The FBI is a far more diverse agency today in the early stages of the twenty-first century, than it was back during the Hoover Era, or even when I proudly stood erect, right hand raised with my New Agent Class 91-6 classmates, and swore my oath of allegiance to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. It was a not-so-long-ago Sunday evening in Quantico, Virginia, February 10th, 1991, to be exact. And the next twenty or so weeks at the Academy helped prepare me and my classmates for moments just like this one.
And no matter how earnest the FBI’s inclusive modern recruiting efforts, many folks continue to associate the FBI with 6 foot tall waspy-looking white guys. Not too far back in the recent past, a number of minority FBI Agents sued the bureau, claiming they were forced to work undercover, because of their ethnicity. And though it makes sense that an undercover African-American Agent would have some difficulty in penetrating the neo-Nazis, and I would never be allowed to get inside a terror cell plot in New York City comprised of young men of Middle Eastern descent, the reader MUST understand this: The FBI absolutely, unequivocally NEVER forces or compels ANY Agent to work undercover. It’s a voluntary pursuit. So those lawsuits were frivolous and disingenuous.
Do undercover assignments aid in promotions or advancement? No, I’d submit, they don’t any more than any successful assignment in case work or on a peripheral assignment, such as being a member of a tactical response or evidence collection team. And advancement in the bureau is more closely related to how many times you are willing to uproot your family and crisscross the nation filling vacancies along the seemingly never-ending ladder rungs of the agency. So, the argument that turning down an undercover assignment retarded someone’s opportunities for advancement is just so much…poppycock. I’m calling bullshit on that one.
Now, this misconception that all FBI agents look like Jimmy Gagliano (Falcone) gives us a decided edge against the misinformed criminals we target. And, as we undoubtedly should do, we exploit it at any and every opportunity. We resemble America now. We speak Arabic, Pashtun, and Farsi. We look like Skinheads and Black Panthers. We look like you — those inclined to the criminal lifestyle — and we will use your preoccupation with greed and getting one over to ensnare you. Don’t look now, but you just might be reading this tome next to one of us. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed. Cheers!
So, back to the just concluded undercover meeting I’ve described…
I sensed that seeing the FBI couple that passed me on the street, and receiving “the nod” was my cue to head straight towards my car and exit the set…stage right.
I took a deep breath and did just that. Turning the vehicle out into traffic and taking a circuitous route, constantly checking my mirrors for a sudden tail, I was soon en route to my debriefing location where I was to meet up with the C-38 case squad personnel assigned to cover my meet. And then, a quick trip north and date with my young ballplayers. The disparate parts of my life conjoined in one evening. Gosh, does it get better than this?
And, most importantly, I’d survived another undercover operation as an FBI principal undercover agent, and I had secured the admissions, in the bad guys’ own words, ON TAPE, to help make a solid case against the mob for C-38 and the Southern District of New York. I felt satisfied about the evening’s efforts.
But, what I didn’t realize at the time, was that this was to be the last undercover appearance of my FBI career.
The meeting I described above was but one of many undercover operations I participated in during my FBI career. My involvement in undercover cases came to an abrupt halt when bureau bosses in the FBI New York Office finally elected to enforce an arcane bureau rule that forbid FBI supervisors or executive managers from participating in undercover roles. I was a squad supervisor, and undercover assignments took me away from the squad.
I wasn’t terribly disappointed in the enforcement of the rule. I’d had a good run and I traced my desire to work undercover back to the first time I held in my hands, “Donnie Brasco,” the bestselling book authored by retired FBI agent, Joe Pistone.
Released in 1988, “Donnie Brasco” was a gritty and detailed accounting of Pistone’s deep undercover role inside the Bonanno and Colombo La Cosa Nostra crime families. Up to that point in the mob’s history in America, no law enforcement officer had ever infiltrated a mafia family with that level of acceptance and success. When the case ultimately came down in 1981, Pistone’s amazing effort led to over 200 indictments and some 100 convictions.
He was a pioneer and his legend has only grown exponentially over the passing years within the bureau, as the agent responsible for putting the FBI’s undercover program on the map. As any old-time G-man will tell you, the FBI’s revered first Director, J. Edgar Hoover, expressly forbid his Special Agents from the “dirty” and potentially corrupting work of acting as an undercover operative. In the Old Man’s opinion, this could lend itself to potential corruption opportunities. Better to keep his beloved gumshoes far removed from that temptation. This edict remained official FBI policy until Hoover’s death in 1972.
Two other monumental influences on my professional life led to my desire to learn the craft of acting, in order to fool criminals into trusting you enough to expose their illegal activities or intentions. This art of the thespian is the critical trade of the undercover agent. And, ironically enough, it was Wiseguy, a television treatment from CBS, released in 1987 and starring Ken Wahl as Vinnie Terranova, an undercover agent for the fictional Organized Crime Bureau, that further piqued my interest in the craft. Wahl’s portrayal of a streetwise Italian-American fascinated me.
So, there you have it: Two created roles, “Donnie Brasco” and “Vinnie Terranova,” were my inspirations.
