Transcript

'Secrets of the Dead: Gangland Graveyard'

Former FBI agent Joseph Pistone, the real
Former FBI agent Joseph Pistone, the real "Donnie Brasco," talks about his six years working undercover. (Courtesy of Thirteen/WNET New York)

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Jared Lipworth and Jerry Capeci
Executive Producer; Journalist and Author
Thursday, November 17, 2005; 1:00 PM

With firsthand accounts from FBI special agents, "Secrets of the Dead: Gangland Graveyard" on PBS explores the new world of federal investigation, which combines old-fashioned undercover work with cutting-edge financial sleuthing and forensics. "Gangland Graveyard" aired on PBS on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m. ET. (Check TV Schedule.)

This latest installment tracks the downfall of "Big Joey" Massino, delving into the FBI effort to cripple the mob. Joseph D. Pistone, who posed as tough-talking jewel thief Donnie Brasco and whose time in the Mafia was later made into the movie Donnie Brasco, provides insight. Tony-winner Liev Schreiber narrates.

Executive producer Jared Lipworth and journalist and author Jerry Capeci were online Thursday, Nov. 17, at 1 p.m. ET to examine the world of the Mafia and discuss this episode, "Gangland Graveyard."

As executive producer for science programs, Lipworth is responsible for commissioning and overseeing all science programs produced by Thirteen/WNET New York. Current projects in production or development include "War Plane," "Secrets of the Dead V," "The Human Spark," "The Mysterious Human Heart" and "Big Ideas II." Prior to becoming executive producer, he was the series producer for the department's technology series, "Innovation." In 2003, Lipworth was nominated for a writing Emmy for "Secrets of the Dead: 'Mystery of the Black Death.'"

Capeci, a New York City-based reporter, columnist and author for more than three decades, is an expert on organized crime. His latest book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia, second edition," was published in January 2005. A frequent guest on network, cable television and radio news programs in the United States and Canada, Capeci has written numerous books about the Mafia and scores of articles about organized crime for magazines and newspapers in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Since 1996, Capeci has written "Gang Land," an award-winning online column about the Mafia that evolved from a weekly column he wrote for the New York Daily News from 1989 to 1995. In 2001, The New York Times and People Magazine wrote feature stories about Capeci and his online column . Since August 2002, the weekly column has appeared in The New York Sun.

The transcript follows.

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Jerry Capeci: I enjoyed the show last night and I'm looking forward to adding whatever insight I can for the Washington Post readers who have joined us online.

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Jared Lipworth: Hi everyone,

Thanks so much for watching Secrets of the Dead: Gangland Graveyard last night on PBS and for tuning in today for our live chat. I hope we can answer any questions you have and give you new insights into the world of the New York Mafia and the FBI's efforts to bring them down.

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Richmond, Va.: Slightly off-topic (or maybe not): in August 1930, New York state Supreme Court justice Joseph Crater vanished. It was speculated that Frank Costello, who was closely associated with Luciano, may have been involved. Has Crater's disappearance ever been solved? In doing your research, did you come across anything relating to this matter?

Jerry Capeci: No. As far as I can tell there was absolutely no involvement by Frank Costello or any other organized crime figures in the judge's disappearance. Recently some speculation surfaced that a former cop and his brother were involved but the police department is still investigating that possibility.

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Petaluma, Calif.: I grew up in Buffalo during the last days of Stefano Maggadino. I haven't been back for awhile but I understand that Joe Todaro is the nominal head of a much smaller family and he makes most of his money with his pizza chain. Do you know any more about the Buffalo mob?

Jerry Capeci: Our friend from Petaluma is right on with what he says. Maggadino was the longest running mafia boss in the country's history and a member of the Commission, the mafia's ruling body. Todaro's son is the reputed boss of the family these days, and the family does have a large pizza/restaurant business that has not been implicated in any criminal activity.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the mafia still have a strangehold on numerous labor unions or have the feds pretty much loosened their grip?

Jerry Capeci: The mob is still involved in labor racketeering, but its sway over the big four unions - The Teamsters, the Laborers, the Hotel and Restaurant workers and the Longshoreman's union - has dissipated over the Federal onslaught over the last 20 years. But in the New York and Chicago areas in particular, the mob still flexes its muscles in labor racketeering.

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Houston, Tex.: Ooops. Why no mention of "Lefty Two Guns Ruggiero"? Or my personal favorite to hear anecdotes about, the incomparable Tony Mirra. (That story about the lady on the payphone in "The Way Of The Wisguy" cracks me up. What an obnoxious, sociopath, and just plain a## Mirra was! Damned funny though!) I am aware neither of them were involved specifically in whacking those 3 Bonanno capos, but it's almost impossible to mention Donnie Brasco without those two.

How about another special, featuring Brasco's relationship with them? To me, the best mob stories are about the psychopaths like Mirra and their adventures. Like using a payphone....

