Joseph D. Pistone
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|Joseph D. Pistone|
FBI surveillance photo of Donnie Brasco
September 17, 1939|
Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Other names||Donnie Brasco, Donald "The Jeweller" Brasco|
|Alma mater||Paterson State College, B.A. 1965|
|Department||Federal Bureau of Investigation|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Other work||Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia|
Joseph Dominick "Joe" Pistone (born September 17, 1939), alias Donnie Brasco, is a former FBI agent who worked undercover for six years infiltrating the Bonanno crime family and to a lesser extent the Colombo crime family, two of the Five Families of the Mafia in New York City. Pistone was an FBI agent for 27 years.
Pistone was a pioneer in deep long-term undercover work. The FBI's former director, J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972, did not want FBI agents to work undercover because of the danger of the agents becoming corrupted. But Pistone's work later helped convince the FBI that using undercover agents in lieu of relying exclusively on informants was a crucial tool in law enforcement.
Early life and career
Pistone was born in 1939 in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is of Sicilian heritage, and grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended Paterson State College (now William Paterson University), obtaining a degree in anthropology. He worked for a year as a teacher at Paterson School No. 10 before he began working for the Office of Naval Intelligence before joining the FBI in 1969 and serving in various positions from 1969 to 1974. In 1974 he was transferred to New York to work in the truck hijacking unit. Because of his ability to drive 18-wheeler trucks and bulldozers, he was eventually given undercover work infiltrating a vehicle theft ring, an assignment that resulted in over 30 arrests and a greater profile for Pistone within law enforcement.
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Pistone joined the FBI in 1969 as an undercover agent. In September 1976 he volunteered to infiltrate the Bonnano crime family, a job for which his fluency in Italian and the knowledge of mafia idiosyncrasies gleaned from his Paterson background were well-suited. For this assignment the false identity of Donnie Brasco was created. Pistone would spend six years as a low-level jewel thief informing on the goings on inside the mob during some of the most volatile power struggles in organized crime.
Pistone was selected to be an undercover agent because he was of Sicilian heritage, fluent in Italian and acquainted with the mob from growing up in New Jersey. He also said that he did not perspire under pressure and was aware of the Mafia's codes of conduct and system. The operation was given the code name "Sun-Apple" after the locations of its two simultaneous operations: Miami ("Sunny Miami") and New York City ("The Big Apple"). After extensive preparation including FBI gemology classes and again using the alias Donnie Brasco, he went undercover as a jewel thief.
In September 1976, Pistone walked out of the FBI office and did not return for the next six years. The FBI erased Pistone's history. Officially, he never existed; and anyone who called asking for him would be told that no one by that name was employed there. His co-workers, friends, and informants had no idea what had happened to him. Pistone stated that it was not the original aim to penetrate the Mafia; rather, the focus was to be on a group of people fencing stolen property from the large number of truck hijackings taking place each day in New York (five to six a day). It was intended that the undercover operation last for around six months.
At the same time that Pistone was investigating the Bonanno crime family, Bob Delaney of the New Jersey State Police, under the assumed names of "Bobby Covert" and "Bobby Smash", began investigating the New Jersey organized crime scene. During the investigation, he maintained an open association with the crime families who would alleviate their business pressures from the unions for a price. The two met through Colombo crime family caporegime Nicholas Forlano, although at the time neither man knew that the other was working undercover.
Pistone became an associate in Jilly Greca's crew from the Colombo family. Greca's crew was involved mostly in hijacking trucks and selling the stolen merchandise. Because only a few people knew Pistone's real identity, FBI and NYPD investigations had Pistone down as an actual Mafia associate called Don Brasco. He later moved to the Bonanno family and subsequently developed a close relationship with Anthony Mirra and Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, and was tutored in the ways of the Mafia by Bonanno soldier Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero. It was by doing this that Ruggiero inadvertently provided much evidence to Pistone, as Mafia members will not normally talk to non-members about the inner workings of the Mafia. Ruggiero became very close friends with Pistone and told him that he would "die with [him]". According to Pistone during an interview with Patrick Bet-David, he reported to Mike "Mimi" Sabella, who was a Bonanno captain operating in Little Italy, New York. However after the 1979 murder of boss Carmine Galante, he reported to Brooklyn-based captain "Sonny Black" Napolitano.
Pistone was responsible for a lucrative business venture in Holiday, Florida, when he opened and operated the King's Court Bottle Club. In Florida, Pistone worked with another FBI agent working undercover as Tony Rossi. Pistone stated that he would have become a made member of the Bonanno family if he had murdered capo Philip Giaccone. The hit was called off, but Pistone was later contracted to murder Alphonse "Sonny Red" Indelicato's son, Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato, who previously evaded a meeting which left "Sonny Red" Indelicato, Giaccone, and Dominick Trinchera dead.