Which led to an appeal to FBI brass in January of 1995. I had just completed almost four years on Squad C-16, the FBI New York Office’s famed La Cosa Nostra Gambino family organized crime squad. So, I’d begun to lobby my bosses at the Brooklyn-Queens Metropolitan Resident Agency HARD to allow me to be transferred one floor below, from the 6th floor to the 5th, and to C-13, a free-wheeling, wildly successful FBI-NYPD organized crime and drug task force that worked narcotics and money laundering cases targeting the then-powerful Colombian drug cartels that operated in Queens, New York. C-13’s major targets in the mid-1990’s were the traffickers of two competing Colombian cartels run by drug kingpins Pablo Escobar and Gilberto Rodriguez Orijuela. These were juicy targets. And this squad of misfit toys was a perfect place for my misfit ass to be assigned. I got the sign-off from Assistant-Special-Agent-in-Charge Don North, said a quick goodbye to my buddies on C-16, and packed up my desk and files the same day.
And then, just as Barbara, the task force secretary and all-around caretaker and babysitter for the fifteen or so cops and agents that comprised misfit C-13, led me to my desk, a hulking Hispanic agent with long hair, an earring, and a dark goatee looked up from his work and motioned to the desk next to his, “Put him here, ‘Babs,’ I’ll look after him.” And then he conspicuously winked, a most sly and mischievous grin taking over his broad countenance.
I cautiously set my case files on the desktop he’d indicated and pulled out the chair from underneath the scarred wooden desk. In those days, the Brooklyn-Queens Resident Agency was separated by squads, and desks were typically clustered in two’s or four’s, with the squad area resembling the bullpen familiar to those who recall the televised configuration of Barney Miller’s detective bureau. Agents seated in our desk clusters typically shared one hard line telephone amongst them…and it was rotary dial. A few Smith Corona typewriters for logging our surveillance reports or the FBI testimonial document, the FD-302, were scattered, to share, throughout the squad area. Computers had yet to be mainstream for the rank and file agents and cops on C-13.
It was a different time.
I shuffled quietly past the desk of Craig A., he was an Assistant Team Leader on the Brooklyn-Queens FBI SWAT Team I’d recently been privileged to be selected for. Craig was the well respected Principal Relief Supervisor on the squad. Through a series of shuffled-in-and-shuffled-out squad supervisors, Craig had remained the one steady influence and constant during the early 1990’s on C-13. Everyone knew it: He was the de facto C-13 boss.
And now the rather large and imposing Hispanic agent looked over again in my direction and bellowed: “Welcome to the squad, Jimmy. Here, we work hard and we play hard. Try to keep up!”
He winked and the corners of his mouth curled up into an impish grin.
I’m gonna like this guy, I immediately thought to myself.
“You’ll most probably be acting as part of my backup team on an undercover drug-buy this afternoon,” he continued, suddenly turning serious. “We’ll partner you up with a seasoned 1st-grade detective. Just follow their lead and watch my back. This undercover shit gets crazy sometimes. I’ll be entrusting my life to you. Don’t do any hero shit. And, keep your mouth closed and LEARN. Don’t fuck this up. My wife is expecting me home for dinner tonight. I plan on being there.”
Then he winked. “Oh, by the way, I’m Jack Garcia. But everything calls me ‘Jocko,’ or ‘Big Jack.’ But, as you can tell, they don’t call me late for dinner.” And then he tilted his head back again and laughed a deep and hearty laugh, a humble and self-deprecating nod towards his considerable, close to 375 pound frame.
For one thing, I immediately knew I liked this guy. I smiled to myself because with “Big Jack,” no introduction had been necessary. OF COURSE I knew who he was. Aside from Pistone, Joaquin “Big Jack” Garcia was, in all probability, the most famous FBI undercover in the FBI’s then 87 year history.
And “Big Jack” was unique in many ways. Most FBI agents carry a regular case load, and participate in undercover positions as a side job. Not so with “Jocko.” He carried no cases. He was assigned to so many different cases across the bureau as a principal undercover agent, that he simply couldn’t be tied up in casework. And far as I know — he’s the only special agent during my twenty-five year career that was allowed to work nothing else but in an undercover capacity. He was THAT good at it.
There was also an imagined reason for this special exception. When God decided to make the ultimate undercover agent, he created “Big Jack” … and then he subsequently broke the mold.
“Big Jack” was so proficient at adopting different and varied personas on a slew of disparate federal drug, money laundering, racketeering, and organized crime cases that he traveled between Miami and Philly and Atlantic City and Puerto Rico so much on cases that the FBI began wracking up enough frequent-flyer miles, which compelled the airlines to pay for his first class seats as he traveled between undercover gigs.
And with cellular phones just making an appearance in the bureau in the early Nineties, “Big Jack” owned and operated multiple pagers and cell phones, always expertly answering the right page, or call, with the right response, and in the right language — he spoke Spanish at a native-speaker level. This was no easy feat and a true sight to behold as his deskmate. No doubt about it, “Big Jack” owned his persona as a hustle guy. And the criminals flocked to him in droves. He was the Cuban version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, ridding New York City of its criminals, as they fell prey to the mellifluous stylings and dulcet tones of his magic pipe.