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Donnie Brasco was the alias of Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent that infiltrated the Bonanno crime family.

Name: Joseph Pistone

A.K.A.:  Donnie Brasco

For six years, FBI agent Joseph Pistone lived a double life undercover as jewel thief, Donnie Brasco

It’s been well over 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, “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 organised crime families, the Bonnano family, as a street burglar called “Donnie the Jeweller.”

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 organisation. But he caused it serious damage. When he retired from undercover work, in 1981, he had collected enough names to dispatch hundreds of Mafiosi to prison for life.

Decades earlier, Pistone’s day-to-day life had no place in the spotlight. He started out as a schoolteacher in the late ’60s. But with dreams of one day serving in law enforcement, it was only a matter of time before he found himself working for the FBI as an undercover agent.

After getting a bachelor’s in education, Joe Pistone, a Jersey boy, was making his mark as a teacher in the mid-1960s: grading papers, taking attendance and telling kids to quiet down. But Pistone had a secret: He had always wanted to be a cop. Not all that remarkable of an aspiration for a blue-collar kid from Paterson whose mother was religious and whose father was a bar owner. What was remarkable? Pistone’s zag away from the zig of beat work, leading him right to the Office of Naval Intelligence; by 1969, smack dab in the middle of the Age of Aquarius, the then-30-year-old had joined the FBI.

While Hoover [the head of the FBI] kept himself busy chasing petty crooks, he continued to ignore the reality of the Mafia. But by 1972, J. Edgar Hoover was dead, and in 1974 Pistone not so coincidentally got transferred to New York, where the first dance on his card was the truck hijack squad, a gig he was well-suited forgiven that between teaching and agenting he had learned how to drive 18-wheelers.

By 1976 Pistone had seen the truck thieves busted open with 30 arrests and a proof of concept even the FBI couldn’t ignore. Given that the bust had been described in Pistone’s testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee as one of the largest and most profitable rings ever, and with all roads from it leading back to the Mafia, the way forward was pretty clear. Pistone, now known as Don Brasco — a name he read somewhere and that jibed with his Sicilian heritage — was going to see how far he could go inside and undercover.

Joseph “Donnie Brasco” Pistone on the Arsenio Hall


The Pennsylvania native and former FBI agent spent his career working undercover and fooling some of America’s most dangerous mobsters—those of New York City’s infamous Bonanno crime family. Pistone’s alias became a household name in 1997, when his ’88 autobiography, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, was turned into a big-screen blockbuster Donnie Brasco. The movie follows the life of Brasco, played by Johnny Depp, as he gets his feet wet in the New York mafia. When Lefty Ruggiero, played by Al Pacino, takes him under his wing, Brasco finds himself at home in a world defined by crime and deception.

In 1976, FBI undercover agent Joseph Pistone successfully infiltrated New York’s Bonanno Mafia family. Going under the name of “Donnie Brasco”, Pistone became close to several Mafia members during an assignment that lasted five years and the information he amassed over that time led to hundreds of arrests.

Dominick ‘Sonny Black’ Napolitano, Joe Pistone alias Donnie Brasco, Benjamin ‘Lefty.

In 1974, Joseph D. Pistone was transferred to New York and assigned to the truck hijacking squad of the FBI. There were five to six major hijackings per day in the New York City area and intelligence sources indicated that all were somehow tied to various Mafia families. The FBI organised a six-month undercover operation, known as “Sun-Apple” to infiltrate the fences. The FBI gave Pistone a new identity as a small, but successful, jewel thief and burglar called Donnie Brasco.

The first thing on the FBI’s list. To flush any and all mentions of Joe Pistone from their records. The second. To get Don “Donnie the Jeweller” Brasco connected to the likes of Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, made men in the Bonanno crime family, one of the five major New York crime families. Studying for the role, Pistone took classes in gemology, where he picked up the street values of precious stones and learned how to pick locks and disable alarms. As part of the full-on Method approach, he spent time with real-life jewellers so that he could believably walk the walk and talk the talk. A failure to do so in that crowd often meant the most severe sanction: death.

