 - THE RAID
Chapter 17 - THE SITDOWNS
Chapter 18 - THE HITS
Chapter 19 - THE CONTRACT
Chapter 20 - COMING OUT
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
“Thoroughly absorbing true-life adventure.”
“The tension builds with machine-gun
rapidity ... the suspense of a fictional
mystery yarn but the chilling ring of
reality.... Joseph D. Pistone is a true
“Excellent ... for a view of how the Mafia operates, none can match Joe Pistone!”
“Truly exciting.... so skillfully written it’s worth your time.”
—PalmSprings Desert Sun
“Oozes with names ... and plenty of behind-the-social-club-door gossip.”
—NewYork Daily News
“Unprecedented ... a chilling chronicle of undercover work in the Mafia.”
“A penetrating look into the Mafia inner circle ... real-life drama.”
“What it’s really like ... fascinating ... frightening ... daring.”
—FortWorth Evening Telegram
“Compelling, gripping, revealing ... raw, hard-hitting nonfiction at its best.”
“Chilling ... not since Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy has the day-to-day life of the Mafia been so entertainingly captured.”
“New ground is broken! ... There are few
ways, short of participating in it, that
you’ll get a better look at the business of
crime than by reading Pistone’s
recollections of his life in it.”
“An unforgettable eyewitness account!”
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Published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Previously published in a Dutton edition.
First Signet Printing, January 1989
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To my wife and children, whom I love dearly.
To both sets of parents, brothers and sisters.
To Michael, Sheila, Janie, Bob F., Howard and Gail,
and Don and Patricia—Thank you.
To the FBI undercover agents, who are the best at
what they do.
To the street agents, who make the FBI the best
investigative agency in the world.
To the U.S. Justice Department Strike Force attorneys
in Tampa, Milwaukee, and especially the Southern
District of New York.
I looked down from the witness stand at five Mafia defendants, five rows of press, and a standing- room-only courtroom filled with more than 300 people. It was an incredible sight to me. This was just the first mob trial, the first group of wiseguy defendants.
Lefty Guns Ruggierro was shaking his head. So were Boobie Cerasani and Nicky Santora and Mr. Fish Rabito and Boots Tomasulo. It was as if these defendants couldn’t believe what was taking place either. Lefty had told his lawyer, “He’ll never go against us.” Up until my appearance on the stand, apparently he refused to believe that I was a special agent of the FBI and not his partner in the Mafia.
But two other defendants had already pleaded guilty before the trial. And later in his jail cell, between court appearances, Lefty had become a believer. He told his cell mate, “I’ll get that motherfucker Donnie if it’s the last thing I do.”
There was a Mafia hit contract out on me. FBI agents were guarding me twenty-four hours a day.
Two days before I took the stand to testify, before my real name was revealed, we got word from an informant in Buffalo, New York, that the mob was going to go after my family.
The chief prosecutor for this case was Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Jones. The most powerful Mafia boss, the man who then sat at the head of the Mafia Commission, the boss of bosses, was Big Paul Castellano of the Gambino family. I told Barbara that I wanted to go to Castellano myself and tell him this: “If anybody touches my wife or kids, I will go after you personally. I will kill you myself.” I said I would do that only if it wouldn’t jeopardize the cases. “I can’t tell you who and who not to talk to,” she said.
She was being tolerant and understanding. But I figured it might hurt the cases, so I held off and alerted some people and stayed very watchful.
In the middle of the courtroom, half hidden in the crowd, a Bonanno Mafia family associate I had seen around Little Italy but whose name I didn’t know aimed his hand like a pistol and silently pulled the imaginary trigger with his forefinger. At a break in the trial, agents protecting me got the guy in the hallway and talked to him. He never came back.
I had been undercover inside the Mafia for six years. All that time, no more than a handful of people in the world knew who I was in both real life and in the Mafia. Now there was this explosion in the media.
There were huge headlines in the press, some of them covering the front pages: G-MAN CONNED THE MOB FOR SIX YRS; SECRET AGENT BARES MOB DEALS; MAN WHO CONNED THE MOB; FBI UNCOVERS MOB SUPERAGENT; “BRASCO” FACES GRILLING TODAY. Newsweek had a full page entitled, “I Was a Mobster for the FBI.” They also indicated the threats: MAFIA SEEKS REVENGE ON DARING INFILTRATOR; MOB IS TRACKING FBI-ER WHO FOOLED BONANNO FAMILY.
Before the trial, the media knew that a primary witness would be an FBI undercover agent who had infiltrated the Mafia. They were using every angle to try to find out who it really was. Once the trial began, reporters were always trying to get to me. I had never given an interview, never allowed the press to photograph or film me. We’d finish up in court at five P.M., have to hang around until eight or nine to avoid the press, and even then we’d go out through the marshals’ lockup. We couldn’t go out of the building to eat lunch, or out of the hotel to eat dinner.
Before the first trial began, we had definite word of a hit contract out on my life. The Mafia bosses had offered $500,000 to anybody who could find me and kill me. They had circulated pictures of me all over the country. We thought we’d better take some precautions. The federal prosecutors petitioned the court to allow me and another agent I had worked with during the final year to withhold our real names when testifying and use the undercover names the mob knew us by: Donnie Brasco and Tony Rossi.
