Vince Presutti and Roberto Gambini

Before Joe Marcello, the underboss for the Marcello family, America’s oldest crime syndicate, started dealing with Presutti, he needed to know if he was a real criminal. So he sent his friend Roberto Gambini up to New York to find out. “We played Roberto up great,” Presutti says. “We took him to a restaurant where we knew the people.” Four or five agents accompanied Presutti, acting as his “crew.” The restaurant played right along. Attentive waiters called him Mr. Piccone. “They kept flooding the table with food and drink,” he says.

During the meal, his crew members would answer phone calls and come to Presutti to ask what to do about certain “situations.” At one point, Presutti got up to use the restroom. He made sure to leave his wallet on the table, so that Gambini could see it. It was stuffed with cash and cards related to his undercover persona.

When the evening was over, the group got up to leave. The bill was more than $1,000. Presutti went to pay before the manager intervened. “Anthony,” he said, “You know you never pay when you come here.”

What a Card

Just a year ago, Karen Gladstone’s life was normal. Good, but normal. She had a decent advertising career in Chicago, great family and kind friends. She ate the food she liked, listened to music she enjoyed and wore clothes that suited her.Until one day in a drugstore, when everything changed.

Gladstone was nearing her 29th birthday and—fearing introspection and the inevitable mental and physical decline that loomed just over the horizon when she turned 30—she decided she wanted to push herself beyond the limits of her day-to-day experiences. But how? She liked the idea of other people telling her how to stretch her limits—having them write her “bucket list,” so to speak. But she needed something else. Something more. That’s when it hit her.

Standing in line at Walgreen’s, she found herself staring at a pack of playing cards. Fifty-two cards in a deck, she thought. Fifty-two weeks in the year. Eureka.

 

[Check out all of Karen’s cards, watch videos of her exploits and go “beyond the deck.”]

She bought the deck, went home and compiled a list of 52 people she could send the cards to: family members, friends, coworkers, acquaintances and even ex-boyfriends. Some of the people she had known since childhood. Others she wasn’t sure even liked her. She was undaunted.

She mailed each one of them a card and a note: “Please write a challenge, task or test on the card and mail it back.” The goal, she explained, was simple: Each week leading up to her 30th birthday, she would randomly pick a card from the deck and give herself seven days to perform whatever challenge they put before her.
She trusted them to pick something different, something unique, something that took her out of her comfort zone. And they did. It also turns out most of her friends are jokers.

Since her deck came back, Gladstone has enrolled in a pole-dancing class, gone on a blind date, juggled soccer balls for charity and spent a workday dressed entirely in yellow. She has crashed a Nigerian wedding and set up an entire personal desktop computer (plus accessories) for Internet browsing in a busy Starbucks café. She has empirically proven that 1,567 licks are required to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop, has attended Mass and taken communion every day for a week and gone without food and water for 24 hours. She has hidden in crowds dressed up as Waldo, performed a stand-up comedy routine and filmed a Mentos commercial, during which she jumped in a fountain and kissed a stranger.

Some challenges introduce her to entirely new sub-cultures. A former colleague with a divergent taste in music sent her to see a hard-core punk concert, for example. The night was made memorable by thrashing fans, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and an impulsive lead singer who sent the crowd into a frenzy when he suggested, “Everyone hit everyone else in the head!”

Gladstone not only survived the night, she bought a T-shirt, got it signed by the lead singer and proudly wore it to work the next day. “They really are great people,” Gladstone says of punk music fans. “They just enjoy different things.”

Halfway through, she’s already deemed the idea a success, although the year’s not up yet and she could be in for some surprises as she continues to draw cards.

She is growing suspicious, for instance, of her brother’s smirk when he asks how her year is going. He thinks his challenge is the best. “I don’t know how you’re going to accomplish it,” he tells her, “but I’m excited to see you try.”

Gladstone says the idea didn’t spring from a midlife crisis, or even a quarter-life crisis. “I thought, ‘I’ve got a really great life going here. Now that I am reaching this turning point, what can I do to turn up the volume?’ ”

Turn up the volume, it did. But it’s done something more: It’s taught her that the project—and life—is about more than her and her challenges. Every week she receives emails from people who say they follow her on her website, www.karenondeck.com, and are living vicariously through her adventures. She has inspired some to tackle challenges of their own, and live more creatively.

It’s about more than setting random weekly goals, accomplishing them, then selecting another, she says. “It’s about using creativity to enhance your overall life. Do something different, don’t just go with the status quo and move along in life.”

Where are They Now?

Jack Thobe, 1962

The first time Jack Thobe ever flew on aJack plane, he was 18 years old. It was 1958, and Xavier was in the National Invitation Tournament in New York. Thobe sat in the stands at Madison Square Garden as the Musketeers beat St. Bonaventure in the semifinals, and again when they scraped past Dayton to win the tournament. The team, which was courting him as a top basketball recruit, invited him to fly back to Cincinnati with them.

By the time they landed at Lunken Airport, Thobe knew where he was going to college. “I thought, well, I’ve gotta come here,” he says.
Thobe thrived at Xavier. The 6-foot-8-inch center from Ludlow, Ky., stymied opponents with his inside hook shot, scoring 1,296 points in his three years on the varsity team.

