The Donnie Brasco Days: Belinda Rossetti Q&A

We present here a Q&A with longtime friend Belinda Rossetti, who knew former Bonanno capo Nicky Santora intimately...

Joe  Pistone surveillance photograph.
Joe  Pistone surveillance photograph.

Santora, as noted, died recently. And we've written about Belinda previously...

July 26, 1981, was D-Day for Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, and he probably knew it. He and his crew had learned that a small time burglar and jewelry thief who'd been hanging around with them for years -- Donnie Brasco—a man Napolitano had put up for membership, was actually FBI Agent Joe Pistone.

Pistone had fooled them all since 1976. He had popped up in Little Italy one day in New York City as a stranger and outsider, a man claiming to have been an orphan. He  started meeting a series of mobsters, gaining their trust by appearing to be a part of their life. All the while he was secretly gathering vital intelligence.

Pistone had to be sharper than sharp to do what he'd done for six long years. The most difficult part of his con was having to lie, convincingly and repeatedly, for years, which is truly walking the proverbial tightrope without the net. Brasco could've been in critical danger for a multitude of reasons -- saying the wrong thing, getting caught with a recording device, being seen with the wrong person, showing too much curiosity. And only a handful people in the FBI even knew about it.

The FBI, in an official statement, once noted: "In years past, we’d had some success in gathering intelligence on the mob, but typically only around the edges. The core—the leadership—was often untouchable because of the Mafia’s code of silence. Agents in our New York office decided to try out a longer-term undercover operation—one of the first of its kind. But even they had no idea that it would end up lasting so long and bearing so much fruit.

"And what an intelligence goldmine it was. The operation gave us a window into the inner workings of the Mafia generally and the Bonanno family specifically (and to a lesser degree, some of the other families), not only in New York, but in Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere. We learned firsthand who the players were, what kinds of rackets they were running, and what rules they played by. And it ultimately led to more than 100 federal convictions."

(What we find most amazing about Joe Pistone is that he wrote The Way of the Wiseguy, essentially a how-to manual....)

 Nicky Santora was part of the first indictment resulting from the Donnie Brasco operation. He actually benefited from Pistone by getting control of Sonny Black's crew.

How did you meet Nicky -- how long did you go out with him -- and what was it like dating a mobster?

I met Nicky through a friend of his ... I didn’t think of Nicky as a “mobster” in the sense that I knew the term or stereotype. With me, or around me, he didn’t fit the stereotype. If it wasn’t for court documents and photos, I wouldn’t have believed it. I mean, this was a guy that complained that he was going to die of cancer when I pinched him. This was a guy that sang to me at dinner. The only time I’d seen him get angry at anybody (other than me, ha!) was when he got cut-off in traffic & cursed the guy, threatened him with a baseball bat and proceeded to tell the guy to go do something with his mother....

The only other time I saw him angry, when he threatened to hurt “someone”, was when I was teaching him to use “Google” as a search engine on the Internet. When his name popped up and he started clicking on webpages and finally Wikipedia, he started yelling and cursing. He demanded to know “who” put all the information on the Internet about him. He was serious and I was laughing. He wanted names! He actually demanded from me, “Who did this? Do you know who put this on there? Find out and give me their name!” ... Again, if it hadn’t been for court documents and photos, I wouldn’t have believed he was Underboss of the Bonanno Family at that time.....

Did he ever talk about "Donnie Brasco" or any of the guys involved — especially Sonny Black and Lefty?

When I talked to Nicky a few times about the Donnie Brasco case, he said that Joe Pistone lied. On one instance, I asked him for clarification, how did he lie, in what way? His response "He lied about everything...he made it all up." ...I reminded Nicky that the case was over, he did his time and paid his debt to society. He regretted that things had changed so much and that he didn't achieve more by being in that lifestyle. I broke up with him because he was too bossy and jealous. He wouldn't even ask something of me, he'd order me around like he was giving those dopes on his crew orders.

But not every discussion about the Donnie Brasco case was serious. He also laughed about it. One day we were walking along a sidewalk in Ozone Park to go have lunch when he said he didn't know why they got Madsen to play Sonny Black because Madsen was too tall. He said, “Sonny was short! He was almost my height but even shorter, about 5'5!" Then he laughed. I told him I didn't believe him and he just laughed. A few times when he started to tell me that Sonny “was hot-tempered and would kill anybody that pissed him off”, he'd stop himself and think for a minute before I'd remind him that he'd already told me that Joe Pistone made it all up! ....

On another occasion when I found the opportunity to bring up Lefty, without actually talking about crime, I asked if he was good friends and he said, "Yea." I asked him if he liked Lefty and he started saying, "Yea I liked him but he... he was just... " and then he stopped and asked me why I talked too much.... (he once) told me that I needed to be careful and never ask questions of anybody like I asked of him. He said, "Other people won't understand like I do. We know each other and I know you're just asking just to ask, but other people won't and they won't like it, ok?" .... Joe Pistone didn't make anything up and.... Joe Pistone didn't know everything about Nicky...

Did he ever lament how it’s not like the old days? Anything especially bother him about the life?

