‘My job was to piss him off’

AMHERST – Michael McGowan had an inauspicious start to his career as an FBI special agent. Assigned to find a vicious killer in a seedy Camden, N.J. bar, he tucked a photo of the man in his chest pocket, a photo that someone quickly swiped from his pocket.

“I was the worst undercover agent in the history of the FBI,” McGowan told a packed audience in the Amherst Town Library last week.

But during his 90-minute talk it became clear that McGowan eventually became one of the best, if not the best, working more than 50 undercover cases over his career.

Co-author, with Ralph Pezzullo, of “Ghost-My Thirty Years as an FBI Undercover Agent,” McGowan was the only agent in the FBI’s 109-year existence to successfully infiltrate three Mafia families, and he told story after story about his work gaining the trust of, and than bringing to justice, some of the most notorious criminals in the world.

Using some of the tricks of “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan, McGowan developed a repertoire of behaviors designed to make criminals comfortable with him.

One day he posed as a corrupt Massachusetts state inspector who was going to OK the sale of $6 million worth of toxic soil to the state. Meeting mob representatives, he acted crazy – spun circles in his truck, then jumped out, urinated on the tires, and then shook hands with mob members while intentionally calling each one by the wrong name.

“They were ready to stab me, but who would ever think I was FBI?” he said.

Working another case, McGowan approached Boston North End crime underboss Carmen DiNunzio, who weighed more than 300 pounds, at a Hilltop Steakhouse, saying things like, “You look a little heavy …. you’re not going to live long.”

DiNunzio was furious, but “my job was to piss him off,” McGowan said, and the rattled DiNunzio gave him all the information the FBI needed.

For three years McGown and his team worked on the case of the most wanted fugitive in the world, Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and his high-ranking cronies – the only successful U.S. law enforcement undercover penetration of the Sinaloa Cartel. El Chapo’s lawyer told McGowan, “you guys are the only group more disciplined than we are.”

In the mid-1990s, he successfully infiltrated two Pakistani heroin trafficking organizations on separate occasions resulting in the indictment and incarceration of a top five international drug baron and the seizure of $400 million dollars worth of heroin, without the expenditure of any FBI drug buy funds. The combined seizures are ranked as two of the top, if not top, heroin seizures ever within the United States.

Not long after that, however, McGowan was falsely accused of stealing $180 million worth of heroin from an evidence vault, a case “the FBI doesn’t want you to know about,” he said. It was an experience that humiliated him – “the worst feeling in the world … In law enforcement, your reputation is everything.”

Weeks later, he discovered a log-in sheet where his file number was attached to someone else’s handwriting and McGowan proved he was 90 miles away at SWAT training when the crime occurred. The suspect confessed and to this day, McGowan said, he has never uttered the man’s name.

“A TV show wanted to bring us together,” said McGowan, and he wanted no part of that.

Numbers also tell his story: Ten percent of FBI special agents are certified to work undercover and a quarter of those agents have worked more than one undercover assignment in their careers. Of those, less than 10 percent have been involved in more than five cases. During his career, McGowan has worked more than 50 undercover cases.

During a question and answer session at the library, McGowan was asked something he is often asked: Is he afraid, now? The answer was no.

“I’m old. They’re old,” he said, “and if you mess with an FBI agent your world is coming down.”

Someone in the audience asked about Joe Pistone, alias Donnie Brasco, and McGowan said he is a friend. There is a blurb from Pistone on the cover of “Ghost,” which is now being optioned to Sylvester Stallone’s new movie production company, Balboa Productions.

Asked about the recent politicizing of the Bureau, McGown called it “hugely embarrassing and sad … Politics doesn’t factor into our jobs, and it shouldn’t.”

And confessing that he often enjoyed the company of mob members more than he did some of his buttoned-up FBI colleagues, he said he never forgot it was his duty to uphold the law.

People ask, “How do you get people to trust you, and then stick them in the belly?”

It’s the job, he said. “I remembered every day I am FBI.”

Kathy Cleveland may be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.