UNDERCOVER IN THE MOB
NYPD cop learned lingo, lived ‘the life’ to cripple crime families
IT WAS THE ACTING job of a lifetime, but you won’t see his name on a marquee.
For nearly three years from 1999 into 2002, a Jewish-born NYPD detective raised in Flushing posed as an Italian mobster moving between two factions of the Bonanno and Luchese crime families.
He took on the persona of Vincent Spinelli, a dangerous truck hijacker and gun-runner with a warehouse full of swag. He wore gold watches and drove a Mercedes.
After the indictments came down in those cases, Spinelli switched gears entirely and joined the elite Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2002 under his real name.
He spent the next 11 years chasing terrorists threatening to hit New York and, later, Afghani drug lords as a consultant with U.S. Special Forces.
“I’ve had an interesting life,” Spinelli, 47, told the Daily News. “I had opportunities that a lot of people don’t have. Now, I live to play golf.”
The News is withholding his real name at his request for security reasons.
Spinelli’s adrenaline-rich undercover career began in earnest in 1998 after he helped take down a major drug operation that had basically annexed an entire apartment complex in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx.
That case and other successes landed him in the coveted Organized Crime Investigation Division.
There, he was assigned to work with Detectives Richie Fagan and Billy Gillespie — two men who would mentor him and become his close friends.
“He came highly recommended but we weren’t sure what to do with him,” Fagan recalled. “We were thinking about making him a corrupt government official.”
It took an informant to make the decision. Gillespie got word of a Bonanno gun ring operating out of the Aquarius Social Club on Waterbury Ave. in the Schuylerville neighborhood of the Bronx. It was controlled by Capo Patrick (Patty from the Bronx) DeFilippo.
Gillespie brought Spinelli to a meeting with the informant in January 1999.
“Billy asked him ‘Can you introduce us to them?’” Spinelli said. “The informant pointed to me and said, ‘Yeah, he would work.’ And that’s how it got started: a five-minute conversation.”
To play the role, the Jewish kid from Flushing had to learn the lingo and customs of the mob, and that started with regular visits to the A. Reali Gourmet Deli on Utopia Parkway in Auburndale, Queens.
“They had some good food there,” he said. “I told the three old ladies working there I was writing a story and asked them questions about food; how to properly pronounce certain foods.”
Meanwhile, Fagan and Gillespie wiped NYPD personnel records of his existence, gave him a criminal record, a new driver’s license, a new apartment and a business with a warehouse.
Fagan said they started calling him Vincent months before sending him into the social club.
“Everyone in the office did it so he would respond to it naturally,” he said. “Wise guys pick up on that stuff in a second.”
They filled the warehouse with fake high-end goods, like counterfeit Movado watches and Tommy Hilfiger jeans. They borrowed nice suits, diamond rings, gold chains and watches from the evidence unit for him to wear.
His role was to buy guns from the gangsters, as many as he could, and pick up on whatever other crimes the mobsters were involved in.
His first meeting in 1999 with Luchese soldier John Donnadio to sell him Movada watches was at Satin Dolls, the New Jersey strip club which the makers of “The Sopranos” used as a model for their Bada Bing jiggle joint.
“At the table, he liked to be the center of attention,” Spinelli said. “If I had a good score, I would take him away from the table and tell him and gave him his cut.”
The 300-pound DeFilippo, on the other hand, was more old school.
“He was the anti-Gotti,” he said. “He didn’t say much. He took you on walks to talk business. But we had a camera in his club, and we cloned his pager and his cell phone.”
Pretty soon, Spinelli was a regular at the social clubs and strip clubs like Lace in Midtown or Sue’s Rendezvous in Mount Vernon, hanging with a whole roster of mobsters over steak and lobster dinners, and doing gun deal after gun deal. He would buy guns from them and sell them stuff from his warehouse.
Meanwhile, his fellow detectives were sitting outside in a van recording what was said.
“He was like a chameleon,” Fagan said. “Part of it was the fact that he grew up in the city. He could just walk into any place and was able to engage these guys.”
He was still working for a bureaucracy, though. He was reminded of this the time that an NYPD accountant asked him to provide receipts for his high restaurant tabs.
“I said, ‘Who am I going to ask for a receipt?’” he said. “That’s just not going to work.”
Testing him out, the mobsters
started taking him on collection runs. In one, a down-and-out button salesman in the garment district who owed a big gambling debt begged for more time.
“One of the guys just wanted to kick the s--- out of the him,” he said. “I calmed everything down and the guy promised to pay.”
Spinelli said beyond some light questioning, the mobsters didn’t really closely examine who he was.
“Every time we were out, we had a good time, cracking jokes, laughing. We got along,” he said.
“I was bringing in money. They were happy with that. And all the things we were doing, they weren't getting arrested. Beyond that, they never really questioned me.”
But he did have a couple of close calls. One time, he was standing in a reception line at a mobster’s mother’s funeral and he realized, being Jewish, he had no idea how to genuflect the right way. He rushed into a bathroom and called Fagan and said, “They’re all doing the sign of the cross. You gotta tell me how to do it quick.”
Another night, he went to a police wake and then to a restaurant to meet the mobsters. A woman who had been at the funeral tapped him on the shoulder.
“I said ‘I don't know you,’” he said. “She insisted. I said you got the wrong guy, leave me alone. I felt horrible after that, but the guys were watching.”
On another night, he was out on a double date using his real identity. Donnadio’s brother and another member of the crew showed up with their dates.
“I see them and say to myself ‘Oh f---,’” he recalled. “We paid the check and got out the door.”
In the fall of 2001 and early 2002, the indictments came down in the Luchese and Bonanno cases from Manhattan grand juries.
His work enabled law enforcement to seize 240 guns, a lot of ecstasy pills and, according to Fagan, develop new informants that helped them on future cases.
“We know that somewhere on that table of guns or floor of guns we saved someone’s life,” Spinelli said.
Everyone associated with the case, except DeFilippo, pleaded guilty. The cases were yet more evidence of the decline of the Mafia.
“Over the years, all the big bosses flipped, but as long as you have gambling, you’ll have the mob,” he said. “Only, instead of having the wire room in someone’s house, you send it to Costa Rica.”
In 2002, in the post 9/11 era, Spinelli moved on to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, where he worked highly sensitive terrorism investigations until he retired in 2013.
Spinelli won’t talk much about
Undercover cop who used the name Vincent Spinelli (r.) and as terror-fighting soldier (l.) learned how to speak mob lingo in Queens deli (above l.) then infiltrated Bonannos’ Bronx hangout (above) where his training paid off. To keep his cover story real, he was “arrested” (below).