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 Inside the Mafia, 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.

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