FBI Agent "Donnie Brasco" Recalls Life in the Mafia

Stefan Lovgren
National Geographic News
for National Geographic Channel
June 10, 2005
On TV: Don't miss HREF="">Inside the
premiering on the National Geographic Channel (U.S.),
Monday, June 13, 9 p.m. ET/PT.

It's been three decades since he infiltrated the Mafia as jewel thief Donnie Brasco and helped put more than a hundred leading Mafiosi behind bars. But Joe Pistone still travels under an assumed name and with a mob contract hanging over his head.

"It's not the wiseguys I'm most worried about," the former FBI agent said, seated next to an empty swimming pool at a Studio City, California, inn. "They respect me. They know I just did my job. I never entrapped anyone, never got them to do something they wouldn't have done anyway."

"But," he said, explaining the need for an alias, "there's always the chance of running into someone who thinks he's a cowboy, you know, someone who doesn't like what you did."

What Pistone did, for six years in the 1970s, made him perhaps the most famous undercover agent in FBI history. After erasing his true identity as a family man, he infiltrated one of New York's five organized crime families, the Bonnano family, as a street burglar called "Donnie the Jeweler."

He found himself inside the Mafia at a time of both unprecedented prosperity and great upheaval, as U.S. and Sicilian mobsters clashed over the burgeoning drug trade.

Pistone never rose above the lower ranks of the Mafia organization. But he caused it serious damage. When he retired from undercover work, in 1981, he had collected enough names to dispatch 120 Mafiosi to prison for life. His story, not surprisingly, was turned into a Hollywood movie, Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp as Brasco/Pistone. Pistone himself tells his story in Inside the Mafia, a special series that starts Monday, June 13, on the National Geographic Channel in the U.S.

Going Straight

Pistone likes to think of himself as a low-key guy. He shows up for an interview on a cloudy Monday morning wearing a baseball cap and shades.

Now in his sixties, he has lost none of his tough-guy exterior. It's not hard to see how Pistone, who grew up in working-class Paterson, New Jersey, was able to blend into the wiseguy world so easily. He still peppers his language with wiseguy speak—people aren't killed, they're "whacked."

"These are the guys I knew from the neighborhood," he said. "Everyone knew they were involved. They had money and expensive cars. What you didn't see was all the devious stuff that went on—the struggle for power, whacking guys."

His parents kept him on the straight and narrow. "Mom was religious," he said. "Dad ran a bar, but he wasn't a crook." Pistone always knew he wanted to get into law enforcement.

In 1969 he became an undercover FBI agent. He later volunteered to infiltrate the Bonnano family. His mission: to learn who was who in the hierarchy.

"What attracted me was the operation, the challenge," he said. "Working undercover means you have to be good. That was important to me. I wanted to be the best I could be."

The Way of the Wiseguy

Pistone took the name Donnie Brasco and created a "legend" (back history) for himself as a jewel thief. The legend had to be nonviolent, so he could avoid being asked to hurt people. "If you say you're a collection guy for loans, you're expected to smack people around," he said.

As a jewel thief, Pistone had to know the street values of all precious gems. He had to know how to pick locks and dismantle alarms. After taking courses and spending time with real-life jewelers, Pistone never doubted his skills.

Pistone was (and remains) married with three kids. As the six-month assignment kept being extended, meetings with his family became increasingly infrequent.

Carefully cultivating the wiseguys, he earned the trust of his bosses, Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero and Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano. Pistone quickly adopted the ways and mannerisms of the mobsters, always taking mental notes on their actions and words while making sure to keep his cover.

"You have to know how things go down on the street," Pistone said. "You've got to know when to talk and when to keep your mouth shut. No one will tell you what to do. You have to have the mental toughness to handle it on your own."


Pistone entered the world of organized crime at a time of friction. Solidified in the mid-19th century as a loose confederation of Sicilian outlaw clans, the Mafia had become a highly organized global empire.

In the 1970s a "new Mafia" emerged after a historic deal between U.S. and Italian mob families was struck to control the international heroin trade. But as scores of Sicilian mobsters started coming over to the United States, they soon clashed with their U.S. counterparts.

"There was a lot of tension. Who's the true breed? The guys I'm with are bitching and moaning about the Sicilians," Pistone said.

Accusations fueled by envy and greed were routinely tossed around. One day they hit Pistone. A volatile Bonnano soldier named Tony Mirra accused him of stealing U.S. $250,000 from the crime family. If the accusation was proved to be true, the penalty was clear: death.

"Tony Mirra was a mean son of a bitch, but he got to the captain," Pistone said. "We had to have three sit-downs with the accuser and the accused and their representatives."

Pistone was judged innocent.

He got into more trouble when the Mob wanted to make him a "made" man. It means you're a full member of the family. It also means you have to kill someone. Again, Pistone got lucky when the guy he was asked to whack vanished.

In 1981, during increasing internal Bonnano power struggles that led to three murders, the FBI decided that Pistone was in too much danger and pulled him out after six years as Donnie Brasco.

Pistone's court testimonies against men who had trusted him helped unravel an elaborate drug distribution network that operated out of pizzerias and other shops in the New York area.

As thanks, Pistone received a $500 check from the FBI.

"As an undercover agent, you don't expect anything," said Pistone, who turned to a career as a film and television producer and consultant after his retirement from the bureau. "You just do your job."

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