Nicky ALWAYS talked about the old days! He would tell me, "It ain't the same anymore." We used to talk for hours, about everything and about nothing. I asked him why he didn't just get out of that life and he'd smile at me and laugh. Then he'd say, "What life? I'm not in no life." followed by, "What am I going to do? Sing?" Then he'd start singing a song to me and then change the subject. If I pressed him, he'd get angry and tell me, "Alright stop! Don't annoy me!" .... he'd tell me how he loved the “old New York”.... He'd keep telling me, "It ain't easy anymore", in a matter of fact way that I felt sorry for him, especially when he'd question me frequently about whether I was going to "leave him".

One day, on July 10, 2009, Nicky was counting out thousands of dollars that he’d brought in a brown paper bag. When he went into the bathroom, I started counting it but lost track. I was nervous and trying to count fast but the bills were rubber-banded in several bundles and I kept losing track. Plus my hands were shaking because I didn’t want him to catch me. When he was counting, I pretended to be interested in the TV. I’d counted out over $37,000 but I knew there was more but I skipped a lot of bills. When he came out of the bathroom I asked him if that was for me and he laughed and said, “Noo…It’s not yours. That’s Vinny’s money.” Later that day, I asked him if it bothered him to be putting his life on the line, facing prison or death only to be giving [Vinny] all that money. Nicky agreed and said he hated to do it but he “had to”. He said he could get “whacked” if he didn’t. When I protested their “rules”, he agreed with me, “You’re right! I shouldn’t.” Then he asked me, “Wouldn’t you want hundreds of guys kicking money up to you too?” I knew what he meant - kicking up to The Boss.

Joe Pistone, Benjamin Lefty Two-Guns Ruggiero, and "Tony Rossi," an
Joe Pistone, Benjamin Lefty Two-Guns Ruggiero, and "Tony Rossi," another FBI agent.

Nicky always knew that I wanted to become an attorney but at the time, we'd talked about my becoming a criminal defense attorney. Later, I decided that I wanted to be a prosecutor and asked him what he thought. He just laughed and said, "Yeah?", grabbing my hands, "You wanna be mean to me?" I said I didn’t and he asked, "Why do you want to be mean to me? Am I mean to you?" Again, I said, “No” and then assured him that he was never mean to me nor had he done anything bad to me. Then he reminded me that he told me he loved me, adding, “and I don't tell no-one that, but I told you." I just laughed, thinking that was a line. But he went on like nothing happened and I asked him if he heard what I was telling him and he acknowledged it saying, "I know you're serious but what am I supposed to do? You wanna be a prosecutor? Go ahead. I'm not doing anything wrong!"

But I was serious when I told him I wasn't out to hurt him because he'd never done anything to hurt me. I knew everything I needed to know about him and actually more than I wanted to know. Nicky used to remind me that since he was on constant surveillance, that I was too. I said I didn't care because anything he did or does, had nothing to do with me. But then he said one day, "Yea but eventually someone's going to approach you, I'm telling you." He was right. A Federal Agent questioned me one day and asked me what I knew about Nicky. I said I didn't know anything. That response only angered the agent and he asked me if I knew who he was and I just said, "Yea, his name is Nicholas Santora." The agent continued and asked, "Aren't you afraid of him?" I said Nicky didn't scare me and asked why I should be afraid of him. He said, "Nicky's a ruthless killer! You're not afraid of a ruthless killer?" He was mad. I just answered calmly, "I haven't seen Nicky commit any murders. Have you seen Nicky commit any murders?" That was the end of that conversation and the agent was furious with me.... But I thought back on the time Nicky's cousin (on his mother's side) insulted me telling me, "You don't want anything to do with me but you'll associate with murderers? You've got some nerve!"

Then I told him that anything I knew, I couldn't tell him anyway but that he'd have to buy my book after I published it. That's when he asked what I was writing about. I told him, "Everything you're asking me about... everything you want to know, but don't." That really pissed him off and he got up and left. He was kind of arrogant but really good looking. His looks distracted me when he was talking and I thought it was odd that he approached me when I was walking into a place that Nicky used to frequent and wiseguys used to go, Phillies pizzeria in Middle Village....

Of course, they weren't dressed in suits and dark glasses like on TV. I told Nicky afterward and he just laughed and muttered “cocksuckers…”, but he never asked questions or brought it up again either... A friend of mine who worked Narcotics with NYPD used to have lunch there with me, even when he was on duty, although he was in plain clothes but he didn't hide his badge or his firearm....

That wasn't the last time I saw that guy either. He had looks that I wouldn't ever forget. I mean, really goodlooking and of obvious Middle Eastern descent. I was picking up food at a restaurant in Rego Park, "Barosa" one day and I went into another area for take-out and he was in the other side at a table. I knew the staff there and asked one of the guys if he knew who that was and he said they were "a couple of Wall Street guys" and he just laughed and made a joke...

Much later I contacted Nicky and I told him that I hoped he would take whatever money he had and just get out and stay out of that life. I told him that I would be out of law school shortly after Michael went home and that I took any job I had seriously, but I also knew that he would be out of that "life" soon. What he'd told me years before would come true, that he'd die before the age of 80 in prison. Although Nicky had been released from prison while awaiting trial, he wasn't free. He was imprisoned by the "life" that he wanted so badly to be free from - the Mob Life...


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