Joseph D. Pistone

Joseph Dominick Pistone (born September 17, 1939), alias Donnie Brasco, is an American former FBI agent who worked undercover between September 1976 and July 1981, infiltrating the Bonanno crime family and to a lesser extent the Colombo crime family, two of the Five Families of the Mafia in New York City.[1][2] Pistone was an FBI agent for 17 years, from 1969 until he resigned in 1986. The evidence collected by Pistone led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members—and some responsible for his infiltration were also killed by other mobsters.

Joseph D. Pistone
FBI surveillance photo of Pistone as Donnie Brasco
Joseph Dominick Pistone

(1939-09-17) September 17, 1939 (age 80)
Other namesDonnie Brasco
Alma materPaterson State College
OccupationFBI special agent
Years active1969–1986
Known forUndercover work infiltrating the Bonanno crime family
Notable work
Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia
Spouse(s)Maggie Pistone

Pistone was a pioneer in long-term undercover work. The FBI's former director, J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972, did not want FBI agents to work undercover because of the danger of agents becoming corrupted;[3] Pistone's work later helped convince the FBI that using undercover agents in lieu of relying exclusively on informants was a crucial tool in law enforcement.[4] Pistone detailed his undercover experience in his 1988 book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, the basis of the 1997 film about his life Donnie Brasco.

Early life and careerEdit

Pistone was born in 1939 in Erie, Pennsylvania.[5][6] He is of Sicilian heritage, and grew up in Paterson, New Jersey,[1][6] where he attended Eastside High School.[7] He attended Paterson State College (now William Paterson University),[5][6] obtaining a degree in anthropology.[6] He worked for a year as a teacher at Paterson School No. 10 and at the Office of Naval Intelligence before joining the FBI in 1969. In 1974, he was transferred to New York to work in the truck hijacking unit. Because of his ability to drive 18-wheeler trucks and bulldozers, he was eventually given undercover work infiltrating a vehicle theft ring, an assignment that resulted in over 30 arrests and a greater profile for Pistone within law enforcement.[6]

FBI career as Donnie BrascoEdit

In the spring of 1976, Pistone volunteered to infiltrate the Bonanno crime family, a job for which his fluency in Italian, Sicilian heritage, and the knowledge of mafia idiosyncrasies gleaned from his Paterson background were well-suited.[8] For the undercover operation, the false identity of Donald "Donnie" Brasco was created, with a backstory that involved work as a low-level jewel thief.[6][3] After extensive preparation including FBI gemology classes and again using the alias Donnie Brasco, he went undercover as a jewel thief.[3][8]

The operation was given the code name "Sun-Apple" after the locations of its two simultaneous operations: Miami ("Sunny Miami") and New York City ("The Big Apple"). After months of planning, in September 1976, Pistone started his undercover operation—an operation that was initially intended to last for around six months turned into five years.[3] The FBI erased Pistone's name on office rolls and his personnel file; anyone who called asking for him would be told that no one by that name was employed there.[3] His co-workers, friends, and informants had no idea what had happened to him.[3] The original focus of the operation was to infiltrate big-time fences and truck hijackings that would in turn lead to the Mafia.[3] While Pistone worked in the Mafia, he informed on the activities of the mob during some of the most volatile power struggles in organized crime.[6][3]

An FBI surveillance photograph of Joseph Pistone, Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero and Tony Rossi. Original notations by Joseph D. Pistone, made during the filming of Rossella Biscotti's 2008 film The Undercover Man.

Pistone became an associate in Jilly Greca's crew from the Colombo family. Greca's crew was involved mostly in hijacking trucks and selling the stolen merchandise. Because only a few people knew Pistone's real identity, FBI and NYPD investigations had Pistone down as an actual Mafia associate called Don Brasco. He later moved to the Bonanno family and subsequently developed a close relationship with Anthony Mirra and Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, and was tutored in the ways of the Mafia by Bonanno soldier Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero. It was by doing this that Ruggiero inadvertently provided much evidence to Pistone, as Mafia members will not normally talk to non-members about the inner workings of the Mafia. According to Pistone during an interview with Patrick Bet-David, he reported to Mike "Mimi" Sabella, who was a Bonanno captain operating in Little Italy, New York. However, after the 1979 murder of boss Carmine Galante, he reported to Brooklyn-based captain "Sonny Black" Napolitano.[9]

Pistone was responsible for a lucrative business venture in Holiday, Florida, when he opened and operated the King's Court Bottle Club.[3] In Florida, Pistone worked with another FBI agent working undercover as Tony Rossi. Pistone was contracted to kill capo Philip Giaccone of the Bonanno family in Miami, but the hit was called off. Napolitano later contacted Pistone, who he hoped to make a made man,[10] to murder Alphonse "Sonny Red" Indelicato's son, Anthony "Bruno" Indelicato,[11] who previously evaded death after missing a May 1981 meeting which left "Sonny Red" Indelicato, Giaccone, and Dominick Trinchera dead.[12] Shortly after the hit was ordered, Pistone's assignment was ended and Napolitano was informed of their infiltration.[13]

