It’s a fugazi – sitting down with the real Donnie Brasco

At the Global Compliance Solutions 8th Annual Anti Money-Laundering / Compliance and Financial Crime Conference, held 11-12 October at the Marriott Grand Cayman Beach Resort, the Journal talked to the keynote speaker, former undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone, about infiltrating the mafia, violence and how the movie Donnie Brasco differed from real life.  


“When you belong to a crew, you gotta check in with the boss of that crew every day. The boss of this crew was a guy by the name of Jilly [Greca]. And I come to the club one day and Jilly says we got to have a walk and talk. 

“You know Frankie was a made guy and Patsie wasn’t, awright.  

“And he says Frankie wants to have a sit down. I say, I don’t have a problem with that, Jill.  

“So we go to a backroom and they lock the door and Patsie takes a gun out of the desk, puts it on the table and says: ‘Donnie, if you don’t convince me that you are as good a jewel thief as these guys say you are, the only way you are goin’ out of this room is rolled up in that rug’.  

“It’s funny, things that go through your head when you are faced with the possibility of death. The only thing that went through my head is: I hope that fucking rug is Persian.”  

I am not allowed to take his picture, but what I can tell you is that today former undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone does not look anything like Johnny Depp, who played him in the movie Donnie Brasco. Still he is content with Johnny Depp taking on his role. “Oh yeah”, he laughs, “very pleased”. But also of course with Al Pacino, Michael Madsen and the rest of the actors, he says. “It was a great cast.”  

His accent may be a bit more polished these days but it does not try to hide his New Jersey and Italian-American roots, which were one of the key requirements for his job in the late 1970s – to infiltrate the mafia. 

Pistone “worked under”, as he calls it, for six years, ultimately succeeding in being accepted as an associate of the Bonnano and Colombo crime families, two of New York’s five mafia organisations. 

Many of Pistone’s relatives were in law enforcement as police officers and FBI agents and growing up he wanted to be a cop. “Cause when you are growing up in the neighbourhood I grew up in, you either became a cop, a fireman or a gangster.” 

The road to becoming an undercover FBI agent however was less well travelled. There was no training, just preparation. “If you don’t know your enemy, you are not going to defeat your enemy,” Pistone says quoting Sun Tzu. In the same neighbourhood he was exposed to the mafia, not intimately of course but close enough to know about the society, some of its rules and the criminal activities it was involved in.  

He says the only reason the mafia would want to associate with someone from outside the organisation would be “because you are going to make them money”. For this purpose the FBI had to develop a legend for Pistone, a criminal curriculum vitae, if you will, that would allow him to get closer to the mafia.  

In Pistone’s case he was going to be a jewel thief, mainly because of its non-violent nature and the fact that he could work alone.  

“Plus it gave me the ability to get diamonds and precious gems from the government and bring ‘em to the gangsters and say hey I was out at the airport and I robbed this or that.” 

Technically, he says, an undercover FBI agent cannot become involved in crimes of violence. “Well that’s kind of reaching it because if you are lucky enough to infiltrate a violent organised crime group, you will get involved in violence. It is inevitable.” But he adds, “You don’t wanna say that you are a leg breaker, because at some point in time you have got to, you know, break somebody’s leg.” 

To become a credible jewellery thief, he had to learn everything about diamonds and precious gems, alarm systems and safes. And he had to learn it well. 

“Look if you don’t know your legend you’re dead. Because in undercover, you know, it is credibility and respect. You lose either one of those they are either not gonna accept you or they are gonna kill you depending on what organisation you are with.”  

So continuing with the backroom story and the rug, Pistone says.  

“We go back and forth for five hours, you know, who do you know, where are you from, who else did you do scores with? Give us names from people in Miami. And that’s another thing you don’t give anybody up. So we go back and forth, finally Jilly says look that’s enough guys – Jilly is the head of this crew – Donnie has been with us for over two months and we did a, b and c and we trust him. 

“Now I got a problem, my credibility and respect. I can’t walk up to Frankie and shake his hand and say ‘Frankie I realise your concern, let bygones be bygones’. Because in their head is, they are callin’ me out. ‘Why isn’t Donnie pissed off? Donnie should be pissed off that these two guys are grilling him for five hours’.  

“So here is where the only thing you can do is resort to violence. It is the only thing that they understand. Anything else would put suspicion in their head and question my credibility and I would lose my respect.  

“So as we get up to walk out I do the most honourable thing, I knock out Patsie. I can’t hit Frankie, ‘cause he’s a made guy, Patsie isn’t. Frankie starts punching the hell out of me, but I can’t do anything, I can’t hit him, even though he is knocking the shit outta me. I just gotta keep fending. So I do the next thing, every time Frankie punches me, I kick Patsie. Frankie punches me once, I kick Patsie twice. Finally Jilly breaks it up and from then I knew I had to get out of there.  

