Meet The Only FBI Agent To Infiltrate Three Cosa Nostra Families

The most amazing thing about FBI Special Agent Michael R. McGowan (retired) is not that he is the first -- and so far only -- undercover FBI agent to infiltrate three crime families.

Mike McGowan

Nor that he has infiltrated Russian crime groups, Mexican drug cartels, and outlaw motorcycle clubs, nor gone undercover to nab criminals of a multitude of stripes, from contract murderers to corrupt politicians.

It's not even that he won recognition from the highest levels of the FBI and the Department of Justice for completing some of the most daring and deadly assignments in recent memory.

What bedazzles us most of all about Mike McGowan is that he did all those things while sporting the same gigantic walrus mustache he sports even now (see it, up above?).

"That was a little flipoff to the bad guys," he told us recently in a telephone interview.

Both the mustache and its owner have been prominently mentioned in recordings of discussions among some of  Mike's old pals, all of whom occupied prison cells for many years after meeting him.

McGowan, who was in the FBI for 31 years, spoke with us prior to this week's release of his memoir, Ghost: My Thirty Years as an FBI Undercover Agent, which details his decades in service battling some of the worst bad guys on the street. Crime families he's successfully infiltrated: the Philadelphia/Boston crime families (the same case Ron Previte testified for) in 1998-99; the Rhode Island faction of the Patriarca Family (2000-05); and the Boston faction of the New England mob (2006-08).

So technically he infiltrated three crime families, one of them twice, which is worth repeating: He infiltrated three crime families, one of them twice...wearing that same gigantic walrus mustache each time...

His work has resulted in the indictment and incarceration of one boss, one underboss, two capos, a national union president, union officials, and dozens of LCN associates and soldiers.

Prior to joining the FBI, Mike worked in law enforcement for five years. He was a cop in Florida and Vermont.

Michael McGowan has done far more than help decimate the Italian mob (aka traditional organized crime) during his career as an undercover FBI agent. He successfully infiltrated the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and helped indict the notorious drug cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, and many members of the cartel, in what has been called the only successful US law enforcement undercover penetration of the Sinaloa Cartel. 

McGowan -- who in his retirement is running The 7329 Group, a company that offers undercover training and consulting -- has played dozens of criminals as per his participation in 50 FBI undercover operations.

"Basically what you do is you have an identity, like a core identity, and  you just tweak it for the different cases," he told us when we asked about how he approached his work.

"You don't want to lie," he added. By being as truthful as possible,  there is less risk of an undercover blowing his identity by misstating something.

Speaking of risk, we also asked him, pretty early in the conversation, what was the single most dangerous moment during his undercover work?

Without hesitating, he referred to a time in the Boston investigation when he was, quite suddenly and for no apparent reason, brought into a basement for a discussion.

Just prior, while still readying himself for another day as "Irish Mike," someone in the FBI office told Mike that the op might have been blown -- deliberately, by a member of another law enforcement agency, believe it or not.

Mike shrugged it off.

He'd met the wiseguys a few times, typically in his office or a cafe in Boston's North End. But then all of a sudden, they told him they needed to meet in the basement of the cafe after Mike was already there.

"I thought the jig was up," he recalled. You have to read the book to get the complete story about what happened, but the wiseguys brought him into the basement, as they explained, out of concern that the FBI was surveilling them. Then they went back to discussing upcoming drug deals.

Mike McGowan

His work probing crime families commenced in 1999, when as per the assignment, he met Ron Previte. The Boston office added a complementary probe to help take down both the Philadelphia mob and the Boston crime family. The Boston component, of which Mike was part, focused on Bobby Luisi and his Boston crew, while in Philadelphia, the FBI and Previte focused on Philadelphia mobsters, most prominently Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino.

The Boston part of the probe debuted when the FBI had learned that Luisi was somehow associated with Merlino.

"That didn't make sense," McGowan noted, reminding us of the disorganization for which the Boston LCN family, to use FBI-speak, is so well known. (George Anastasia has noted that the Boston crime family is even more screwed up than the Philadelphia one had been following the 1980 Angelo Bruno hit.)

The Luisi family had long been involved in the Boston underworld and was once allied with New England crime family boss Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme (who this week filed an appeal of his conviction and life sentence for the 1993 murder of Steven DiSarro, a South Boston nightclub owner.)

So why did Luisi, now a born-again Christian, reportedly become a made member of the Philly crime family and not the New England Mafia?

In November 1995, Luisi’s own family made national news when his father, brother and two other men were gunned down inside the 99 Restaurant and Pub in Charlestown. A fifth man with them was seriously wounded. The mob-related shooting (the shooters were associates of the Boston mob who had had a long-running dispute with the Luisis.) occurred in a busy restaurant -- the patrons literally had to dive under tables for cover, and the story was touted as evidence that despite the numerous convictions of mob leaders and members across the country, the Mafia was still extremely alive and extremely violent.

 Luisi was in prison at the time of the murders. If he hadn't been locked up, he probably also would've been killed. And while in prison, he met Merlino.