Presiding Judge Robert W. Sweet, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York, was sympathetic. In his ruling he wrote, “... there can be no question but that these agents were, are and will be at risk. Certainly their performance as set forth by the government establishes their courage, heroism and skill as front line fighters in the war against crime and entitles them to every appropriate protection [which includes] the withholding of the location of their homes, family situation, and any additional information which is of tangential relevance and might increase their exposure to risk.”
But he denied our motion because of constitutional rights of defendants to confront their accusers. I felt neither betrayed nor surprised. There were never any guarantees.
My real name was not revealed until the first day I testified, when I walked into the courtroom, raised my right hand, and swore to tell the truth. Then I was asked to give my name, and I gave it, for the first time publicly in six years: Joseph D. Pistone.
All those years undercover in the mob, I had been lying every day, living a lie. I was lying for what I believed was a high moral purpose: to help the United States government destroy the Mafia. Nonetheless, I was constantly aware that eventually, on the witness stand, I was going to be confronted with the fact by defense attorneys: You lied all the time then; how can anybody believe you now?
Before, everything, including my life, had been riding on the lie. Now everything was riding on the truth.
When I was undercover, with every step I took I had to think: How will this seem when I testify? I had to be absolutely clean. Money had to be accounted for. I had to document what I could, and remember what I couldn’t document. Finally it would come down to my word in front of the juries.
The two prosecutors in the very first trial, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jones and Louis Freeh, continually drove the point home to me: “No matter how much evidence we put on, the jury has to believe you. Without your credibility we have nothing.”
From the day I ended my undercover role, July 26, 1981, I was deluged with trial preparations and testimony.
I was in a whirlwind. There was nonstop work with U.S. Attorneys seeking indictments of Mafia members and preparing for trials on racketeering, gambling, extortion, and murder in New York, Milwaukee, Tampa, and Kansas City. I worked with FBI officials at Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to prepare other cases across the nation where my testimony wasn’t needed but my information was. As the weeks and months went by, I was working with the prosecutors, testifying before grand juries, and testifying in trials all at once.
In New York City alone, home of the main Mafia families, there were at times five or six Mafia trials going on at once. Trials coming out of our investigations got famous, such as “The Pizza Connection,” the biggest heroin-smuggling case, and “The Mafia Commission,” the trial of the entire ruling body of the Mafia. Because I had been living within the Mafia for so long, I had information relevant to them all, and I testified at all of them. I would be testifying in more than a dozen trials in a half dozen cities over a span of five years.
Ultimately we would get more than a hundred federal convictions. By 1987, the combination of undercover agents, street agents, cops, U.S. Attorneys, and informants had blasted the heart out of La Cosa Nostra. The Mafia would be changed forever. The boss of every single Mafia family would be indicted and/or in prison and/or dead before the trials were over. We got almost every Mafia soldier we went after.
But the scorecard after all those years wasn’t the scorecard right then. In August 1982, we were just launching the courtroom assault that resulted from the years of undercover work and “straight-up” investigation. There wasn’t the time or inclination to celebrate. We had stung and humiliated the Mafia, but now, because of that, the Mafia was stirred up like a hornets’ nest. The mob was killing its own. Anybody who had trusted me inside the mob was now dead, or targeted for death. A dozen mobsters I knew when I was undercover had been murdered, at least two specifically because of their association with me. One indicted corrupt cop had committed suicide.
For me, there was testifying to do. And I had to avoid the shooters.
In Milwaukee, when I was testifying against Milwaukee Mafia boss Frank Balistrieri, a defense attorney asked me where I and my family actually lived while I was undercover. The prosecution objected. U.S. District Judge Terence T. Evans directed me to answer. Nothing could have forced me to answer that. “Your Honor,” I said, “I am not going to answer the question.” The judge said he could hold me in contempt. But after consultation with the lawyers he decided that what was relevant was only where the mob thought I lived at the time. Then I answered that question: “California.”
My home address and the name my family was living under was a closely guarded secret, and has not been revealed to this day. The FBI installed a special alarm system throughout the house that was wired directly to the FBI office.
Once my real name was splashed around in the media, we got word from a friendly attorney that a New Jersey guy that I grew up with, now in the Genovese family, had gone to Fat Tony Salerno, the boss of the Genovese family, and told him he knew where I was from and where I still had relatives, so maybe they could get at me that way.
When I talked to my daughters by telephone, they were in tears. Grandpa was afraid to go out and start his car in the morning.
The FBI wanted to move my family again. I refused. They didn’t want to move again. I wasn’t going to run the rest of my life. These bastards weren’t going to make me or my family live in fear forever. Could they find me? I take normal precautions. I’m always tail-conscious wherever I am. I travel and have credit cards under various names. But with an all-out effort, sure, they could find me. Nobody’s an impossibility. But if they found me, they would have to deal with me. The guy who came after me would have to be better than I was.
