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Joe Pistone – “Money is Everything”

Joe Pistone was the FBI agent who infiltrated the Mafia as Donnie Brasco during the 1970s. After all this years the mob is still after him. He opens up during a secret meeting in Las Vegas.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Charly Kurz (fotos)

joe_pistoneThe number is blocked, only the word “unknown” appears on the display. The conversation is brief, the demand to the point. “Be in Las Vegas in two weeks”, asks Joe Pistone. “I will call you at 6 pm.” Then he hangs up. Pistone, 67, is still in hiding. Some three decades ago he infiltrated one of New York’s five organized crimes families, the Bonanno family, as a street burglar called “Donnie Brasco the Jeweler”. For six years Pistone was living with gangsters and killers. His covert operation made him perhaps the most famous agent in FBI history. When he retired from undercover work, he had collected enough names to dispatch 200 Mafiosi to prison. His story was turned into a Hollywood movie, “Donnie Brasco”, starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Now he has published a new book “Donnie Brasco – Unfinished Business” in which he can discuss his work after many documents have been declassified.

Two weeks later in Las Vegas. Everything is ready for the interview at Bally’s Hotel and Casino. The photographer has set up the lights. Then, at 4 pm, the phone rings. “Unknown” says the display. It’s Pistone. He came. “Are you in Vegas?” “Yeah, when can I expect you at Bally’s?” “Never”, Pistone answers. “Be at the South Point Casino in an hour.” He hangs up. The South Point? Bally’s concierge has no idea where that could be. “It’s a hotel twenty miles south from here, in the middle of the desert”, a cab driver finally says. We arrive shortly before five. Right on time, Pistone shows up. He’s a tall bald guy who never takes off his sunglasses. He takes us to the open-air swimming pool where a couple of strong guys are hanging around. He waves to them. “They are my friends”, Pistone says. They are his bodyguards. A couple of children play in the water. The interview takes place here, under an open sky, in the middle of lots people, a place where Pistone feels secure.

Mr. Pistone, under which name did you check into this hotel?
Joe Pistone:
I’m not actually staying in this hotel. But when I check into hotels, I check in under different names, never under Pistone. If I told you I’d blow my cover.

You’ve infiltrated the Mafia years ago. Why do you still use a disguise?
Pistone: The Mafia has a $500,000 contract out on my life. It was never rescinded. There might also be some cowboy that recognizes me. He sees me and thinks, “hey, if I take out Joe Pistone, Donnie Brasco, that’s gonna make me a reputation.”

When you called to schedule this interview you left a message saying, “this is Donnie Brasco.” Do you have problems knowing who you are?
Pistone: No, I don’t. Donnie Brasco is a more recognizable name than Joe Pistone. I know that you click right away to Donnie Brasco before you click to Joe Pistone. But I know that I am Joe Pistone.

joe_pistone_peter_hossliDonnie Brasco was the name you used to infiltrate the Mob, the Italian Mafia. How did you choose it?
Pistone: Donnie Brasco – I liked the way it sounded.

We’re meeting in Las Vegas. The city is famous for being controlled by the Mob. What’s the influence of the Mafia in Vegas today?
Pistone: They don’t have any control any more of the actual gaming. But they have their fingers in the supplies. They may be involved in supplying soap. You realize how much soap one casino uses? So, they get in that way. They may be doing the laundry. Can you imagine how much laundry’s in one casino? The cutlery. The china.

No other agent has infiltrated the Mob deeper than you have. You got about 200 criminals convicted. Why were you able to go so deep?
Pistone: I had the ability to maintain a good sense of balance. You have to have this mental toughness. It enabled me to stay focused on what I’m doing, to not give up.

Why were you originally chosen?
Pistone: I had just come off a year and a half undercover. I hadn’t messed up. I’m Italian. I know the Mafia. I grew up in an old Italian neighborhood that was Mafia-dominated. I knew these guys.

So you never learned how to be a Mobster?
Pistone: You either have it, or you don’t. I knew how to act, I knew how to talk, and I knew how to walk. But I always knew that I was doing a job, and that I was good at it.

