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The FBI's Veiled Threat

Joseph Pistone Spent Six Years Inside the Mafia and Lived to Tell the Tale

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1997

NEW YORK -- The man who walks into the trattoria, carefully folds his sports jacket on the seat and orders a plate of risotto used to be known as Donnie Brasco, veteran jewel thief and trusted insider with the Bonanno organized crime family.

He also used to be known as Joseph D. Pistone, undercover FBI agent, who penetrated deeper into La Cosa Nostra than any other lawman had and who helped win a hundred convictions against the thieves, racketeers and murderers he'd hung out with for six years.

And now he's -- well, who knows who he is? Donnie Brasco, the name lent to the film "based on a true story" that opens around the country today, never really existed. And Joe Pistone has officially ceased to exist, except on book jackets and in press interviews, in order to protect himself and his family from reprisals by those he began testifying against in 1982.

So this man -- in his late fifties, trim, not too tall, close-cropped gray hair, remarkably unremarkable -- has some other name on his driver's license and his credit cards. He will say only that he now lives "west of the Mississippi -- I like horses." His neighbors there, if he has any, don't know that he worked with the FBI at all, let alone that he's portrayed by Johnny Depp in "Donnie Brasco."

At the moment he is living a bizarrely public and carefully private existence simultaneously, giving CNN interviews in dark glasses, posing for photos behind the upturned collar of his trench coat. He's not in a witness protection program, but he's being careful. There's a $500,000 contract on his head, informants told the FBI when his double-agentry was first revealed, and although no one's made an attempt on his life in all these years, there's no sense taking chances.

"What concerns you is a cowboy, y'know? Somebody who wants to make a name for himself within the mob," says Pistone. So his family has moved six times since he first went undercover in 1976. On the other hand, here's another chance to promote the just-reissued book he and a co-author published in 1988 and the movie it's taken so long to get made. It might be safer to just shut up and steer clear of camera lenses, "but then what happens is, you become like a prisoner yourself. I mean, who's the bad guy here?"

And Pistone had always seen himself as a good guy.

He grew up in working-class Paterson, N.J., which proved helpful in his subsequent career. "What I learned about the mob," he says, "wasn't through lectures at the academy." As a kid he played basketball with his buddy Lou DiGiaimo, who became a film casting agent. Though they lost touch for a while, Pistone and DiGiaimo were playing basketball again in New York in the '70s when Pistone was assigned to the FBI's truck and hijack squad.

"After a few months he disappeared," says DiGiaimo, picking up the story. "I'd call the FBI office, they'd never heard of a Joe Pistone."

Pistone-turned-Brasco, it turns out, was carefully cultivating wiseguys in Manhattan and Brooklyn and around the country, learning who was who in the hierarchy, slowly gathering evidence with which the feds hoped to begin dismantling organized crime. The Mafia he knew bore little resemblance, in either wealth or invincibility, to Hollywood portrayals: These were small-time hustlers perennially short of cash, flubbing as many scores as they pulled off.

"The mob you see in this movie, that's the true Mafia," Pistone says. "Most of them don't live in grandeur. . . . They still have that neighborhood mentality." But they trusted Donnie Brasco, who, in turn, developed some fondness for one or two of his bosses, Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero (played in the movie by Al Pacino) and Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano (Michael Madsen). He lived with them, vacationed with them, knew their families -- all while carefully committing license plate numbers, gun registration codes and endless nicknames to memory because taking notes was too dangerous.

Meanwhile, able to sneak home only rarely, he missed years of his family's milestones: Christmas dinners, a daughter's communion, his wife's surgery. He is a bit surprised, given all the strains and the discussions of divorce, that "the wife" stuck with him -- "I'm such a terrific guy, I guess."