When he graduated in 1962, Thobe was drafted by the Kansas City Steers and the Cincinnati Royals, providing him a chance to play with—instead of against—University of Cincinnati star Oscar Robertson, “the greatest I ever saw,” he says. But Thobe had just married his childhood sweetheart Blanche—his “princess charming,” as he calls her—and he wanted a steady job. So he joined the Akron Wingfoots, a corporate team sponsored by Goodyear Tire and Rubber in the National Industrial Basketball League. As part of that program, Thobe played for a year and trained in Goodyear’s plastic packaging sales division. He spent 30 years with Goodyear, eventually moving out to California where he oversaw sales in 14 Western states.

Thobe now lives in Huntington Beach, Calif. He doesn’t make it back to Cincinnati much, but he’s sure to watch all the Xavier basketball he can on television. “That’s one thing I insist on when I get a TV network, that I can see those games,” he says. Thobe has five children, all athletes in their own right. Two of his sons became Major League Baseball players, and one daughter is a professional golfer.

He also has grandchildren, whom he’s trying to teach the fundamentals of a good hook shot. “That’s basically what I lived on,” he says. “But the old legs aren’t what they used to be.”

Brandon McIntosh, 2002

20101108Xavier-6186Brandon McIntosh didn’t get to play basketball as much as he wanted at Xavier, and it broke the 6-foot-5-inch forward’s heart. But McIntosh’s faith helped him cope with the disappointment and shape who he is today.
“I was behind coming in, and that presented a challenge,” says McIntosh, who came to Xavier as a prep standout from Cincinnati’s Roger Bacon High School, but was ruled academically ineligible and didn’t get to play his first year.
“Being from Cincinnati, it was embarrassing and humbling,” he says. “I was used to playing in high school, but I was sitting on the sidelines. It was at that point, when I was heart-broken, that God started talking to me.”
McIntosh’s faith inspired him to work harder academically and to accept the future he believes God intended for him. After improving his grades, McIntosh worked his way back onto the court and graduated in three years with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2002. In spite of the impressive comeback, McIntosh’s dream to play basketball professionally never materialized.
“I thought the NBA was for me, but God was using basketball as a stepping stone to show me the bigger picture,” he says.
For McIntosh, the bigger picture revolves around the myriad ways in which he counsels people today to reach the potential God intends for them. He earns his living as a treatment advocate in Columbus for the National Youth Advocate Program, a foster care organization, and recently founded a non-denominational Christian church for which he is pastor. He stays connected to sports, too, as a volunteer chaplain for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The message of Christ appeals to the young and old, to athletes, to criminals, to the rich and poor, says McIntosh, who uses his own story of despair on the basketball court to faith-inspired triumph off court to make his point.
“Everyone wants to know their purpose in life, what they are here for,” he says. “My passion is helping people see their full purpose, where they are now, versus where they should be.”

Bob Staak

Like magic, Bob Staak built Xavier into a winning team. Within six years of taking over asbob stackXavier’s new men’s head basketball coach and athletic director, he had the team winning regularly. But, more importantly, within six years he laid the foundation for what the program is today.

The University had been looking for a prominent, competitive sports program to replace football since it’s cancelation in 1973. Deciding on basketball, the University went searching for a coach who could make an impact. It found Staak.

Experienced as an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania, Staak rebuilt Xavier’s program from the ground up, recruiting all-state players, joining a league for the first time, moving home games to the Cincinnati Gardens, and upgrading the schedule to all Division I teams. Four of the players he recruited were drafted later by the NBA, but the highlight was taking the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years.

After several coaching positions, Staak is making a different kind of magic now as a talent scout for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. The job is seasonal, which means he travels a lot during the fall and spring, scouting NBA and college players. In his five months of free time, he plays a lot of golf at courses around his home in Cornelius, N.C.

But Staak says his time at Xavier was the most memorable of his career. There are times he wishes he’d never left.

“Because I built it into a program that was competitive with one of the better teams in the league we were in,” he says. “That foundation moved it along and contributed to the success Xavier has now. I feel proud of the fact we were able to start it and build that foundation, and secondly that it has continued.”

Gene Smith, 1952

g.smithIt goes without saying that Gene Smith was going to be drafted after he graduated from Xavier in 1952. The 6-foot-5-inch center from Hamilton Catholic was the first Musketeer to score more than 1,000 points in his three years of varsity ball, and the first to average more than 20 points per game in a season. Smith once scored 45 points in a game against Georgetown, Ky., at Schmidt Fieldhouse.

When he graduated, Smith was drafted twice: first by the Minneapolis Lakers and second by Uncle Sam.

“The U.S. Army was sitting there waiting for me,” Smith says. It was the height of the Korean War, and Smith suited up for two years of service with the Army. If he was disappointed about missing a chance to play professionally, Smith doesn’t show it. “I did get a chance to play some top-notch basketball in the service,” he says. Some of the country’s best players were joining the military, and Smith helped lead his Army team to a tournament in Washington, D.C., where they lost to the Air Force in the finals.

When Smith left the Army, the Lakers still wanted him. But he chose to sign up with the National Industrial Basketball League, instead. Goodyear Tire and Rubber offered a program where top athletes could play for their Akron Wingfoots team and simultaneously train for a job with the company. Smith was an NIBL all-star for all three years he played for the Wingfoots. And in the days before big television deals and high-capacity arenas, he made as much as he would have in the pros. He also launched a career in sales and stayed with Goodyear for almost 40 years.

