An FBI surveillance photo shows agent Joe Pistone working undercover as "Donnie Brasco" sometime during the operation, which lasted from 1975 until July 27, 1981. Photo courtesy FBI
July 27 (UPI) -- Forty years ago, one of the FBI's greatest success stories against organized crime in the United States came to an official end after six years -- Operation Donnie Brasco, a saga led by a brazen undercover agent who later would be portrayed by Johnny Depp in a hit motion picture.
Organized crime was rampant in New York City during the 1970s, and despite decades of efforts, law enforcement never got close to touching the city's top crime families. Then, about midway through the decade, enter FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone.
An agent at the bureau for seven years by then, Pistone began the dangerous undercover operation in 1975 when he volunteered to try to infiltrate the mob by posing as a wiseguy. He eventually penetrated deeper inside the Bonanno crime family than anyone in Washington, D.C., ever expected.
After six years spent collecting a mountain of evidence for the feds, Pistone finally "came in" after a years-long, high-stakes undercover operation posing as a criminal associate of the New York Mafia. His pseudonym -- "Donnie Brasco."
On July 27, 1981, the FBI terminated the operation and Pistone finally returned to his "real" family after years of total immersion as a faux jewel thief and mob crony. That particular date marked the beginning of the end of the American Mafia's aura of invincibility and served as the linchpin for a series of prosecutions that led to its earnest downfall.
In fact, the Donnie Brasco episode marked the first time that an undercover law enforcement agent ever had fully infiltrated the American Mafia -- and he did so not only in New York, but in Florida, Michigan and elsewhere.
According to the bureau, the FBI learned firsthand through Pistone who the big players were, what kinds of rackets they were running and how they were ruled by a national high council, called "the commission." It ultimately led to more than 100 federal convictions through the commission and "Pizza Connection" cases.
After his removal in 1981, the Mafia was informed of the double cross and they promptly put out a $500,000 contract on Pistone's head -- which he believes is still active.
Even today, 40 years later, the former agent cannot reveal the personal details of his life because of the dangerous nature of the operation. He's written books about the adventure, produced movies and television shows and worked for the State Department, where he advised foreign allies on how to fight organized crime.
"What we did is ... we proved that they could be penetrated," Pistone, now 81, told UPI in an interview from an unspecified location due to the sensitive nature of the saga. "We proved that they weren't invincible.
"Also what it brought out is all the intelligence. More than the criminal evidence that I gathered, there was all the intelligence against the Mafia, showing the leadership in the families, family members, how they interacted with each other. Information from the initial Donnie Brasco case was provided in every affidavit in every major mob case afterward."
Most Americans probably know about Pistone through the 1997 film Donnie Brasco, in which he's portrayed by Depp. Now considered one of the classic American Mob movies of the last 50 years, the film frequently is listed among the ranks of cinematic crime classics such as Goodfellas and The Godfather, thanks in part to one of Depp's career-defining performances.
But it was also the source material -- Pistone's autobiography Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, which quickly became a bestseller in 1988 -- that helped make the film so memorable. The audacity of Pistone's accomplishment of infiltrating the Mafia, his skill in relating his story and the far-reaching consequences of his work have made the saga of Donnie Brasco fascinating in a way that entirely fictional accounts cannot.
Pistone, who was 32 at the start of the operation in 1975, with a wife and two young daughters, already had carried out a major undercover sting with success before he was tapped for what turned into a six-year assignment.
Truly a one-man operation, he was to pose as a Miami-based thief who specialized in jewelry and watches and was looking to fence his merchandise through the New York mob. And the entire time, he had to live completely away from his wife and girls.
Although the case essentially helped bring down the five major New York Mafia families and ended an infamous era of impunity for the mob, the goals of the sting initially were anything but lofty.
"The initial focus was hijacking, which was very prevalent," Pistone recalls. "When I say hijacking, I'm talking about hijacking high-value loads, tractor-trailers filled with pharmaceuticals, coffee, high-priced food items like, say, lobsters.
"All these hijackings were controlled by the Mafia. You couldn't do anything in New York City back in those days without getting the approval of the mob."
The idea, Pistone says, was to go after the crime family's fences rather than the "made men" themselves, who were considered to be virtually untouchable.
