Douglas Century is the coauthor of Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire, a nonfiction account of Detective Rick Cowan’s unprecedented infiltration of the upper echelons of New York’s Cosa Nostra families. A contributing writer with The New York Times, Century’s work has also appeared in Details, Rolling Stone, Brill’s Content, Newsday, The Forward, The Village Voice, The Guardian and Talk.
Century is the author of the critically acclaimed international bestseller Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse which received a starred, lead nonfiction review in Publishers Weekly (“at once mesmerizing, humorous and tragic”) and major review coverage in national publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, The New Yorker and Time. (“Street Kingdom merits a place alongside The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son,” wrote the Detroit Free Press. “An inventive mix of courageous investigative reporting, accomplished storytelling, knowing social commentary, and wicked street-smart prose.”)
Century’s 2001 New York Times feature story about the world of highly competitive youth baseball, “The Boys of Summer,” was recently optioned by Miramax Films and is being developed into a feature film. He is also the author of several original screenplays.
In April 2001, Century was a featured speaker in the Museum of the City of New York’s Gotham Readers series, Gangs, Gangsters and Gangstas, a sold-out event held at the Public Theatre in New York at which he spoke about the history of gangsters in Brooklyn. In December 2002, the South Street Seaport Museum has invited Century to be part of a distinguished panel of authors reading from the 1927 classic The Gangs of New York, in conjunction with the release of Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film adaptation.
Century was born and raised in Canada, and is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University. He lives in New York City with his wife.
A Conversation with Douglas Century, coauthor of Takedown, The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire
1. Q: How does Rick’s story, and this undercover operation, compare to that of FBI Agent Joe Pistone, who infiltrated the mob as Donnie Brasco in the 1970s?
A: Pistone was a pioneer. His infiltration of the Mob was a groundbreaking event, and he’s the one everyone thinks of when they think of a law enforcement agent becoming a wiseguy. It was an important case, and it made for a terrific book. But there are a couple clear distinctions between the two stories. As Brasco, Pistone infiltrated and became an associate of a crew of made guys in the Bonanno family. If you recall, a key theme in his book was that these guys were a bunch of pedestrian, low-rent, degenerate gamblers, stealing from each other wherever possible. In a sense his aim was to debunk the Godfather myth that had become part of our perception of organized crime. He showed that these guys were not all-powerful but rather a bunch of violent, pathetic thugs, desperate for one big score to turn their lives around. In infiltrating the Mafia’s garbage cartel, Rick, on the other hand, was operating among the highest level of economic racketeers in the Gambino and Genovese families—the two most powerful organized crime families in the country. He was getting close to guys who had the power to crack an economic whip over all of New York: heavyweight gangsters like Joseph “Joey Cigars” Francolino, Alphonso “Allie Shades” Malangone, and James “Jimmy Brown” Failla, who started as Carlo Gambino’s chauffeur and eventually spent forty years as the boss of the garbage rackets. These guys were running the Mob’s most lucrative enterprise since Prohibition, with an estimated annual value of roughly $1.5 billion, and a skim for the mob in the hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s untraceable millions in cash going every year into the pockets of bosses like John Gotti and Vincent “Chin” Gigante.
2. Q: The Pistone/Brasco undercover operation was clearly and carefully planned. Was that what happened here?
A: No. And that’s another distinction between the two cases. The FBI painstakingly orchestrated Pistone’s insertion into the Mob and carefully planned where to have him hang out so he could tentatively begin to meet hoods in his undercover alias as “Don the jewel thief.” By contrast, Rick was thrown into his undercover role entirely by happenstance. It’s more like “through the looking glass”—suddenly he’s undercover in this crazy world with its own upside-down rules and slang. Rick had been interviewing the owner of an independent garbage company who had had one of his trucks firebombed—a guy named Sal Benedetto—when the two hoods who blew the truck up walked in and started making more crazy threats. When Rick tried to defuse the situation, one of the thugs demanded to know who he was. Out of the blue, Sal said, “That’s my cousin Danny—he works here.” It was a total fluke—and the only way this kind of case could have ever truly gotten off the ground.
3. Q: Why do you say that?
A: Because these garbage gangsters were too careful to be easily duped. In 1976 and ’77, the FBI planned a careful infiltration of the garbage rackets by setting up their own carting company with an agent named Wayne Orrell posing as an own