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.
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 and they gave Pistone a new identity as a small-time, but successful jewel thief and burglar called Donnie Brasco.
An Italian who had grown up surrounded by the legacy of the Mafia, Brasco/Pistone decided he wouldn’t try to play the hero or change the mob’s attitudes, but collect as much evidence for later prosecutions as possible.
He went to school to learn about precious gems and 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.
Brasco also gained the trust of the head of their family group, Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, who would eventually nominate Brasco to be “made” (inducted into the Mafia) – an extremely rare occurrence for an outsider.
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 12 July 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 couldn’t 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.