These days, Smith is in the stands at every Xavier home game—he’s been a Xavier season ticket holder since the 1970s. He says basketball has changed since he played it. “It’s a different game,” he says. “I call it one-on-one basketball—‘Throw it to me and get the hell out of the way.’ ”

Derek Strong, 1990

Derek Strong grew up in Watts, one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles where nearly halfSTRONG2_FPO
of the population lives below the poverty line. It was there, on the city’s basketball courts, that he found his profession. After graduating from Xavier in 1990 with a degree in communications, he went on to play 12 seasons in the NBA. But it was also there, in the empty parking lots of the city’s retail and office buildings, that Strong found his passion—auto racing. Strong would slide into one of his uncle’s go karts and drive as fast as he could around the makeshift parking lot race tracks.

It’s not quite the stuff of legend, like Nascar Hall of Famer Junior Johnson learning to drive fast by running moonshine through the backroads of North Carolina. But the same racing bug bit Strong, and he’s aiming to end up in the same place. Since retiring from pro basketball in 2003, Strong has traveled around the country, strapping himself into almost any racecar he could find in order to gain the experience—the “seat time,” in racing parlance—needed to excel in his second professional sport. And he’s done so with a fair amount of success, finishing in the top 10 in 67 percent of his races.

And all was progressing fine until the crash. Not a racing crash, of course, but the economic crash. When the economy went for a spin, it took out the much-needed corporate sponsorship with it. And in the world of auto racing, sponsorship equals money, money equals equipment, equipment equals speed and speed equals wins. So Strong is back out knocking on doors trying to line up sponsors for one of the series he’s hoping to race in—ARCA or the Camping World Truck Series, both minor league affiliates of Nascar.

But he’s also sharing the education he got at Xavier, working with the Memphis-based Motorsports Institute to help promote racing and reading. The Institute brings Strong and his cars to schools—and offers free tickets to races—if the students read so many pages.
He wants them to see him race, though. He’s been racing late-model and ASA cars, but—like all racers—wants something bigger and faster. “It’s time to step it up,” he says.

Michael Davenport, 1991

While Michael Davenport was dreaming of playing professional basketball, little did he know davenportthat as he tore up the court for Xavier from 1988-1991 the teamwork and leadership skills he was developing as a starting guard would benefit him more as a businessman.

And Davenport is all right with that.

“Basketball is like a business. You have to be part of a team,” he says. “Basketball teaches everything you need to know. In the business world, I’m part of a team, but I still have to do my part.”

After graduating in 1991 with more than 1,000 points under his shoes, Davenport headed for the pros. But at the tryout in Wichita, Kan., the coach ended up cutting the guy from Xavier, because in Wichita, only guys from Kansas State bring in the fans. Getting cut hurt, but Davenport could see it was a good business decision. The man who played under Pete Gillen on the first Xavier squad to go to the NCAA Sweet 16 was smart enough to realize his playing days were over.

So he got a law degree, worked as an assistant basketball coach at West Point and Xavier, and landed at US Bank in Cincinnati. Starting as a branch manager, he worked his way up to corporate compliance, where he stays abreast of federal banking regulations.

Though busy raising two boys, Davenport still makes time for his Xavier teammates— Dwayne Wilson, Jamal Walker, Tyrone Hill, Stan Kimbrough, Rich Harris. “My closest friends are my teammates,” he says. “I was in battle with them for years. It’s cool to see the knuckleheads they were coming in and see what quality men they are now.”

Jamie Gladden, 1993

Like many of Xavier’s recruits, Jamie Gladden had more than a few offers when it came timeJ Gladden 8x10(2) to decide where to play college ball in 1989. A native of Lorain, Ohio, Gladden was getting calls from Oklahoma State, Tulsa University, University of Cincinnati, Ohio State and Drake University. It became overwhelming.

“It almost felt like I was more of a number than a person,” he says. “But every time I talked to a Xavier coach, it was a totally different experience. They didn’t promise anything they couldn’t deliver.”

Gladden remembers Skip Prosser, then an assistant coach, telling him, “Whatever you get here, you’re gonna have to earn it.” Gladden respected that. He also liked Xavier’s high graduation rate.

“The first thing I noticed is the great deal of camaraderie, the family atmosphere that the team had,” Gladden says. He didn’t have to wait long for a return on his investment. In his freshman year, his skills at shooting guard helped lead the team to its first appearance in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Gladden graduated in 1993 with a degree in sociology. Before then he would reach the NCAA tournament two more times and score 1,780 points—the seventh highest tally in Musketeer history.

Gladden is now assistant vice president of lost mitigation at Litton Loan Services in Atlanta. He still plays basketball, but limits himself to the casual two-on-two variety, and he tries to stick to guys his age, for his knees’ sake. He also helps out with the Amateur Athletic Union basketball team of his 14-year-old son, who grew up watching old VHS recordings of Gladden’s games with his cousin. Among them was the 1990 Crosstown Shootout nail biter, and a memorable game against Loyola Marymount, just two months before their star, Hank Gathers, died on the court. Xavier won both games, thanks to buzzer-beaters from Jamal Walker.

“Jamal was their favorite player,” Gladden says. “They’d cheer for him more than they would for me.”

Rick Reder, 1970

rederRick Reder finally found his calling—at age 50. The 6-foot former guard graduated with a degree in business from Xavier in 1970, married his high school sweetheart soon after and went into the insurance business. Everything was just as it was supposed to be.

But something was missing with his work: Passion.

“It was a job,” Reder says. “I was never terribly enamored with it. I guess I was somewhat successful.”

