Until the 1997 film Donnie Brasco was released, the story of FBI agent Joe Pistone remained relatively unknown. ‘Donnie Brasco’ was the alias that Agent Pistone (played by Johnny Depp) used to infiltrate the Mafia in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Mafia boss was played by none other than Al Pacino.
As is usually the case with Hollywood adaptations, the true story of Pistone and his exploits were far more interesting than a single film can capture. Pistone and his operation played a key role in laying the groundwork for the FBI’s use of undercover agents in future operations.
Pistone grew up in working-class Paterson, New Jersey and spoke fluent Italian, both of which would come in handy later on in his FBI career. He joined the FBI in 1969 and helped break up a massive truck hijacking ring on the east coast by going undercover. His next undercover mission arrived in 1976… penetrate the powerful Bonanno crime family. Pistone’s Sicilian roots and his Jersey upbringing made him a good candidate to infiltrate the Mafia.
Pistone created a backstory and was reborn as Donnie Brasco, an expert jewel thief. The FBI erased Pistone’s entire identity and he simply disappeared into the underworld of organized crime in New York City in 1976. Pistone set his sights on Little Italy in Manhattan and began to make friends in the area. He slowly gained the trust of local organized crime figures.
Pistone’s assignment was only meant to last six months, but the FBI kept extending it so he could continue to gather intelligence. Eventually, Pistone became close to Bonanno family members Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero and Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano. The two mobsters took Pistone under their wing and taught him the ways of the underworld. Pistone never became a “made man”, or an official member of the Bonanno family, but his close relationship with members, especially Ruggiero, provided Pistone and the FBI with a great amount of information about the inner-workings of the Mafia.
In 1981, members of the Bonanno family indeed thought of making Pistone a made man. In order for that to happen, Pistone would have had to murder a rival or an enemy. Pistone’s FBI bosses decided the undercover operation had become too dangerous, and they pulled “Donnie Brasco” from the assignment. FBI agents informed Ruggiero and Napolitano that the man they’d been associating with for the past six years was an undercover agent. Ruggiero refused to believe the news.
“Sonny Black” Napolitano and another Bonanno family member, Anthony Mirra, were murdered for allowing an FBI agent to infiltrate the family. Lefty Ruggiero was marked for death as well, but the FBI arrested him in order to prevent his murder. Ruggiero, however, refused to cooperate with the FBI while he was in custody. Ruggiero was ultimately convicted of various offenses and spent 11 years in prison. He was released from prison in 1992 and died of cancer in 1994.
The evidence collected by Pistone during his 6 years undercover led to over 200 indictments and 100 convictions of various Mafia figures. Pistone’s operation also shined a light on how the Mafia operated and how far its influenced reached throughout the country.
Today, Pistone is 78-years-old, lives under an assumed name, and regularly wears disguises to hide his true identity.
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