FBI surveillance photo c. 1980. Lefty Ruggiero is center.
April 19, 1926|
Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, New York
|Died||November 24, 1994
Benjamin Ruggiero, also known as "Lefty", "Lefty Guns", and "Lefty Two Guns" (April 19, 1926 – November 24, 1994), was a soldier in the Bonanno crime family. He is well known for his friendship and mentorship of FBI undercover agent Joseph "Donnie Brasco" Pistone. Ruggiero was an old school Cosa Nostra mobster who knew how Mafia politics worked. Ruggiero allegedly murdered around 26 people and refused to break omertà when arrested. On November 24, 1994, Benjamin Ruggiero died of lung cancer at the age of 68.
Born in the Fourth Ward neighborhood of Manhattan, Ruggiero grew up in the Knickerbocker Village private housing development in Little Italy, Manhattan. Ruggiero joined the Bonanno family as a young man, serving as a street soldier under caporegime Michael Sabella. Ruggiero soon became successful in bookmaking, extortion and loansharking rackets. Ruggiero was a 6-foot-tall (1.8 m), lean-bodied man with a narrow face, intense eyes, slightly stooped shoulders and a cigarette-raspy voice (likely due to chain-smoking English Ovals cigarettes).
He lived in an apartment on Monroe Street in Manhattan in the same building as his 'friend' and Bonanno soldier Anthony Mirra. Ruggiero reportedly owned a cigarette boat that he kept docked on the East River in New York. Ruggiero became good friends with future family boss Philip "Rusty" Rastelli and Mirra. Ruggiero became the part-owner of a fishery in the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan. As a part-owner, Ruggiero was able to put himself on the company payroll with a $5,000-a-month "no-show" job. During the 1970s, he purchased a social club in Little Italy. Ruggiero loved animals and his apartment had several tanks with tropical fish. He also had a pet lion cub, which he had to let go once it got too big.
Ruggiero had an estranged brother who changed his surname to 'Reggero' to avoid association with the rest of the family. Ruggiero had three daughters and one son, Thomas Sbano, with his first wife. In the late 1950s, Ruggiero left his first wife, eventually moving in with his second wife, Louise. In September 1977, Ruggiero married Louise in a small ceremony at New York City Hall. Ruggiero's son, Thomas, struggled with a heroin dependency until he checked into a drug rehabilitation center in 1979. Ruggiero's younger daughter worked at a New York hospital and managed a booth at the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy. Two of Ruggiero's daughters reportedly married mobsters. The Bonanno family allegedly discovered that Ruggiero's son-in-law, Marco, was cheating the family and is alleged to have told Ruggiero to eliminate him. Marco disappeared and his body was never recovered.
Operation Donnie Brasco
Around the time Ruggiero became a member of the Bonanno family, he met Mafia associate "Donnie Brasco" (undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone). Anthony Mirra introduced Brasco, an expert jewel thief, to Ruggiero. Pistone's original mission had been to infiltrate truck hijacking and fencing rings. However, the friendships Pistone developed with Mirra and Ruggiero gave the FBI the chance to infiltrate the Mafia. Brasco started working for Ruggiero, placing bets and helping him make collections for the bookmaking operation in Ruggiero's social club.
Ruggiero mentored Brasco and eventually sponsored him for membership in the family. Ruggiero developed a close friendship with Brasco, which caused friction with his old friend Mirra, who had originally introduced Brasco to Ruggiero. Brasco served as best man at Ruggiero's 1977 wedding and frequently advised Ruggiero on handling his son Tommy's heroin addiction. Brasco became close with Ruggiero's kids, who would all come to him with their problems. Ruggiero was a great cook and Pistone would go to his house and eat dinner several times a week. Pistone said that Ruggiero talked a lot and was excitable. Outside of New York, Pistone said that Ruggiero was a small-town guy, unsophisticated and ignorant about the rest of the world.
Ruggiero once nearly discovered Brasco's true identity. Ruggiero and Brasco were in a Miami Beach, Florida restaurant as Ruggiero read a Time magazine containing an article about the infamous Abscam scandal and detailing how FBI agents posed as rich Arab businessmen to catch U.S. Congressmen taking bribes. What caught Ruggiero's eye was a picture of a white yacht that the FBI used to entertain the congressmen. Ruggiero recognized the boat, the "Left Hand", as the same boat Brasco provided several months before for a party. Fortunately for Brasco, he convinced Ruggiero that he did not know the boat's owner was related to the FBI.
During a later criminal enterprise, Ruggiero met the Mafia boss of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Frank Balistrieri. Ruggiero admitted to Pistone that he felt threatened while in the presence of Balistrieri. In 1979, Ruggiero converted his social club into a candy store and gave it to one of his daughters to manage. At the same time, Ruggiero and Brasco started a bookmaking operation out of the store. However, Ruggiero was soon dropped from the partnership because he was unable to provide the initial required investment of $25,000.