Reder, a lifelong Catholic, realized his true calling while on retreat in the mid-1990s. “One of the priests in the group said, ‘You’d make a great deacon.’ ” Reder was unfamiliar with the role of deacons in the church. “I said, ‘I’m almost a 50-year-old Catholic, what the hell is a deacon?’ ”

Reder heeded the advice and began taking classes at the Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati to become a deacon. He eventually sold his insurance business and today is the executive director of the Jesuit Spiritual Center at Milford, Ohio, which hosts retreats for individuals and groups.

“There was never even a thought about being a deacon or working in a religious environment,” he says of his early career aspirations. “But God’s there all the time. It took me 50 years to figure it out. I’m a slow learner.”

Smiling, he refers to the unlikely circumstances that led him to become director of the center. “Here I am,” he says from his office on the tree-lined grounds on the spiritual center in suburban Cincinnati. “My goal is to bring people to God and let God touch them. If we can get them here, I know God will take care of them.”

The Man Who Brought Down the Mob

It was midnight when Marcello called. Vincent Presutti was asleep in a New Orleans hotel room, with a gun in a bag by his bed. Joe Marcello, the underboss for the Marcello family, America’s oldest crime syndicate, wanted to talk. He asked Presutti to meet him under a bridge. Presutti said he’d be there right away. He set down the phone and walked out the door, alone and unarmed.

Marcello, a gruff Italian with a round face and an instinctual wariness for strangers, was waiting under the bridge with another man and a vehicle. “Get in the car,” he told Presutti. “I want to take you somewhere.”

Marcello drove them over the causeway, a long and lonely stroke of pavement over Lake Pontchartrain. At that time of night no other cars were on the road. Presutti looked down at the inky water below him, wondering if he was being chauffeured to his death. The man sitting next to him leaned over and whispered in a Brooklyn accent, “Yo, not for nuttin’, but if we get two in the coconut, they’re never gonna find our f—in’ bodies.”

On the other side of the bridge, Marcello turned onto a series of two-lane highways, then left the road for a dirt track. Eventually he pulled up to a deserted farmhouse. All the lights were on. They walked inside where a man was busy cooking a seven-course meal. They sat down to eat.

[Read more about Vince Presutti and his assignments:]
 
Dinner with Roberto Gambini
• 
Chasing kidnapper Juan Jose Zuniga
• 
Catching the Barry Seal killers
• 
The many faces of Vince Presutti

Once he was convinced that Presutti wasn’t the police (he had come on time and unarmed, after all, and a surveillance vehicle would have been easily noticed on those empty roads), Marcello started talking business.

First, he wanted Presutti to “steal” 150,000 pounds of coffee sitting in a warehouse owned by his family. Marcello stood to make a million dollars on the insurance, and even more when he resold the coffee. Marcello’s next request was more sinister. A guy in Texas was suing a friend of his. Marcello didn’t like this. How much, he asked, would it cost to send him a clear message to drop the suit?  Presutti considered for a moment, then offered to break the guy’s arm for $5,000. A leg would cost $10,000.

“Do both,” Marcello said. “Put him in a hospital.”

A few months later, Presutti stole the coffee. Then he went down to Texas, convinced the man to drop the lawsuit, returned to New Orleans with the man’s driver’s license and delivered it to Marcello. Presutti received the $15,000 payment, but, more importantly, he was welcomed inside. Vincent Presutti—Xavier grad and undercover agent for the FBI—was now a trusted associate of the Marcello crime syndicate.

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There were 80,000 applicants the year Presutti applied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At the time he was director of a methadone clinic and performed family therapy and individual psychotherapy at the Talbert House in Cincinnati. Going into the FBI didn’t feel like too big a leap for him. “It was almost doing the same thing, only in a more proactive fashion.”

Helping drug addicts on the street was one way to help make society better, he says. But going after the drug dealers was another. “When I went with the FBI, I saw it as doing the same thing—improving society, taking bad people that are hurting good people off the street and making our community safer.”

On June 26, 1983, Presutti left for 16 weeks of FBI training at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Presutti and the other FBI hopefuls performed timed physical fitness drills at all hours of the day and night, studied forensics and the law and honed their accuracy on the firing range. If the trainees scored an 85 percent or less on their written exams, or if they failed to complete a drill in the allotted time, they were shipped off the base within the hour. “It was so challenging that some of the folks didn’t make it, and the ones that did, they questioned themselves,” Presutti says.

Presutti graduated in October 1983. Of the 80,000 applicants, only 660 got as far as Quantico. Even fewer made it through. Presutti graduated at the top of his class in physical training.

They weren’t all caricature criminals. In fact, Presutti even grew to like some of the suspects he was investigating. He spent a year and a half with a man named Roberto Gambini. “He made great risotto,” Presutti says. “I loved that risotto. I ain’t gonna have that no more.”

Presutti went to his house, met his wife and played with his 3-year-old girl, the same age as one of his daughters back home. “All I could think about was that this little kid wouldn’t have a father for the next 15 years,” he says. When he was finally arrested, Gambini refused to believe the agents when they told him Presutti was FBI.

“Ninety percent of them were pretty likeable guys,” Presutti says. “They were fun. They were just crooks and killers.”

Often, Presutti shared the same holidays, food and culture with the Italian immigrants he was investigating. “These were guys who grew up the way I did,” Presutti says. “The only difference was they pulled the trigger. They wouldn’t think twice if asked to do that. You remove that element, and it was scary how alike we were.”

Presutti says that’s his one regret about the job—seeing children lose their fathers and wives lose their husbands. Guys who were good to their families, but fell in with the wrong crowd. “That makes it hard, sometimes, but you keep your perspective. Their job is to be bad guys, and my job is to catch them.”

