Meet Joe O'Brien





The Syracuse Newspapers



 By MIKE McANDREW The Post-Standard

Like many Irish Catholic lads of his generation, Joseph O'Brien figured he'd be a cop or a priest.

His options were cut in half when he was expelled from St. John the Evangelical High School on Syracuse's north side.

But no regrets. The FBI agent is about to turn a successful career as a Mafia buster into a hardback that has Hollywood drooling with anticipation. In June, Simon & Schuster will publish a book written by O'Brien and fellow FBI Agent Andris Kurins that tells how they nailed Paul ``Big Paul'' Castellano, the godfather of ``The Commission'' that controlled New York City's five Mafia families. ``Boss of Bosses: The FBI and The Fall of The Godfather,'' is slated to have an initial printing of 200,000, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Lee Rich, whose Hollywood company produced ``Rain Man'' and ``Moonstruck,'' has already purchased the movie rights from the co-authors for $625,000, with $250,000 guaranteed, along with a percentage of the box office receipts. And based on two pages of notes, Simon & Schuster asked O'Brien last week to write a second book about the mob. In literary circles, the 47-year-old O'Brien, who supervises the FBI's Ithaca office, is becoming hotter than a stolen Corvette. ``I thought it was just a fascinating book,'' said Nick Pileggi, author of the book ``Wise Guy,'' which is the basis of the current movie ``GoodFellas.''

O'Brien, a self-described overachiever who wants Tom Selleck to play him in the movie version, is similarly optimistic. ``I don't think there's a question whether it will make the New York Times' bestsellers' list,'' he said. ``The question is how long it will be on there.'' Castellano was the boss of the powerful Gambino crime family until he was gunned down Dec. 16, 1985, outside a midtown Manhattan restaurant and the flamboyant John Gotti succeeded him.In 1983, O'Brien managed to plant a bug in the kitchen of Castellano's $3.5 million Staten Island mansion. The two agents listened in for 3 1/2 months as the 70-year-old boss supervised his criminal empire. Kurins then photographed Castellano in 1984 meeting with the nation's most powerful Mafia leaders. The meeting of Mafia bosses was only the second ever documented by law enforcement authorities. It resulted in heads of the Big Apple crime families being sentenced in January 1987 to 100-year prison terms.

``It broke the back of organized crime,'' Pileggi said.O'Brien received the Attorney General's Award for Distinguished Service, the highest honor given to law enforcement officers in the nation.

FBI's Blessing

In December 1987, New York State Inspector General Joseph Spinelli introduced O'Brien and Kurins to Pileggi -- over lunch at the restaurant where Castellano was ambushed. ``Their feeling was it was impossible to get a book published,'' Pileggi said Friday. ``I told them publishers are desperate for new material that has something to say, especially from two FBI agents.''The two agents started pounding out chapters.``Boss of Bosses'' took 1 1/2 years to write -- and another year to get the FBI to approve its publication. The FBI gave its blessing to the book after the manuscript had been reviewed by the FBI's legal counsel, public affairs office, organized crime section, New York City office and the U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York, according to O'Brien.``They all wanted changes. But they were all constructive changes,'' he said. ``We willingly made them. It was very cordial.'' FBI officials refused to provide specific information about the agency's pre-publication review process.

``It's designed primarily to make sure classified material, sensitive investigative techniques are not inadvertently disclosed,'' said Ray McElhaney, who supervises pre-publication reviews in the FBI's public affairs office. `We Were Friends' ``Boss of Bosses'' focuses on the growing respect O'Brien and Kurins developed for Castellano while they were bringing about his downfall.``A relationship developed between us. We were friends. It's hard to believe that,'' O'Brien said. He said Castellano acted like a businessman -- not an irrational, ruthless boss. Castellano was opposed to wide-scale drug trafficking, which is probably why he was gunned down, O'Brien said. ``He knew we were after him. When we were on our way up to arrest him, he heard on the news that we had bugged his house. He asked me if it was true,'' O'Brien said.

O'Brien wrote much of the book at his mother-in-law's apartment in the Clinton Plaza Apartments, a senior citizen complex on South Clinton Street in Syracuse -- where he said he retreated three weekends a month for peace and quiet.He would also work on it from 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. at his Ithaca home after his wife and three children went to bed.``There's a lot of four-letter words,'' said the 1968 Le Moyne College graduate. ``My mother's not going like this.''

Producer Rich said ``Boss of Bosses'' won't be on the big screen for at least a couple of years.``I just liked it,'' he said gruffly, when asked why he bought the movie rights.

A Quieter Life

After completing ``The Commission'' investigation, O'Brien requested a transfer from New York City to a three-agent office in Ithaca, where he wanted to raise his family in a quieter, safer atmosphere.The 18-year FBI veteran hasn't run into any gangsters in the college town, but Ithaca has been anything but boring. He was halfway through writing ``Boss of Bosses'' when a virus was unleashed from a Cornell University computer that paralyzed thousands of computers across the country at universities, research labs and military installations. He helped nab Robert T. Morris, the son of the National Security Computer Center's chief scientist, in the nation's most celebrated computer hacking case. Friday, O'Brien testified at the trial of Christine Lane -- the Lansing woman accused of killing her baby daughter in February. After failing a polygraph test, Lane confessed to O'Brien that she had left her baby dead in a wooded area and created a tale about the child being kidnapped, which resulted in a two-week manhunt.

His successes in law enforcement have a lot to do with his own instincts and background, O'Brien said. While growing up on Wendell Terrace in the Sedgwick area of Syracuse, O'Brien said he was ``a wise ass'' who frequently got into trouble at school. It broke his mother's heart when he was expelled from St. John's the Evangelist, O'Brien said. ``She didn't leave the house for a year.'' After attending North High School for a short period, he begged priests at Assumption High School to let him enroll there. And his mother, who lives in East Syracuse, kept him from ending up on the wrong side of the law, O'Brien said.

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