I was forty-three years old when the first of the cases came to trial. I had missed six years of normal life with my family. There were huge gaps of experience with my daughters growing up. I hoped that in time this would be balanced by the pride in what I had done, but I never will be able to be a public person. I will always have to use a different name in my private life, and only close friends and associates will know about my FBI past.
My satisfactions are in the knowledge that I did the best job I could, that we made the cases, and that other agents—my peers—congratulate me and respect me for what I did. My family is proud of me.
I am proud of the fact that I was the same Joe Pistone when I came out as I was before I went undercover. Six years inside the Mafia hadn’t changed me. My personality hadn’t changed. My values hadn’t changed. I wasn’t messed up mentally or physically. I still didn’t drink. I still kept my body in shape. I had the same wife, the same good marriage, the same good kids. I hadn’t had difficulty giving up the Donnie Brasco role. I was not confused about who I was. My pride was that whatever my personality was, whatever my strengths and weaknesses, I was Joe Pistone when I went under, and I was the same Joe Pistone when I came out.
After one trial in New York a defense attorney congratulated me: “You did a hell of a job. You got some set of balls, Agent Pistone.”
At another trial years later, in 1986, Rusty Rastelli, boss of the Bonanno family, which I had infiltrated, waited in a hallway outside the courtroom of the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. He sat in a chair like a throne, with other defendants, Bonanno wiseguys, gathered around him like an entourage. None of them wanted to believe, or admit, even now, what had been done to them. “Even if I wasn’t in the can,” Rastelli said, “he wouldn‘ta met me.” “He don’t know nobody,” one of his members said, “not in six years.” A daughter of one of the defendants was brought over to meet Rastelli. She said about me, the agent testifying against them all, “What a dangerous job. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.”
On January 17, 1983, I went with my wife and brother to Washington, D.C., to attend the annual presentation of the Attorney General’s Awards. Before the ceremonies we had lunch with FBI Director William Webster and his assistant directors in his private dining room in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which is FBI headquarters.
The ceremonies were held in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. The room was jammed with dignitaries and government officials.
Among the awards was one for me. Attorney General William French Smith and FBI Director Webster presented me with the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award as the outstanding agent in the FBI. They cited my length of service undercover, how no agent had ever penetrated so deep into the Mafia before, and how much personal sacrifice was required. I got a big round of applause.
Next to testifying in my first Mafia trial, this was the best moment in my professional life.
I was working out of the Alexandria, Virginia, office in my second year on the job. We had been chasing a bank-robbery fugitive for about a month, just missing him several times. I and my partner, Jack O‘Rourke, got a tip that he was going to be at a certain apartment in next-door Washington, D.C., for about a half hour. We alerted the D.C. office so they could send a couple cars, and we took off for the place. When we pulled up, we saw this guy coming down the stairs.
He was a black guy, huge and hard—6’4”, 225. He had pulled off a string of bank jobs and hotel robberies, and had shot a clerk.
This is the middle of a black neighborhood. The guy spots us and takes off through an alley. I jump out of the car and take off after him, while my partner wheels the car around the block to cut him off. We go over fences and down alleys, knocking over garbage cans and making a racket. I don’t draw my gun because he doesn’t show one. Finally, in another alley, I catch up and tackle him. Then we go at each other with fists. Up and down we go, throwing punches. We roll around smacking each other, busting each other up, while a crowd gathers and just watches. I can’t subdue him. I manage to get my cuffs out of the small of my back, put a hand through one, and finally I hit him a good shot that dazes him. That buys me a couple of seconds to get him in a hammerlock and slap one cuff on him.
The other cars arrive, and we subdue him.
We’re walking him to the car and he says to me, “You gotta be a Eye-talian.”
“Yeah, ‘cause there’s only two types that fight like that, a nigger or a Eye-talian. And I know you ain’t no nigger.”
It was a sad story. The guy was an ex-Marine with medals for heroism in VietNam. He got discharged and came back and couldn’t get a job. Nobody wanted him as a VietNam vet. He became a heroin addict and a bank robber. About three years after this bust, he got out of prison and went back to the same stuff, and when they were trying to arrest him, he came out shooting, and a buddy of mine had to blow him away with a shotgun.
I felt bad about that guy. But I wasn’t a psychologist or a social worker. I was an FBI agent.
And an Italian. My grandparents came from Italy. I was born in Pennsylvania. I grew up there and then in New Jersey. My father worked in a silk mill and at the same time ran a couple of bars. He retired when he was sixty-two. I have a younger brother and sister.
In high school I played football and basketball, mostly basketball, guard and forward. I was only six feet tall but a leaper, good enough to be second-team AllState. I went to a military school for a year to play more basketball, then went to college on a basketball scholarship. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a pro. Basketball was just a way for me to go to college. I majored in social studies. I wanted to be a high-school basketball coach. After two years of college I left to get married. I was twenty.
I stayed out a year working, as I had during off times from school, in construction, driving bulldozers, in a silk mill, tending bar, driving tractor-trailers. My wife was a nurse. After a year out, I went back to school to get my college diploma. But I didn’t resume basketball. My wife was pregnant. I had to work full-time. There wasn’t time for basketball. After our first daughter was born, my wife went back to work as a nurse to help put me through college.
