The wise guys of the Genovese family took in a man they called "Big Frankie" and let him make extra money for them, smuggling cigarettes and disposing of stolen cars. They invited him to their table at their favourite restaurant, Rigoletto in the Bronx, and to parties and weddings. Now they wish they hadn't.
Yesterday the FBI was completing what officials described as the most important round-up of Mafia operatives in New York's history. Now facing charges for everything from loan-sharking to extortion are 73 members and associates of the Genovese family. And they have Big Frankie to thank.
For 27 months, Big Frankie – an undercover agent for New York's organised crime task force – brazenly infiltrated high circles of the clan, posing as the owner of a New Jersey haulage firm which could slice up hot cars and make the parts disappear. One of those he duped was Pasquale "Patsy" Parrello, Rigoletto's owner, who was described as the captain of an important Genovese crew based in the Bronx.
The arrests have been hailed as a breakthrough but also serve as a reminder that the Mafia, though weaker than it once was, is still busy in the city. Members of Mr Parrello's crew were allegedly plotting, for instance, to steal $6m (£4.3m) in payroll cash from The New York Times. Big Frankie, whose real name we may never know, was being credited for ensuring that the raid never happened.
One of those allegedly conspiring to hit the newspaper was named as Joseph Savarese, a retired New York police officer who also later worked at the Times and the New York Post. When he was taken to FBI headquarters on Wednesday, he was introduced to Big Frankie and put in the picture about his real identity. "The blood drained from his face and he turned white," a source said later.
Big Frankie had to move out of the city midway through the mission when he started to bump into Mafia associates in the Staten Island neighbourhood that was his real home. He was being compared yesterday to Donnie Brasco, the undercover name of an FBI agent, actually called Joe Pistone, who similarly infiltrated the Mafia during the late Seventies. That story was made into a box office hit, Donnie Brasco, with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
Among those praising Big Frankie yesterday was Barry Mawn, the FBI director in New York, who said the undercover agent had "risked his safety on an almost daily basis" getting close to his prey.
Mr Parrello was apparently so paranoid about people wearing recording devices near him that he carried a portable electronic scanner to check. But he is said to have liked Big Frankie so much that he let down his guard.
"He was very well taken in by the bad guys," Mr Mawn said of his agent, adding that the investigation, which had continued for three years, was "perhaps the most significant and successful undercover operation in law enforcement history".
The Genovese clan is hurt but the damage is certainly not fatal. Its head is Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, otherwise known as the "Oddfather". Now in prison, he is well known in New York for his eccentric ways. These used to include wandering the West Village area in his dressing gown and opening his umbrella in the shower. Previous leaders of the Genovese family have included Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello.
The family is thought to have about 225 members and at one time had its fingers in every large construction project in the city while also running the Fulton Fish Market. "The Genovese crime family is arguably the most influential in the nation," said Jerry Capeci, whose new book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia, came out yesterday. "They have been weakened but they are still part of the fabric of the city".
According to the charges, unsealed late on Wednesday, the defendants made more than $14m from their schemes between 1998 and 2001. Mr Parrello is personally accused of embezzling more than $1m from the benefit funds of a branch of the carpenters' union. If found guilty, some of the accused could face sentences running into hundreds of years, officials said.
Prosecutors said the crimes allegedly committed by the defendants ran the gamut of Mafia favourites, including loansharking, extortion, embezzlement, union racketeering, credit-card fraud, attempted bank fraud and illicit gambling.
Mary Jo White, the US district attorney in Manhattan, put the charges in the context of a city still traumatised by 11 September and the crash of an airliner into Long Island. She said: "These arrests represent the strongest statement to date by federal law enforcement that, as the law-abiding citizens of New York try to return to normalcy in our lives, we will permit no such return to 'business as usual' for members of organised crime and the criminal element in New York."Reuse content