Updated: Jan 27
"Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp) is an FBI agent who has infiltrated one of the major New York Mafia families and is living under the name Donnie Brasco. He develops a relationship with mob hit man Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero (Al Pacino) in order to get deeper under cover, but ends up developing a real friendship with the Mafioso. As their relationship develops, Pistone must decide whether or not to complete his job, knowing that it will lead to the murder of his new friend.
"Who Is Donnie Brasco?
Donnie Brasco was the alias of undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone, who was born in 1939 in Erie, Pennsylvania. The FBI created the alias of Brasco to stem the rising truck hijacking numbers, but Brasco was able to rise quickly within the ranks and be nominated for membership in the Bonanno crime family. Eventually, Brasco was pulled and the mission was ended for his safety.
The Bonanno Family
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, 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 organized a six-month undercover operation, known as "Sun-Apple" to infiltrate the fences. The FBI gave Pistone a new identity as a small, but successful, jewel thief and burglar called Donnie Brasco.
Pistone 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.
Undercover with the Mob
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 July 12, 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, Dominick "Sonny Black" 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 were unable to 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. The Mafia put a contract out on Brasco's life for half a million dollars.
Pistone and his family still live under secret identities in an undisclosed location in New Jersey. In 1986, he retired from the FBI and he currently works as an FBI consultant and lectures internationally. He's also the author of several books and the co-owner of a production company.
Death of Napolitano
Two days after the FBI pulled Brasco out of the operation they informed Napolitano that he had been working undercover. It was not long before Napolitano's death was ordered. On August 17, 1981, accepting his fate, Napolitano gave his favorite bartender his jewelry and the keys to his apartment so that his pet pigeons could be looked after. On August 12, 1982, his body was found in a creek on Staten Island. Another Bonanno boss, Joe Massino, was found guilty of ordering his death in 2004.
On August 30, 1981, the FBI arrested Ruggiero for his own protection, the same day that a contract was put out on him. He was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison but was released on parole in 1992. On Thanksgiving Day 1995, Ruggiero died of cancer in his New York home. He was 72.
The evidence collected by Brasco led to over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions. New York Mafia families have instituted new rules to thwart future undercover penetrations. Before a new member is made a soldier he must kill someone, and two family members, instead of one, must vouch with their own lives for him.
Pistone's wife is Maggie, a former nurse. The couple has three daughters. The family lives in New Jersey under false identities."
November 18, 2020 Publisher A&E Television Networks