Nobody in my family had been a cop. But as a kid I had thought about being a cop or an FBI agent. In my senior year of college a buddy was going to take the exam for the local police department. He wanted me to go in with him. I said I wanted to finish my last year of school. He urged me to take the exam, anyway. I scored in the top five on the written exam, and number one on the physical exam. I told the police chief that I wanted to take the job with the department, but I was in my last semester of college and I wanted to finish and get my diploma. I asked him if it was possible to get an appointment where I would work only the nighttime shift until I graduated. He said he didn’t think there’d be a problem.
But when it came time for the swearing-in, he told me he couldn’t guarantee night shifts for me. So I turned down the job with the police department to finish school.
I got my diploma and taught social studies for a while at a middle school. I liked working with kids. By the time I graduated from college, I had two kids of my own.
I had a friend who was in Naval Intelligence. The Office of Naval Intelligence employed civilians to investigate crimes committed on government installations where Navy and Marine personnel were based, or crimes committed by Navy or Marine personnel in the civilian sector. There were investigations of all types: homicides, gambling, burglaries, drugs, plus national security cases such as espionage.
Often Naval Intelligence agents worked closely with FBI agents. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to be an FBI agent. But you had to have three years of prior experience in law enforcement, along with a college degree.
Naval Intelligence interested me. For that you needed only a college degree. I passed the required exams and became an agent in the Office of Naval Intelligence. I had three daughters by then.
I worked mostly out of Philadelphia. It was basically a suit-and-tie job, normal straight-up investigations, some of the work classified. I worked some drug cases, some theft cases, and so on, and did some intelligence work in espionage cases. I made cases, testified in military courts.
My work there satisfied the FBI’s requirement for prior law-enforcement experience. I passed the written, oral, and physical exams, and on July 7, 1969, was sworn in as a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
For fourteen weeks at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, I was schooled in the law, the violations that come under the FBI’s jurisdiction, and in proper procedures and techniques of interviewing people and conducting all types of investigations. I was trained in self-defense tactics, proper procedures and techniques of car chases and making arrests, and in the use of every type of firearm that the Bureau uses.
In Naval Intelligence I had preferred street work, criminal work, to the intelligence investigations. So when I went into the Bureau, I knew I wanted to do street work. That’s where everybody starts, anyway.
I was assigned to the Jacksonville, Florida, office.
I had been on the job less than a month when I had my first serious confrontation as an agent. We had a warrant for a fugitive, an escapee from a Georgia prison. He was a kidnapper and had shot two people. He had fled across the state line into Florida. My partner got a tip from an informant that this fugitive was going to be in the area, driving a van on the way to some kind of crime job.
We stake out the location with a couple of cars, spot the van going by, and tail it, figuring to move in when he gets to where the job is going down. But after a couple of miles he makes the tail and swerves off the highway and onto side roads to try to shake us. We have to make our move. My partner is driving. He draws up alongside the van and forces it off the road to a stop to our right, my side, so that my door is even with the driver’s door of the van.
The fugitive and I jump out of our cars at the same time, facing each other maybe five feet apart. He has his gun drawn. I’m new on the job. I haven’t pulled my gun. The guy points at me and pulls the trigger. Click. He pulls again. Click. Two incredible misfires.
This all happens in a few seconds. The guy drops the gun and takes off. I’m right on his heels. My partner is out of the car and running after us. “Shoot him!” he hollers to me.
We have strict guidelines on using our firearms. You’re not allowed to fire warning shots. You shoot only to defend yourself; you shoot to kill. But I wasn’t going to shoot this guy. I was burning at myself that I had let this guy get the drop on me. It’s hard running in a suit and tie, but I catch him and clobber him over the head a few times with my handcuffs before I slap the cuffs on his wrists.
My partner comes running up. “Why the hell didn’t you shoot?” he says.
“There wouldn’t have been any satisfaction in that,” I say. The guy had scared me to death. I was angrier at myself than at him, because I hadn’t gotten out of the car with my gun drawn. But by the time the guy panicked and tossed the gun, there wasn’t any reason to shoot him, anyway.
In Jacksonville, I worked fugitive cases, gambling, bank robberies. I started developing informants. I feel that one of my better talents was in cultivating reliable sources from the street world.
I grew up as a street guy. I did not look down at guys who survived by their wits and street smarts, tough guys, thieves. You promise informants that you will protect their relationship with you. You never completely trust them, and they never completely trust you—you’re on the side of law and they’re not.
I didn’t try to rehabilitate anybody. If you become too involved in the social-work aspect, it gets in the way of your investigative abilities.
Some of my first informants were women, because I worked a lot of prostitution cases—cases made federal under the Mann Act, for bringing women across state lines for prostitution. The prostitutes were the victims. We went after the pimps who beat them or burned them with coat hangers for not bringing in enough money or whatever.
Sometimes I would try to talk a prostitute into getting away from her pimp. I didn’t try to talk anybody out of being a prostitute, because that’s just a waste of time. My attitude was: Hey, if that’s the profession you’re going to choose, I’m just giving you some advice on how to survive, that’s all. I got some of them away from their pimps. That made me feel good. And I got some of them to be informants, which made me feel even better.