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Tony Brigano and Presutti started working at the Lebanon Correctional Facility within a week of each other. Both were recent Xavier graduates. They were single guys in their early 20s, and both came from Italian families in New York. They became fast friends.

“We were together every weekend,” says Brigano, who went on to become a warden at three different penitentiaries. “He’s a dandy guy.”

Brigano remembers when he and Presutti received their first firearm training at Lebanon. It was one of the first times either of them had shot a pistol. “At shooting range, Vinnie always likened himself to Frank Serpico,” Brigano says, referring to the corruption-busting New York City cop, immortalized by Al Pacino in the 1973 film, “Serpico.”

Years later, after he had joined the FBI, Presutti wrote his friend Brigano, who was still at the prison in Lebanon. Presutti was investigating organized crime families in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn where some of Brigano’s relatives lived, and he asked Brigano to paste his picture on a prison inmate’s ID card, with the name Anthony Piccone.

“I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions,” Brigano says. “Vinnie indicated he had a need for an ID so he could confirm a story he had apparently concocted that he was a former inmate at Lebanon.”

“That was really helpful,” Presutti says. “It gives you instant credibility that you’ve been in the can.” Presutti also cooked up a criminal record for himself. His rap sheet as Anthony Piccone included assault, armed robbery and drug offenses.

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In the mid-1990s, Presutti was an undercover agent in one of the nation’s biggest police corruption cases. The FBI was investigating organized crime in Cleveland when they discovered a ring of police who took money to protect cocaine trafficking operations. The case lasted a year and a half, and led to the arrest of 52 police officers, the disruption of the Lucchese Crime Network’s drug smuggling in Northern Ohio and the dissolution of the Avengers motorcycle gang.

During the case, Presutti played a mob member, and exchanged diamonds and bearer bonds for drugs, or vice versa. He was involved in more than a dozen transactions. In one exchange, he was sitting in a small plane surrounded by 800 pounds of drugs. “I was getting nauseous from smelling it,” he says. He was being flown to meet nine cops at a remote Ohio county airport, where he would hand over the drugs. Mid-flight, Presutti had a rare moment of inner panic.

“I’m sitting in the back of the plane thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ” he says. “It would be so easy for them to knock me on the head, take the drugs and split.” But when the plane landed, Presutti’s game face was ready. “As soon as the door opened, I became this other person—cocky, arrogant, convinced, confident in what I was about to do.” A camera in the control tower captured the entire transaction on tape.

“The whole idea, when you’re doing deals like that, is that you never put the money and the drugs and the guns in the same place at the same time. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

But that’s exactly what he did, on that instance and several other “precarious situations.” On one occasion, he was sitting in a sedan with another agent, waiting for an escort to the site of a drug exchange. The car was full of phony bonds and fake diamonds—convincing replicas made from zirconium. Presutti asked his partner if he had a gun. He didn’t, so Presutti gave him his spare. They had been instructed to wait for a car to lead them to the site.

“Don’t let anyone near the car,” Presutti said. “I ain’t dying sitting in the car.”

Finally their escort vehicle arrived, and they followed it out of Cleveland and down a remote dirt road in the country that ended at a big garage. Lining the last few hundred yards of road were pickup trucks filled with members of the Avengers motorcycle gang. Their shotguns hung out of the windows.

“Don’t drive into the garage headfirst,” Presutti told the other agent. “If something goes down, I’m gonna spray the place.”
Nine men were inside the garage protecting the drugs, among them an Avengers member who wouldn’t stop staring at Presutti.

“You, I know you from somewhere,” he finally said. “You were at Lebanon, weren’t you?”

“Frankly, I was crapping my pants at that point,” Presutti says.

He had been at Lebanon—as a correctional officer. “Yeah, I did some time at Lebanon,” he said.

“That’s where I know you,” said the Avenger. “We did time together.” The man vouched for Presutti like a brother for the rest
of the investigation.

They exchanged the diamonds for 25 kilos of cocaine, worth about half a million dollars. When the deal was made, Presutti
and the other agent got in the car and drove away, out through the cordon of Avengers’ pickups to the paved road and back into Cleveland. When they had driven a safe distance, “We just looked at each other and started laughing like crazy,” Presutti says.

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Presutti was posing as a New York City mobster, meeting with a corrupt bank vice president to set up a money laundering deal. The VP had a way to wash it, but he had to be careful. He scooted his chair closer and leaned in, until he was inches from the recording device wired into Presutti’s shirt.

“Listen,” the banker said. “We can’t do things like we used to. Since 9/11, since the Patriot Act, the f—ing FBI is everywhere.”
“Those bastards,” Presutti said. “Well, how are we gonna do it?”

The banker whispered the entire plan into the microphone. Presutti didn’t dare look at his partner, for fear he’d burst out laughing. In exchange for washing the money, the VP asked Presutti to beat up a guy who owed him money. “You can kill him if you want, I just want my money,” he said.

The banker went to jail based on the evidence captured by the microphone in Presutti’s shirt.

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For one case, Presutti’s FBI bosses asked him to borrow $80,000 from a loan shark. “They wanted me to not pay it back,” he says. “So I didn’t.”

It wasn’t long before his creditors took the bait. “These guys are calling me on the phone, and they are mad,” he says. “They want to meet with me, find out why they’re not getting their money. And I need to meet with them, because I need to get the evidence. They won’t talk on the phone.”

