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