The book “Donnie Brasco” is based on the undercover life of the author, Joseph D. Pistone, an F.B.I agent who penetrated one of New York City’s five families in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Joseph D. Pistone served in the FBI for 28 years, including six years of undercover life in the New York Bonanno crime family, where he operated as a jewel thief under the name Donnie Brasco. Due to his undercover work, more than 200 members of the Mafia were put behind bars.
Joseph D. Pistone was born in Pennsylvania, where he also spent his childhood. Then, he moved to New Jersey. In New Jersey, he graduated from high school and college, where he majored in social studies. Pistone always wanted to be an F. B. I agent, and he decided to join Naval Intelligence in order to gain three years in law enforcement to enter the FBI. After three years in Naval Intelligence, he took exams to join the FBI, and on July 7, 1969, Pistone was sworn in as an FBI agent.
At the beginning of his career in the FBI, Pistone was assigned to do street work. He worked on a lot of prostitution cases. He also worked on robbery cases. In 1974, Pistone was transferred to the Truck and Hijack Squad in New York City. His first long-term undercover assignment that led to his work with the Mafia was in Tampa, Florida. Pistone penetrated a ring of thieves that stole cars. Pistone was introduced to the gang as a car thief under the name Donnie Brasco. Under this name, he infiltrated the Mafia later on. In February 1976, due to Pistone’s good work, the entire ring was put in jail, and millions in stolen property were recovered. Pistone (1989) says, “For my work I got a letter of commendation from Clarence M. Kelley, Director of the FBI, and an award of $250″(p. 36).
The FBI wanted to undertake a long-term undercover operation against the Mafia. The FBI administration chose Pistone to infiltrate the mob because he had conducted many short-term undercover operations, as wellas and the long-term Florida operation that was described previously. He was also picked because he was Italian. Since the members of the mob were Italians, it would make infiltration easier. It was decided that Piston had to create a new identity to penetrate the mob. He decided to retain his previous name, Donnie Brasco. The FBI also created his background. Thus, Donnie Brasco became a jewel thief and burglar. As a jewel thief, Pistone had to obtain appropriate experience. Pistone took gemology courses and worked with experts of a famous jewelry company in New York City. Pistone describes that it was a very secret operation known only a few people. Pistone says that when he left the FBI office in September 1976, he never entered any FBI office for the six years he was undercover. After all these precautions, Pistone was ready to start his undercover work.
When Pistone started his undercover work, he created a list of places where wise guys, or men connected with mafia, were hanging out. Mostly, these places were bars and restaurants located in midtown and lower Manhattan. He did not want to visit mob joints in Little Italy because it would be too obvious that he was undercover. A person could not hang out there without knowing someone.
Pistone cruised these mob joints every day so that people became accustomed to him. Pistone says that the most important that was not to push things too much; he had to do everything gradually. He visited these places to have dinner and to say hello to the bartender without much talking and asking questions because a person who asks many questions looks suspicious, and this kind of person cannot be trusted. Most of the time Pistone listened and watched, until some wiseguys became used to him and even started to greet him. Over a period of time, he hinted to them that he was a jewel thief. He brought them different pieces of jewelry confiscated by the FBI, so that the wiseguys could help him sell them. Later on these connected guys introduced him to “made guys” or full members of the Mafia, men who had participated in a killing for the Mafia. One of these made guys, Albert, introduced Pistone to some active members of the Colombo crime family. One of these Colombo men, Jilly, had his crew in Brooklyn. Jilly and his crew hung out at their store on 15th Avenue and 76th Street in the Bensonhust section, and agent Pistone started to hang out with them.
Jilly’s store was open to the public. All merchandise in the store was cheap because it was stolen. The store had a back room where Jilly’s men hung out. All day they played cards and drank gin, and at the night they went out to rob warehouses, docks, and houses. It was a routine that was repeated each day. Agent Pistone hung out with Jilly’s crew for several months. During this time his credibility grew among Jilly’s men. Pistone became trusted among the mob, and got acquainted with many made guys. In March 1977, Pistone was introduced to the made guy known as Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero. He was a hit man in the Bonnano family. Gradually, Pistone began to hang out more with Lefty than with Jilly’s crew because Lefty held a higher level in Mafia hierarchy and had more connections.
Pistone spent most of his time with Lefty. It was a very fruitful time for Pistone’s undercover work since Lefty taught him the rules and behavior of the mob. Due to Lefty, Pistone was able to organize the liquidation of the Milwaukee crime family. Lefty also introduced Pistone to Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, who was in charge of the Brooklyn Bonnano crew. Using his connection with Sonny Black, Pistone helped the FBI arrange the operation “Cold water” that brought into contact the Bonanno and Trafficante families to share gambling and other illegal activities. It was a successful project which severely damaged the Mafia in New York and Florida. This was the last undercover Pistone’s operation. The FBI already had enough evidence to build up court cases, and agent Pistone was ordered to withdraw from operation. As a result, Donnie Brasco ceased his existence.
In my opinion, Joseph Pistone represents an ideal image of the FBI agent. Due to agents like Pistone, the FBI has established a reputation as one of the best intelligence organizations in the world. In my eyes, Pistone is really heroic because after the end of this undercover work, his personality did not change. There have been many instances when agents could not handle the tremendous pressure and internal tensions while working undercover. They became addicted to drags and alcohol, which they considered as an escape from the constant stress they were subjected to every day. In contrast, Pistone became neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic. He also has remained a faithful husband and good father.
Next, Pistone managed not to be emotionally involved with such mobsters as Lefty and Sonny Black, although, he had very close relations with them. For example, when Sonny Black found out that Pistone was an agent, he said, ” I really loved this kid” (Pistone, 1989, p.400). These words indicate that Sunny Black had some special feelings towards Pistone. Sonny Black and Lefty were really broken up when they learned the real identity of Pistone. These relationships also left their sign on Pistone. He said, “I always liked Sonny. That hasn’t changed with me, either.” This citation indicates that Pistone was not indifferent to Sunny, either. However, he was able to suppress his emotion because he knew that despite of his feelings towards both men he could not jeopardize the whole operation. Moreover, these men were mobsters and they had to be punished.
Despite all internal and external tensions, Pistone was able to end his undercover job and remain a family man and a law-abiding citizen.
Pistone, J. (1989). Donnie Brasco. New York: Signet.