Growing up, the Mobsters must have fascinated you. But instead of joining them you became a cop. Why?
Pistone: In those neighborhoods, you either go the Mafia way, or you stay straight. My parents made sure that I knew that being a gangster was not the way to go.

And why has the Mafia fallen for you?
Pistone: Because I was myself. I didn’t pretend to be somebody that I wasn’t. I didn’t pretend to be a Mob-type guy. And I had a lot of patience. I had the ability to cultivate these guys, to make them believe that I was Donnie the jewel thief.

How does one cultivate Mafia guys?
Pistone: By knowing their language. By knowing your own character. By knowing how they run their organization. By knowing what makes `em tick.

Still, you were a cop. How did you erase suspicion?
Pistone: I knew my legend. I was a jewel thief. I knew jewelry. I knew precious gems. I knew alarm systems. I knew how to get in buildings. I knew how to get into safes. And I had an ability to earn them money.

You don’t just walk into a Mafia bar and say, “Hi there, I’m joining you.” How did you work yourself in?
Pistone: A lot of patience. You have to know who your target is and how they operate. Then I just hung around different restaurants and bars, first in Little Italy, on Mulberry Street, in different places in Manhattan. Then in Brooklyn, where these guys hung around. I got my face seen. And eventually somebody started to talk to me.

And you offered them diamonds?
Pistone: It’s a much slower process. It’s a process where they think they’re cultivating you, but you’re cultivating them. I had to break their barriers step by step. After eight months cultivating this one guy, one night I just brought out some diamonds. I told him, “look, I got these diamonds. I need x-amount of money for `em. Do you think you can sell `em?”

Were the diamonds for real?
Pistone: Sure they were. They were confiscated diamonds from the government.

If they had discovered you, they would have killed you immediately. How do you deal with that constant fear?
Pistone: Faith helps. Look, everybody got to die sometime. If that’s gonna be the time, that’s gonna be the time. You just have to put trust in your faith, that it’s not gonna happen at that time. It seems complicated, but it really isn’t. To stay alive is what I do best.

What was the scariest moment of six years undercover?
Pistone: Once I was in the back room and a guy told me, “If you don’t convince us that you’re really a jewel thief we’re gonna take you outta here rolled up in a rug”.

And how did you convince them?
Pistone: It’s all communication. I had to be able to talk myself out of it, without sweating, not show any anxiety, any nervousness. If you don’t have that ability you’re toast. On another occasion a guy made allegations that I stole $250,000 in drug money from the family. They had sit-downs over that, meetings to determine if I really did that. If you win a sit-down, then they congratulate you. If you lose it, they just come out, and they take you for a ride.

What did you do during the sit-down?
Pistone: I just hang around waiting for it to be over. That’s all. Not that much you can do.

Others would run away.
Pistone: I was never going to run away. I never lose control. I maintain and keep my stress down by being myself. I never took a drug in my life. I’m not a big drinker.

You kept an apartment in Manhattan. Every once in a while you went back to New Jersey to see your family, a wife and three girls. How easy was it to become Joe Pistone again?
Pistone: I only saw my family every five or six months, for one or two days. So I didn’t really have to go back. And because I never changed who I was, I had no problems. Undercover agents get into trouble when they change their personality.

How did the relationship to your family change?
Pistone: My status as the head of the family diminished after being away for months. They were handling everything without me. Even though I came home and thought I’m still the head of the family, I wasn’t. I had to accept it because I had no control over it. I was leaving the next day.

How can you not see your kids and your wife for months?
Pistone: I was convinced to do something for a better society, for a better country, so I knew that my kids would eventually benefit by I was doing. It was the only way to look at it. If you do it because you want to be a big star, then everything’s going to fall apart.

Are you still married?
Pistone: Yes.

How could you keep your wife?
Pistone: I don’t know.[laughs] One of the reasons she stayed is that I wasn’t running away from her while I was undercover. We had this bond and it didn’t break while I was away. She knew that I believed in what I was doing.

Your children must have been angry.
Pistone: They were still small, but they were angry because I was never home.

How do you protect them?
Pistone: We moved the family several times, changed their names. I still keep them out of any public appearances. Right after the trial, I moved them five different times to put space between the last place that some people might know about.

