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Three lives

Rick Cowan’s the closest thing to a modern-day Donnie Brasco you’re going to get. Cowan was the undercover New York cop who penetrated the mob at its highest levels. Unlike the story told in the 1997 film Donnie Brasco, which was based on the late-1970s and early-’80s exploits of undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone, Cowan’s work stretched into the mid ’90s. More significantly, Cowan learned enough about the mob’s control of New York’s carting and garbage business to break the back of the $1.5 million illegal industry, with resulting convictions or guilty pleas for 72 defendants. He tells his tale — with the help of co-author Douglas Century — in Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire (Putnam, 2002). Cowan recently spoke with the Phoenix.

Q: What was the most frightening thing that happened when you went undercover?

A: The scariest time was when a supposed relative ran into some connected guys that I was around. [Cowan was posing as "Cousin Danny," a relative of recycling-company owner Sal Benedetto.] This guy said he didn’t know me. He knew I didn’t work in the Brooklyn Transfer Station. Word traveled quickly, I knew I had to deal with it. The guy running [the carting racket] from the Gambino side challenged me. He was Joseph Francolino, a very powerful soldier in the Gambino crime family. He went through my wallet. He took me through a three-and-a-half-hour interrogation. It all took place at Pierino’s Restaurant in Tribeca.

Q: How did you get through it?

A: It was luck, reverse psychology. I tried to do the best I could. After a while, he let his guard down. The worst part was when I went down to the joint, when I first walked in. I stepped in the vestibule, I looked to the right, I looked at the bar. There was nobody there. It felt like the famous scene in The Godfather [when the Tattaglia family murders Corleone henchman Luca Brasi]. Even as scared as I was, I thought of that famous scene.

Q: I thought the heyday of the mob was long gone by 1994.

A: Gotti was in jail. Sammy ["the Bull" Gravano] had flipped. They were still pretty powerful at that point. To get into it that deep and be a member of the criminal cartel — that was unique.

Q: Do the remaining mob guys really hang out in Little Italy? Does it still exist?

A: Little Italy is commercialized. When Gotti was on the street, he’d like to march around with his body guards. With the real mob, they’re clandestine. The mob is still around; they’re weakened. They’re always going to hang on to the territory and the action. Law enforcement’s got to stay on top of them.

Q: How did you support the mob lifestyle — particularly on a detective’s salary?

A: The clothes I bought myself. A lot of the money I spent at the bar, I was footing the bill. They did give me money for some activities. They did have an apartment rented out for me — one in Brooklyn, one in Staten Island.

Q: Did you have any contact with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, with Police Commissioner — and former Boston police commissioner — William Bratton?

A: Giuliani was the mayor. The case started under Dinkins. Giuliani came in. He had nothing to do with the case. When you’re that deep under, you’re not going to a police facility. If you’re seen talking to cops somewhere, they think you’re a rat. I would meet the contact detective at a VA hospital in Brooklyn, where nobody is. Very out of the way. As for Bratton, as the case neared the end, he knew about the case where the mayor is above that kind of thing. There were departmental reports going to him. He authorized resources that we desperately needed in the case. Just before we collared the case, they held a big presentation. I went downtown — this is where we briefed him. So they know about the situation. I found him to be a very personable guy.

Q: Do you miss any of it?

A: It was a great experience. I’m glad I did it. I don’t miss it. Even the good times, the drinks, the laughs, you know those times are gone. I had to face them in court. You’re Seth, you’re a writer, a reporter. I had three lives living in one body — Rick Cowan the cop, Rick Cowan the family man, Dan the garbage guy.

Issue Date: November 14 - 21, 2002
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