I had an informant named Brown Sugar. I talked her into at least moving out of the lousy neighborhood into a better, safer area. She didn’t have anything for a decent apartment. I asked my wife if we could give her some of our old pots and pans for her apartment. “I’m not giving my pots and pans to any Brown Sugar,” my wife said. We didn’t have much, either, in those early days of my career, trying to support a family with three kids.
With my partner I did a lot of work in cooperation with the Jacksonville Police Department vice squad. There is a lot of interagency cooperation among guys working the street, because they need each other. Resentment and jealousy between agencies occurs more often at higher levels, where people are looking for publicity.
My partner and I didn’t want publicity because we ended up doing some good but unauthorized work to help out the vice-squad cops. I especially didn’t want publicity because this was my first year as an agent, and in the first year you are on probation; you can be dismissed without cause.
There was a rash of prostitution at the better hotels in the area. High-class hookers were working the bars and lobbies, picking up businessmen.
Everybody in the hotels knew these vice cops because they had been around awhile, but nobody knew me. So to help them out on local cases I would pose as a businessman, get picked up by a hooker and taken up to a room. The local cops would follow us up and wait outside the door for two or three minutes, long enough for the transaction, then they’d come in and make the bust.
I wasn’t a kid—I was thirty—but since I was a new guy on the job, these vice-squad cops liked to have a little fun with me, bust my chops. Like one time I go into the room with this hooker. I give her the money. I wait for them to come through the door. Nothing. She starts undressing. “Come on, honey,” she says, “aren’t you gonna take your clothes off?” I hem and haw. Nothing is happening at the door. She is naked and starts trying to pull off my clothes. I try to push her hands off my buttons and zippers, and I don’t know what to do. My job is on the line here because this is not federal business.
Over the door there is a transom. I hear giggling. They have boosted up one guy, and he is looking through the transom and laughing like hell at my predicament.
Then they come in and make the bust.
We started hearing about armed robberies in the rooms. Pimps would hide in the rooms and stick up the johns when they came in.
One of the girls that was working with her pimp this way picks me up and takes me to the room. This time I know the cops are backing me up because this is serious.
I say I want to hang my jacket up in the closet. The pimp isn’t in the closet. Then I have to go to the bathroom. The pimp isn’t in there. I go back out in the room with the hooker. I give her the money. She is very edgy. I know the pimp is in there.
It dawns on me he is behind the shower curtain in the bathroom. The curtain was open, gathered at one end of the tub. I hadn’t moved it to look in that corner of the tub. I tell her, “Why don’t you get undressed. I just want to wash my hands again.”
The pimp will have a gun. But if I pull my gun and the girl starts screaming, who knows what the guy will do? So I’ll just have to surprise him.
I go into the bathroom, turn on the water in the sink, then spin around and smack the shower curtain away. The pimp is standing there with an automatic in his hand. I slap his arm, put a wristlock on him, make him drop the gun. He starts trying to punch, but it’s over. With the commotion the cops come into the room, and I turn the dude over to them and leave.
After eighteen months I was transferred to Alexandria, Virginia. That office had a heavy load of applicant cases—background investigations on people nominated for government jobs. Newcomers to that office were routinely assigned to a squad that got the brunt of those cases. Suddenly I was in a tame area. I asked the Special Agent in Charge—the boss of the office—if I could work criminal cases once I got the applicant cases done. He said he didn’t care. So I would get all my applicant cases out of the way by maybe noon. In the afternoon I would hook up with guys who worked criminal cases.
I developed a string of informants who were instrumental in solving a lot of bank robberies and nabbing fugitives. This was the end of the VietNam era, and in Alexandria, like in Jacksonville, I worked a bunch of deserter cases.
I was in Alexandria four years. It was a nice life. We belonged to a country club where my wife was social director.
Along the way I had gone back to school at Quantico for short “in-service” training courses in such things as gambling and undercover work. In those days there was no such thing in the Bureau as long-term undercover assignments. Undercover was a day or two in a “buy-bust” situation. For example, you get information that somebody has some type of stolen property, you negotiate a buy from this thief, and then the thief is arrested.
I also had SWAT training when they first formed the Special Weapons Assault Teams in the early 1970s to deal with hostage situations such as were occurring in skyjackings or with potential terrorist assaults. The teams were formed from specially picked agents who showed superior physical skills. We were trained in the use of various weapons, methods of assault on a building; we rapelled with ropes from buildings, cliffs, helicopters. There was survival training in the wilderness and in the water. We worked on hand-to-hand combat. I loved the camaraderie, the physical challenge.
In 1974, I was transferred to New York City and put on the Truck and Hijack Squad.
We had a good squad, a busy squad. We worked at least six days a week, sometimes two or three days around the clock. But long hours was not unusual in the Bureau. The average agent probably gets to work at six-thirty or seven A.M. and works a twelve-hour day. And we were intercepting six or seven hijacked loads a day.
And then came my break into long-term undercover work—the assignment that led to my work with the Mafia.
