Exclusive & Uncensored Interview
A Conversation with the “Don”
By: Julia Torres
Joseph Dominick Pistone, a man raised in the Sandy Hill section of Paterson, who graduated from Eastside High School, developed into Donnie Brasco.
His day-to-day upbringing in La Cosa Nostra’s neighborhood enabled him to become the sole FBI agent who took down the mob, ensuring 234 convictions. Here in this NJ Blue Now exclusive, he discusses the making of an operative, and the life of an undercover mobster.
NJ Blue Now: You went to Paterson State College (now William Paterson University), and studied Elementary Education and Social Studies. Was that your interest during high school?
Joseph Dominick Pistone: No, it was being a cop. I went to Staunton Military Academy on a basketball scholarship. After completing my studies, I enrolled at PSC and played basketball. When I was a senior, I took the test for the Paterson PD and passed. I thought that I could work both, but they told me I couldn’t. So I thought, I’m not gonna blow the last year of college, and that’s when I applied for US Naval Intelligence. While waiting for my appointment, I taught at School 10 for a year. (At Naval), I investigated crimes that were committed by military people or on naval facilities, did intelligence work, espionage. I had worked closely with the FBI and DEA, but at that time it wasn’t DEA. It was Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, so I took the test for both and I really wanted to go into the FBI, but it’s tough getting into the FBI. I guess I was lucky enough. I got the call from the FBI first.
Can you tell more about your experiences and background that paved the way for your undercover work?
Well, yeah, and remember Julie, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. I knew wise guys… I mean, you know the guys. These are guys that you see every day. You know who the wise guys are, it’s no big deal because you don’t see all the behind the scenes. You hang out on the corner, and it wasn’t a big thing. You know what the mafia is, and growing up in an Italian home, you know to keep your mouth shut, when you’re not supposed to be talking. It’s all ears. When I go teach my undercover classes, I have a stick figure of a person with a small mouth and big ears. I say, what does this tell you? That’s a good undercover agent, keep your mouth shut, you got two big ears. We may be getting off the track here, but it might be good. A lot of undercovers, they think they gotta be talking all the time. I remember one time I rode from Tampa, Florida to Miami with Lefty (Benjamin Ruggiero). I guarantee you, I didn’t say ten words. You can do dead time. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was successful. My questions came when they weren’t expected. They weren’t in the form of a question, but it was part of a statement. I used to do that when I wanted to introduce another agent into an operation that the FBI had somewhere else, when I married up the Bonnanos with the Milwaukee family, married up the Bonnanos with Santo Trafficante in Florida. We were just hanging around and I say gee, I got a call from a guy I hadn’t heard from in ten years. He said he’s down in Tampa, Florida. He’s got a nightclub, and that’s it. I wouldn’t say anything more. And then a couple days later, I said, gee, that guy called me again. And then maybe half hour later, Lefty says, who’s this guy that called you? I never had any undercover training back in the bureau, so it was everything I learned growing up in an Italian neighborhood.
Did you create your own back-story or did somebody create it for you?
We created our own. I picked my name. I heard it somewhere. My middle name is Dominick so it was a name that I would answer to, Don, or Donald. With the Donnie Brasco, the mob one, you can’t have a profession of violence, I figured, what’s a non-violent profession? So I went to school to learn about diamonds and precious gems. When I felt that I could talk intelligently, I went out.
It started out as 6 months and ended up 6 years, so it just kept rolling and you had to stay on it?
Yeah. Look, we had a lot of mafia informants, but we had never infiltrated the mob. Once I got close to certain guys, then we just kept going.
For the people that knew you and called the office, they would say, oh, he doesn’t work here. You were pretty much a ghost. I’m assuming you had no contact with anybody.
Just a contact agent. I would meet him like once a month at a public library or museum uptown, ‘cause not many of these guys went to the library or museum, but most of it was by telephone. I would see my wife and kids maybe every seven, eight months, but never make a straight trip. Did it suffer, yeah, when you come back, you’re not the boss anymore. We’ve been living without you for six years, we’re very capable of taking care of ourselves, but there was no animosity or anything. I always had a good relationship with my wife and my kids. It was just, you know, until you prove yourself worthy of taking over the household, you begin. That really didn’t bother me though. That was small thing stuff.
Did it ever cross your mind that maybe you could be double-crossed by your agency if something went wrong?
You know, it never did. I only had surveillance a couple times. You can’t try to surveil in Brooklyn or little Italy, and I didn’t want that chance of surveillance to be made. The couple times I had surveillance was when I knew that Sonny Black was gonna give me a contract. We met at the Motion Lounge, the club. My contact gave me a small transmitter that I’d put in my sport coat jacket. The guys picked up the conversation riding around. I only wore a transmitter a couple other times. The other thing I wore sometimes was a mini cassette recorder. I’d just slide it in my cowboy boot or my sport coat jacket. Other than that, it was 24/7 on my own.