After Pistone had spent six years undercover, he was ordered to end his operation. He wanted to continue at least until he became a made man; he believed Napolitano would lie about his "making his bones" (participating in a Mafia-ordered hit) to prove his loyalty, and felt the FBI would never again have the opportunity to humiliate the Mafia by revealing that an agent had been inducted into the ranks. However, Pistone's superiors decided that the operation was becoming too dangerous and set an end date of July 26, 1981. Only after Pistone departed did FBI agents Doug Fencl, Jim Kinne, and Jerry Loar inform Napolitano and Ruggiero that their longtime associate was an FBI agent.
Shortly thereafter, Napolitano was murdered for having allowed an FBI agent to infiltrate the family; he was shot dead and his hands were cut off. Anthony Mirra, who initially brought Pistone to the family, was also killed. Ruggiero was to be killed as well, but was arrested by the FBI while on his way to a meeting in order to prevent his death. Napolitano's girlfriend Judy later contacted Pistone and told him, "Donnie, I always knew that you weren't cut out for that world because you carried yourself different, you had an air of intelligence, you know? I knew that you were much more than just a thief. You were a good friend to Sonny and me. Sonny didn't have any ill feelings toward you." Even after finding out that Pistone was an undercover agent, Napolitano expressed no ill will, even saying, "I really loved that kid."
The Mafia put out a $500,000 contract on Pistone and kicked the Bonanno family off the Commission. FBI agents visited Mafia bosses in New York and advised them not to murder Pistone. The contract was dropped by Paul Castellano who headed the Commission as he thought killing a federal agent would "attract too much attention." The evidence collected by Pistone led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members. Although Pistone's infiltration nearly destroyed the Bonanno family, it later became a blessing in disguise for the family. When the Mafia Commission Trial saw the top leadership of the Five Families sent to prison, the Bonanno family was the only major family whose leadership was not decimated because the family had been kicked off the Commission. By dodging this bullet, the family kept its leadership intact and was able to consolidate its power once again. The boss who led that resurgence, Joseph Massino, was convicted in 2004 of ordering Napolitano to be killed for allowing Pistone into the family.
Pistone still travels disguised, under assumed names, and with a license to carry a firearm. He will not set foot in any location with high Mafia presence. However, in the book Unfinished Business, he said that he went to New York City while working as a consultant on the movie Donnie Brasco and mentions that some people recognized him. Pistone continues to be active as an author and consultant to worldwide law enforcement agencies, including Scotland Yard, and has been called to testify before the United States Senate as an expert on organized crime.
Pistone detailed his undercover experience in his 1988 book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. The book was the basis for the critically acclaimed 1997 film Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp as Pistone and Al Pacino as "Lefty" Ruggiero, and for the short-lived 2000 TV series Falcone, starring Jason Gedrick as Pistone (whose mob alias was changed from "Donnie Brasco" to "Joe Falcone" for legal reasons). Pistone was a consultant on Donnie Brasco to add authenticity to the fictionalized portrayals and settings. His life was used in an episode of FBI: The Untold Stories.
Pistone revisited his experiences as Donnie Brasco in his books The Way of the Wiseguy (2004) and Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business (2007). Pistone wrote a novel titled, The Good Guys, with Joseph Bonanno's son, Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno. He has also written several works of fiction such as Deep Cover, Mobbed Up and Snake Eyes. He has served as an executive producer on movies relating to the Mafia, including the 2006 film 10th & Wolf. In 2008, Italian artist Rossella Biscotti interviewed Pistone in her video The Undercover Man. A play based on Donnie Brasco opened at the Pennsylvania Playhouse.
Pistone is featured in the eighth episode of UK history TV channel Yesterday's documentary series Mafia's Greatest Hits. A Secrets of the Dead episode, "Gangland Graveyard," features Pistone and his infiltration of the Mafia as part of the long-running investigation into the murder of three Mafia captains by Massino.
Pistone featured prominently in the mini-series Inside the American Mob. He features prominently in episode 1 "Stayin' Alive in the '70s" and is the main focus of episode 2, "Operation Donnie Brasco".
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- Pistone, Joseph D.; & Woodley, Richard (1999) Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-66637-4.
- Pistone, Joseph D. (2004). The Way of the Wiseguy, Running Press. ISBN 0-7624-1839-7.
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- Testimony before Senate Sub Committee on Organized Crime, americanmafia.com