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About Douglas Century
Books by Douglas Century
Author Interview  

Douglas Century

About Douglas Century

An Interview with Douglas Century

More About Douglas Century

Douglas Century is the coauthor of Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire, a nonfiction account of Detective Rick Cowan’s unprecedented infiltration of the upper echelons of New York’s Cosa Nostra families.  A contributing writer with The New York Times, Century’s work has also appeared in Details, Rolling Stone, Brill’s Content, Newsday, The Forward, The Village Voice, The Guardian and Talk. 

 

Century is the author of the critically acclaimed international bestseller Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse which received a starred, lead nonfiction review in Publishers Weekly (“at once mesmerizing, humorous and tragic”) and major review coverage in national publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The New Yorker and Time.  (“Street Kingdom merits a place alongside The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son,” wrote the Detroit Free Press. “An inventive mix of courageous investigative reporting, accomplished storytelling, knowing social commentary, and wicked street-smart prose.”)

 

Century’s 2001 New York Times feature story about the world of highly competitive youth baseball, “The Boys of Summer,” was recently optioned by Miramax Films and is being developed into a feature film.  He is also the author of several original screenplays. 

 

In April 2001, Century was a featured speaker in the Museum of the City of New York’s Gotham Readers series, Gangs, Gangsters and Gangstas, a sold-out event held at the Public Theatre in New York at which he spoke about the history of gangsters in Brooklyn.   In December 2002, the South Street Seaport Museum has invited Century to be part of a distinguished panel of authors reading from the 1927 classic The Gangs of New York, in conjunction with the release of Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film adaptation.

 

Century was born and raised in Canada, and is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University.  He lives in New York City with his wife.

 

A Conversation with Douglas Century, coauthor of Takedown, The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire

 

 

1.       Q:  How does Rick’s story, and this undercover operation, compare to that of FBI Agent Joe Pistone, who infiltrated the mob as Donnie Brasco in the 1970s? 

 

A:  Pistone was a pioneer.  His infiltration of the Mob was a groundbreaking event, and he’s the one everyone thinks of when they think of a law enforcement agent becoming a wiseguy.  It was an important case, and it made for a terrific book.  But there are a couple clear distinctions between the two stories.  As Brasco, Pistone infiltrated and became an associate of a crew of made guys in the Bonanno family.  If you recall, a key theme in his book was that these guys were a bunch of pedestrian, low-rent, degenerate gamblers, stealing from each other wherever possible.  In a sense his aim was to debunk the Godfather myth that had become part of our perception of organized crime.  He showed that these guys were not all-powerful but rather a bunch of violent, pathetic thugs, desperate for one big score to turn their lives around.  In infiltrating the Mafia’s garbage cartel, Rick, on the other hand, was operating among the highest level of economic racketeers in the Gambino and Genovese families—the two most powerful organized crime families in the country.  He was getting close to guys who had the power to crack an economic whip over all of New York: heavyweight gangsters like Joseph “Joey Cigars” Francolino, Alphonso “Allie Shades” Malangone, and James “Jimmy Brown” Failla, who started as Carlo Gambino’s chauffeur and eventually spent forty years as the boss of the garbage rackets.  These guys were running the Mob’s most lucrative enterprise since Prohibition, with an estimated annual value of roughly $1.5 billion, and a skim for the mob in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  That’s untraceable millions in cash going every year into the pockets of bosses like John Gotti and Vincent “Chin” Gigante.

 

2.       Q:  The Pistone/Brasco undercover operation was clearly and carefully planned.  Was that what happened here? 

 

A:  No.  And that’s another distinction between the two cases.  The FBI painstakingly orchestrated Pistone’s insertion into the Mob and carefully planned where to have him hang out so he could tentatively begin to meet hoods in his undercover alias as “Don the jewel thief.”  By contrast, Rick was thrown into his undercover role entirely by happenstance.  It’s more like “through the looking glass”—suddenly he’s undercover in this crazy world with its own upside-down rules and slang.  Rick had been interviewing the owner of an independent garbage company who had had one of his trucks firebombed—a guy named Sal Benedetto—when the two hoods who blew the truck up walked in and started making more crazy threats.  When Rick tried to defuse the situation, one of the thugs demanded to know who he was.  Out of the blue, Sal said, “That’s my cousin Danny—he works here.”  It was a total fluke—and the only way this kind of case could have ever truly gotten off the ground. 

