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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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The Man Who Brought Down the Mob

The Man Who Brought Down the Mob
By Jacob Baynham

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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