Fear City: New York vs The Mafia Undercover Agent Gets Caught on Tape

Ex-FBI Special Agent Joe Cantamessa discusses installing surveillance in Fear City: New York vs The Mafia

Fear City New York vs the Mafia
Photo: Netflix

Netflix‘s limited docu-series Fear City: New York vs The Mafia tells the story of one of law enforcement’s biggest wins. During the 1970s and 1980s, New York City’s construction, cement, hotel, and garment industries, among others, paid an informal tax to a secret Commission. The Five Families of the New York mafia – Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Luccese – diversified their income, which had come from traditional vices like gambling, prostitution, numbers, drugs and loan sharking, and started dipping their beaks in legitimate business.

Directed by Sam Hobkinson, Fear City: New York vs The Mafia details how the feds took apart the upper echelon of organized crime. The takedown was historic in that it prosecuted New York’s top mob bosses. The documentary talks with the investigators, prosecutors, former mob associates, and some of the defense to give the inside story a twist on the usual police procedural. The prosecutors had new tricks, like the RICO act, which made it a crime just to be an associate in crime.

The investigative team also had a new set of tools. The documentary talks with Joe Cantamessa, a retired FBI special agent who was in charge of the division’s special operations. He was an undercover agent who worked for a living. He fixed TVs, telephones, cable lines, and could install the eavesdropping devices which would overrule the mob rule of omerta. Cantamessa personally installed a microphone in “The White House,” the luxurious Staten Island mansion of Gambino family boss Paul Castellano. Tommy Bilotti, who served a short stint as underboss to the Gambino family, held the flashlight while Cantamessa installed the surveillance mechanism.

Cantamessa, who also worked other famous cases like the TWA Flight 800 investigation, spoke with Den of Geek about bugging restaurants, drugging Dobermans, and the day-to-day work which goes into undercover operations.

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Den of Geek: In the battle of the mob takedown, you were on the front line, the first one to engage major players and you did it without being able to access your badge for any protection. Is that a correct analysis?

Joe Cantamessa: That’s pretty close. Although, I wasn’t at the beginning of the investigation, I came after the probable cause, and all the hard work is done by the case squad and the surveillance squad. When it comes time to get a technical operation accomplished, whether it be a telephone tap, or a microphone install, or a video install, that’s when we would then engage with the subject.

When we think of undercover agents, we think of Joe Pistone becoming Donnie Brasco and cases like that. But, the kind of job you did is probably more than norm. Can you tell me a little bit more about the working man’s undercover federal cop?

Joe Pistone and other undercover agents have a long-term investment in a particular investigation that continues throughout the course of that investigation. In the role of the tech agent, or in my case technical supervisor, I actually took on an undercover role in many different investigations, covering lots of different areas. So, my effort and my work up before I would actually come into contact with anybody had a little bit of a different orchestration required in terms of getting familiarized with a neighborhood, getting to be more an accepted presence in a particular neighborhood or a building, or around a particular business.

When you bugged Castellano’s place, you asked Tony Bilotti to hold the flashlight. Was that at all a game of professional chicken?

No. What happens is, and keeping in mind that I was never nervous in the conduct of one of my daytime ruses, as I would refer to them. But, I would almost always try to engage the subject or whomever was there to watch me, or keep an eye on me. I would always ask them if it’s practical to participate, whether it be holding the flashlight, or pull on this wire for me, or do something that would be a little bit disarming. It also allowed me to gain a little bit better confidence that I was on the right track, and that I wasn’t going to alert them, or cause them to pay attention to any particular thing I would like them not to pay attention to.

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According to the book Five Families, besides fixing the Castellanos’ cable, you also volunteered to fix a phone line and do other small jobs. Were you almost on a friendly basis with the family?

Well, my background was pretty diversified: I did radio and TV repair, cable was new. I had done antenna installations. I used to be a phone man for New Jersey Bell. I had a lot of different learned skills, so I would take advantage of any opportunity where they might ask me to do something that they would have otherwise had to pay for. Or, back in the day that we were more successful in this particular effort. AT&T, the Bell System and the phone company owned everything. You leased everything, whether it be an extension, a cord, a color, etc. So, there were opportunities for doing other favors that helped to ingratiate myself, so to speak with a particular family, or a neighborhood. I mean in a couple of instances they actually protected me in a couple of situations that might’ve been a little bit more risky.

Did they tip?

Yeah, actually they did tip. Not much relatively speaking, but whenever I got a tip, whether it be $5, $10, there was never more than $20. I can tell you that. Rather than complicate or involve anybody else, I would take whatever the tip was. When I got back to my squad area, I would hold it up and make an announcement, and put it in the coffee can. So, there weren’t that many, they were light tippers so to speak. Because again, they were getting something that they weren’t paying a monthly fee for, and it was a one-time charge for them, and they were happy to have somebody doing them something on the inside.

According to the book Mafia Dynasty, the campaign to bug and annoy Castellano was called “Operation Meathead.” Is that true, and who comes up with these names?