How did you change over the period of six years?
Pistone: I didn’t change my persona, I changed wardrobe. I had to start wearing slacks, dress nice, wear sports coats. I had to dress the part I was portraying.

Your cover was being a jewel thief. Why did you not choose to be a drug dealer or a car thief?
Pistone: I had to take a profession that I could operate alone. Most jewel thieves operate alone. I picked a profession that was not too violent. I couldn’t be out there committing violent crimes. If you say you’re a car thief, then you gotta be stealing a car every day, every night. But a jewel thief can do one score a month and make a lot of money doing it.

For the Mafia, earning money is pretty much everything…
Pistone: …why else are you there? Money is everything. According to them, I was a pretty good earner. I had that ability to bring around diamonds and precious gems. And if they needed something done, if they needed to get into a place, I had the ability to get in the locks, to get in the doors to bypass alarms.

Did you earn money by just bringing in diamonds from the government? Or did you actually commit crimes to earn money?
Pistone: Let me say this. There are certain crimes you can commit, and if you’re not committing crimes – you know, they don’t need you.

How far reaching was your immunity?
Pistone: I couldn’t commit crimes of violence. I couldn’t use a gun shooting somebody, or beating somebody. But there are certain crimes I could commit, like burglaries that are not violent. I couldn’t get involved in setting up crimes. The bad guys have to set the crimes up.

It must feel exciting to commit crimes.
Pistone: There’s no excitement. It’s not in my nature, as a police officer, to commit these crimes. But if it’s the only way that I can get evidence to put these people in jail, then there are certain things I carry through.

The criminals probably made much more money doing those crimes than what you made as a government employee…
Pistone: … I was never tempted to go the other way. Never.

Others undercover agents have gone the other way.
Pistone: Sure. If you don’t have that ability to stay focused and stay with that commitment, then chances are you might slip.

How much of a violent organization is the Mafia?
Pistone: Well, they kill each other.

You were not allowed to do that. How did you avoid it?
Pistone: That’s a tough thing. I was given contracts to kill people. Fortunately, the guys I was given the contracts to kill knew they were gonna get killed, so they were, as we say here in the States, on the lam. In other words, they were in hiding.

Have you ever killed anyone on the job?
Pistone: No. No.

What did you do when you found the guy you were supposed to kill?
Pistone: The FBI’s did grab him off the street, and put him in hiding. They made it look like I killed him.

Back then you did not have cell phones or e-mail. How did you notify the FBI to grab him?
Pistone: Pay phones. Everything was done through pay phones. Cuz back then, you know, pay phones were all over the place. I always had change in my pockets.

And they could act within minutes?
Pistone: Not minutes, more like a couple hours. I had no surveillance. So, I would have to call somebody. Tell `em what was going down. And then hopefully they got there before it happened.

Why did you forgo surveillance?
Pistone: It’s always gonna get made. The bad guys ask, “well, why they’re surveilling us? Who’s bringing this surveillance around?” Plus, surveillance is never gonna save your life anyway. The only person that’s gonna save your life in an undercover situation is you.

How did you store all your information?
Pistone: Most of my information was categorized in my head. I was able to determine what was important, what wasn’t. And anything that was important, I would just call somebody and just regurgitate over the phone.

You observed killings. Did you ever try to help somebody?
Pistone: Whom does the Mafia kill? Whom do they hurt? They kill their own. They don’t kill citizens.

You didn’t feel sorry for them?
Pistone: They put themselves in that position. I didn’t.

You almost became a made man, a true member of the Mafia. But then the FBI took you in. Did you want to become one?
Pistone: Of course. Look, I spent six years undercover. I was only a couple of months away. Just think of the embarrassment of the Mafia when they found out they made an FBI agent into their ranks. To me, it was ridiculous to stop the operation three months before I was getting made.

You wanted to get made to humiliate them?
Pistone: Of course. It’s satisfaction to know that you’ve done a job so well that you were inducted and accepted into a secret organization.

Why was it stopped?
Pistone: There was a war going on within the family, and too many people getting killed. I was due to get killed, too.