He was within months of being proposed for membership, becoming "a made guy" in the Bonanno family -- and he still wishes the undercover operation had continued until he was. "Can you imagine the devastation when it came out -- an FBI agent becoming a made guy?" he says with relish. "Really would've collapsed the myth" of Mafia potency. But in 1981, after internal Bonanno power struggles led to three murders, the bureau decided that Pistone was in increasing danger and pulled him out. Sonny Black and Lefty, informed by the FBI that Donnie Brasco was a fake, refused to believe it.

"I can honestly say that to this day, he's still the most successful undercover agent we've ever had," says Jules Bonavolonta, who as former chief of the bureau's organized-crime and narcotics division in New York helped supervise the operation. "Including the fact that he walked out of it with his head screwed on straight. You see a lot of problems undercover agents encounter. But he's a very levelheaded guy and he used his experience to benefit other undercover agents. A lot of them still call him and ask for advice."

The Man Formerly Known as Pistone suffered no guilt, he says, in testifying against his former compatriots in trials all over the country -- New York, Tampa, Milwaukee, Kansas City. "Your job is to collect evidence, put people in jail," he says calmly. He says most things calmly.

And he put a bunch of people in jail. "He was a really formidable witness, a very knowledgeable guy," says former prosecutor Michael Chertoff, who put Pistone on the stand in two major trials. "If you look at the total effort, 1981 to 1987, the heyday of organized-crime prosecutions, he was one of the critical factors. To have a credible witness inside the mob, not just a bad guy who was cooperating, provided enormous help."

The only thing that bothered Pistone was foreseeing that some of the bad guys he knew would wind up not in cells but in landfills and swampy graves. "When the operation's over, they're finished," he says. "They're marked for death by the Mafia." And though he says he never lost sight of who the bad guys were, "you've spent time in their homes, you've spent time with their wives and with their kids, it works on you."

Indeed, Sonny Black's body washed up on Staten Island 10 days after Pistone began testifying in his first major racketeering trial in New York; the corpse was missing its hands. Lefty Ruggiero was arrested before he could be killed and was in the courtroom shaking his head at "Donnie." Ruggiero served roughly 10 years in several federal prisons and died of cancer about two years after his release.

Also in the courtroom in 1982 was Lou DiGiaimo, who'd been reading the newspapers about a still-unnamed agent about to testify after infiltrating the mob. "I'm wondering, could it be Joe? Could it be?" A few days after Pistone took the stand and gave his real name, for the first time in six years, they had dinner together in Jersey. "I told him I thought what he had done was heroic and spectacular and I said it should be a book and a movie. He said he would think it over, but first he had years' worth of testimony to give."

The trials extended into the '90s, as did DiGiaimo's persistent attempts to get a movie made; directors signed on and dropped out, scripts were revised, other Mafia films scared studios away. "Donnie Brasco" finally began shooting last year, with DiGiaimo as a producer and Pistone as a slightly anxious consultant, hanging out with Pacino and Depp, giving pointers. Despite the inevitable composite characters and minor dramatic liberties the film takes, he is pleased with the results. And with Depp -- "watching him, I could see myself, the way he moved, the way he worked the room with his eyes, absorbing everything."

Law enforcement types say that the series of trials in which Pistone participated (prosecuted by, among other rising assistant U.S. attorneys, Louis Freeh, now the FBI's director) dealt a substantial blow to organized crime. But as the star witness points out, the mobsters helped do themselves in. "The last couple of years I was under, the younger guys were too far removed from the traditions," he says, sounding almost nostalgic for an earlier era. The rise of the drug trade weakened their ranks further. "A lot of 'em are users," Pistone says. "They don't respect the old values and traditions. The old guys lived by a code."

Retired from the bureau, Pistone -- or whoever -- still lectures at the academy at Quantico. He does some private investigations overseas. And he is at work on another book, even though he says writing is much harder work -- "it's tedious" -- than fooling bad guys.

This one's a novel, he says, about an undercover FBI agent. But even if he has a potent imagination, the author may find it tough to top the real thing.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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