Few institutions protect their secrets as passionately - and more violently - than the Mafia. Being accepted into the inner sanctum of the mob demands from its members a blood oath of loyalty, known as "omerta."
Imagine then what it was like when a Cuban-American FBI agent infiltrated the most feared crime family in America, posing as an Italian gangster.
Now that agent, Jack Garcia, comes out from undercover for the first time and tells CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian how he did it, and how he was able to fool the wisest of the wiseguys by delivering an acting performance that was more believable than anything Hollywood could produce.
"I always played the big role. I mean my mantra was, you know, 'Think big, be big,'" Joaquin "Jack" Garcia tells Keteyian. "And I was able to be the type of guy that never in a million years would somebody suspect that I was an agent."
Garcia may be the most unlikely law enforcement figure in history - all 390 pounds of him - whose performance was so convincing that he was offered the Mafia's highest honor: to become a "made man" in the mob.
"In the mob world, in the mob culture, that is the holy grail. For an associate to be proposed for membership into La Cosa Nostra is what these criminals aspire to do," Garcia explains. "To become a made man. The fact that they allowed an FBI agent to infiltrate their organization, and add to that the fact that I'm Cuban born playing an Italian who was able to fool them, it's an amazing insult to them."
For Garcia, his invitation to become a sworn-member of the mob capped a career working a staggering 100 major undercover cases. But none compared with "Jack Falcone," the character he created in 2002 to get inside the Gambino crime family, playing the role of an investor in a strip club that the Gambinos, and one of their ruthless leaders, Greg DePalma, were muscling in on.
"Jack Falcone entered the scene in the Bronx, New York. He was a guy who was a jewel thief, and he was a guy who was an extortionist and a hijacker. I drove a fancy car at the time. I had the Rolex Presidents watch. I had the obligatory three-carat diamond pinky. I had the cross," Garcia remembers. "Then of, course, the suits. All gotta be Italian. You gotta get your Brionis, you gotta get your Zegna. Look, you got my size. There aren't too many Zegnas or Brionis in my size. It's this package that you wanna create. You don't play the role of this big money launderer, and then show up in a Yugo."
Garcia was the complete package: more than 20 years experience as an FBI agent, combined with a style and charm that mobsters could not resist. "I was this big guy with a lot of cash who everybody wanted to be around. I would disarm the person by always being nice. 'Hey, you're looking great today. Where did you get those nice threads, man? Look at you. You look like a million dollars.' 'Oh yeah, I look good. Oh yeah, I love those blue shoes.' Everybody loves a happy guy," he says.
New York FBI agent Nat Parisi handpicked Garcia for the job, becoming his "handler" in the case, his sole lifeline to the outside world during the two and a half year investigation. "When he enters a room full of wise guys, they're all gonna want to know, who is that man?" Parisi says.
Asked how he trains a Cuban-American to become an Italian-American and pass the "wiseguy test," Parisi tells Keteyian, "A lot of meetings with Big Jack. I'm an Italian-American and I shared with Jack my experiences growing up, but he and I were convinced that he could pull it off."
Garcia says they came up with a school that they called "mob school," a form of higher education that included, of all things, a trip to the grocery store, where Garcia learned one of the mob's golden rules: never carry your cash in a wallet. Wrap it in a rubber band, pulled from a head of broccoli.
"You would take this off, as you can see. And then you would just wrap it up, and there you are. This is the way you operated with your money. Everybody just simply carries a wad of cash," Garcia explains, demonstrating how to bundle bills with a broccoli band. "That was one of those little things that could be big things down the line if you didn't prepare right for your role. Because unlike, like I said, 'The Sopranos' were multiple takes. There was only one take. And that was it. And it had to be a good one."
The training also required Garcia to spend countless hours in front of the television, watching food programs for example.
"You pick up little phrases there, you know, 'Tuto bene,' because a lot of conversations all dealt with 'Eh, how's your food? How's your Pasta e fagioli?' 'Eh, it's good, you could add a little more of this a little bit of that.' And it was always like, everyone's a food critic in the mob. 'Forget about this. Go down the block this guy makes it better than this guy,'" Garcia says. "Being Cuban, I get caught up sometimes. Like I would say maniccoti. It's not manicotti, it's 'manigot.' You know, Parmigiano-Reggiano. I would, could make a mistake and say, yeah, give me a ham san... - give me some ham. Well, there's no ham. You know, Italians don't say ham. It's prosciut, you know."
Garcia says a single misstep or mispronunciation could set off alarm bells. "And I couldn't afford having alarm bells going off. I wanted things to constantly be without any suspicion."
Garcia left nothing to chance, out of respect and fear for the man at the center of his investigation: Gambino capo Greg DePalma, head of the family's operations in New York's affluent Westchester County. At 72, DePalma had a reputation as an old-school mobster with a hair-trigger temper.
"Greg DePalma, I would best describe him as the devil incarnate. A very evil man, very evil man," Garcia says.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, who once used a power tool...on someone's head...who he thought was stealing from him?" Keteyian asks.
"Yes," Garcia says.
Garcia says the mafia was DePalma's life. "And he took his oath and he real lived by it, where the family came first. That if your child was dying, laying in bed with few minutes to live, or seconds, and the boss calls you, you better leave that child and go see the boss. Because that's your real family."