The Tampa, Florida, office was working on a ring of thieves that were stealing heavy equipment and luxury cars. They discovered the ring by chance. They had arrested a teenage boy on some unrelated charge. But it turned out that the kid’s father was involved in the theft ring.
The father was desperate to keep the kid from going to jail. He came to the agents and said, “You cut my son a deal, I’ll work for you busting up a big ring that’s stealing heavy equipment and luxury cars all over the southeastern United States.”
With cooperation from the Florida Highway Patrol, the Bureau made the guy an informant to see what he could produce. He proved himself. The ring was directed by a guy out of Baltimore and operated all over the southeast. They stole everything to order: trucks, bulldozers, road graders; Cadillacs, Lincolns, and airplanes.
The Bureau thought that maybe they could introduce an agent to work undercover with the guy in busting the ring. It’s always better to have an agent’s testimony in court. The guy said that the only thing was, the agent would have to know how to drive things like an eighteen-wheeler and a bulldozer. That led the Bureau to me. I was one of the few agents with that kind of experience.
I sat down alone in a room with the guy, whose name was Marshall. We had to get a sense of each other, decide whether we could trust each other enough to risk our lives together. He was massive, maybe 6’1”, 250, with reddish hair, a thick red beard, and huge hands. He wore overalls. He was a truck mechanic who could steal anything. I told him I didn’t know how to steal cars and trucks. “No problem,” he said. “I can teach you that in a minute.” We talked about our attitudes, experiences, families. I felt comfortable with him. He felt comfortable with me. He said that prior to meeting me he had the impression that agents were guys with wing-tip shoes and pin-striped suits who didn’t know anything about the street. But I was different. “You seem like you could handle yourself okay,” he said, “and come off as a thief. I can work you in.”
For this operation I needed a name. I didn’t give it much thought. For some reason a name had stuck in my head from an old movie or book or something: Donald Brasco. That’s who I became. The Bureau furnished me with a driver’s license and credit cards under the name. The plan wasn’t conceived originally as being long-term undercover. But it ended up extending over about six months.
Marshall gave me a rundown. The head of the ring was a guy named Becker. A lot of the thieves who scouted locations and actually hooked the stuff were young guys, nineteen or twenty years old. Heavy equipment was usually stolen from construction sites. Cars were stolen right off the new-car lots. Customers were construction companies and businessmen. In the case of the luxury cars, customers were just people with enough money.
Marshall had to deliver a stolen Ford XLT pickup to a couple of guys in Lakeland, Florida, who were supplying trucks to outfits working the phosphate mines. That was the first thing I would go along on.
We were about to leave when the agents in charge of the case said they wanted to wire me up. They wanted me to wear a Nagra tape recorder. I wasn’t in favor of it because it was so hot and muggy that you couldn’t even wear a windbreaker. I had on a Banlon shirt and Levi’s. “How the hell am I going to conceal a Nagra?” I asked. “We’ll tape it to your back,” they said.
This was my first outing, and I didn’t want to seem like a prima donna, so I agreed to it. They taped the recorder, which is four by six inches, three-quarters of an inch thick, to the small of my back. In the mirror I looked like I had a growth under my shirt.
Marshall said he would introduce me to the other thieves as a guy he met through a guy named Bobby, who had been killed in an automobile accident. He told me enough about Bobby to get by. Since Bobby was dead, nobody could question him.
We drove the pickup to the storage garage where we were to meet the customers. We got out and met the guys. They walked around the truck, looking it over. I had to keep moving so that I was always facing them and nobody got behind me, because I had this hump on my back. The customer, Rice, was talking about how many trucks he can sell to the guys in the phosphate mines, and how much other equipment he can use, and he kept moving around, so I kept moving around to keep my back from his view.
The price we put on this truck was $1,500. In 1975, it was worth probably $4,000. Finally Rice decided that this particular truck didn’t have enough extras to suit him, so we would have to hook him another one.
When I got back to the Holiday Inn where Marshall and I were staying, I called the agents. “That’s the last time I’m wearing a goddamn wire,” I said. “I felt like a hunchback.”
As it turned out, the machine malfunctioned and the tape didn’t come out, anyway.
In a couple of days we were supposed to meet the ringleader, Becker, in Panama City, Florida, out on the panhandle on the Gulf. We stayed at a motel in Lakeland, east of Tampa. Marshall spent the weekend teaching me the business. He taught me how to get into a vehicle using a tool called a “slim jim” that you slide down between the outer door panel and the glass to hook the locking bar. He taught me how to take out a dashboard in five minutes to get at the vehicle identification number. The VIN was stamped in metal and riveted. We would pop the rivets and replace the metal with plastic tape stamped with a new number. He taught me how to “hot-wire” ignitions and how to punch out the ignition barrel on the steering column by using a “slide hammer.” Once the ignition is popped out, you’ve bypassed the ignition lock and can start the engine. You replace the ignition the next day with a part from an auto-parts store. He taught me how to disconnect steering-wheel locks from under the car. It was a real school.
We went to Panama City to meet Becker. He was a rough, ruddy, fast-talking ex-convict and con artist. He bragged about having friends in the mob, in motorcycle gangs, on the docks.