 

3.       Q:  Why do you say that? 

 

A:  Because these garbage gangsters were too careful to be easily duped.  In 1976 and ’77, the FBI planned a careful infiltration of the garbage rackets by setting up their own carting company with an agent named Wayne Orrell posing as an owner.  They succeeded in locking up two guys, including Carlo Gambino’s cousin, the Sicilian-born Joe Gambino.  But the investigation never went anywhere beyond that because the powerful gangsters who ran the industry were extremely cagey and suspicious.  They didn’t deal with outsiders.  Over the years just about every level of law enforcement—including the FBI under Hoover, Robert Kennedy’s justice department, and district attorneys in all of New York’s five boroughs—tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate the garbage business beyond the foot soldier level.  They got nowhere.  The only way the situation was going to change was through sheer luck, and that’s what this was. 

               

4.   Q:  At a very basic level, this investigation totally transformed New York’s economic landscape.  How was it able to progress as far as it did? 

 

A:  Everyone I talked to, including Rick’s boss on the case, Tony Mazziotti, said the investigation went as far as it did because Rick was constantly pushing to see the job through to the end.  He’s not someone who does anything halfway; he never gives up the ship.  According to Mazziotti, who also had a great career as an undercover officer, if Rick had said at any point that he was maxed-out—whether for personal reasons, health reasons, family reasons or whatever—they would have locked up whoever they could have locked up and that would have been it.  But Rick didn’t want to stop.  The other guys on the team were doing their jobs as cops; Rick was a man on a mission.  When the case broke, comments from the District Attorney’s office made it seem as if they were always the field generals masterminding the investigation, but the police commissioner himself, Bill Bratton, didn’t mince words.  He said, Rick was the “catalyst,” and that if it wasn’t for his creativity and ingenuity—if he hadn’t kept his cool and done what he did—the case would have gone nowhere.

 

5.       Q:  During the course of the investigation, Rick learned that District Attorney Robert Morgenthau had launched a separate undercover operation inside the cartel.  What happened?  And what sort of problems did that cause? 

 

A:  First off, this has to be said for the record: Morgenthau’s office gets full marks for prosecuting one of the most significant Mafia cases of the twentieth century.  But this subject of a “parallel” undercover operation became a huge bone of contention within the NYPD, and it’s something no one in the media has ever written about.  Long before Rick went undercover, there was a conventional phase to the investigation, during which he conducted surveillance on Genovese capo Alphonso “Allie Shades” Malangone.  During every part of that process, Rick worked hand-in-glove with people in the DA’s office.  You can’t steal a guy’s car or break into his nightclub to install surveillance devices—all of which Rick personally did—without court-authorized warrants.  Those warrants were written by the District Attorney’s office.  The point I’m trying to make is that from the beginning this was two arms of law enforcement—the NYPD and the Manhattan DA’s office—working in partnership.

 

But things got complicated, and the NYPD got upset when one of the assistant district attorneys let slip, in an innocuous conversation with Rick’s boss, that his office had started running a parallel undercover operation.  This was well after Rick had begun his infiltration.  Actually, the DA had two other undercover investigators besides Rick.  Morgenthau inserted one undercover as the building manager at 55 Water Street—the largest commercial office complex in New York, now that the World Trade Center has been destroyed—and a second guy as a manager with Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., a Houston-based trash giant that had begun operating in New York City.  In other words, they were two white-collar jobs being done by DA’s investigators.

 

When Rick’s boss, Sergeant Tony Mazziotti, got wind of this he absolutely went through the roof.  After all, Tony was ostensibly the boss of the entire investigation, and if anyone should be in the loop on these things, he should.   It’s a fundamental principle of undercover work that you don’t put two undercovers on “the set”—cop slang for a location—unless both know about each other.  And it’s particularly risky if they’re both wearing wires.  Remember, on discovery, the defense team must be giving copies of all the pertinent taped evidence and transcripts.  Let’s say a mobster says something incriminating to Rick in a meeting: “Yeah, I’m the boss.”  If that same mobster then says something contradictory to the second undercover—“No, I ain’t the boss”—the inconsistency will give shrewd defense attorneys an opportunity to crack the case in half. 