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I leave it to the case squad, and then personally he knows the tech supervisor handling dozens, and over the years, hundreds of cases. I and my tech agents have paid very little attention to who the subjects were, and what the investigation was really all about. We had the big picture, and we were focusing more on our day- to-day activities. I mentioned that when we were as busy as we were, we would be doing as many as three surreptitious entries in one night. So, we were busy and didn’t have time to really follow the case. That was up to the investigators. We didn’t really care about what they were doing as much, and we didn’t let them know what we were doing other than when we got the job done.

Were bugs hard to come by in those days? I read a story about when you had to steal a bug from a Bonanno family member in a hotel to bug another mobster.

Well, in that particular case, that microphone was borrowed from the RCMP. And we actually had to return that one. But there were other instances where we did in fact have to go in and take some microphones out that were not yet recovered, or not productive. They were the ones you’re referring to. So, the microphone was in the Consulate Hotel. We needed to orchestrate a whole story to get in there. It was never empty, the room. We spun up a story one night over a beer, and then got the occupants out so we got it back in and removed their phone and returned it to the RCMP.

It was an interesting story.

I remember it well. Again, we would be sitting around on Second Avenue at Emilio’s having a beer. We’d been calling this place for weeks. And there’s always somebody answering the phone. And so, I decided to come up with a plan that all of my squad members, my agents were all top notch role players. And we came up with a story, and put it into motion, and it worked quite successfully.

A lot of the true crime books I’ve read and certainly on TV, the law seems to be that if someone’s not discussing criminal activity while the FBI is listening, they have to turn off the surveillance under court order. Is that true?

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That is absolutely true. And in the early stages we had what was called minimization, that was left to the honest and discretion of the monitoring agent. We later started to employ technical disconnects that when they stopped the recording they could not hear either. So, that minimization became a real issue if in fact there wasn’t a hundred percent integrity to the whole operation that was being collected.

The stuff about Castellano’s affair with his maid Gloria, wouldn’t that not have been a criminal conversation?

That’s part of the story that sells books and is interesting to talk about. There are aspects, however, that involved Gloria and her family that were part of the investigation. And, I believe that conversation with Gloria might have been deemed relevant. None of the tech agents ever listened to any of the tape, and we never put the earphones on, and we were never subject to any kind of testimony about the content of the conversations that were collected. So, Gloria was just a little bit more than the housekeeper maid.

In the documentary, John Alite says it’s your job to catch the criminals and theirs is to get away with it. He makes it sound like there’s respect on that side for what you’re doing. Were there close moments between agents and mobsters?

There were a few. I would say, not involving me personally, because my contact with the subjects in pretty much every investigation was generally nondescript. They didn’t know who I was, or where I was from. But, there were several instances where the case agents, the case supervisor would have had what would be a professional level of mutual respect. There was one situation where we installed an RF microphone and for whatever reason, through a leak or whatever it was found. The subject pulled out the equipment and waited for the agent to come and pick it up, so as not to be later charged with theft of government property. So, yes, there was mutual respect of what I would call the professional level of the mob management. Certainly not the case today.

In the documentary, you say you fit the profile of an undercover officer because you could blend. Were you a bad kid growing up?

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Well, I had a disciplinary record of sorts growing up, but nothing that ever caused me to be charged criminally. But I did operate with a lot of people that maybe had other intentions, and I was pretty good at hiding, and blending, and things like that. So yeah. A vague way for me to answer a pretty good question. I was not a model. My greatest accomplishment is that I graduated high school back then, so that’s the truth.

Are you from New York?

My family’s all from the Bronx.

Is there as much of a chance to slip up if someone’s not from the neighborhood, because they don’t know the neighborhood, as there was someone getting made because they’re local to the neighbor?

Well, that’s a very good question. For my main undercover identity in the case of criminal investigations, organized crime, etc., I used my real address where I lived in the Bronx. I knew the neighborhood well, because all of my relatives on both my mother and father’s side all lived within six blocks. So, I could use that comfortably as my backstopping address, I can tell stories about it, and I could deflect any kind of trickery, or questions that might be thrown at me that they’re looking to validate was I really from the Bronx? And do I really know that neighborhood? And that in more than one instance did pay off for me where I challenged, even one of the people that were sort of challenging me on a couple of things to do with the neighborhood so to speak.

Did you watch The Sopranos? The episode where they put the bug in a lamp in the basement, did that capture the feel of your job?

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They do a good job in the productions of making things either simple, or more complicated than they actually are. I wouldn’t say that I ever really put a microphone in a lamp, but we had always orchestrated what would be a custom concealment that would fit the particular decor, or neighborhood. So, it brought back a memory or two. I mean, most of our microphones were standard hardware. None of the stuff was really off the shelf. It was all custom creations at the FBI, but it’s certainly feasible and plausible. Keeping in mind that microphones have to have power.

