Joe Pistone Went Undercover to Con the Mob: Now He Must Stay There to Save His Life

updated 04/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 01:00AM

FBI agent Joe Pistone worked a lot of strange territory during his six years undercover in the mob. He infiltrated the Bonanno and Colombo crime families. He moved stolen property and was offered contracts to kill. He lived apart from his wife and children, taking on a new name and a new profession. His name was stricken from FBI records. Even his closest friends in the Bureau didn't know where he was. But what is really strange to Joe Pistone, 49, cooler than Bogie, hard-bodied as a movie star, is the territory he's being asked to traverse now.

"Lonely?" he says. "No, I didn't get lonely. I had a job to do, and I did it. Miss talking to the guys? You don't talk to the guys about your work. And they don't ask. You have to understand the nature of an agent."

Secret agents. Double lives. The movies are full of them, but Joe Pistone—who posed as a jewel thief named Donnie Brasco to infiltrate the Mafia—is the genuine article, an authentic fake. So credible was he as a barhopping burglar that an unknowing surveillance team from his own agency had him in their files as a "known associate" of the Bonanno family. Eventually the information he uncovered helped send 100 of the fellows he calls "bad guys" to jail. Now he has published a book (Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, with writer Richard Woodley). Alas, the bad guys who provided him with so much good material are making it difficult to promote: For the past seven years, since his true (good guy) nature was revealed, there has been a $500,000 contract on Pistone's head. And though the FBI put the word on the street that would-be hit men will be dealt with severely, Pistone does not take risks. He lives under an assumed name in parts unknown, and he does interviews only with the understanding that his face not be shown.

Doesn't he believe the FBI warning sufficient? "It might serve for the mob bosses," he says. "But it's not gonna stop some ambitious guy who's gonna want to make his bones."

His what? "Kill someone. They changed the rules since I left. Now that's the only way you can get into the mob—whacking someone," he says.

Pistone has arrived for this hotel rendevous with Peggy, the blunt and vivacious woman who has been his wife for 26 years, and Chuck, a retired FBI pal who is riding shotgun as a favor to Joe. Though it is the Pistones who are reputedly in danger, it is Chuck, a Vietnam vet, who carries an air of dark drama. He wears Tonton Macoute sunglasses, throws himself forward to open the door when potential intruders knock (room service, as expected) and seems, in general, to miss combat. Pistone, by contrast, though he is nobody's cream puff, is low-key, jocular—and so modest about his accomplishments you think his next undercover gig should be in the Boy Scouts.

How did he find mob life? "Boring," he says. "In the movies, it's like the Godfather, guys walking around in thousand-dollar suits, saying intelligent things, frequenting palatial houses. What it is in real life is guys hanging around social clubs in the back of stores, having the same conversation. 'What are we gonna steal today? How are we gonna steal it?' "

Surprises? "There weren't any," Pistone says. "I grew up in a tough Italian neighborhood in New Jersey. I knew guys like this. The one thing that repulsed me—I knew about it, but when you see it, it hits home—these guys kill their best friends. It was always the guy closest to you that would kill you. How a guy could kill somebody he'd known 20, 30 years, then go out that night and eat a bowl of pasta like the guy never even existed—that's one thing that never sat right with me. That's also one of the things that kept me alive. I knew no matter how close I got to them, if they knew who I was they would kill me in a second."

There were, however, problems that Pistone did not anticipate. Joe and Peggy's three children were 7, 10 and 13 when he took the undercover assignment, believing it would last six months and that he would be living only an hour from home. Peggy, though not crazy about his leaving, refused to stand in the way of work he loved. "I'm very trusting. I didn't feel threatened in any way," she says. "I asked if the work would involve women, and he said he might have to show up with a woman, to show people he wasn't gay."

That didn't bother her?

She laughs. "We've known each other since I'm 15 years old," she says. "He's not gonna surprise me. He's a man of high values. And if it turns out he's been a lying fool, I would kill him personally with his own gun."

Finances were a problem: Pistone, posing as a high-living burglar on a lawman's $35 per diem, was forced to dip into savings to meet some unreimbursed expenses. As the investigation deepened, Pistone, concerned he might be followed home, moved his family 3,000 miles away. He missed the children's confirmations and graduations. When Peggy was in a car crash, he could stay with her only one week.

"It was hard, it was all very hard," says Peggy, who spent those six years more or less as a single mother, telling friends her husband was a salesman and her children that their father's work had to be a secret. "You couldn't talk to anyone about what was bothering you," she says. "Some people were great and included me as a third wheel, some were not. We had belonged to this couples tennis club in New Jersey, and after a while one of the women told me I couldn't play anymore because my husband was never there." Plus, says Peggy, "The girls and I would get used to running the house without Joe, and he'd come home and give orders, and we'd resent it. I'd miss him like crazy, then when he got home I couldn't stand him—it was my way of getting even, I think."

Joe's double life, begun in 1976, ended in 1981, a few months before he was to have become a "made guy"—an official member of the mob. Gangland families were starting to fight, and Pistone was at risk. In August 1982, Pistone took the stand in Federal Court in Manhattan in a racketeering case against his onetime colleagues in the Bonanno family. Ten days later, in nearby Staten Island, the body of Sonny Black, the acting head of the family, who'd taken him in, washed ashore. In the traditional mob punishment for traitors, Black's hands had been chopped off. Undeterred, Pistone spent the next six years testifying.

A year and a half ago, reluctant to work a desk job, he resigned from the FBI after 17 years. Too young to qualify for a pension, Pistone receives neither money nor protection from the government. Since publication of his book, he has moved his family again. The book, Peggy says, has made two of their children "very paranoid."

Has it all been worth it? Joe cannot really answer.

Would the family do it all again? "Professionally, I would," Pistone says. "Personally, I would not. I missed so much of the girls' growing up."

And Peggy? "I love him very much, but if it were to happen again, I would find a way out. Six years without a husband is too much."

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