He first goes undercover to infiltrate a theft ring. The operation pays off when the FBI arrests one of the largest and most profitable theft rings in history. Hanging out at known crime spots, such as bars and social clubs, he eventually befriends a bartender and joins a crime gang. The crew are involved in truck hijacking and selling stolen merchandise. Brasco meets Anthony Mirra and the two begin hanging out.
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Published May 22, Updated March 6, For six long years, Joseph Pistone abandoned his personal life and worked his way up the rungs of the Bonanno crime family as Donnie Brasco. Now 78, Pistone is arguably the most influential law enforcement officer in American history, exceeding the likes of Wyatt Earp and Eliot Ness.
Through sheer tenacity, Pistone infiltrated deep inside the New York Mafia over a six-year period and abandoned his personal life in the process, effectively becoming someone else.
His goal was to identify the hierarchy of families within the New York Mafia and his infiltration would also implicate mob families in Florida and Milwaukee. After the FBI pulled Pistone from his deep cover in mid, his evidence led to the imprisonment of over a hundred leading Mafiosi leading to the implosion of the American Mafia. Initially, Pistone planned on spending six months inside the Mafia, but it took more than six months just to be introduced to mobsters.
His next contact was Tony Mirra, who was considerably more important in the Mafia hierarchy. FBI agents could not knowingly participate in any act of violence, so Pistone slowly distanced himself from Mirra. His whole life was consumed by being a wiseguy, by being a member of the Mafia. Ruggiero was a made man in the infamous Bonanno crime family and although low-level, he was well-known.
Pistone followed a simple Mafia pay structure. He kept fifty-percent of his earnings, while Ruggiero took the rest. Ruggiero then split his take with his capo captain Mike Sabella, who finally split his percent with the Bonanno bosses. Pistone often had a job convincing his FBI superiors to give him cash when there was little information to report. So, you know, I had no way of getting rid of a wire. Pistone convinced Ruggiero to form a business arrangement with Frank Balistrieri, the head of the Mob in Milwaukee.
The FBI had another agent undercover using the pseudonym Tony Conte inside the Milwaukee mob who needed some assistance. Both Pistone and Conte convinced Ruggiero to go to Milwaukee to negotiate a deal with Balistrieri in a vending machine venture. Ruggiero was successful and the ploy had effectively brought two crime families together.
However, there was one condition. It was touch and go for 11 days, but she pulled through. Pistone, then traveled to Milwaukee to meet Balistrieri. They both hit it off. But then disaster struck. They tried calling but Balistrieri never returned their calls.
Something had happened. Balistrieri had in fact discovered that Conte was an FBI informant, but did not bother to inform the Bonanno bosses or Ruggiero. With the deal gone south, the Bonanno bosses were looking for someone to blame. This was a big mistake for Pistone, one that potentially carried the penalty of death.
Both Ruggiero and Pistone were summoned for a sit down with Bonanno bosses. Getty ImagesThe body of reputed Mafia leader Carmine Galante is covered by New York police detectives here July 12 at a Brooklyn restaurant after Galante and his associate, identified as Nino Cappolla, were shot to death as they ate lunch. Police officials and witnesses said four men pulled up in a car and opened fire with automatic weapons and shotguns. Over the next few months, both men avoided the Bonanno bosses.
So, the FBI sent Pistone to Florida, where he helped another undercover operation designed to bring down Santo Trafficante, the head of the Florida mob. Ruggiero followed months later. His body was found with his trademark cigar still clenched between his teeth.
Without a leader, the Bonanno family almost fell into anarchy. Lower in the ranks, there was a change in leadership for Ruggiero and Pistone. The FBI had purchased the building months earlier, and it now became the perfect location to engineer a meeting between the Bonanno and Trafficante families.
Now in , Pistone had entered his fourth-year undercover. Along with fellow undercover agent Edgar Robb, they had the club renovated, installing listening devices and cameras behind the walls. The club became the center for loansharking, fencing stolen property, sports betting and a planned Las Vegas gambling night. Black, who was pleased with the business, offered Trafficante part of the operation.
Trafficante accepted. Not only was it a potential cash cow but his men did not have to be involved in the day-to-day running of the operation. They seized thousands in cash and charged Black and undercover agent Robb with resisting arrest.
Black was furious and threatened to kill agent Robb. It took a while but eventually, he calmed down. Kings Court was still bringing in a healthy turnover from loan sharking and bookmaking, so despite the raid, Black told agents Robb and Pistone he would recommend their membership to the Mafia to his superiors.
Now in his sixth year undercover in the Mob, Pistone had already gone deeper into the Mafia than any undercover agent. But his success faced a potentially fatal blow. His first Mafia mentor, Tony Mirra, had just been released from prison. Almost immediately Mirra discovered that Pistone was making a lot of money under Black.
If found guilty he would be killed. Pistone was not allowed to defend himself because he was not yet a full mob member. Instead, Ruggiero defended Pistone.
A series of meetings were convened over a two-month period. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing within the Bonanno family ranks. Black was promoted to underboss, which put him second-in-command only to the Bonanno family boss, Rusty Restelli. At the same time, three rebel capos planned to kill Restelli and Black to take over the Bonanno family.
However, Black got in first. In April , all three rival capos were gunned down and the civil war was quickly over. Thanks to Ruggiero, Pistone was exonerated and Mirra was sent packing. Over the last few weeks, Pistone gathered all the final pieces of information on the Mafia he could from Ruggiero and Black. He had spent the last few days with Black and Ruggiero and it was the last time he saw them.
From Florida, he flew to Milwaukee where he testified against Milwaukee crime boss, Balistrieri, and his two sons. Black was initially in denial. Getty ImagesJoseph Pistone after the undercover investigation. The Bonannos blamed Black and Ruggiero for letting an informant into their ranks.
In September , Black disappeared after being called to a sitdown with mob bosses. Ruggiero was also called, but on his way, the Feds picked him up and he was taken into protective custody. Pistone had hundreds of hours of wiretap recordings. His testimony helped a federal grand jury return a seventeen-count indictment against Ruggiero, Black, and other members of the American Mafia.
Thanks to his conversations with Ruggiero and Black, Pistone gathered enough names to put top Mafiosi behind bars. In , Ruggiero was released 11 years into his prison sentence due to illness.
On Nov. Pistone would later write a book titled Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia about his exploits, which was then turned into the film Donnie Brasco that starred Johnny Depp as the undercover agent. Today, despite traveling in disguise for his own protection, Joseph Pistone has continued to write books while also consulting for law enforcement agencies.
Then learn about the executions, informants, and flamboyance of the American Mafia in the s.