 

6.       Q:  How crucial were these two other undercover officers in making the case against the Mob?    

 

A:   They did contribute to some extent, but as Pat Dugan, the chief of the DA’s Rackets Bureau and the man who prosecuted the case, says in the court record to the jury: “Detective Cowan is the whole case.” In press accounts after the trial, District Attorney Morgenthau stressed the fact that there were a total of three undercovers involved in the case.  Sure, he was spreading the credit around.  But the hard fact is that during the entire eight-month trial, neither of his two undercovers spent one minute on the stand.  Rick, on the other hand, was on the stand the entire summer, while gangsters like Joe Francolino and Allie Shades were staring daggers at him.  His testimony took up 29 days on the court calendar, including nine days of grueling cross-examination from some of the top legal eagles in the country.  If those other guys were so crucial to the investigation, why didn’t they testify?  And what did they really accomplish?  They certainly never set foot in any of the trade-waste associations. 

 

7.       Q:  Why was getting inside the garbage associations so important? 

 

A:  In more than 50 years of investigations, law enforcement had never managed to get an undercover operative posing as a Mafia-connected guy into any of the four “garbage clubs”—the Mob-controlled associations that represented the carting companies.  And that was the heart of the case.  At the height of the investigation, Rick was in there every day meeting with the top kingpins.  He gained the confidence of Joe Francolino and Allie Shades—the two top wiseguys for the Gambino and Genovese crime families, respectively.  He was literally hanging out with these guys, smoking cigars, drinking, arms around their shoulders, doing what they call “walk and talks,” as they conspired to break the law.  That was the case.  Without that, the DA would never have been able to take down the garbage cartel in court. 

 

I’m not suggesting that others didn’t play their part.  One of Morgenthau’s undercovers did receive a bribe from the son of garbage gangster Angelo Ponte.  But my theory—and it’s just that, my personal theory—is that Morgenthau waged a subtle campaign in the media to minimize what the NYPD achieved.  District attorneys often treat cops as if they were third-class citizens, just a bunch of “dumb blue-collar guys.”  And why should they have achieved the unprecedented when these brilliant legal minds from Ivy League schools had failed?  Well, it took a hell of a lot of luck and “blue-collar” street sense on Rick’s part.

 

Again, this was not a typical Mob case in which a bunch of bad guys were locked up for gambling or coke-dealing or gun-running.  This case changed the entire economic landscape of New York City.  Everyone wanted to take credit for the estimated savings to New Yorkers of $650 million a year.  That’s why politicians as diverse as Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Public Advocate Mark Green each touted his own role in the cartel-busting case.  Giuliani repeatedly called it “the biggest tax break” in the city’s history.  Of course, this was a huge political coup. 

 

8.       Q:  The District Attorney’s office told Rick to stay away from the media after the case broke.  What happened after that? 

 

A:  While Rick was on the stand, the DA’s office was flooded with queries from authors, journalists, TV producers and filmmakers interested in his story.  Under the Rosario laws, he wasn’t allowed to speak to any member of the Fourth Estate because the trial was still in progress.  And even after the trial ended he was told he couldn’t speak publicly because he would be testifying in various other trials and in front of government committees.  Unfortunately, others weren’t bound by the same strictures.  In fact, Rick came to find out during the height of the trial that someone in the DA’s office was taking the minutes of his testimony and passing them along to a third party who then spun the material into a novel.  I think the prosecutors chewed up Rick like a juicy T-bone steak.  His experience was not unlike that of other cops who’ve risked their lives by going deep undercover but who often feel prosecutors don’t have much respect for them or what they sacrificed. 