What else could you have achieved had you been a made man?
Pistone: It would have given me the ability to sit in with made guys from other families. Get involved with guys with other made families, without someone from the Bonanno family. I could have said to my boss, Sonny Black, “Hey, you know, I’m gonna do business with so-and-so.” It woulda been okay. If you’re not a made guy, it’s a little harder to do business with somebody from another family.

You were in there for six years. Did you make friends?
Pistone: You can’t be in an operation, know people, see them seven days a week, 365 days a year, and not have some kind of friendship with them. But you have to know what that friendship is. It is strictly because of the environment you’re in. If you weren’t working undercover, and you weren’t in their environment, you wouldn’t be friends with them. And then I had to remember that I was dealing with gangsters and murderers who kill their own. They kill their best friends.

You were the best man at Benjamin Lefty Ruggiero wedding, the mobster that was played by Al Pacino in the movie “Donnie Brasco”. How did you react when you asked you to?
Pistone: It showed met that I had his confidence. I knew I was on the right track.

Next to Lefty, you become close to Sonny Black Napolitano. Soon after you lifted your cover, Lefty went to jail. Napolitano got killed because he vouched for you. Did you feel any remorse?
Pistone: I was not in there to get anybody killed. I was in there to gather evidence to put `em in jail. However they chose that life. I didn’t choose the life of a gangster. As a gangster you’re either gonna go to jail, or you’re gonna get killed.

How did they react when they discovered that you were not their friend but a cop?
Pistone: After the operation was over with, Lefty expressed total hate while talking to his attorneys. Sonny Black had told his girlfriend, “hey, Donnie was better than I was. Than we all were. He was doing his job.” And he said, “He never made us do anything that we wouldn’t have done anyway. He never made us commit any crime, or do anything that we wouldn’t have done. He just was better than we were.”

There was even some sort of respect?
Pistone: From Sonny? Yeah.

Do you have any respect for them?
Pistone: They did what they believed in. They believed in being gangsters. When they found out that I was an undercover agent they stuck to being gangsters Sonny went out like a man. He coulda ran to the FBI, and became an informant, which he didn’t. He said, you know, “I’ll take my medicine.” Lefty was on his way to get killed. Just in time the FBI grabbed him. He spent 15 years in jail. Never said a word. They only let him out because he was dying of cancer. He could have become an informant and got a lighter sentence but he never did. I respect that.

What you describe is the famous code of silence, something movies and television shows glorify. How close are they to the real Mafia?
Pistone: The real Mafia is not as romantic. Mobsters don’t all quote Aristotle and Socrates. They’re thieves. They’re gangsters. They’re robbers, they’re killers. They hang out in bars and social clubs, but they don’t speak like Shakespeare.

If one breaks the secret, this code of silence, he gets killed, right?
Pistone: If one breaks it, yeah. That’s the death penalty.

How is it done?
Pistone: Generally they’ll take you somewhere. Get you comfortable. And then shoot you. Some guys strangle. They take a piece of piano wire and strangle a guy.

You wrote a book about your experience and describe a lot of low-level mobsters, who don’t seem to make all that much money. How good of a career is it to be a mobster?
Pistone: Gangsters have to steal every day to maintain a lifestyle. But it’s like anything else. Some guys have the ability to be good thieves. And some guys aren’t good thieves. Some guys have the ability to save money. Some guys spend it as fast as they steal it.

Who gets rich, everybody, or just the top-level people?
Pistone: It’s not any different than the average citizen. Some guys make an average salary, but they can manage their money, so they got money. I knew guys that would make $100,000 today, and be broke in two days. Went through $100,000 in two days, on gambling, or whatever. The money is there. How much you earn and how much you save is up to you.

Donnie Brasco got his money from the government. How lavishly did you spend it? Did you spend a lot of money? Did I invite people for drinks?
Pistone: I might buy dinner today. Tomorrow I didn’t buy. I couldn’t just keep spending. When you’re in undercover, you don’t want to be a guy that spends a lot of money. Because number one, they question, where you getting all this money? And number two, then they’re gonna target you as a mark, and they’re gonna keep milking you.

