Gangsters Inc. sits down with FBI agent Jack Garcia Part 2. Read Part 1 here.
By David Amoruso
INFILTRATING THE AMERCAN MAFIA
Italian-American La Cosa Nostra has been around for a long time. It has been so prominent for so many decades in fact that the FBI has labeled it Traditional Organized Crime, as in as American as apple pie. In turn members of La Cosa Nostra had their own label for the FBI: Forever Bothering Italians. The two groups have been playing cat and mouse ever since the infamous mob meeting at Apalachin in 1957 showed the entire country that a group of Italian-American gangsters were not acting like the usual folks enjoying a barbeque. Dressed in expensive suits they fled into the countryside only to be apprehended by local police. From that moment on, the media was all over this nationwide Mafia phenomena and the FBI had to start cracking down on these racketeers.
In New York, five crime families make up the La Cosa Nostra landscape. The two largest are, and have always been, the Genovese and Gambino families. During the 1970s and 80s, another family, the Bonannos, was infiltrated by undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone. The operation was made famous by a book and the movie Donnie Brasco starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. It was the first time an FBI agent had gotten so close to Mafia higher ups.
By the 2000s, the FBI felt it was time to give Jack Garcia a try at breaking the mob. Posing as jewel thief Jack Falcone he infiltrated the crew of Gambino capo Greg DePalma. It was to be the first and only time he went undercover in the Mafia. And it was a smashing success!
After all was said and done 32 members and associates of the Gambino crime family were sentenced to time in prison.
For Jack the case was one of the biggest highlights of his long and distinguished career in the FBI. It was also the case that had the biggest impact on his life.
It was truly a case of life and death. Life as an undercover agent is dangerous enough with all the stone cold killers with guns and knives hanging around you for the better part of the day and night. But Garcia had some added threats to his health that originated from inside his own body.
His weight had always been both a blessing and a curse. Thanks to his robust figure his criminal targets had a hard time picturing him for an undercover agent, it helped Garcia earn their trust. Then again, it could have also caused him difficulties if he was caught wearing a wire. He would have been looked at as a rat first and foremost. Who would believe he was really an FBI Agent?
But with all the added pressures of living undercover his body had trouble with running smooth and healthy as before. Hanging with Greg DePalma made things considerably worse, Garcia says. “Every morning we’d have to meet Greg at the diner. So you park outside, walk ten steps, and sit down, then you eat like you’re going to the chair. Eggs, bacon, everyone’s eating. From there I’m going with Greg to the nursing home where his son is at, there people are stopping by with buttered rolls, pastry. Then, of course, it’s lunchtime. After that, you go back to the club where people bring more stuff to eat. Then it’s Dinner time! Not that I was complaining, don’t get me wrong, I love all of that, but I didn’t do any working out.”
Garcia also noticed something funny at that time. “I was looking at these mobsters and everyone was wearing fashionable name brand training suits but no one ever asked me to work out. Not once. It’s weird. The only running they do is after somebody that needs to pay them,” he laughs.
Still, a few days before Christmas he found himself being checked out by Greg DePalma’s mob doctor. When the doctor’s assistant asked him if he knew his heart rate was 240 beats per minute he realized there were some serious issues. Looking back, Garcia says, he should’ve decided to stop the operation that same day.
“My wife wanted me to resign,” he adds. “I should have. Cases come and go, what’s important is your personal health and safety. I didn’t follow my own advice. Because I should’ve walked away with my heart situation as opposed to going back. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the issues I’m having now if I had simply said fuck this case.”
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. At that time Garcia was involved in something that not only felt like a historic operation, he really was making history. He had gained total trust of Greg DePalma and his crew of soldiers and associates. Greg was even going to propose him for membership in the Gambino family.
And despite his health problems, Garcia still feels he was pulled out too fast. “In all the undercover cases I ever was involved with we aimed for the top and tried to take down as many people as we could. That’s the way we worked. In the Gambino case it was kind of frustrating because it was my first attempt at working organized crime and when you get that high up and you’re that close to Greg,” he pauses for a moment. “Greg is the type that loved to talk,” he says with a smile. “And that’s good for us! Because as he’s talking I’m recording.”
Garcia had his eyes on bigger fish. “Nobody suspected Jack Falcone to be anything else than Jack Falcone. We were moving forward. There were a lot of other guys that I’ve met that we really couldn’t further pursue. Guys like Genovese captain Rudy Handsome Rudy Santobello, Colombo captain Dennis DeLucia, and Gambino captain Wahoo Mancuso. There’s a lot of guys I met along the way that I think in due time we could’ve accomplished more. We could’ve maybe taken down other crews. Maybe have other undercover agents set up operations targeting what they needed. So that was disappointing. It would’ve been nice to further pursue just to see who we would’ve gotten. Then again who knows maybe I wouldn’t be here. You never know.”
HANGING WITH GREG DEPALMA
One good thing about pulling the plug on the operation was that Garcia did not have to hang around Greg DePalma anymore. “I got to know Greg (photo above in the middle) real well. We spent a lot of time together. I never liked him. I did like to watch Greg when he was charming and nice to others so that he could get his hands in their pockets, That was brilliant. He was truly a Master at it. He was all about the business and making money.”