The FBI set him up with an apartment in New York and one in Florida, while his family lived in another part of the country. He targeted bars and restaurants he knew were frequented by certain mob members until one day he got into a conversation with Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero.

Ruggiero had worked as a loyal foot soldier for the Mafia for 30 years and killed 26 people in total. Brasco impressed him and the two joined forces as business partners, with Ruggiero becoming his mentor and sponsor—if Brasco let the family down Ruggiero would pay with his own life.

An FBI surveillance photograph of Donnie Brasco, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Tony Rossi. Original notations by Joseph D. Pistone.

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero also known as “Lefty Guns, and “Lefty two Guns” was born in the Fourth Ward neighbourhood of Little Italy, Manhattan on April 19, 1926. Ruggiero joined the Bonanno crime family at a young age serving as a street soldier under Michael Sabella. Ruggiero lived in an apartment complex called Knickerbocker Village located on Monroe Street. He had a fascination with fish and had several fish tanks with both salt and fresh water inside his apartment.

A close friend of Ruggiero name Tony Mira also lived in the complex and is the person responsible for introducing Ruggiero to undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone who was known by his alias on the streets as Donny “Don the Jeweler” Brasco, an unconnected jeweller who peddled in stolen jewellery. Of course, it was all a ruse conducted by Pistone and the FBI to infiltrate the mob.

As a Bonanno soldier, Ruggiero was prolific in bookmaking, extortion, and loan sharking. He was also deeply involved as a Bonanno enforcer. Being a mobster was Ruggiero’s life.

In response to Brasco’s question on why he liked being a gangster, Ruggiero said “Donnie, as a wiseguy you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people – legitimately. You can do any goddamn thing you want and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn’t want to be a wiseguy?” It was this type of mindset and that earned Ruggiero the reputation of being a feared Mafioso and killer. He earned the nickname “Lefty” from throwing dice using his left hand. He earned “Two Guns” because he always brought two guns to a hit.

Often times the guns the mob used for hits were old and abused; usually, something they picked up off the street that had little value. Because of this, the guns would misfire often and Ruggiero knew that. During his time in the mob, Ruggiero claimed to have clipped nearly 30 people. He had also acquired massive debt due to a gambling dependency. He lost much more than he won and by 1977 he owed more than $160,000 to another Bonanno soldier Nicholas Marangello who he borrowed money from after losing bets. Before Ruggiero could be fully admitted as a “made man” to the Bonanno’s he was required to pay back his debt. Over a small period of time he did and became a made man in late 1977.

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero.

The Bonanno Family is one of the “Five Families” that controls the east coast with the hub of activity in New York and New Jersey. They are part of the nationwide criminal syndicate known as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra.

The Bonanno’s have been around since the 1880’s but are most recently known for their infiltration by FBI agent Joseph Pistone aka Donny Brasco. During his time undercover Pistone collected enough information to nearly bring the family down and cost several people their lives as retribution.

The Bonanno’s originated in the 1880’s in the town of Castellammare del Golfo in Trapani, Sicily. In the early 1900’s several top members of the family and other families relocated to New York to continue their criminal enterprises. Here they formed the Castellammarese gang in a community rich with Italian immigrants and in particular Castellammarese immigrants in Brooklyn.

Today there are approximately 150 made members in the Bonanno family. Although they are a shell of their former selves, the family is still strong. After Massino turned informant and the appointed boss Vincent Basciano was sent to prison himself, the family installed a ruling panel to handle day-to-day activities.

An average day would start with checking in with Ruggiero, Brasco’s captain, and then hanging out in a bar or nightclub trying to think of new ways to make money or advancing up the Mafia ladder. Brasco always worked with the same people and never asked what other members were doing or even who they were. Too many questions were viewed with great suspicion and this rule complicated his undercover role and contributed to its longevity.

During his time undercover, Brasco was ordered to commit four contract killings. There was no question of refusal, so Brasco would either manipulate himself out of the hit at a later date or if that proved too difficult, the FBI would stage a fake killing.