After several years of working undercover, the FBI ordered Pistone to end his operation. He wanted to continue at least until he became a made man; he believed Napolitano would lie about him "making his bones" (participating in a Mafia-ordered hit) to prove his loyalty, and felt the FBI would never again have the opportunity to humiliate the Mafia by revealing that an agent had been inducted into the ranks.[14] However, Pistone's superiors decided that the operation was becoming too dangerous and set an end date of July 26, 1981.[3] Only after Pistone departed did FBI agents Doug Fencl, Jim Kinne, and Jerry Loar inform Napolitano and Ruggiero that their longtime associate was an FBI agent.[15] Pistone received a $500 bonus at the end of the operation.[8]


Shortly thereafter, on August 17, 1981, Napolitano was murdered for having allowed an FBI agent to infiltrate the family; he was shot dead and his hands were cut off.[16] Ruggiero was arrested by the FBI on August 29, 1981.[17] Mirra was also later killed on February 18, 1982.[18][19] Pistone expressed some regret over Napolitano's fate; "My intention in all of this was to put people in jail, not get them killed."[20] In November 1982, Ruggiero, along with Nicholas Santora, Antonio Tomasulo, and Anthony "Fat Tony" Rabito, would be convicted in a six-week jury trial for racketeering conspiracy, receiving a 15-year prison sentence.[21][3]

The Mafia put out a $500,000 contract on Pistone and kicked the Bonanno family off the Commission.[22] FBI agents visited Mafia bosses in New York and advised them not to murder Pistone. The contract was dropped by Paul Castellano who headed the Commission as he thought killing a federal agent would "attract too much attention."[23] Pistone publicly testified for the first time on August 2, 1982.[24][25] The evidence collected by Pistone led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of Mafia members.[3] Although Pistone resigned from the FBI in 1986, he continued to testify when called upon.[26]

Pistone's infiltration decimated the Bonanno family, however, as a result, the family was not a main target in the Mafia Commission Trial that saw the top leadership of the Five Families sent to prison, as the Bonannos had already been kicked off the Commission.[3] By dodging this bullet, the family kept its leadership intact and was able to consolidate its power once again. The boss who led that resurgence, Joseph Massino, was convicted in 2004 of ordering Napolitano to be killed for allowing Pistone into the family.[27][28]

Pistone lives in an undisclosed location with his wife and three daughters, travels disguised, under assumed names, and with a license to carry a firearm. He will not set foot in any location with high Mafia presence. However, in the book Unfinished Business, he said that he went to New York City while working as a consultant on the movie Donnie Brasco and mentions that some people recognized him. Pistone continues to be active as an author and consultant to worldwide law enforcement agencies, including Scotland Yard,[29] and has been called to testify before the United States Senate as an expert on organized crime.[30]

In September 2012, Pistone testified in Montreal, Quebec at the Charbonneau Commission public inquiry into corruption, as an expert witness.[31]


Pistone detailed his undercover experience in his 1988 book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. The book was the basis for the critically acclaimed 1997 film Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp as Pistone and Al Pacino as "Lefty" Ruggiero, and for the short-lived 2000 television series Falcone, starring Jason Gedrick as Pistone (whose mob alias was changed from "Donnie Brasco" to "Joe Falcone" for legal reasons). Pistone was a consultant on Donnie Brasco to add authenticity to the fictionalized portrayals and settings. His life was used in an episode of FBI: The Untold Stories.

Pistone revisited his experiences as Donnie Brasco in his books The Way of the Wiseguy (2004) and Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business (2007, co-authored with Charles Brandt).[32] Pistone wrote a novel titled, The Good Guys (2005), with Joseph Bonanno's son, Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno. He has also written several works of fiction such as Deep Cover, Mobbed Up and Snake Eyes. He has served as an executive producer on movies relating to the Mafia, including the 2006 film 10th & Wolf.[16] In 2008, Italian artist Rossella Biscotti interviewed Pistone in her video The Undercover Man. A play based on Donnie Brasco opened at the Pennsylvania Playhouse.[33][34]

Pistone is featured in the eighth episode of UK history TV channel Yesterday's documentary series Mafia's Greatest Hits.[35] A Secrets of the Dead episode, "Gangland Graveyard," features Pistone and his infiltration of the Mafia as part of the long-running investigation into the murder of three Mafia captains by Massino.[36]

Pistone featured prominently in the 2013 mini-series Inside the American Mob. He features prominently in episode 1 "Stayin' Alive in the '70s" and is the main focus of episode 2, "Operation Donnie Brasco".[37]