Jared Lipworth: Thanks for the suggestion. As is always the case when putting together a one-hour program on such a complicated topic, we have to make decisions about what to include and what to leave out. There are endless great stories and we'd love to be able to tell them all, but we had to be careful not to overwhelm the film with too many people and too many connections. No doubt there could be a whole series about the mob, but this one really had to remain focused on the triple murders and the direct story that surrounded them.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Jared and Jerry:

Excellent show last night.

I grew up on the same street where the famous Motion Lounge on Withers St. was in Greenpoint/Williamsburg Brooklyn, which is now called the San Guiseppe Club. As you know, Greenpoint like some other neighborhoods was full of Gangsters, sometimes I think there were more gangsters and wanna bees there then ordinary people. I remember one particular day when I heard the roar of lion near the motion lounge. I was just a small kid then, I walked to see what it was, and I remember meeting Sunny Black for the first time, he was holding a leash and attached to it was a lion club. In the movie Donnie Brasco, there was a scene where Donnie and Lefty fed hamburgers to a lion. I am wondering if that was because the directors new that Sunny actually had a Lion in real life. What do you think? I would love to share more with you of what I experienced in Greenpoint as a kid. I am thinking of writing a book about it. I could tell you this, while almost all of the gangsters where horrible criminals, I could tell you that as one of many kids in that neighborhood, they always took care of us, we never had to pay for anything when they were around. When the ice cream man came by, they would stop the truck, and get all the kids who showed up some ice cream. Whether they paid for it or not was another thing, but as kids, we had no idea what they were up to, we just thought they were really nice guys...

Again, I enjoyed the show last night

Jerry Capeci: Joe Pistone who became Sunny Black's friend while playing the role of Donnie Brasco, certainly did impart that knowledge about Sunny Black's lion taming expertise to the producers of the movie. Since our friend from Brooklyn confirms a siting of Sunny Black and a lion, even that seemingly hard to believe tidbit turns out to be true.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Jared and Jerry, Great program! Glad to see PBS is doing programs like this. Jared, how do you decide the stories for Secrets of the Dead?

Jared Lipworth: We're always looking for good opportunities to shed new light on mysteries from the past. Within Secrets of the Dead, we've featured everything from 6 million year old hominid bones to this much more recent triple murder. In general, we look for well known moments in time, and we look for new information that can debunk the accepted wisdom. For example, next Monday, we have a program called Killer Flu, which reveals new insights into the 1918 flu pandemic, and illustrates what connections there might be to today's avian flu strains. Then, next Wednesday, we have another episode called Voyage of The Courtesans, which reveals how a ship full of female convicts from England become some of the founding mothers of modern Australia. Both films have great stories and provide a new and unknown take on historical events.

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Arlington, Va.: Jared, how did this episode come into the making? Did you learn anything you didn't know before it? Thanks!

Jared Lipworth: This episode began when we saw the articles in the paper about the bodies that had been found in Queens. From there, we began investigating the story, and as we dug deeper, we realized that the bodies were just the tip of the iceberg, and opened a fascinating window into the world of the mob in the 1980s, into the infiltration of the Bonnano family by Joe Pistone, and into the FBI's innovative efforts to bring down Joe Massino. Once we realized how many fascinating stories there were to tell, we knew it would make a perfect Secrets of the Dead.

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Philly: Mr. Capeci, you've met some infamous people in your life. Any personal anecdotes you could share? Thanks. And a question, why are we so fascinated with the mafia? What is the allure?

Jerry Capeci: I think Americans are fascinated with crime and have been going back to the days of the old West, guys like Jesse James and Billy the Kid became folk heroes, while in real life playing the roles of murderers. That same phenomenon has occurred when it comes to the Italian-American organized crime network, commonly known as the Mafia. Movies and television have helped keep people interested in the goings-on in the mob. These days people across the country are impatiently awaiting the return of the Sopranos for season six. Certainly John Gotti, the in your face, swashbuckling Dapper Don, who became the only Mafia boss to beat a racketeering case back in the mid-80's certainly fueled interest in the mob over the last two decades.

I've covered so many trials and so many cases involving gangsters that it's really hard to single out any one right now. But the courtroom confrontation between Sammy Bull Gravano and John Gotti still ranks as the most dramatic, tension-filled moment in my reporting days. If looks could kill, two people would have been dead in the courtroom.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Great show last night! Question for Jared -- I've always loved the Secrets series -- how do you find your stories?

Jared Lipworth: Good question. We're always looking for stories in the papers and history books, and we also get pitched ideas from producers all over the world. In general we're really careful to make films in which we can provide the viewers with new insights into events they thought they understood. I look for good modern investigations, strong characters and historical events that people have actually heard of or would be interested in finding out about. In addition to the upcoming programs I mentioned above, I'm looking at a lot more great stories for next season, so stay tuned...

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Alexandria, Va.: Could the mob have maintained their strength by sticking to loansharking, gambling, prostitution, etc., and avoiding the drug trade? Was "Vito Corleone" right?