He was able to see his wife Maggie and their three daughters once every three or four months for a day on average. Discussing the outlines or ramifications of the case would have been a breach of security, so his family had no idea what he was doing, which took a tremendous toll on their relationships.

On July 12, 1979, the head of the Bonanno family, Carmine Galante, was shot dead. A war broke out between the rival leaders within the family, which quickly split into two factions. In May 1981, Napolitano and Ruggiero killed three of the top members of the opposition and then Napolitano ordered Brasco to kill Anthony “Bruno” Indelicato.

Brasco and the FBI planned to arrest Indelicato before the day of the hit, but they were unable to find him. Because of this incident and the shooting war being waged between the families the FBI decided to end the operation. Brasco argued that he should stay until December when his membership into the family would be decided, but the FBI disagreed. The Mafia put a contract out on Brasco’s life for half a million dollars.

Pistone and his family still live under secret identities in an undisclosed location. In 1986, he retired from the FBI and he currently works as an FBI consultant and lectures internationally. He’s also the author of several books and the co-owner of a production company.

Two days after the FBI pulled Brasco out of the operation they informed Napolitano that he had been working undercover. It was not long before Napolitano’s death was ordered. On August 17, 1981, accepting his fate, Napolitano gave his favourite bartender his jewellery and the keys to his apartment so that his pet pigeons could be looked after. On August 12, 1982, his body was found in a creek on Staten Island. Another Bonanno boss, Joe Massino, was found guilty of ordering his death in 2004.

On August 30, 1981, the FBI arrested Ruggiero for his own protection, the same day that a contract was put out on him. He was sentenced to serve 20years in prison but was released on parole in 1992. On Thanksgiving Day 1995, Ruggiero died of cancer in his New York home. He was 72.

The evidence collected by Brasco led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions. New York Mafia families have instituted new rules to thwart future undercover penetrations. Before a new member is made a soldier he must kill someone, and two family members, instead of one, must vouch with their own lives for him.

Pistone’s undercover work resulted in 200 indictments and 100 convictions. It also led the Mafia Commission (the body that oversees all the New York organised crime families) to kick out the Bonnano family over the security breach.

Then Pistone was no longer Brasco. He was now a guy with a $500,000 contract out on his life, who had seen his wife and children only a handful of times over the previous six years and needed 24-hour protection. It was a game changer for the mob, though, and nearly broke the back of New York’s organised crime families. Even if Pistone’s children had to change schools and names no fewer than three times, he regretted little — apart from disrupting his family’s lives.

“I was an FBI agent,” he told Arsenio Hall in the late ’90s. “I was a good guy.”

An assessment not shared by his former brothers in crime. A known Philly-based mob associate whose heydey coincided with Pistone’s investigation dismissed the “good guy” as “a rat that acts like his life is over because he turned out to be a cop posing as a gangster.” In 2016 might there be a chance Pistone could finally relax? “Not a chance,” the associate says. “We got long memories, and $500,000 is still a lot of money.”

To this day, Pistone travels in disguise and with a concealed firearm. He generally avoids cities with a large Mafia presence, though he did spend time in New York as a paid consultant on the “Donnie Brasco” movie. And he appeared, undisguised, in one of the features among the extras of the “Donnie Brasco” Extended Cut DVD released a few years ago.

Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – A True Story by FBI …

Donnie Brasco – Law Enforcement –

FBI Agent “Donnie Brasco” Recalls Life in the Mafia – Latest Stories

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero – A True Account of Al Pacino’s “Lefty” in …

The Real Donnie Brasco -Joe Pistone – The Gangster Report

Inside the Life of the Real ‘Donnie Brasco’ – RealClearLife

Donnie Brasco mafia boss breaks ‘omerta’ to testify – Telegraph

The FBI’s Veiled Threat

Donnie Brasco | Crime and Investigation

‘Donnie Brasco’ lives in shadows with price on head –

Italy’s Donnie Brasco Finds the Mafia Keep Tracking Him Down | Time …

Gangsterism Out Blog: The real Donnie Brasco

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero – A True Account of Al Pacino’s “Lefty” in …

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