 

9.       Q:  What kind of price did Rick pay careerwise? 

 

A:  He was officially honored and promoted to Detective First-Grade.  He received a commendation. But he was also prohibited from working the streets because he’s a walking target for the Mob.  And because he logged so many hours of overtime during the investigation and trial, he has basically been banned by the job from working any more overtime.  The way the system works is that when a police officer wants to retire, his pension is based on his last year’s salary including overtime pay.  That’s one of the reasons so many high-ranking, veteran cops retired after the World Trade Center disaster.  They knew their pensions would never again be as high because they’d never be able to repeat the kind of overtime hours they were getting.  Rick did an incredible job for the police department and the city.  But police administrations change, and you are only in the memory of the bosses who have a vested interest in a given investigation.

 

10.         Q:  How did this operation change his personal life? 

 

A:  It turned his life completely upside-down.  It impacted every member of his family; it impacted his physical health; and it impacted how he’ll raise his child.  Before the trial began, Rick, his wife and their newborn son were living on Staten Island, which, as Rick rather drolly notes, is the Mob capital of America.  After the trial they had no choice but to move far outside the city.  To this day, I don’t know where Rick lives.  I don’t know his home number.

 

Rick is going to spend the rest of his life living in the shadows.  Just before the case came to trial, the police uncovered some very credible information about a planned hit specifically aimed at Sal Benedetto.  The informant also had a message clearly directed at Rick: The Gambino family wasn’t

going to allow anyone to testify against them.  When the informant was told the main witness was going to be an NYPD detective, the informant said, “Then the undercover better watch his ass.” 

 

11.    Q:  Isn’t there an unwritten rule that the Mob doesn’t assassinate cops? 

 

A:  The “rule” hasn’t always been adhered to in recent years.  Not too long ago, a police officer was murdered in Brooklyn and the NYPD suspects that organized crime, either Russian or Italian families, made the hit.  And Rick’s not just some cop who slapped the cuffs on a bunch of hoods.  In the eyes of garbage kingpins like Joe Francolino, he was a garbage and recycling executive for many years.  Joe and all the rest are now sitting in maximum-security prisons in New York State because Rick completely hoodwinked them.  They trusted him enough to make some stunning admissions to him—almost all of which he captured on tape.  They must be feeling some level of humiliation at the way he brought them down.  Rick doesn’t worry too much about himself.  He’s a detective.  He’s got a gun.  He’s a tough guy.  I know he can handle himself with his fists or any which way.  What concerns him more is the fact that he’s got a wife, a young son and parents who can’t be protected all the time.

 

12.    Q:  What do you want readers to get out of this book? 

 

A:  On the most basic level, I want them to enjoy a terrific story.  This is an account of a dedicated cop doing his job and playing the role of a lifetime.  It takes readers on an odyssey in which every turn is unexpected and filled with real danger.  Mafia or no Mafia, I think people love to read that kind of story.  This book shows the Mob in its twilight.  These guys had the power to hold an entire city in their grasp.  It was an open secret.  Everybody knew the Mob was running the garbage racket and nobody could do anything about it.  I think this is the last time you’ll ever see mobsters brazenly wielding that kind of power.

 

Also, given what’s been filling the headlines recently about corporate malfeasance, I think the story is especially relevant today.  This was the Mafia as big business, and now we’re reading about so many “legitimate” companies acting just like a white-collar mob.  We have a quote in the book from the infamous Lucchese mobster Johnny Dio: “What did I do that J.P. Morgan didn’t do?  It’s all a racket.  Isn’t Wall Street a racket where the strong take advantage of the weak?”  And that’s something Johnny Dio said when he got arrested more than fifty years ago.

 

I also want readers to get a fly-on-the-wall view of this older generation of mobsters, gruff-voiced gangsters complete with their Churchill cigars and their snap-brim fedoras; this was the World War II generation, schooled by the real old-timers.  Rick gets right up close to them day after day—rubbing shoulders, smoking cigars, throwing back the booze.  There’s been a tendency in the media to see the Mob as increasingly filled with rats and junkies and morons.  In one sense that’s true.  Or you have something like The Sopranos, which takes us into the suburbs to see the baby-boom mobsters.  Well, these guys in the New York cartel were no dummies: They were sophisticated racketeers, extremely cautious and clever and powerful in a way the Mafia will probably never be again.  They’re a throwback to the myth of The Godfather.  In this industry, at least, it wasn’t a myth that they could openly extort—even shut down—the financial capital of the world.

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