Former cop living in Monessen has a way with words
Pat Picciarelli, the New York City cop turned Monessen-based author, has gone Hollywood ... well, sort of.
Picciarelli's sixth novel is coming out in August and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks is planning to film a comedy based on the story of Picciarelli's main character, former New Jersey state trooper Mike Russell.
“The agent I had was very successful in dealing with the Hollywood types,” Picciarelli said in his still-prevalent New York accent. “When you're dealing with big companies like DreamWorks, they don't want to talk to me. And I don't want to deal with those people.”
Picciarelli's latest work is “Undercover Cop: How I Brought Down the Real-Life Sopranos,” based on Russell's real-life story of taking down members of a crime family after he was shot and left for dead in an alley.
“He didn't die and the state police didn't ‘out' him, so he continued to work undercover,” Picciarelli said. “(The mob) still thought he was a wise guy and considered a stand-up guy because he didn't talk. So he got in good with the Gambino crime family as a result.”
“All my books are about gangsters and I know a lot of these guys from when I was with the NYPD and have a pretty good rep as being a straight shooter. “
After living most of his life in New York City, Picciarelli has found a comfort zone in the Mid-Mon Valley since moving here with his wife nearly two decades ago. His soon-to-be six published novels serve as written proof.
“It's awfully quiet here, comparatively speaking, and I wasn't getting it done where I was living,” Picciarelli said.
“I could easily lock myself in a room and write for eight hours. I've never taken a writing class. I have no idea what a pronoun is. What I can do is tell a story and I can tell it in my own words.”
As a kid, Picciarelli read sometimes four to five books in a month's time.
“I would sit down and read the label off a soup can,” he said. “I would read books and say ‘This sucks, I could do better.'”
But his route as a writer navigated more twists and turns than a gripping piece of fiction. Half-Russian, half-Italian, Picciarelli was 14 when his father died.
He enlisted in the Army after high school and served one tour in Vietnam as a machine gunner in the First Infantry Division before returning to New York in 1967. Becoming a cop was pure accident: Picciarelli was on his way to a card game when he saw a large group lined up to take a written police test. Picciarelli indulged his curiosity, went in and aced the test.
“At the time, I was considering re-enlisting in the Army. I took the test in May and donned the uniform in October. In reality, it usually takes years,” he said. “There was all kinds of turmoil at the time and everything was very anti-establishment. They needed cops badly. What they got was a bunch of Vietnam battle vets and that was a good thing. We were used to taking orders and being (in danger).”
Picciarelli went on to serve in law enforcement from 1968 to 1988, advancing to the rank of lieutenant. He had passed fellow officers Rocko Laurie and Gregory Foster on the street just hours before the two were murdered by the Black Liberation Army while on patrol in January 1972.
“Me and my partner were sitting in the coffee shop when we heard about the killings,” Picciarelli said. “Out of sheer luck, they chose them.”
Picciarelli knew it was time to bail when he reached 20 years on the force. At the time, New York City was averaging approximately 2,600 homicides per year.
“Someone once told me back when I was training that ‘This is no job for an adult,' and I'm always one to take advice from people who know more than I do,” he said. “I've seen people trapped in that job until they left kicking and screaming when they were forced to retire at (age) 63,” he added. “It's not a job, it's a lifestyle. It's exciting, it's tragic, but it was time to go. Probably the smartest thing I've ever did.”
His wife, Susan, is originally from Donora. The couple moved to the city in 1994 when she was pregnant with their first child and studying for her CPA license.
In 1999, Picciarelli produced his first work: “Jimmy the Wags: Street Stories of a Private Eye.” Not surprisingly, he's relied on a key New York City connection: radio personality Don Imus.
The two formed a friendship when Imus was trying to get clean from drugs and alcohol and would often hang around the precinct where Picciarelli was working as a sergeant.
“We watched out for him and he loved cops. When it came time to get this manuscript to somebody, he was at WFAN and he immediately brought it to his agent. It was sold literally overnight for 50 grand,” Picciarelli said. “That's a lot of money for a guy who never wrote anything before but a shopping list. We were number one on Amazon for months because he was always pushing it on air and having contests (to give away the book).”
Picciarelli still has a “day job,” be it unconventional. He runs a private investigating company out of Monessen called Condor Inc., which he said mostly deals in gathering information and asset investigation.
Picciarelli employs three co-investigators – all female.
“Around here, if you're following someone, you find a man can't sit alone in a parked car without somebody either challenging them or calling police,” he said. “These three have been with me since the inception of the business and they do the grunt work.”
Picciarelli is also planning to produce a podcast with Russell, who now resides in Florida, in the next couple of months. Several mobsters are lined up as guests to tell their stories.
“This isn't like the movies where undercover cops have to change their name and they hunt you down to the ends of the earth,” Picciarelli said. “He locked these guys up, they did years, and he's friendly with all of them. It's a grudging respect for what he did. I can only speak for the Italians, but there's an old saying, ‘I could do 10 years standing on my head'… it's part of the job description.”
As for the movie option, Russell's character – initially slated to be played by Jason Segel – is not for a nail-biting drama, but a knee-slapping comedy.
“Getting shot and left for dead in an alley isn't very funny, but Mike said ‘I don't care if they make me into a one-eyed transvestite dwarf. I got the check and the check cleared.'” Picciarelli said, laughing.
If and when the movie comes out – and Picciarelli said the industry usually moves at “a glacial pace,” – his book sales would skyrocket. The average wait time for a movie, he said, ranges from three to five years.
Hollywood can have its angle, Picciarelli said, as long as people give the real story a good read.
“This is my best work and it's certainly the best story,” he said. “When the book comes out, you'll see how these wise guys really are, not how they're portrayed in the movies or on TV.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.