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Joseph Pistone, alias Donnie Brasco, infiltrated the Bonanno crime family as undercover FBI agent

 Johnny Depp stars in 'Donnie Brasco' 1997 Getty Images
Johnny Depp stars in 'Donnie Brasco' 1997 Getty Images

To choose a life of crime in the mafia is not an easy decision, and yet there are people who prefer that kind of life to an everyday job. But once you’re in, there is no turning back. It’s a circle filled with evil, darkness, and tension.

Similar to other occupations, being a gangster requires focus, dedication, and commitment. Anyone involved needs to be aware that no mistakes are allowed. Even the slightest one might mean a bullet in your head.

For a mafioso, the two guiding principles are “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” At least that is what one character told another in a scene in Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas. But things seem to be the same in real life, and becoming a “rat” is most probably the riskiest move for a mobster.

There is something even more dangerous than a wiseguy who turns into a rat, however, and that is a rat trained by the FBI, a professional rat. Just imagine how brave one needs to be to accept that kind of job.

Perhaps the story of Joseph Pistone, alias Donnie Brasco, is the best-known true story of an FBI agent who infiltrated the mob. His task was to learn who was who in the hierarchy of the Bonanno crime family, one of the Five Families of the Mafia in New York City.

This is an FBI surveillance photo of former FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone.
This is an FBI surveillance photo of former FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone.

It’s a story deserving of attention and Hollywood welcomed it with open arms, producing the movie Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco/Joseph Pistone and Al Pacino as Lefty.

Anyone who has watched the movie probably remembers the following lines:

Donnie Brasco: You think I’m a rat…?

Lefty: [to Donnie while in his car, before putting a loaded revolver to his head] How many times have I had you in my house? If you’re a rat, then I’m the biggest mutt in the history of the Mafia.

But Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero wasn’t the only one fooled by Pistone. The information Pistone managed to amass during the six years he spent undercover in the Bonanno crime family led to the arrests of more than 100 leading Mafiosi.

Mugshot of Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, who was boss of the Bonanno crime family from 1931 to 1968.
Mugshot of Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, who was boss of the Bonanno crime family from 1931 to 1968.

He started his dangerous task in 1976, taking the name Donnie Brasco and creating a history for himself as a small-time jewelry thief and burglar. This meant that he needed to know the street value of all precious gems, so Pistone took courses to learn everything he could. Apart from this, Pistone clearly needed some acting skills to help him tell so many convincing lies about his life and to behave like he is one of them.

He hung out in bars and restaurants that were visited by gangsters and slowly sold his story that he was a jewel thief. His mission showed little success at the beginning, but everything changed when one of the most notorious mobsters, a man who went by the name of Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero, started a conversation with him.

It was a fruitful conversation: Pistone managed to impress the man who had been part of the Mafia for more than 30 years and had already killed 26 people. Apparently, his experience as a mobster was not enough for him to detect that Donnie Brasco was a trained undercover agent. As a matter of fact, he happened to like the new kid so he became Brasco’s mentor, friend, and business partner.

His bosses, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, both trusted him, mostly because he didn’t ask too many questions and always respected the rules of the Mafia game.

However, Pistone’s life as a mobster was not all sunshine and rainbows as he was far from his wife Maggie and their three daughters, none of whom had a clue what his job was. He missed countless Christmas dinners, his children’s confirmations, and their graduations. His wife had to spend those six years while he was working undercover more or less as a single mother and as a result, their marriage started falling apart.

What was even worse was the fact that his life was under constant threat. He was once accused by a Bonnano soldier named Tony Mirra of stealing $250,000 from the Bonnano crime family but was judged innocent. Pistone faced another challenge when the Bonnano family wanted to make him a “made” man, which meant that he had to whack someone. Luckily for him, the guy he was asked to kill vanished.

An FBI surveillance photograph of Donnie Brasco, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, and Tony Rossi.
An FBI surveillance photograph of Donnie Brasco, Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, and Tony Rossi.

In 1981 the FBI decided that it was too dangerous for Pistone to continue his work as there were three murders in the Bonnano family in a short period. Six years after Joseph Pistone started his mission as Donnie Brasco, he was pulled out by the FBI.

Related story from us: The real-life wiseguys behind Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” who pulled off the multi-million Lufthansa heist

Pistone’s evidence was a serious blow to the Mafia because it led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions. He might have fooled the Mafia, but in Mafia circles there is a price for it too. A contract was immediately put on Brasco’s head for half a million dollars. He lived to tell the tale but, to this day, Pistone travels disguised under assumed names.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News