He pumped me on how long I had known the late Bobby and on what I did. I said I hadn’t known Bobby all that long, but we did a few jobs together and so on. I didn’t try to pass myself off as a longtime car thief because I still didn’t know all that much about it. I said I was mainly a burglar and that lately I had spent most of my time in California and Florida.
He bought it because Marshall was there to vouch for me.
I also asserted myself. I told Becker that some of the gang may have more technical knowledge than I do about hooking cars and trucks, but I knew about planning, organization, security. So if I was going to go out with these young punks, I was going to have a say in how the operation proceeded. I said I wasn’t going to be just a $100-a-night car thief; I wanted to be in on the business end of it too.
I had to take a leadership attitude, because I had to keep these guys in check when we went out on jobs. While we were getting evidence I had to steer the thing away from violence. So I told Becker that Marshall and I had to call the shots.
He said okay, he would pass that on to the younger guys.
Becker told me about orders he had lined up, specific models, colors, extras. We were selling everything at a price around one quarter to one half of retail value. For Lincolns and Caddies loaded up with extras and worth maybe $12,000, he was getting $2,500. White Freightliner truck-tractors were bringing $10,000 to $15,000. Pickups were bringing $1,500 to $2,000, dump trucks $4,000.
The payoffs we got went to the FBI. Marshall received a monthly fee as an informant. He couldn’t keep anything from these jobs.
Becker wanted us to hook a White Freightliner. He had spotted one in a lot just outside Panama City and had a customer in Miami willing to pay $15,000 for it. The next day Marshall and I went to case the lot. We parked across the street at a liquor store. We wanted to see where the truck was, whether it was being moved, and to time the operation.
We’re sitting there twenty minutes when a sheriff’s car pulls in and the officer comes over to us. He says the liquor-store owner has become suspicious and wants to know why we’re sitting there.
“Just making up our minds what to buy, Officer,” I say. “Now we know.” We go into the liquor store and buy some beer.
That night, before we went back to hook the tractor, Marshall gave me the rundown on it. I was going to hook it myself, to see if I could do it. From memory he described the wiring and what I had to do. The White tractor was a snub-nosed job, complete with a sleeper compartment and air-conditioning, the cab up over the engine. Everything I had to do could be done from inside the cab.
We went to the lot and cased it for a while to check when the sheriffs patrols went by and how much time there was between them. Marshall stayed outside as the spotter. I went into the lot. It took me five minutes to get in, start the engine, and drive the tractor out.
I drove it the first leg, three hundred miles to Lakeland, where we would sleep a few hours during the day before heading on to Miami. We parked it in the parking lot at our motel. While we were sleeping, our agents went over the Freightliner, getting all the numbers and data from it for records.
The next day we drove the tractor to Miami and met with Becker and the customer. The customer was supposed to resell it to a contractor for road building in Europe. But the customer had changed his mind and didn’t want it.
Becker had to go back to Baltimore. He told us: “You guys stash this thing somewhere around here until I can find another buyer.”
Where were we going to stash a White Freightliner in Miami? I told our guys about it. The guys from the State Highway Patrol said we could stash it at the Department of Transportation yard, outside of Miami. I wasn’t too hot on that, putting our stolen truck in a government yard. But they said it was a big yard with several barns and it would be well hidden.
So that’s where we put it, for the time being.
Most of the car and truck lots had no special security, just lights and a chain across the entrances. Usually we had maybe fifteen minutes or a half hour between police patrols. If everything went smoothly, we could hook a car in five minutes.
When we went out on a job, I was on my own. There was no surveillance by the FBI or the Highway Patrol. On an undercover operation like this you don’t want either the badguys you’re working with or any law-enforcement agency to spot a surveillance. Cops aren’t clued in about what’s going on. The fewer people who know about it, the better.
I carried no FBI identification. I didn’t want to risk getting caught with it. There was no official policy about carrying ID. Some guys carried credentials undercover. My feeling was, carrying ID was just another thing to worry about. You get stopped by cops, you talk your way out of it. Or you take the bust—that’s no big deal. If you got into a jam, I felt that one of the most important things was not to tell any law-enforcement officer what was going on. You take the bust and let the people running the operation decide what they want to do. Law-enforcement credentials are part of what you have to leave behind you when you’re working undercover.
Hooking the stuff was easy, but when I went out to do a job, the adrenaline really flowed. Even though this was a sanctioned operation, I was out there by myself, without surveillance or protection. When you’re stealing cars with hardened thieves, ex-cons, guys who may or may not be packing guns, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and a lot of things are going through your mind.
You want to get the evidence for the case. You’re keeping an eye on the subjects to make sure they’re not deviating from the plan and heading for something disastrous. You’re worrying about getting caught.
If these guys get caught, how are they going to react? Are they going to try to fight their way out of it? If a cop comes across three or four guys stealing cars, what’s his reaction? If one of the guys makes a move, will the cop start shooting?
If we’re all busted together, what position does that put me in? How do I protect the operation? How do I protect Marshall? How do I protect myself?
All this stuff, all these angles, are going through your mind when you’re out pulling or casing a job. And we were stealing five to ten pieces a week.
