Undercover Cop: How I Brought Down the Real-Life Sopranos by Mike Russell with Patrick W. Picciarelli is the true story of Russell's undercover operation infiltrating New Jersey's Genovese crime family (available August 6, 2013).
In the 1980s, New Jersey state cop Mike Russell infiltrated the Genovese family in an undercover operation that eventually led to the arrest of fifty-five members of the crew operating out of The Cage.
If you follow Mafia lore, it’s not much of a secret how things end. But even if you’re not a mob history buff, you've seen how some of these guys made headlines.
Every time Zarra took me aside for a private chat, I thought for sure he’d gotten wise to my bogus heating-oil business, but he never did. His greed overtook good sense. Somewhere in the recesses of that corrupt brain of his he had to know something wasn’t right with me, but he never questioned it. Dollar signs did his thinking for him. Historically, if a wiseguy was going to get busted, it was usually due to one of two things: greed or his inability to keep his mouth shut. In New York, John Gotti had done a doubleheader— getting indicted because of his big mouth and his insatiable thirst for more money— and Zarra’s terminal greed would eventually mean his downfall.
But you don’t read this for the “whodunit” but rather the how and why along the way. It’s the story of how this guy, a patrol cop, managed to become trusted enough to get dirt on some of the biggest mob bosses of the day, and all the corruption and crazy along the way.
It’s also a helluva lot of fun to read, like listening to a foul-mouthed grandpa at your favorite dive bar telling you about all the stuff he did when he was your age (and realizing grandpa was a badass).
Undercover work attracts risk takers, and sometimes risk takers have death wishes. We’re a complicated lot and a shrink’s wet dream, but I had a handle on my bravado; for me it was about the case, not a dick-measuring contest.
After an earlier undercover investigation ends with Russell being shot in the head, he miraculously not only survives, but gains the trust of another family to the degree that they eventually suggest he set up his bogus heating oil office next door to their social club.
I began to move furniture in that week but had to scramble to get a typewriter. I settled on an old Royal I had used to write reports when I booked prisoners. It was in poor shape, mostly from interrupting my typing chores to utilize the machine as a club to control unruly criminals. I used off-duty state cops as movers. They knew nothing of the operation, they were just doing as they were told.
It took me about two weeks to make the place look presentable with some paint and a gallon of Windex to remove crud from the windows. While I was busy with the chores, John DiGilio would stop by and try to recruit me for muscle work or any of the myriad scams he was working on the docks. As part of his pitch he’d tell me what a great guy he was because as vice president of the Longshoremen’s Union he was giving jobs to cops’ kids. I knew this allegedly magnanimous gesture was a backdoor approach to keeping local cops on the pad; instead of paying them directly, their kids got the money.
During the course of the investigation, he spends a good deal of time avoiding the local crooked cops and dealing with the inevitable FBI and task force interventions that nearly get him shot a second time. And while he has nothing but respect for his immediate handler, Sweeney, he has only slightly kinder things to say about the brass than he does about the cops on the take.
Most upper-level police bosses don’t like to make critical decisions, fearing the wrong one will result in their demotion back to their highest civil-service rank, usually captain. Exceptions to this rule exist, but it only takes one shaky boss in the chain of command to stop the system cold when an important decision has to be made. It’s joked, with some degree of truth, that appointment to a rank above captain requires the candidate to undergo castration before being sworn in. I once saw a box strategically placed at the entrance to an auditorium where a ceremony was about to be conducted to elevate an assistant chief to the rank of chief. Printed crudely across the box was deposit testicles here before being promoted.
With each promotion, bosses become more isolated and distrustful. A top-management boss loses touch with the rank and file, resulting in the distrust of street cops, those actually fighting crime. This is the area where I experienced problems.
Over the course of the investigation, he has cause to meet all manner of bad guy, wiseguy, and corrupt guy. There was one, however, that stood out, even to Russell.
I would deliver an envelope stuffed with cash to the weigh-in site, where I’d pass it off to a middleman, what we called a cutout. I never directly handed the cash to the legislator, but one time I waited until the cutout entered a trailer after I gave him the envelope, and while the door was open, I saw him pass the money to the legislator, who saw me and waved.
I’ve dealt with many corrupt people in Jersey—it was a fact of life during those years—but this guy’s conduct upset me. Maybe it was because I’d bought the hype he was spewing. To this day I see the former legislator’s smiling face in the newspapers or on TV quite often. He’s a family-values type of guy and looks the part, taking available opportunities to parade his family in front of the cameras or talking up what a great place America is.
Since the 1960s, six state senators plus eight mayors from north Jersey have gone to prison. This legislator was one of the lucky ones who slipped through the cracks.
In the end—after the arrests, the pleas, the sentences, HBO specials, and side jobs—this story ends where all good eighties mobster stories end up these days: just up the road from me in South Florida. The whys and hows, I’ll leave for you to discover.
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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.