Finally, Presutti arranged to meet them in a parking lot. Presutti could see the gun on the man waiting for him. “I can’t believe you did this,” the man said. “You have more excuses than I have money. And you’re an Italian kid, you know how this thing works. We’re the real mob here, you know what happens to people who do this?”

As Presutti’s recording devices captured the evidence, he was tallying the sentencing in his head. “Everything he’s saying, I’m thinking ‘There’s five, there’s five more, there’s three.’ ” All the while, Presutti was scanning his surroundings, waiting for someone to come out from behind a corner, and hoping he could get out without getting a good beating.

“You’re at your best wits,” he says. “You’re watching everything, listening to everything. Your senses are heightened in those situations, because you wanna make sure that nothing happens to you, that you come out of there with the same amount of holes you went in with.”

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One of the biggest triumphs of Presutti’s career as an undercover agent was the grooming of mafia kingpin Alphonse D’Arco as a confidential informant. In the early 1990s, D’Arco, a Lucchese Crime Network boss, got the inkling that he was about to be killed. There had been a shakeup in the leadership of the family, and guys were showing up where they weren’t supposed to be. He started noticing the bulges of concealed weapons on people around him who weren’t supposed to be armed. So he decided to make his escape. He hired an attorney and called the FBI. He had information they would want to know, and they could offer the protection that he needed for his family.

Presutti was assigned to the case for his street smarts and knowledge of organized crime. He holed up with D’Arco at a safe house on a remote country estate in upstate New York. The debriefing lasted six months, every day of which Presutti spent with the mafia boss.

A security team watched over the estate, which was rigged with laser traps to warn of any intruders. If a trap was triggered, an alarm would go off in the house, and Presutti would secure D’Arco. But it was almost always deer that tripped the laser traps. They’d come so often, toward the end Presutti and D’Arco didn’t even bother to take cover.

D’Arco has been called the most prolific informant in FBI history. He had an incredible memory, and was able to testify against the bosses and underbosses of all five New York crime families and describe the hierarchy of other families throughout the country. Thanks to his testimony, scores of criminals—including the boss of every organized crime family in New York—went to jail for lengthy sentences. “Most of them have or will die in jail,” Presutti says.

In the end, Presutti and D’Arco got along famously. The traditions, food and respect of the Italian subculture bound them. They would go on walks around the property, and cook dinner together in the evenings. (“Those old Italian mob bosses really could cook,” Presutti says. “I learned a bunch from them.”)

D’Arco warmed to Presutti and the FBI. “If I knew youse guys were like this, I would’ve come in a long time ago,” he said at one point. “Youse guys are all right.”

“Al is one of the funniest guys I ever met,” Presutti says. “During a long day of testimony, a soda can fell off the top cabinet in the kitchen and exploded. Agents in the room were diving behind furniture, thinking they’d been shot at. D’Arco jumps up laughing and shouts, ‘Mob boss killed by errant soda can!’ Here we are crapping our pants thinking someone shot at us, and he’s laughing his butt off. He was extraordinarily likeable. But this was a guy who also beat a guy to death on the orders of his underboss.”

When his testimony was exhausted, D’Arco and his family were whisked into a witness protection program and promptly disappeared.

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The first time Presutti refused an undercover case was in 2006. It wasn’t the traveling, the long hours or the danger that made him do it. It was his daughter. Before one mission to investigate police corruption in Memphis, Presutti’s daughters accompanied him in the car to the airport. He learned later that his youngest cried the whole way home. He hadn’t told them he was going away for an undercover trip.

“I don’t know how she knew, maybe she sensed it,” he says. “I guess in her own way she was saying, ‘You gotta stop doing this.’ ” When Presutti returned from the trip he decided not to do anymore long-term undercover work away from home.

Presutti says he doesn’t talk much about his work as an FBI agent, even with his immediate family. “For the longest time, it never came up. I was just Dad. I wasn’t ‘Dad the FBI agent,’ I was just Dad.”

When his daughters got into eighth grade, they asked about what he did. He told them about his job, and they thought it was kind of cool. They still don’t know many of the harrowing stories of their father’s close calls. “Someday they may ask, and if they ask I’ll tell them. If they don’t, I won’t,” he says. What he really wants is for them to be happy, respectful and to get good grades.

“I’m probably a whole lot more proud of them than they are of me,” he says. “The real meaning of life is in the laughter of your
children and in the contribution you make to them and your society. You can make that contribution every day and hopefully it’s enough to keep you going when the lights on the stage go out.”

The Many Faces of Vince Presutti

In his professional life, Vincent Presutti has been Anthony Piccone and Vincenzo Pascione. He’s been a money launderer, an international drug runner, contract killer, car thief, organized crime associate, arsonist, extortionist and arms dealer. He’s been all of these, and he’s been none of these. In reality, Presutti’s been an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working off and on undercover for 25 years, infiltrating and breaking up organized crime rings.

Being undercover, he says, is like crawling into a different mind. “You actually become someone else,” he says. “You can’t lose yourself completely, but you do lose yourself enough to know how those people think and what they are thinking and how they will respond to what you are saying. And that is huge. It’s psychology.”

Which is why he was so good at it. Presutti earned his bachelor’s degree at Xavier in psychology, a subject that attracted him from an early age. His father worked in a New York state prison as an occupational therapist for the criminally insane. Among his clients: David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer.

“I was always fascinated by why people do what they do,” Presutti says. “I was particularly interested in why people wanted to hurt each other.”
Understanding the psychology of the criminal mind helped him stay alive during his undercover assignments. “When I understood how they were, I could more quickly assess their motivation,” he says.