Upon his release, Luisi reportedly went to South Philadelphia and formalized an alliance.

As per sources on background, Luisi was concerned about the level of instability in Boston. He believed that by having the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra backing him, he would also have New York, or at least the perception of New York, also behind him, and thus, wiseguys in Boston would be less likely to get in his way.

At the time, the New England crime family had been in flux for almost a decade, and it was going through factional disputes, similar to what Philadelphia had gone through prior to the ascension of Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi in the Philadelphia Mafia.

Luisi had big plans for the Philadelphia mob in New England when he realized there was something of a power vacum after Salemme and others had been cleared away.

Basically, Luisi had gone to Merlino for permission to operate in Boston under Merlino's flag, as McGowan explained. But Merlino probably only cared about the scratch he got from Luisi. 

 "He made Luisi pay him $10,000 a month, " McGowan told us.

Bottom line was "we didn't care," McGowan explained. "We had opportunities to work this."

McGowan posed as “Mike Sullivan,” the operator of a company in downtown Boston called Irish International that was involved in the import and export trade.

As per his role as Irish Mike, McGowan worked near Logan Airport in an office near the Marriott Hotel. It was wired to capture video as well as audio, so every meeting there was memorialized, with Luisi setting up the deals, Luisi and his associates making the deliveries and collecting the cash.

George Anastasia features "Irish Mike" -- McGowan -- prominently in The Last Gangster.

As Anastasia wrote, "McGowan brought just the right combination of attitude, edge, and respect to his meetings with the erstwhile wiseguys."

“This guy knew what he was doin’,” Previte said of McGowan. “He and I worked perfect together. It was like we didn’t have to talk about anything, we just played off one another. He was smooth. He understood.”

The meetings between McGowan and Luisi took place in McGowan’s business office in downtown Boston, and on the streets of Boston’s North End, the Italian neighborhood where Luisi grew up.

Click image to read about book on Amazon.

On January 6, 1999, in a lengthy discussion with Merlino, Previte mentioned that he had a contact in Boston that basically was a "guaranteed source of cash," as Anastasia wrote.

"Previte insists the conversation swung... to drugs, and that Merlino understood." (If the words on tape had been clearer Merlino would be in prison right now probably.)

“This, this is big up there,” Previte said at one point, putting his finger to his nose. It was clear to them both that he was talking about cocaine, he says, but the tape and transcript only include the words, not the hand gesture.

“Just make sure that what’s-his-name [Luisi] can meet me up there to meet the guy,” Previte said.

“That’s what I’m sayin’, yeah,” Merlino said.

"Both Previte and Luisi would claim they moved forward with the drug deals after getting the okay from Skinny Joey. The man who made it all happen was FBI agent Michael McGowan, a veteran undercover operator who played Luisi and his Boston crew like a violin."

Before the cocaine sting was completed, McGowan, working with Previte, had both audio- and videotape of the drug deals being set up, the cocaine being delivered, and the cash being exchanged.

Previte made his first trip to Boston on January 11, 1999. There he met with Luisi, who introduced him to the members of his crew. He then took Luisi to the offices of Irish International for a get-acquainted session with Mike Sullivan.

Sullivan was an earner, Previte told Luisi. He also noted Irish Mike was known to deal in cocaine.

Previte told Sullivan that Luisi was “in charge of everything here in Boston.”

“You’re with us,” Luisi told Sullivan.

Luisi talked, but was unable to do much more than that, as it turned out. He was an incompetent wiseguy...

Mike would put "hot" merch in the mobster's hands, and before he knew it the merch would later be handed back to him.

The Boston wiseguy wasn't actually wise enough to be able to unload any of it.

Mike gave him fur coats worth $30,000, and Luisi was able to sell one -- and he gave two away, one to his wife.

Michael handed him some valuable film—Kodak 110 and Polaroid 600— and Luisi also returned that about two weeks later.

Eventually, Sullivan set up a sure thing for him, telling him about a source for hot diamonds who was looking for cocaine -- three bricks, three kilograms of cocaine -- as he told Luisi, who noted that a kilo went for about $37,000.

Sullivan's guy had enough diamonds to cover that cost, Luisi was told.

That deal never happened, either.

Irish Mike later handed Luisi a Rolex watch—from a stash of hot jewelry, as he told Luisi. He told Luisi he wanted him to keep the watch -- a yellow gold Oyster Perpetual Date Submariner with blue bezel and dial worth about five grand -- for himself....

In June 1999, Luisi and three associates were arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. Luisi agreed to become a government witness against Merlino. (Joey Merlino was the only defendant in the racketeering trial charged with drug dealing; he finished serving that sentence in 2011 when he moved with his family to Florida.)

During the trial, McGowan, testified he had purchased nearly $75,000 worth of cocaine from Luisi and several of his associates. Before Mike, Previte told the jury that Merlino had authorized cocaine transactions between Luisi and McGowan. Merlino’s lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, suggested that Merlino thought he was authorizing a deal involving stolen goods.