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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Movie mobsters face the music
Chris Summers
BBC News Online

It might be time for the makers of the movie Donnie Brasco to dust it down and film an epilogue. The film, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, was based on the real life of undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone - and this week, several reputed mafia bosses go on trial in New York accused of conspiring to kill the man who invited Pistone into the family.

Donnie Brasco film poster
The film Donnie Brasco was based on the Bonanno family
In 1976, FBI agent Joe Pistone went undercover to infiltrate one of New York's five mafia families, the Bonannos.

Using the name Donnie Brasco, he befriended one of the top captains, Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano, and became so trusted that the other wiseguys introduced him to their wives and children and shared details of serious crimes they had perpetrated.

In the movie, Johnny Depp played Donnie Brasco and Al Pacino played another mafioso, Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero, who he befriended.

Five years later, Pistone was pulled out by the FBI as a vicious, internecine war broke out within the Bonannos.

Not long after his cover was blown, Napolitano was murdered. His body, with a gunshot wound to the head, was recovered from a swamp in Staten Island a year later.


Federal prosecutors claim he was "whacked" by his bosses as punishment for allowing Pistone into the inner circle. Pistone's evidence led to five Bonanno soldiers being convicted of racketeering in 1982.

This week, Joseph "Big Joey" Massino, the alleged head of the Bonanno family, goes on trial accused of ordering the 1981 murder of Napolitano, played in the film Donnie Brasco by Michael Madsen.

Joe Massino is very sly. He is a throwback to the old mobsters who kept their business to themselves. He is the last of the old-time gangsters
Joe Pistone
Former FBI agent

The trial is due to last three months and jury selection alone is expected to last two weeks.

The pool of 500 jurors will be given 35-page questionnaires asking them if they have ever seen the Donnie Brasco movie, read the recent article in Time magazine or even seen a recent episode of The Sopranos (which made passing mention of Massino's troubles).

Massino, now 61, was the only person to be acquitted at the 1982 trial.

Joe Pistone himself told BBC News Online: "Sonny Black was my captain and Joe killed him because of me, so of course I'd like to see him convicted if he did it."


Pistone, ringing from a secret address in the US, said: "Joe Massino is very sly. He is a throwback to the old mobsters who kept their business to themselves. He is the last of the old-time gangsters.

"He was ruthless and did what he had to do."

Joe Massino
"Big Joey" Massino is said to be one of the last of the old-fashioned mafia dons
Pistone, who has a new book out called Way Of The Wiseguy, said there was still a contract out on his own life but he said: "I don't think people go out every day looking for me. But they are still pretty cheesed off about what I did.

"If they can do it, let them come. All you can is try and defend yourself."

Pistone believes Massino will be convicted and he pointed out several of his top men, including his brother-in-law and underboss Sal Vitale, would be giving evidence against him this time.

The indictment against Massino names several associates with colourful monikers.

They include alleged captains Robert "Bobby Ha Ha" Attanasio, Generoso "Jimmy The General" Barbieri, Peter "Peter Rabbit" Calabrese and Michael "Mikey Bats" Cardello.

Vito Rizzuto, said to be the head of the Bonannos' branch in Montreal, Canada, has also been indicted but is fighting extradition from north of the border.

Massino, Sciascia and Vito Rizzuto in FBI surveillance shot
Massino (far right) is accused of ordering the murder of Gerlando Sciascia (far left). Both men are seen here in an FBI surveillance shot
In total 27 alleged members of the Bonanno family were indicted last year, some of whom are believed to have "flipped" and done a deal with the prosecutors.

Massino is also charged with loansharking, and running a variety of illegal gambling businesses including an illegal baccarat game, a sports betting operation and the distribution of fruit machines.

He is also charged, in a separate indictment, with conspiring to murder Bonanno captain Gerlando Sciascia, for which he could face the death penalty if convicted.

Massino is also accused of ordering the hit on Cesare Bonventre, whose mutilated body was found in a warehouse in New Jersey in 1984.

The Bonanno family
One of five New York mafia clans (the others being Gambino, Genovese, Colombo and Lucchese families)
Founded by Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, who retired to Arizona and died in 2002, aged 97
Was the first of the five families to get involved in drug trafficking
Currently has around 100 "made" men and dozens of other associates
At the time of his death Bonventre was a defendant in the so-called Pizza Connection case, in which the Bonanno family imported heroin into the US from Italy.

The prosecutors will also be gunning for 14 properties, worth $12m, including Massino's pride and joy - the Casa Blanca Italian restaurant in Queens, where he has held court since it opened in 1996.

But Massino's lawyer, David Breitbart, is confident his client will be cleared, and said the government's case was built on the word of "rats", who were trying to save their own skins by testifying against his client.

Mr Breitbart told BBC News Online: "I am going to use the blast furnace of truth to show what these so-called witnesses really are."

'Hoping for fair trial'

He said: "Joe Massino has pleaded not guilty. We are hoping we get a fair trial but the accusations are such that we will have to wait to see whether we do."

I am going to use the blast furnace of truth to show what these so-called witnesses really are
David Breitbart
Massino's lawyer
Mr Breitbart said it would be crucial to weed out all jurors who may be biased or prejudiced.

He said: "My client does not have to prove anything. It's the prosecutors who have got to prove their case.

"There is no forensic evidence against him, no wiretaps or surveillance. The only tapes are those which occurred in the year he was in custody."

As for the film, Mr Breitbart claims: "It's all fiction which portrays [Pistone] as a hero instead of the mutt that he really is."

Police swoop on Bonanno 'family'
21 Jan 04  |  Americas

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