It worked. His FBI supervisor once called him “one of the most successful and prolific undercover agents in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” He’s trained agents in Scotland Yard, Russia, Estonia and at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Hungary. And he’s made it through with all of his limbs—and his sense of humor—intact.

Vince Presuitt and the Barry Seal killers

When Vincent Presutti was a student at Xavier, he took a class from psychology professor Earl Kronenberger, who used to teach about intuition—or as he called it, “the little professor.” The young Presutti took the lesson to heart, and listening to his little professor helped him crack cases and stay alive in many dangerous situations as an undercover agent. One of those situations involved hunting down the killers of former drug trafficker and federal witness Barry Seal.

Presutti was in a New Orleans gym when he heard that Seal had been assassinated in Baton Rouge. Seal had been cooperating with the government as an informant against Colombian drug kingpin Jorge Ochoa. On the night of February 19, 1986, he was murdered in a hail of bullets from a .45 caliber Mac 10 machine gun while sitting in his parked Cadillac outside a Salvation Army halfway house. Ochoa, leader of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, had sent a hit team of six men to kill him.

“They were waiting for him there with machine guns,” Presutti says. “They just lit him up like a Christmas tree and split.”

Presutti, who had been an FBI agent for scarcely more than two years, thought about what he would do if he were a criminal. “I just started thinking like a killer,” he says. “If I just murdered a guy in Baton Rouge, I’m not going to take a flight out of Baton Rouge.”

So Presutti drove to the New Orleans airport and checked the flights to Florida, figuring that’s where a member of a Colombian hit team would be headed.

Soon he saw a man dressed in hospital scrubs at the desk asking if he could pay cash for a ticket to Miami. The airline employee told him the Miami flights were booked. When the man asked about Orlando, Presutti got suspicious. “I said, wait a minute, something’s funny here,” he recalls. The man couldn’t get a flight, so he started to leave the airport.

“That’s when I tilted my head,” Presutti says. “I just felt like something wasn’t right.” Without the probable cause to arrest the man, Presutti and another rookie agent stopped him in the middle of the concourse and asked him what he was doing in New Orleans. The man’s answers didn’t add up. He said he was visiting a friend, but he couldn’t give them the friend’s address or last name. A bead of sweat was rolling down his face. “That’s not right either,” Presutti said to himself.

A search of his bags yielded nothing, so Presutti and his partner had to let the man go. But Presutti asked the airport police to tail the man when he left the airport. They followed him to a nearby hotel, and watched him get into a taxi. Minutes later Presutti received a radio call with a description of the suspect that fit the man he had stopped. The chase was on.

Presutti called out a search for the man’s taxi, then went to the hotel. He arrested two other men there who had checked in at the same time as the man in scrubs. Hours later, police found that man’s taxi. It had hit a deer on the highway to Alabama. When policemen descended on it with guns drawn, the driver jumped from the vehicle and shouted, “All I did was hit a deer!” The man in scrubs was arrested, and a test revealed gunpowder residue on his hands.

Presutti didn’t sleep for the next 72 hours, when he helped track and arrest the remaining three assassins. Once all of them were captured, a crime lab ran their prints and found them on the recovered getaway car.

“I remember like yesterday,” Presutti says. “It’s so exciting. For the longest time you don’t know what you have. But when you strike gold, there’s nothing more fulfilling and exciting than knowing that you did a good job and you stopped killers for the rest of their lives—which makes retirement a drag sometimes.”

Vince Presutti and Juan Jose Zuniga

Many of the cases Vince Presutti worked during his 25 years as an FBI agent involved split-second decisions. One such decision, which would determine the fate of an 11-month old baby, had to be made in the time it took to fill a tank of gas.

The case began when Presutti’s field office in New York received a call from a mother claiming that her child had been kidnapped. The house wasn’t far away, so Presutti and some other agents went over to investigate. The mother said some men had broken into her house, tied up her and her husband and taken their baby, Cruz Mendez, for a ransom of half a million dollars. They left in a taxi.

Presutti set up a command post in the house, with the equipment to record and trace incoming phone calls from the kidnappers. Multiple FBI divisions mobilized for the case, which would eventually involve about 200 agents. Agents called every taxi company in the area, before they found one that had taken a fare from the woman’s house. The driver was able to give them an address. When agents interviewed neighbors, one of them said he had seen men leave the house with baggage. Flight manifests revealed that some men and a baby had boarded a plane in Newark bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the same day. Presutti took down their names and flew down to San Juan himself.

“It was a lot of old fashioned police work—following leads and doing interviews,” Presutti says. “It’s a tedious process, to run an investigation like that. But things happen so fast, and so many people are involved that you have to keep a timeline so that you can walk into a room and look up on the wall and see all the things that have happened in the last two hours, and see the things that need to be done.”

Presutti says the log from that case is filled with entries—about one every 15 minutes. “It’s daunting, really,” he says. “In a case like that there’s so much going on at one time, it’s a challenge to follow all the leads.”

In San Juan, Presutti and the agents under his command were able to stall the kidnappers long enough to trace their phone calls. “It took several days,” he said. “It took a lot of psychology, it took a lot of conversations to keep the guy on the hook. He said he was going to kill the baby several times.”

By the 11th day of the kidnapping, agents determined the phone calls were coming from one of three houses in San Juan. Surveillance teams monitored the activity in all three. Finally, undercover operatives saw a car leave one of the houses with several women and a baby inside. Agents followed the car to a gas station, where the women stopped to fill up their tank. A closer look determined that the kidnapped baby was in the vehicle.