DePalma expected Garcia to be available 24/7/365. When he called, Garcia had to answer the phone or face the elderly mobster’s wrath. If he didn’t hear from Jack Falcone, DePalma’s brain would run through various scenarios of what could’ve happened. None of them were good. Had Falcone been pinched? Had he flipped? Was he killed? It meant Garcia was on call at all hours of the day and night.
“He’d call at 2 AM. ‘Hey Jackie boy, is that you?” Garcia says while impersonating the gruff voice of DePalma. “He said ‘Turn on TNT, they got Rio Bravo on.’ A western, he loved cowboys. I go: ‘Greg its 2 AM in the fucking morning.’ ‘Oh no it’s the best fucking movie ever’. And then he starts talking about it and I’m thinking to myself is he checking up on me or is he just a lonely guy?”
DePalma’s calls never came at convenient times, but one could not have occurred at a worse time. “My father died during the operation, and my mother-in-law died as soon after. While I’m at their respective wakes, I can’t tell these guys that my father and mother-in-law died. Cause they’re gonna show up! Pay their respects and bring flowers.” So Garcia didn’t tell them anything. “While I’m at these wakes with my family who do I hear on the phone? ‘Jackie boy is that you?’ What could I do? I take the phone outside, ‘Yeah Greg how you doin?’ ‘I’m alright, I’m out with some friends.’ I had to do that because I couldn’t tell him the truth for obvious reasons. Who wants him and that crew at my family’s wake and I’m gonna have my aunt, Cousin Rita and my brother-in-law sitting there and Greg’s gonna walk in and say ‘Hey, how you know Jackie boy?’ or them saying 'Do you work in the FBI too?’ I knew if I didn’t talk to him he would start wondering. Those are the sacrifices that we as undercover agents make.”
The sacrifices are enormous not just for the agents themselves who put their life in danger but also for their families who have to deal with a husband, wife, father, or mother who is hardly ever at home. Garcia’s wife came from a law enforcement family and supported her husband 100 percent. It made all the difference he says. “You need that support at home because without it you’re not thinking with a clear head. If you’re going out to do work and you got your wife nagging on you that’s gonna weigh on your mind. You don’t need that when you’re working undercover. I wanted to have a clean mind and my wife was very supportive of that. And that goes to a lot of the spouses they hold it together so that their man or woman goes out there knowing that everything is okay at home. They get it. I didn’t see my family sometimes for months and when I snuck home it would be for a brief moment. I’m forever thankful and I mention that in my book. I gave her the kudos that she deserves.”
While the ‘friendship’ between Garcia (Photo: Garcia is on the left) and DePalma was moving along with ease, it took the undercover FBI agent a lot more time to earn the trust of others in his crew. Robert Vaccaro was the prime example of a secretive gangster who did not trust anyone. “It took me a long time to develop a relationship with him, but I think eventually I developed a better relationship with Robert than with anyone else. He was originally a Lucchese guy and somehow they switched him over to the Gambinos and they made him. He had some previous experience with the Pizza Connection case. Did some time, I think 20 years in the state penitentiary. He came out. True gangster, very quiet.”
As Garcia started spending more time with Vaccaro he took a genuine liking to him, though he never lost sight of what kind of individual Vaccaro really was. “After a while we would spend time going out, talk about football, he loved football, sports betting, and I saw that side of him but I also saw the bad side of him smacking around guys. But he was the kind of guy that had he not been a mobster I’d be hanging out with him right now. He was that personal of a guy. But that was the only life that he knew. His brother and son got involved with the life as well.”
In the end, Garcia says with certainty, I was not there to be their friends but to put them away. But didn’t it bother him to send a guy like Vaccaro off to prison? “Maybe a little. Because I like the guy. However, I look at it this way: he locked himself up. Because I’m just the carrier of the recorder. So you’re telling this to a recorder. It’s on you. He was also caught on other wires. And he was a very crafty and cagey guy. He never believed in cell phones. He was what you call a payphone kind of guy. He was a good opponent for lack of a better word. But in the end he hung himself up. That’s what an undercover does. I didn’t bait these guys. Robert was the one that came up to me asking if I was looking to gamble sometimes? I said 'Absolutely!' He said: 'Here, go call this number in Costa Rica. I set you up with 10,000 dollars credit line.'”
And Greg? “I didn’t have a problem testifying against Greg (right) because he was the biggest prick in the world. Arrogant, mean, obnoxious, demanding, any bad adjective that you can add, that’s Greg.”
In a funny twist it was Greg DePalma and the medical care he offered his crew that made Garcia aware of his health problems. “Had he not sent me to go and get my heart checked I would have died. So do I owe him for that? I rationalize that sometimes. You know he did send me there but that was God’s will. And maybe I would have gotten to a doctor on my own. My wife told me numerous times to go before that.”
