Meet Joe O'Brien





Syracuse Herald American  
September 7, 1986

Syracuse Native Honored for FBI Service

By Frances Dinkelspiel
Staff Writer

Ithaca-FBI agent Joseph O'Brien does not let his guard down easily.

On Monday, he sat in the the corner booth of a local restaurant.

That attentiveness and diligence, now ingrained after 15 years as an agent, is part of the reason O'Brien cracked one of the FBI's most difficult cases, the one everyone said couldn't be done. He nailed Paul Castellano, Mafia boss of the Gambino Family and Godfather of the commission, the organization of the five Mafia families of New York City.

For his work in helping to convict some of the most notorious members of the underground, in early December O'Brien was awarded the Attorney General's award for distinguished service, an honor he has dedicated to the memory of his father, William J. O'Brien, a former Oswego and Syracuse resident who died in 1977.

The Attorney General's award is the highest honor given to a law-enforcement officer in the nation, and carries a great deal of prestige.  O'Brien shares this year's award with Joseph Wolfinger, who investigated the John Walker Jr. spy ring.

O'Brien, as a Syracuse native now stationed in Ithaca, was honored for planting a bug in Castellano's fortress-like house on Staten Island, and proving that the heads of the five Mafia families meet by photographing them as they left a meeting in 1984.

That meeting was only the second time authorities could prove the heads of the Mafia met to discuss business. The first time was in 1957 when state police almost inadvertently raided a Mafia meeting in Appalachian, New York, near Binghamton.

"We always knew that they met, but we could never could document it". O'Brien said. "They were always so secretive about it, they talked about each other on the bugs but we could never prove it was a tribunal that set policy." The photographs enabled the government to prosecute and convict the heads of the families as a group," O'Brien said.

While O'Brien is proud of the photographs, he is even prouder of the bug the FBI planted in Castellano's house in 1983. As O'Brien describes it, the $4 million house was a fortress almost impenetrable.

"They said he couldn't be done", O'Brien said with a smile.

How the house was penetrated is still a secret, but O'Brien admitted Castellano did not let anyone in he did not know.

"The penetration irritated Castellano no end" said O'Brien. When the boss was arrested, he asked how the bug was planted.

"It was driving him crazy" said O'Brien. He could not believe we penetrated his fortress. When he asked how, of course, I just smiled at him. I couldn't give him any clues."

The FBI code name for the case was Castaway for to put Castellano away" O'Brien said

While, O'Brien's primary mission was to put Castellano behind bars, the agent said he developed a respect for the man. "Castellano was not a irrational, ruthless Godfather. He gave people second chances and ordered no killings during the three months the bug was in place", O'Brien said.

"Castellano also was opposed wide scale narcotics trafficking, and that is probably why he was gunned down-gangland style-in a Manhattan East side restaurant in December 1985", O'Brien said. There was a power struggle over whether to move further into the narcotics industry.  Now the new head of the Gambino family is John Gotti," O'Brien said.

"Castellano may have been correct in  thinking drugs would be divisive to the Mafia", O'Brien added. All Mafia members consider themselves a brotherhood, and are tied by "omerta" or a secret oath. When one member is captured by the police, he usually does not squeal. He knows you'll only spend a few years behind bars, and his family taken care of by the brotherhood", O'Brien said.

The drugs may be changing that. The jail sentences handed out are so severe that  the members have less incentive to be quiet, O'Brien said. 

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"The tough problems we solve right away. 
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Joe O'Brien

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