When the agents radioed the information back to headquarters, Presutti says, it was time for a crucial decision: “Do we take the baby, or do we follow the car with the baby in it to see if it would lead us to the kidnappers?”

Several people in the San Juan bureau wanted to keep following the baby. Presutti and the agents at the station wanted to take it while they had the chance to do so safely. Before the tank was full, Presutti ordered the field agents to take the baby and arrest the women. “It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Presutti says. The baby was taken to a hospital, where it was treated for head lice and dehydration before reuniting with his parents, 11 days after he had been kidnapped. “Those were a lot of hours in those 11 days,” Presutti says.

It was a good day for the family of Cruz Mendez, but the kidnapper was still at large. At that point, the FBI had determined the chief suspect behind the kidnapping was Puerto Rico’s top fugitive, Juan Jose Zuniga, who had been on the lam for a decade.

“Now it was my job to find him, knowing that San Juan wasn’t able to find him for 10 years,” Presutti says. “I was intent on finding him.”

He cut a deal with one of the arrested women. Five months later, she was able to get close enough to Zuniga to know where he would be at a certain place and time. The FBI was there to arrest him.

During interrogation, Zuniga coughed up information on 66 murders, 22 of which he committed himself—his first when he was only 17. Zuniga was the co-leader of the Solano Gang, a group that Presutti describes as “probably the most violent, notorious, dangerous gang in all of Puerto Rico.”

Thanks to Presutti, Zuniga is now in prison. “He’s away for the rest of his life,” Presutti says. “He’ll never get out.”

Speaking of Speakers

John Boehner, a 1977 Xavier business graduate, was re-elected in November to his post as U.S. Representative for the 8th District of Ohio. But Boehner won more than just an election. His win springs him into one of the most powerful positions in the world, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Boehner, who lives in a Butler County suburb north of Cincinnati, has been doggedly climbing the political ladder since serving as Union Township trustee in the early 1980s. He won his first run for Congress in 1989 and gained recognition by joining with Newt Gingrich in building the Republican Majority by 1994. He also crafted the No Child Left Behind education bill signed by President Bush in Hamilton, Ohio, in 2001.

As he takes control of the House, the following stories offer more insight into the man who is the Speaker:

• In 2003, Boehner was featured in Xavier magazine.

• In 2006 Boehner was presented an honorary degree and gave a speech (text) during that year’s commencement ceremony.

• Shortly after winning reelection in November 2010, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes.

• He was also the cover story in Time magazine, which included a photo gallery of him growing up.

• He’s profiled in The New York Times.

• He was honored at a men’s basketball game in January.

Xavier: Turf and Time Upgrades

Xavier’s boys of summer were off for the fall, so the Department of Athletics brought in the sod squad in October to do some major renovations to Hayden Field. The crew ripped up the old baseball field and recrowned it for better drainage. It then laid down an all-new grass playing surface and built new dugouts. A three-foot brick backstop was also added from dugout to dugout behind home plate, with netting above it to protect the fans in place of the old chainlink fence. The $300,000 renovation was paid for with private donations.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the O’Connor Sports Center, the soccer teams got the chance to light up a new scoreboard—literally. More importantly, the players and coaches can now see it when it’s lit up. The scoreboard was relocated to the south end of the field where it can be seen from the benches. Previously, coaches had to step out onto the field to see how much time was left.

Xavier’s Health Related Programs

Pre-med | By any measure, the pre-med program is among the nation’s elite. Its 81-percent acceptance rate for medical school applicants far exceeds the national rate of 47 percent.

Health Services Administration | The graduate program is ranked No. 1 among the “top business graduate schools for physicians” by Modern Healthcare magazine. It offers a dual-degree option with the MBA program and an integrated study option in health care mission with the Department of Theology. A proposal is also now being explored by the board of undergraduate studies for the development of an undergraduate honors program.

Health Industries | Xavier’s newest offering, health industries is a concentration within the MBA program. Begun in August 2010, it focuses on the business side of the health care field such as pharmaceutical, biotechnology, diagnostic equipment, physicians’ offices and insurance companies.

Nursing | With its growth, nursing expanded from a department into Xavier’s second school in 2009. It offers dual degrees with MBA, MEd and MCJ.

Biochemistry and microbiology | Starting in 2010, Xavier began offering minors in these two areas, which are the foundations of medical research.

Life Sciences | This offering within the Department of Biology works in conjunction with the Williams College of Business so biology majors can earn an MBA a year after earning their undergraduate degree.

Psychology | The program focuses on mental health, and includes Xavier’s only doctoral program, PsyD.

Occupational Therapy | The five-year program includes both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It recently began a focus on geriatrics.

Athletic training | One of Xavier’s lesser-known majors, athletic training prepares students to be part of a sports medicine team.

Biology | In addition to being the core of the pre-med program along with chemistry, the department offers specific programs such as a major in medical technology and a minor in pre-physical therapy.

Chemistry | In addition to being the core of the pre-med program along with biology, the department offers programs such as pre-pharmacy and natural sciences, which are geared for those entering the health science fields.

Biophysics | Started in 2010 by the Department of Physics, the biophysics program is on the cutting edge of medical research such as how cells produce the electrical impulses that fire into the brain.

Radiologic Technology | The two-year associate’s degree program prepares students for careers in hospitals, clinics and private offices.