They never searched you, never questioned you?
In the beginning. That’s why I never wore anything in the beginning. With wise guys, every time you come to the club, you hug everybody, you give everybody a kiss on the cheek. The hug was to feel if I had anything. This is summertime, what you’ve got on is a shirt and a pair of pants, so it’s kinda tough to be hiding anything.
None of those guys carry guns?
No, the only time they carry guns is when they do a hit.
Did you ever feel like it got too heated?
When they had the sit down, when you’re accused of stealing money. One of the rules in the mob is that you don’t steal money from the family. If you do and get caught, you get killed, you get whacked. The problems I had with Tony Mirra were when he went to the families and said that I had stolen 250,000 dollars in a truck deal, and Sonny Black, you know, they called a sit down. And if Sonny Black calls a sit down, I know I’m gonna get killed. Fortunately, he went to all three sit downs. You’re waiting there and there’s no way out. If he (Black) loses, it’s all over. He (Mirra) testified at the sit down and said I took the money. They eventually killed him.
Your cover was so tight that the FBI and NYPD had you listed as Don Brasco, a Colombo family mob associate.
Yeah, they had me down as a Bonnano and Colombo associate because nobody else in the FBI knew about the case. Neither did the organized crime bureau.
Did you find that because you were so deep in, lines were blurred between who you were, and who Donnie was?
No, I never did. The reason being is that I never took an undercover case because I wanted to get away from something else. To me, it was just another investigation. So I never had self-doubts about who I was, where I was, or why I was doing it. I didn’t stop doing things that I normally did. I like to go to the movies so I would say to the wise guys, hey I’m going to see a matinee. I always worked out so, I still went to the gym. I still ran. Too many undercovers get the misconception, well, if I tell them I’m going to the movies, there’s something wrong with me. It’s the opposite. If you don’t do anything, there’s something wrong with you.
In the last hit that you were supposed to make, which is why the FBI decided to remove you, you were supposed to have been a made guy soon after that, right?
Right. I was having dinner with Sonny Black at a restaurant called Creesi’s in Brooklyn, not far from the Motion Lounge. He told me that he had proposed me for membership. He went before all the captains, all the captains approved it. But we’re not opening the books until December, he said. So in December, you’re gonna be inducted into the family. But then with the Bonnanos, the capos spoke about retaliation and blow out war, that’s when the FBI decided to terminate the operation on July 27th. They wouldn’t go until December because they were afraid I might get killed in between, because of the war within the Bonnano family and how close I was with Sonny Black, ‘cause you have to remember, at the time when the rest were still in jail, it was Sonny Black and Joey Massino as street bosses. Sonny in Brooklyn, Joey in Queens, and Sal Catalano who was head of the Sicilian capos. All the friction of the family, there’d be more shooting going on. Sonny had already had the okay to get inducted. I was that tight with him that he had vouched for me and said that I had been in on a hit.
Okay, you’re out. Trial time. Did they move you somewhere where nobody will find out?
I went to DC and sat down with everybody, all the prosecutors. I had a case in New York, Milwaukee, Florida. I kept moving from districts talking with the prosecutors, going before grand juries.
At what point do they figure out your real identity?
They don’t get my real identity until the actual courtroom. Once all the court proceedings started, then they realized I was an undercover agent. In the beginning, they didn’t believe it. They thought that the FBI had kidnapped me and was brainwashing me, trying to turn me into an informant.
Did you feel they’d come after you and kill you?
I wasn’t sure, but then after they killed Sonny, when they became convinced that I was an undercover agent, then the commission put that $500,000 contract out on me. Normally, the American mafia doesn’t try to kill a cop. But because I had spent so much time with them, I met wives, kids, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, they felt that I crossed over the line by breaking bread in their houses. That was the reason.
With these deep cover jobs, there are people that are really likable, did you feel that you made good relationships with some of the guys, and you felt guilty after they were arrested?
Well, that’s twofold. I had a good relationship with Sonny Black. I had a decent relationship with Lefty. Lefty was a hard guy to get along with. Lefty was all about Lefty. When they got arrested, I didn’t wanna see Sonny Black get killed, but it wasn’t my fault. They know the consequences for what they do. Sonny Black, Mirra, those guys were mafia guys before I got there. Did I wanna see them get killed? No. Do I lose sleep over it? No, because I was just doing my job. They made the choice of being gangsters. My choice was to be FBI.
Once you’re in DC debriefing everyone, how soon after that did you do another U/C and how can you top it off?