“I knew I could not deal with these guys anymore because the grudge was there.” 

This violent episode was only the beginning of Pistone’s infiltration of the mafia as he could use the connection to Jilly Greca to hook up with another mafia crew. Pistone was an FBI agent for 27 years, 20 of which he worked undercover. The Donnie Brasco operation alone led to 235 convictions.  

Being an undercover agent is not like on TV or in the movies, he says. Even though the film is based on his own book and Pistone worked with the screenwriter, with Johnny Depp and was also a technical consultant on the movie, he says: “It’s work. You’re working 18 to 20 hours a day, you are with people that you really don’t want to be with, you know, your social life has died other than with the bad guys.” 

The movie Donnie Brasco derives much of its artistic drive and appeal from the relationship the FBI undercover agent forms with Lefty Ruggiero, an alleged 26 time murderer and a soldier in the Bonnano crime family. Lefty, played by Al Pacino, takes Brasco under his wing and vouches for him. In the movie Brasco realises the longer he keeps up the charade the more likely it is that Lefty is going to get killed as soon as the operation ends. He even tries to offer him a way out. 

Asked what this relationship was like in real life, Pistone says, “Look, let me make this quite clear. You can’t spend seven days a week, 16, 18 hours a day with somebody without forming a relationship. That’s because it’s normal. However, my relationship stopped at trying to reform him. The film kinda showed that I had those kind of feelings for him, which is not true.” 

Pistone explains that the makers of the film had to make him likeable so that the audience could relate to the main character. Because he was doing things that normal police officers or FBI agents do not do, the only way this could be achieved was by having Brasco showing empathy for Lefty. 

Pistone says, unlike the character in the movie, it did not make him feel bad that his actions would have ‘consequences’ for Lefty.  

“No, every grown person has choices in life. When you get to a certain age you choose what you are gonna do wit’ your life. I had nothing to do with any of these guys choosing to be gangsters. That was their choice and my choice was law enforcement. So my job was, if you are committing a crime, I would investigate you and hopefully put you in jail.”  

Yet, it seems difficult to spend six years posing as a criminal without changing personality just a little bit. In the movie his wife criticises Brasco for speaking like a gangster even though the man she married has a college education. “Well you know. To be a successful undercover agent you can’t take on another personality. I am me. You know what I am sayin’? You get what you get.” 

It is impossible to invent a different personality, he says. “In those situations you can’t go from being A to B, because that is where you increase your stress level, you know. I am with the bad guys so I am personality A or whatever. And then when I am with the good guys or with your family you are trying to be personality B. Whatever personality you are, that’s what you have to be.” 

And the legend has to be developed around the actual personality of the undercover agent.  

In the movie his handlers were at some stage also concerned that he might become corrupted by his undercover life and turn to the dark side.  

“It wasn’t that bad,” says Pistone. “Look when you’re good, some people say how can he be this good? So you go through a period of that, but what are you gonna do?” 

Pistone is also keen to make something else clear. “In the movie there was a scene where I slapped my wife. That did not happen. That was not in the original script. That was put in on the day when they shot, the director changed it. I was not pleased with it but you really have no say.” 

In fact it was the strength of his marriage that was indispensable to his success as an undercover agent, a job that required him to be separated from his family for weeks and months on end.  

The first thing he tells undercover agents in training is that they cannot have any baggage, whether it is problems with their partners, work problems or debt problems. In other words nobody should do it to run away from something. 

In the FBI courses it becomes clear who has the ability to work undercover after a few days. Pistone says it requires a certain type of person with a different mindset and mental toughness, someone who has the ability to stay focused and who always remembers that being undercover is just another method of conducting an investigation. And there are many essential elements that cannot be taught. 

“Nobody can make you an undercover, you know what I mean, you need a, it is like that sixth sense that either you have it or you don’t have it. If you have it, what we can do is, we can polish it, polish it up, give you pointers how to infiltrate, how to stay alive when you infiltrate, how to conduct your conversations when you infiltrate. But when you don’t have that other sense. Boom.” 

Pistone says he was successful because in his undercover investigations he never judged anybody.  

“My whole mindset is you’re a gangster, I don’t care. You made the choice to be a gangster what do I care? I treat you the same as everybody else. Now if I am good enough to get the evidence to get you arrested, good for me. Or you beat me this time, I get you next time. And that’s why I think I was successful, because I never judged anybody.”  

Before we get up I ask him one last question. “I heard that the name Donnie Brasco actually comes from a relative of yours?” 

He looks a little surprised and snaps, “Yeah that’s true. Who told you that?”