The three capos murder
In 1979, Bonanno boss Carmine Galante was murdered, creating a power vacuum in the family. After Galante's murder, Philip Rastelli took over, running the organization from prison. However, one faction, led by Alphonse "Sonny Red" Indelicato, rebelled at Rastelli's leadership. At this time, Ruggiero joined the crew of Dominic "Sonny Black" Napolitano, a strong Rastelli supporter. On May 5, 1981, three rebel capos were lured to a meeting and murdered. (This is the basement murder scene portrayed in the film Donnie Brasco).
After the deaths of the three capos, the rebellion against Rastelli was squashed. According to Pistone, the murderers were Napolitano, John Cersani, Joe Massino, Sal Vitale, Joseph DeSimone, Gerlando Sciascia, Nicholas Santora, Vito Rizzuto, Louis Giongetti, and Santo Giordano. Ruggiero and Cersani were lookouts and were sent in after to clean up the massacre and dispose of the bodies, along with Napolitano, James Episcopia and Robert Capazzio.
Ruggiero relished life as a mobster. He explained to Donnie Brasco: "Donnie, as a wiseguy you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people - legitimately. You can do any goddamn thing you want and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn't want to be a wiseguy?". Ruggiero was the epitome of a wiseguy and had the respect of other mobsters. He had a reputation as a killer but on a daily basis was not prone to violence. Ruggiero had never served time in prison; he had been arrested many times, but never jailed. Ruggiero earned his nickname "Lefty" from tossing dice left-handed while playing craps. He got the nickname "Two Guns" because when he went out on a hit, he liked to use two guns.
By the 1970s, Ruggiero had acquired a gambling dependency. He was betting and losing heavily on horse races. Soon he was borrowing money from Nicholas Marangello to cover losing bets. By 1977, Ruggiero owed Marangello $160,000. The Bonanno family told Ruggiero that he would have to repay Marangello before he could become a made man. By 1977, Ruggiero had paid most of his debt to Marangello and the family accepted his membership. However, by 1978, Ruggiero was back in debt again to Marangello. To settle the debt this time, the family arranged to transfer the revenues from part of Ruggiero's criminal operations directly to Marangello. Due to his gambling problem, Ruggiero was always trying to hide his few assets from his creditors Marangello and Sabella.
Aftermath and death
In 1981, the FBI decided to end Pistone's operation. FBI agents visited Ruggiero and Napolitano at a social club and informed them of Brasco's true identity. After the Bonanno leadership learned the truth, they immediately went after the men who brought Brasco into their midst. Mirra and Napolitano were murdered and a contract was put out on Ruggiero. On August 30, 1981, the FBI intercepted Ruggiero as he was going to a meeting at Marangello's social club and placed Ruggiero under protective custody. FBI agent Louis Vernazzo jumped out of a car carrying a shotgun and said, "FBI, freeze!", and arrested Ruggiero on racketeering and gun charges. It's believed that Ruggiero would have been murdered had he attended the meeting.
After the FBI put Ruggiero in protective custody, they tried several times to persuade him to become a government witness and join the Witness Protection Program. However, Ruggiero refused to cooperate with the FBI and even tried to bail himself out of jail. The Mafia in turn canceled the contract on his life and gave him a "pass". In 1982, Ruggiero was charged with violations of the RICO act in both New York and Florida. The specific charges included conspiring to murder the three capos in New York, distributing methaqualone in New York, committing extortion, the planning of a bank robbery and the running of illegal gambling operations in Florida.
Ruggiero was convicted in both New York and Florida and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Ruggiero refused to believe that Donnie Brasco was a special agent in the FBI and not his associate. Ruggiero told his lawyer "He'll never go against us." After Pistone testified against him, he later said, "I'll get that motherfucker Donnie if it's the last thing I do." In 1992, sick with lung and testicular cancer, Ruggiero was released from prison after serving 11 years. On November 24, 1994, Benjamin Ruggiero died of lung cancer at the age of 68.
Ruggiero was portrayed by Al Pacino in the 1997 film Donnie Brasco. In the film, it is implied that Lefty was killed by fellow Bonanno members for allowing Pistone to infiltrate the family. However, Dominic "Sonny Black" Napolitano and Anthony Mirra were the ones murdered because of the Brasco operation. In reality, the FBI picked Ruggiero up before the Mob could kill him.
- Pistone, Joseph D.; & Woodley, Richard (1999 ) Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, p. 402, Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-66637-4.
- Pistone, Joseph D.; & Brandt, Charles (2007). Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business, Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-2707-8.
- Crittle, Simon. The Last Godfather: The Rise and Fall of Joey Massino Berkley, (March 7, 2006) ISBN 0-425-20939-3
- DeStefano, Anthony. The Last Godfather: Joey Massino & the Fall of the Bonanno Crime Family. California: Citadel, 2006.
- Raab, Selwyn. The Five Families: The Rise, Decline & Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empire. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005.
- UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. BENJAMIN RUGGIERO
- Justia.com UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. BENJAMIN RUGGIERO
- Time Magazine: "Strife And Death in the Family" by DAVID BRAND