As a mobster you always live with the notion that you can get killed immediately, or you can get arrested. That is not a very pleasant state of affairs. What keeps these people in the Mafia?
Pistone: They just don’t want to have a legitimate job. They don’t want to get up every morning and go to the same job. They want to earn money illegally. And they want the respect they feel they get from being a member of a secret organization.

Why have you written your first book “Donnie Brasco”?
Pistone: I wanted to dispel the myth of the Mafia, I wanted to dispel that these guys were romantic and that they couldn’t be touched. I wanted to show that the FBI can infiltrate them and put away the bosses, not just the low-level people. The public was in love with the Mafia. I showed that they could go to prison like everybody else, and that they are not invincible.

The Mafia is a male organization.
Pistone: It’s not an equal opportunity employer. You’ve got to be Italian, white, male. Women are wives. Do they know that their husbands are Mafia members? Of course they do. Do their kids? Of course they do.

What’s happening if a mobster messes around with another mobster’s wife?
Pistone: He’ll get killed. Unless he’s the boss, and the other mobster’s just a soldier.

Why did you write another book?
Pistone: I had to clean up unfinished business. When I wrote the first book there was a lot of information I couldn’t divulge because we had trials going on. Everything that I was involved in is pretty much now.
How did you realize that you have a story worth telling?

Pistone: When the first trial generated a lot of publicity. For days it was the front-page story on every major newspaper.
You had to testify in public. Everyone saw your face, heard you voice. What kind of protection did you get after the trial?
Pistone: I stayed with the FBI until 1996. This is a pretty save environment. Now I have normally three, four guys with me. Nobody messes with them. As Donnie Brasco I gained the respect of other agents and police officers. Every time I go somewhere they protect me. Whenever I feel I need somebody to bring along, I have people who come along.

Some people say that your work destroyed the Italian Mafia. Has it regrouped?
Pistone: You’re never gonna wipe out organized crime. You always have individuals that don’t want to work. But we neutralized it. Back then the Mafia pretty much dictated the American economy. They had total control of all of the major labor unions. They controlled trucking, they controlled construction, and they controlled the garment industry. They controlled the fish markets. They also had the power to control politicians, to get politicians elected, to control judges, to get judges elected. We took that power away from `em, by putting away the top people in the Mafia, the people that had cultivated these industries.

How have the Mob tactics changed?
Pistone: The old time Mob guys controlled the importation and distribution of drugs. But when they distributed it, they distributed the drugs in bulk. They kept it out of their neighborhoods. Where the guys today, you know, they’ll deal drugs anywhere, even in their own neighborhoods, they don’t care. The old timers were never drug users. You know, fortunately for us, unfortunately for the Mafia, the younger guys are just like regular society. Not only are they involved in drug dealing, but they use it, too.

So, the younger guys have less moral codes.
Pistone: They’re less respectful. They don’t have that traditional feel toward the society as the old-timers did. That sense of tradition, belonging to the Mafia, has weakened.

How has all this changed the work for the new Donnie Brascos?
Pistone: There will never be another Donnie Brasco. ––

[Laughter]
Pistone: You laugh. But it’s true. Guys today work undercover. They do their job. But there’s no more of that long-term commitment where they’re immersed into the Mafia. Most of the guys today have a business set up that they’re dealing with the Mafia. I didn’t have a business. I cultivated these guys. I became basically one of `em, in that – you know, it was a seven day a week job. And I was involved not only in their illegal activities, but in their social life. Nobody has that commitment today. Most undercover guys may go out to dinner with them once here and there. But they don’t live with them 24-7, like I did.

Do you ever go back to Mulberry Street?
Pistone: Oh, once in a while, sure.

Do people still know you there?
Pistone: Yeah. I always walk down with a couple guys. A couple a months a guy came out hollering, “hey, Donnie, what the fuck you doing here?” “Haven’t you caused enough trouble?” So I said, “Obviously not, cuz I didn’t put you in jail.” They remember. They remember.

The FBI gave you cheap medal and 500 dollars – for six years of your life. Was it really worth it?
Pistone: Yes. I did not do this for the money, or for a medal. I did it because it was my job. I believed in what I was doing. The satisfaction is knowing that I did a good job, something that was beneficial to society and my country. It’s that simple, for me.