  1. ^ a b Lovgren, Stefan (June 10, 2005). "FBI Agent 'Donnie Brasco' Recalls Life in the Mafia". National Geographic.
  2. ^ "The Biography Channel - Notorious Crime Profiles Joseph Pistone". 1979-07-12. Archived from the original on 2010-08-23. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Pistone, Joseph D.; Woodley, Richard (1997). Donnie Brasco. Penguin Books. Retrieved 2018-05-16.
  4. ^ Pistone (1989), p. 112.
  5. ^ a b "Donnie Brasco". Retrieved November 11, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Bennett, Charles (February 4, 2009). "Legendary Lawmen: Joe Pistone".
  7. ^ Hamill, Denis. "Brighton Beach Memoir; Falcone, A New CBS-TV Series For The Fall, Comes To Life (and Death) On The Streets Of Brooklyn", New York Daily News, April 18, 1999. Accessed August 29, 2019. "Pistone is standing with childhood pal Lou DiGiaimo, a top casting director who is also one of five executive producers on the pilot, which will air in September. 'Oh, man, looking great,' says DiGiaimo. 'If it looks anything like yesterday's dailies, it'll be amazing,' says Pistone. These two men have been friends since Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., in the early '60s."
  8. ^ a b c "'Donnie Brasco' lives in shadows with price on head". September 24, 2012.
  9. ^ "Most Hated FBI Agent in the Mafia- Joe Pistone aka Donnie Brasco". YouTube. Valuetainment. Retrieved 30 May 2018.
  10. ^ DeStefano 2007, pp. 112, 117
  11. ^ "Undercover Agent Describes Discussions of Mob Murders". August 5, 1982.
  12. ^ Raab, Selwyn (2014-05-13). Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires. Macmillan. ISBN 9781429907989.
  13. ^ DeStefano 2007, pp. 118–120
  14. ^ Pistone (1989), pp. 70–71.
  15. ^ Nate Hendley, American Gangsters, Then and Now: An Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2010) p. 192
  16. ^ a b "Joe Pistone's Unfinished Mob Business". Orchard Press Mysteries. 2007-12-30. Archived from the original on 2008-05-11. Retrieved 2008-06-21.
  17. ^ "United States v. Napolitano, 552 F. Supp. 465 (S.D.N.Y. 1982)". January 19, 1982.
  18. ^ "Tight-hit Family – Close Cuz Chosen to Kill 'Brasco' Wiseguy". June 17, 2004.
  19. ^ "Family Ties Made It Easy to Whack Cuz: Mob Thug". June 17, 2004.
  20. ^ McPhee, Michele (2003-01-19). "After 20 years, ex-agent applauds mob bust". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  21. ^ "6 Get Jail Terms in Rackets Case Tied to Mobsters". November 16, 1982.
  22. ^ "Fact file: Who is Joe Pistone – a.k.a. Donnie Brasco?". September 24, 2012.
  23. ^ Boss of Bosses: The Fall of the Godfather- The FBI and Paul Castellano (May 1, 1992). "Boss of Bosses". Andris Kurins and Joseph F. O'Brien. Retrieved April 21, 2016.
  24. ^ "F.B.I. Agent, Dropping Disguise, Tells Court of Life Inside the Mob". August 3, 1982.
  25. ^ "F.B.I. Infiltrator Says Mob Chief Told of Slayings". August 4, 1982.
  26. ^ Pistone (1989), p. 400.
  27. ^ Rashbaum, William (2003-01-10). "Reputed Boss Of Mob Family Is Indicted". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  28. ^ Marzulli, John (2003-01-10). "Top Bonanno Charged In '81 Mobster Rubout". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
  29. ^ "Donnie Brasco' Agent Helping Scotland Yard". American Mafia. 2001-02-01. Retrieved 2008-06-21.
  30. ^ "Real life Donnie Brasco vows to find £250m stolen art haul". The Daily Record. 2008-03-25. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  31. ^ "'Donnie Brasco' testifies at Quebec corruption inquiry". CBC News.
  32. ^ McShane, Larry (2004-05-06). "Donnie Brasco's Mob Memory Lane". CBS News. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  33. ^ JOE GILL (2010-09-14). "A part of the Donnie Brasco story comes to Pennsylvania Playhouse". Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  34. ^ Joe Gill (2010-10-29). "Review: The true Donnie Brasco comes to life on Pennsylvania Playhouse stage". Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  35. ^ Donnie Brascoe - Mafias Greatest Hits. "Donnie Brascoe - Mafia's Greatest Hits: Yesterday TV". Retrieved 2013-06-29.
  36. ^ "Secrets of the Dead. Gangland Graveyard". PBS. 1981-05-05. Retrieved 2013-06-29.
  37. ^ "Joe Pistone talks about Donnie Brasco on 'Inside the American Mob'". Usedview. Retrieved 30 October 2017.