An FBI surveillance photograph shows Joseph D. Pistone (L), as "Donnie Brasco," with mobster Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero and FBI agent Edgar Robb (R) as "Tony Rossi." Photo courtesy FBI
"Look, nobody ever envisioned anyone ever being able to infiltrate a Mafia family other than as an informant, turning somebody within their own confines," he said. "So the premise was, 'Well, let's go after the fences and try to find out where the loads were going, or when they were going to get hijacked.'"
"It just so happened that I was lucky enough to bypass the fences, and hooked up with the actual mobsters."
In fact, Pistone was so good at earning the trust of higher-ups in the feared Bonanno family -- namely Anthony Mirra, Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero and Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano -- that he eventually earned consideration for promotion as a "made man" himself.
In the mob, being "made" is reserved strictly for the most trusted members of the family, and they must have Sicilian blood lineage.
The key to his success, Pistone says, wasn't so much his acting ability as it was the lack of a need for him to act at all.
"I grew up in Paterson, N.J., which is just a blue-collar, working town, and I grew up in an all-Italian neighborhood," he said. "I knew mob guys growing up, so this wasn't foreign to me -- what I mean by that is there were social clubs in the neighborhood, I knew mob guys.
"So, I wasn't enamored of them or in awe of them. I didn't have to put on a persona. I just really had to stay who I was."
Other factors in Pistone's success, he says, were minding his own business, not getting involved in conversations that didn't concern him and choosing "jewel thief" and "burglar" as Donnie Brasco's "profession."
"It all comes back to making money. As a jewel thief, I could bring precious gems, diamonds, watches and stuff like that around."
Several years of operating on the far outer edge of the law created some incredibly dangerous moments for Pistone.
Once, when he was with Black at the airport in Miami -- still undercover as Brasco -- a federal prosecutor who'd known Pistone from a previous case just about blew his cover. Pistone had to think quickly to avoid being exposed, so he pretended like he didn't know the prosecutor and shoved him to the ground.
The FBI decided to finally end Operation Donnie Brasco in mid-1981 after mob bosses ordered Pistone to kill a rival. It was the bureau's final cue to pull him out. But by then, he'd already gathered enough intel to blow up the Mafia, figuratively speaking. Prosecutions began in 1982.
"It resulted in so much valuable intelligence," he says. "In the commission case, we convicted all the leaders, so that was a big blow.
"Don't forget the family in Milwaukee we took down, and we brought down the Trafficantes in Florida. We showed how Chicago was involved. ... We showed how families across the country were all involved in this criminal enterprise known as the American Mafia."
But if you think Pistone was happy to see the FBI when they terminated the operation, think again. He wanted to stay undercover.
"Think of the blow it would have been, that they inducted a FBI undercover agent [into the Mafia]," he says.
Pistone resigned from the FBI in 1986, but returned in 1992 and spent four more years as an agent. He also continued to testify against the mob when called upon.
Nowadays, Pistone says he's still busy writing and producing. He's got a new true-crime podcast series hosted by actor Leo Rossi called Deep Cover: The Real Donnie Brasco, in which he talks about everything related to the case.
Even though four decades have passed since he took the mob to task, one might wonder, is it still dangerous to be the real "Donnie Brasco?"
"Yeah, it is. For instance, where I reside, my neighbors don't know who I am," he says. "I reside under another name. Nobody knows who my family are. Because since , we have relocated about five or six times."
As for that mob contract on his head, Pistone told UPI in 1988, "they have long memories."
"You can't lead your life thinking every day that somebody is going to whack you," he said then. "I take precautions, a lot of precautions. The way I travel, the way I meet people, the places I go. I just don't waltz around ... but I don't constantly worry about it."
With feet so firmly planted in both the law enforcement and entertainment worlds, there may be no better authority on the subject of mob films than Pistone. When asked to confirm his personal favorites, he says there's Francis Ford Coppola's exalted Godfather -- and then there's everything else.
"The first Godfather was like an opera -- every scene was like an opera," he says. "Whereas Donnie Brasco, Goodfellas, The Bronx Tale, Casino -- those movies are the mob as it really is. They're basically accurate."
And Pistone's theory on why he succeeded in making Operation Donnie Brasco one of the FBI's most enduring masterpieces?
"It's all about mental toughness, that's what it comes down to," he says. "You've got to have a mental toughness that a lot of people don't have.
"If you don't have that, you're not going to make it."