Garcia also has no doubt that had DePalma known he was an FBI agent he would’ve dragged him from the hospital to the trunk of a car and dumped him two bullets in the head. Throughout his career as an undercover Garcia never lost his edge, never strayed from the straight and narrow. He recorded every conversation he had and he made sure he worked his targets by the book. He caught them fair and square.
Caught and sent to prison. Greg DePalma went to trial, was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He died behind bars in 2009 and the age of 77. Robert Vaccaro received a sentence of 96 months and is back on the streets doing his thing. “All these guys I helped bust are still in the life,” Garcia says. “Because that’s the quick way of making money. First thing when you get out of prison all these guys get together and give you an envelope. To get you back on your feet.”
For most of these guys committing crimes is just a way of life and it’s in their DNA. Garcia vividly remembers the time he and DePalma walked through a store and the Gambino wiseguy pocketed a couple of toy dolls. “What are you doing? I told him. With his gruff voice he answers: ‘I can’t help myself.’ And that is what it’s all about. They can’t help themselves. That mentality just keeps going. They don’t know anything better. They don’t want anything better. This is what they want to do and they don’t learn their lesson. A classic example is Sonny Franzese, 91 years old, a normal senior citizen would sit and relax, this guy goes to jail. You know why? Because he can’t help himself.”
Ever since his true identity became known Garcia has been under a spotlight. New York tabloids were quick to report about this mysterious FBI undercover agent who weighed a ton and was able to infiltrate one of the nation’s biggest Mafia families. A New York Times best-selling book and appearances on various television shows followed. Joaquin Garcia went from undercover to becoming a recognizable figure.
What shocked Greg DePalma most of all about this operation was not what you would think. Garcia has a big grin when he recounts the story. “I heard Greg called someone from prison, which was recorded, telling him: ‘Can you believe this guy was a spick? Who knew, a fucking spick.’ That was all he said.” Other FBI Intelligence came in noting how Falcone’s name had been put on the list by DePlama.
Garcia also got a compliment from some of the guys who he’d met as jewel thief Jack Falcone. “Two guys in the mob, low level associates, I ran into them in a bar and one of them said ‘Hey listen no hard feelings. I saw you on 60 Minutes, good for you.’
Today, Jack Garcia is a retired FBI agent. His daughter was one of the reasons he left. He didn’t want to be an absent father. He still testifies at mob trials whenever they need him to. Like last month at the trial of the Philadelphia mob. He works as a consultant for Pathfinders Consultancy International, he teaches other undercover agents, and has speaking engagements all over the world. And he is there if any undercover operatives need any support, someone to talk to about their job, discuss their fears and provide them with any help that they might need.
His health is his first priority, though. “I need to fix that. I recognize that I’ve let myself go. And I have to get my hands around it now. I’ve been gone from the bureau since 2006 so I should’ve done it by now. But I’ve had some great successes and then boom I went off the road again.”
At 61, Garcia still looks young and vibrant. “I feel 90,” he is quick to add. Where other undercover agents might hit the bottle when they try to manage the stress, Garcia went for the food. “I’ve got a good doctor and I started slowly walking myself back in shape. I just hope it stays. I’ve got about two hundreds of pounds to lose. In a whole year you are affected by many highs and lows, personal issues, frustrations, now I don’t want to make excuses because I’m the guy who shoveled the food down my mouth,” he jokes.
While he is keeping himself busy he does miss his old job. “I miss not the life,” he points out. “I miss the adrenaline rush. Look I’m not looking for fame or glory. I just did my job. I was fortunate to get into the FBI. I was the second Cuban-born FBI agent in FBI history. I was lucky that I was surrounded by some really amazing and competent people. And was able to work cases with their help. I’m grateful for that. It was my goal to make the world a little bit safer for mankind.”
Garcia wanted to become an FBI agent after seeing the movie Serpico. After the movie Donnie Brasco was released plenty of fresh recruits joined the FBI with similar dreams. Jack Garcia could follow in Serpico and Pistone’s footsteps as Hollywood has plans of turning his book into a motion picture. The past six years, Garcia has been working with director Steven Soderbergh and actor Benicio Del Toro (who will take on the role of Garcia). Things are moving slowly, but that’s Hollywood. Garcia: "This will be the year that I will decide to stay or shop it around to another studio."
After his role as undercover agent became known, the FBI got word about the mob putting out a contract on him. The news did not faze Garcia. “They’re not going to come after me. Don’t get me wrong . I’m not naïve. I don’t go back to the places where I used to go. I also know there’s those groupie guys, wannabes , some guys that want to make a name for themselves who would easily do it on their own non sanctioned you never know.” Garcia adds that mobsters know that the reign of terror will fall down on them if they hit an agent. The Colombian and Mexican Cartels do worry him. They have a reputation for having no problems killing members of law enforcement.
Despite all of that Garcia is not in hiding. He lives out in the open. It’s important, he says. “What is the message you’re sending to the public? ‘Wait a minute you want me to testify against the mob? But your own FBI agent is hiding? What are you crazy? Who would do that?’ So I said I’m coming forward and I did it with no regrets.”
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