We had an order for three Cadillacs. We found what we wanted near Leesburg, Florida, in the middle of the state, two on one lot and one on another. That night I went in with two other young guys and got the Caddies. We headed for Lakeland, to our hotel. Marshall drove the tail car. Naturally we were in a hurry. These cars have new-car stickers on the windows, and we wouldn’t have the fake registrations until the next day.
We’re spread out along the highway, booming along. All of a sudden flashing red lights show in my mirror, and I get pulled over by the Florida Highway Patrol. In these early days I carried a 9-mm automatic, which I had stashed under the seat.
So I get out of the car right away and ask the officer what the problem is.
“You were going over the speed limit, sir,” he says.
I have a Donald Brasco driver’s license, but no registration for the car, and a gun under the seat, so I figure I better be right up front with him, defuse any interest he may have in looking in the car. While I take out my license and hand it to him, I say, “You know what, Officer, you’re probably right. I’m transporting the car from a dealer in Leesburg to a dealer in Lakeland, have to get there so they can clean it up and have it ready on the lot by first thing in the morning.” I give him the name of a dealer in Lakeland. Since it’s about three A.M., I know there’s no risk of him calling the dealer to check. “So I don’t even have the papers with me.”
He is a real nice guy. “Okay,” he says, handing me back my license. “But take it easy, because the next guy may not be so understanding.”
I never carried a gun in this operation after that.
Every time we got an order, I called in to the contact agent and told him what we were looking for. Then later I called to tell him we’d found it. After we hooked the vehicle I’d call as soon as I could and give a description of what we hooked, where we took it from, everything about the job, so the Bureau could keep a record, then, later on, after the operation, could work with the insurance companies and dealers in getting the vehicles back.
Becker had finally located a buyer for the White Freightliner that we had stashed near Miami. These guys were dopers. They moved stuff between Florida and California, hiding cocaine and marijuana among boxes of vegetables and fruits in refrigerated trucks.
Marshall and I were staying at our usual place, the Holiday Inn in Lakeland. Becker said his customers would be calling us.
They called and told us to leave the hotel and check into another one. We did that. We waited for two days, and finally these guys came to our room. Two guys, rough and dirty, long hair, in their mid-twenties, both with gun bulges under their belts.
They said they had made the deal with Becker to take the truck for $10,000.
“Bullshit,” I say. “The price is fifteen grand.”
“We made the deal with him,” one guy says, “and you guys were just supposed to deliver the truck.”
“We’re going to deliver it and make the exchange,” I say, “but I’m not just working for this guy; we’re partners. He can’t make a ten-grand deal on his own when we had all decided on fifteen. That means I would lose more than a grand of my cut on this deal.”
“That’s your tough luck, pal, because we made the deal and that’s all we’re paying.”
I’m hassling these guys because the original price that I knew of was $15,000, and as a thief you don’t just accept somebody’s word that the price was changed. Plus, if I accepted their word without checking with Becker, it might make him suspicious. If I was such a hotshot, why would I accept a deal different from our original price from guys I didn’t know?
If the deal had been changed, Becker should have let me know. But maybe he didn’t let me know on purpose; maybe he wanted to see how I’d handle it.
Marshall went into the other room and called him. Becker affirmed the deal. We had had the truck too long, it was too hot, and we needed to get rid of it.
“Okay,” I tell these guys. “But anything else you want like this is gonna cost you fifteen grand.”
“We’ll worry about that when the time comes,” the one guy says.
“We won’t worry about it at all,” I say.
We made arrangements to meet at noon the next day near Miami, at an exit off the Sunshine Parkway.
The next morning Marshall and I drove to Miami and went to the Department of Transportation yard and got the Freightliner.
We meet the guys at the highway exit. “Before I give you the keys,” I say, “I want the money.”
“Sure,” he says. He puts a soggy, grimy, stinking brown paper bag in my hands.
“What the hell is this?” I say.
“That’s the money,” the guy says. “What we do with our cash money is, we bury it.”
Becker got a contract to hook two Caddies down in Miami. He had this dealership staked out, had found two cars fitting the order. Marshall and I went back there with him about an hour before closing time and parked across the street at a Burger King. We hung around waiting for the dealer to close, checking how often the sheriffs patrols went by.
When the place closed, we saw that they had a guard wandering around the lot. We hadn’t known about the guard. Now we had to plan to deal with him.
Becker wanted to go around to the back of this big lot and make noise to draw the guard off back there while the other two of us would hook the cars and go out the front. I didn’t like that because of the chance for violence with the guard. I started trying to talk him out of it, saying it was too risky.
A sheriff’s car pulled into the Burger King lot and parked near us. Two cops on their coffee break.
We’re leaning against our car. Suddenly Becker puts his arm around my shoulders in a chummy way. He nods toward the patrol car. “Don’t worry about cops. I been in this business a long time,” he says, “and I can smell cops, even plainclothes guys. The easiest to spot, though, are the FBI agents.”
“Oh, yeah?” I say. “Why is that? I never met any FBI agents.”
“The way they dress, talk, act. I can smell them miles away.”