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'Donnie Brasco' infiltrates St. Vincent for talk

| Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
FBI agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, with Bonanno Crime Family capo, Sonny Black in New York, NY.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation
FBI agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, with Bonanno Crime Family capo, Sonny Black in New York, NY.

International organized crime is everywhere, and most groups have a presence in the United States, said retired FBI Special Agent Joe Pistone on Wednesday at St. Vincent College.

From 1976 to 1981, Pistone infiltrated the American Mafia as “Donnie Brasco.”

He gathered the evidence that led to more than 200 indictments that dismantled several Mafia families. He wrote a book about the experience that became a major motion picture.

In the 1970s, the American Mafia controlled most interstate commerce and corrupted unions, police and judges, he said.

In its place today are more than a dozen organizations, ranging from the Russian mob to Columbian drug cartels.

Their activities range from traditional organized crime enterprises such as gambling and loan sharking to insurance fraud and money laundering.

“If there's money to be made, they're going to be involved in it,” he told more than 200 students, law enforcement agents and other guests at St. Vincent.

Pistone pioneered deep undercover work in the FBI.

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover didn't allow long-term undercover work out of a concern that the agents would become corrupted.

The FBI mainly relied on informants, and any undercover work consisted of short-term assignments such as an agent posing as a buyer and then busting the people who sold stolen merchandise or drugs.

Pistone worked for the FBI for five years before he was given an undercover assignment in Florida that consisted of infiltrating a ring of thieves stealing expensive cars and heavy equipment — and even two planes.

The Erie native's ability to drive an 18-wheeler was one of the reasons he was picked for the assignment.

Many of their customers were civilians, he said.

“You'd be surprised how many straight people were buying these cars,” Pistone said.

He operated under the name Donnie Brasco and was so successful in developing contacts with criminals that he kept the identity when the New York office decided to run a six-month undercover assignment targeting high-end fences.

Pistone infiltrated a group of Mafia-connected thieves and began developing relationships with made members of the mob, so the FBI shifted the focus from the fences to the Mafia hierarchy.

The six-month assignment turned into six years.

During those six years, he never stepped inside an FBI office, and only a handful of people in the agency knew what he was doing.

His cover was so deep that the FBI and other law enforcement investigated him as a criminal suspect, and he once was arrested in Florida for operating an illegal gambling operation.

When the operation ended and he began testifying, the mafia put out a $500,000 contract on him that has never been lifted, Pistone said.

Deep undercover operations are rare because it requires someone to commit to a job that runs 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

“You're whole existence is with the group you've infiltrated,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbowling@tribweb.com.

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