Jerry Capeci: In a way, Corleone was right, but there's no way that any gangster would place limits on the number of rackets he would like to get involved in, because gangsters are all about making as much money as they possibly can. The Mob has been involved in drugs for more than 50 years and if tomorrow some gangster sees a way to make tons of cash in the drug business, there's no question that he'll do it.

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Question for Mr. Lipworth -- were there any concerns about doing a show like this -- were you afraid of any mob retribution or do I just watch too much TV?

Jared Lipworth: We joked about it a lot during production and always felt more comfortable when Joe Pistone was around, but in truth, there was never really a feeling that we were putting ourselves or any of our crew in danger.

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Anonymous: Hey what about Lefty and my personal favorite, Tony Mirra? I am aware they weren't involved in whacking those 3 capos, but it's almost impossible to talk about Donnie Brasco without those 2.

Jerry Capeci: Joe Pistone, as Donnie Brasco, was very close to Lefty Guns and to Tony Mirra. In fact, both Mirra and Lefty claimed Donnie Brasco as an underling and were involved in a sitdown over who actually should be sharing in the money that Donnie Brasco was bringing in to the Family. Lefty ended up being indicted and convicted of racketeering and served 13 years in prison. Mirra had a much worse fate. A year after the FBI revealed that Donnie Brasco was really an FBI agent, Tony Mirra was whacked for allowing Pistone to infiltrate the crime family.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Is there any truth to the stories that some mob disappearances have resulted in the disappeared being ground into processed food? Is that just a Hollywood myth shown on the Sopranos, or are there indications that may actually have happened?

Jerry Capeci: I've never come across any indications that the mob minced its victims into processed food. There was a particularly murderous gang of Gambino mobsters under Roy DeMeo that dismembered its victims and deposited them in a Brooklyn dump so as to make prosecution for those murders much more difficult. Frequently gangsters bury their victims for the same reason.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Jerry,

Thanks for joining us today. I am a big fan of your work, and particularly looked forward to your feature on Slate.com about the previous night's "Sopranos" episode every week during the last season (I hope you come back to do the same when the new season airs).

Jerry Capeci: Thank you! I'm also looking forward to season Six, and swapping my views about the previous nights antics!

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New York, NY: I LOVED the show last night!! I've heard more and more about gangsters from Russia and Korea- are they replacing the Italian american mob and are they more dangerous?

Jerry Capeci: No. While all ethnic groups have their own organized crime elements, none will ever achieve the power and influence that the Mafia has because law enforcement has learned an important lesson from its failures in curtailing the mob. For more than a decade, the FBI and other investigative agencies have sought out members of emerging ethnic groups to fight the organized crime elements in their midst. Since the 1980's, for example, the FBI has recruited Chinese and Russian speaking agents to deal with emerging organized crime influence in those communities.

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Anonymous: Jared, do you have a favorite episode? And what do you hope your watchers of this one take away from it?

Jared Lipworth: A favorite episode is tough because I feel like all of these programs are my babies. But if I had to list a few, I would say Mystery of the Black Death, Tragedy at the Pole, Witches Curse and Titanic's Ghosts were among my favorites. Also, next week's Killer Flu and Voyage of the Courtesans are compelling and beautiful films with some really new and interesting insights.

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Washington, D.C.: Jerry, how did you start learning about the Mob? Do you often talk with some tough folks in life? Do you think writing about the mob has changed you in any way? Thank you.

Jerry Capeci: My first assignment for the New York Post was as a police reporter, and from there I moved to the courts, where I came across more and more mobsters getting involved in the criminal justice system. Once John Gotti burst on the scene in the mid 1980's, my editors at the Post, and later at the Daily News, told me to focus more closely on organized crime. And the rest is history. And yes, I've spoken to tough folks on both sides of the law. And while gangsters view me and other reporters as necessary evils, members of the law enforcement community often have much thinner skins when it comes to criticism about their failures and outright screw-ups.

And to the last question, no, except to the extent that everything you come across in life helps shape who you are and what you will be in the future.

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Jerry Capeci: I've enjoyed fielding questions and getting insight from viewers and readers from all over the country, and remind them that every week on ganglandnews.com they can check out the latest goings-on in the world of organized crime.

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Jared Lipworth: Thanks so much for joining us today and I hope you'll tune in for our other upcoming Secrets of the Dead programs and chats. If you missed this episode, Gangland Graveyard will be re-airing on WETA in DC on November 20th at 8 pm, and you can find out about re-broadcasts in other areas by logging onto PBS.org.

Also, don't forget to tune in next Monday, November 21 (8pm on most PBS stations) for Killer Flu, which reveals new insights into the 1918 flu pandemic and traces the similarities between that virus and today's avian strains.

And next Wednesday, November 23 at 8pm, you can watch Voyage of the Courtesans, which tells the incredible story of a ship full of female convicts from England who were transported "beyond the seas" and became the founding mothers of modern Australia.

If you want more information about any of our Secrets of the Dead programs, past or present, you can log onto pbs.org/wnet/secrets/

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