You couldn’t. I did undercover overseas, for Scotland Yard, in different parts of the country, but you can’t top that. I did six years with the mob. I used to live with Sonny Black. How many undercovers could say that they spent overnight with a mob boss? How many could say they had dinner at a mob boss’ house? I mean, I sat down with Santo Trafficante. Every time Sonny introduced me to these people, he introduced me as a made guy. They didn’t have any idea I wasn’t a made guy.
Did you need some time to decompress after the investigation or were you pretty good-to-go?
I took a week off and went fishing. I was pretty good-to-go because I spent so much time meeting with the prosecutors, and grand juries. A lot of the information for the commission case came from our case. We put all the bosses in the can.
You experienced the U/C high. How do you explain it?
You can’t. When you’re doing it, I guess it’s the adrenaline rush, but you also have to know that you’re doing it because it’s a commitment to your job, to yourself. It’s kind of like gee, I just went one on four with gangsters, you get that rush there, but you’re keeping in mind that it is just a job.
When did you officially retire?
I officially retired in ’96, but I stayed on a contract to teach undercover and organized crime classes.
At what point did you write a book?
I never went into this to get a movie and books. Lou DiGiamo, a kid I grew up with became a top casting director. He came to the trials, got in touch with me and said, I think you got a good story here. I said who cares. He said, do you read the papers? Every major paper had a story. Publishers started contacting the FBI and that’s how it went.
Do you feel the movie was pretty well portrayed?
They did a good job. The books are still selling, and the movie is still playing. The book is 100%. The movie’s probably 75-80%. Were there things I didn’t like? Yeah, I never slapped my wife. The director put that in on the day they were supposed to shoot that scene. Did I make a beef? Yeah, but it didn’t do me any good. I never had 300,000 dollars lying in my attic. But, you sign and that’s it.
Any FBI backlash?
No, I didn’t give away any undercover secrets, didn’t tell stories how to school.
Doing U/C work today, how hard do you think it is because of technology?
As far as how you do undercover work, it hasn’t changed. But as far as how to build a legend because of the Internet, yes. Everybody, I don’t care who you are, there’s gotta be something in there with the name you give.
What advice do you have for aspiring undercovers?
My advice is don’t do it because you think it’s a glamour job, to run away from something. Do it because you’re committed to whatever the case is. And don’t fall in love with it. It’s just another form of an investigation.
Do you think anyone who wants to do it, can? Or do you think it’s a select individual group?
No, not everyone can work undercover. You gotta have that extra sense in you. Undercover is not for everybody and everybody can’t do it. It’s something innate. You have it or you don’t have it.
At this stage in your life, are you content with where you are?
Definitely. I’ve got seven books. I’ve got a movie. I’ve got a TV show that was about me. Right now, I’m working on a TV show called Deep Undercover, with Bellum Entertainment. What we’re doing is we’re taking undercover cases and making episodes out of them.
Do you think there’s still someone who is willing to hurt you or kill you?
There’s always a cowboy out there that thinks if I take down Donnie Brasco, it’s gonna make me a hero in the eyes of the mob. There are sons out there, relatives. So, yeah, I still try to operate pretty low key.
Do you think the mob is anywhere how it used to be as far as powerful?
No, not at all. To me, now they’re just another organized crime group. Still involved in everything, but not controlling the people like they did. I think it’s all the hits they took. There are no strong leaders anymore. All these young guys, the minute they put the cuffs on them, they wanna talk. They can’t do the time.
What do you consider your best strength?
Mental toughness and the ability to stay focused on the task at hand. And that’s what it takes to be a good undercover.
Chocolate, any kind. I do a lot of overseas work, and when I come home, my suitcase is filled with chocolate.
Special words you live by?
The Art of War. All the undercover classes I teach, I tell them if you haven’t read The Art of War, start reading.
During Joe’s phenomenal career, he received the U.S. Attorney General’s Award, J. Edgar Hoover Award, and the FBI Medal of Valor. After retirement, aside from his seven published Donnie Brasco books (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble), he produced Wisegal, a Lifetime movie; Falcone, a CBS TV series; and feature Tenth and Wolfe. At present, Joe is a police training consultant, and U/C and O/C instructor for law enforcement agencies both domestic and abroad. He is also the Executive Producer of Deep Undercover, a docuseries filmed by Bellum Entertainment. Knowing Joe, he has many more unique endeavors in the making. Stay tuned.
Julia Torres earned a Master of Science in Homeland Security with a certification in Terrorism Studies from Fairleigh Dickinson University; a Jersey City State College, K-12 Teacher Certification; and a Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers University, where she enlisted in the Army Reserves. Upon graduating Rutgers, she began a career in law enforcement, and later volunteered for the Gulf War. Once home, she worked undercover until retiring in 2001 due to a Gulf War illness. Since then, she has done volunteer work, acted, and written two non-fiction books.