And there are those types that are going to be transmitted RFYs via a battery pack, or some connection to an electrical source. Or, something that’s got a short life to it. So, there always had to be a kind of a coming together as how could we do this? Are we bringing out hard wire that we have to actually have a physical connection to, to the listening plant or are we bringing out a radio signal that means we have to be close by so we can pick up that signal? And every one of these was organized and designed differently.

With all the transcriptions and the people listening to them, how are agents sure they’re not putting words in the criminals’ mouths because it sounds like they want it to sound?

Well, what doesn’t come up in the series is the fact that in several cases, including the Castellano case, we used and employed an audio enhancement technique called DAC or Digital Adaptive Canceling. When you use that, you have to play both tapes, because there’s always going to be the defense argument that we doctored or replaced some content with something that wasn’t there. So, it’s a little bit of a science, which doesn’t come out in the show. Also in the Castellano collection, I was in the process of actually training the defense expert so he understood what we were doing so he’d ask intelligent questions about the processing, and not just lay down a smoke screen and confuse the jury. So, that never came out of course, because there was never a trial.

Technology’s changed since those days, but how has surveillance protocol changed since you were on the job?

Microphones are still small, transmitters are much smaller, but more importantly, things are very cheap now. We have cellular microphones you can buy for under $50, put a SIM card in it, pay for a little bit of time, and dial up a cellular microphone from anywhere on the planet for a couple hours. And then why even retrieve it? So, that’s a way different job to deal with right now. Video? You’ve seen all of the little stuff, the little chargers, little blocks. They used to be RF where they used to record on a little bit of a flash memory, and now, if you’ve got access to somebody’s Wi-Fi, or you got a hundred dollars to spend, you can affect quite a good audio or video installation.

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Episode 3 opens with the news report that New York City was prospering 10 years after being bankrupt. Do you think the mob had anything to do with that prosperity? And has the take down of the mob done good things for construction, for example?

I would say that I know for a fact, because of the labor racketeering and the control of all of the industries even far and beyond construction, prices were increased significantly. I don’t know that prices came down. I would think things probably leveled out more. I mean, my family was involved in many aspects of areas that the mob controlled, and I know that there was quite a bit of padding, and rigging, and coordination of how jobs got distributed to the select few. One of the first jobs I took on when I started my business after retirement, I wound up doing a lot of work in a lot of waste management type transfer stations. And some of them actually operated by Waste Management today. So, I know that the prices definitely stopped escalating at the pace they were, and the competition was more likely to be realized in a true sense.

We’re hearing reports about unmarked federal vans in Oregon. Was anything like that conceivable when you worked?

About the time I became the technical supervisor, which was late ’79 in New York due to the creation of the special operations branch, we had a dedicated tech squad, and dedicated surveillance squads. Originally they were designed to cover the three geographic areas: Queens, Brooklyn, Westchester, Manhattan. We had begun to procure or modify vehicles to look like they were fitting into any neighborhood so none of our staff looked out of the ordinary, and blended in. They were meant to be able to conduct a covert surveillance, or a covert electronic surveillance. So, anything’s possible. There are many mobile platforms now that the governments and law enforcement use on a regular basis. And then of course there are the obvious command posts that you’d see on the scene of any major event. It’s a mix and match of well spent money in order to blend. But, they’re expensive investments.

Your name comes up in the TWA Flight 800 and Timothy McVeigh investigations. You also stood behind John O’Neill, the FBI agent who was investigating bin Laden before the Twin Towers attack. Could he have done anything differently to get his point across?

John and I were good friends. He was a unique and talented special agent, and very aggressive. And a lot of his concerns were not followed up on maybe to the extent that onsite would suggest they should have been. John was again a unique individual, but he was a little ahead of his time. We didn’t always follow the rules so to speak. And we were oftentimes a problem for FBI headquarters because we didn’t take no for an answer. So, yeah it made a difference. In the TWA arena as the special agent in charge of special operations, I had all of the responsibility for the collections, the collection sites, oversee the dive operations. I had a logistical onsite role where the other SACs had their different areas of responsibility in that investigation.

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Rudy Giuliani says he could have been a mobster because he grew up in Brooklyn. Could he have been?

Yeah. He probably could have been. Those of us that have what I call diversified ethnic backgrounds, that our families or our associates are exposed to lots of opportunities. I understand exactly what he’s saying, because I could have gone in the wrong direction myself. But I always separated myself from a lot of my friends who were taking the wrong direction, and that served me well. I was able to become an FBI agent, and fairly successful in my career. So, I understand exactly what Rudy was saying, and I often use that similar in a conversation, or an interview, because so could I have.

Where is the mafia now?

The mafia is not as organized. It’s not as structured, and it’s not as well-managed as it was back during the sixties, and seventies, and early eighties. It’s still there. They’re still trying to do what they can do there. Although a lot of the crimes that are being conducted, are maybe not as popular right now. The focus for law enforcement and criminal investigations are a little skewed right now. So, it’s an opportunity for a criminal organization. They’re still there. They’re not going away, but their level of involvement and interference in the day-to-day operations affecting all of us is certainly localized or minimized.

Fear City: New York vs The Mafia airs on Netflix starting July 22.