Before long, Jack Falcone won over DePalma, first by giving him cartons of counterfeit cigarettes for his birthday, and then by offering him what became an endless stream of luxury goods, all supplied to Jack by the FBI.
"I start bringing him jewelry. Then I bring him a television. Then iPods. Then all this stolen merchandise. I was the goose that laid the golden egg, and the greed kicked right in," Garcia remembers.
Garcia was the kind of guy the Mafia called an "earner."
"Being an earner is a very important thing. An earner is a kind of guy who makes money, not only for himself and his skipper, but also for the family. And Greg DePalma saw me as an earner," he says.
For two years, Falcone wore a wire taped to his chest, and for good measure, gave DePalma a cell phone, with a bugging device that allowed the FBI to track DePalma's location and listen in on his conversations, even when the phone was turned off.
Falcone became like a son to DePalma, at his side while he and other mobsters concocted schemes to extort businesses, sell fake sales sports memorabilia, and collect a tax on nearly every union construction site in New York.
Garcia says DePalma told him that in New York City, two percent of all construction went to the mob, a sort of "mob tax."
In building their case against the Gambinos, Garcia and his handler, Nat Parisi, would meet up to five times a day, often in public places like Home Depot, exchanging evidence and information.
"I would come in with an envelope and it would contain all the recording devices which I wore," Garcia recalls.
"I'd also brief him on what we knew, the intelligence that we were gathering. So that he could be safer and do his job out there better," Parisi adds.
But for all of the information they exchanged, there was one extraordinary conversation captured on tape - an offer from DePalma to make Falcone a "made member" of the mob.
"So there is only one thing I'm pushing to do ASAP, is you. F... everything else," DePalma told Garcia in the conversation, secretly recorded at a restaurant.
Asked if he wanted that, Garcia told DePalma, "Yeah, of course. I'm honored for that. I'm even honored that you know, you know, that I will never let you down."
"What's going through your mind when you hear those words, you're going to become a made man?" Keteyian asks.
"I couldn't believe it. And I said, 'Wow, we're here, we've really come a long way,'" Garcia remembers. "'Here I am, an FBI agent. He's trusted me so much that he would propose me, considering that this is a seasoned, hard-core mobster.'"
"There had to be some sort of escape plan if things went wrong. If you were asked to kill somebody, what was the out?" Keteyian asks.
"The scenario I set up, if I was ever gonna be involved, 'Let's take a ride, Jack. We're going to go take care of this guy,' I was going to have a heart attack. So picture this, all of a sudden we gotta do somebody, I'm going to start wailing like on the ground, they're going to stop what they're doing and they're gonna try to take me to the doctor. So I had this all programmed in my mind," Garcia explains.
But in February 2005, Garcia's life as Jack Falcone unraveled inside a Bloomingdale's department store, when he acted more like a cop than a criminal. It happened in the house wares section, when he watched a Gambino capo named Robert Vaccaro attack another capo, known as "Petey Chops" with a heavy crystal candle stick
"He takes it and cracks him on the head, and you hear, like a melon breaking, just pop, and then blood starts gushing. He drops straight down. I'm sitting there, going 'I don't believe what's going on. I just saw an assault going on here,'" Garcia remembers.
Asked if Mafia law dictates that he has to get in on this beating, Garcia says, "You're right. I'm saying, 'Okay now, I think I messed up royally here.' 'Cause number one, I didn't take any licks at this guy, Petey Chops. I should have been, you know, kicking him, banging him, some way of something, slapping him around. I didn't do that."
Garcia says he thought the Mafia looked at him a little different after that incident.
The FBI was so concerned that Garcia had blown his cover and was about to be killed that it pulled the plug on the investigation. But by now the Bureau had collected enough evidence to decapitate the hierarchy of the Gambino crime family, including Greg DePalma and 31 other high-ranking members and associates, in one of the largest Mafia roundups in FBI history.
All pled guilty except DePalma, who insisted on going to trial. In the courtroom the man he trusted as Jack Falcone, turned, right before his eyes, into FB I agent Jack Garcia.
Asked to describe the look on DePalma's face as he was testifying against him, Garcia says, "Oh, it was classic. He's looking at me. You know, you could tell, like, if he could just come, get his hands around my neck, you know, he'd just take me out. And I'm walking out of the courtroom, I had to pass by his table and he just looked at me and he said to me, you know you're gonna have to probably blot this out because - 'You c...s......' So, I just walked away."
DePalma was sentenced to 12 years in prison. And while Garcia says he is proud of the outcome of the case, he's angry over the decision to end the investigation, a decision that kept him from being the first law enforcement agent in history to become a made member of the mob.
Mark Mershon, head of the FBI's New York office, says it was critical to protect one of their own. "There is a risk reward relationship that we're simply not willing to take on. But I will tell you that by anybody's estimate, Jack Garcia was one of just a handful in the entire 100 year history of the FBI to be both so successful, and so prolific," he says. "He was truly, truly outstanding."
Recently retired from the Bureau after 26 years, Garcia has written a new book about his lives undercover, "Making Jack Falcone," published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a CBS company. He is coming out of the shadows for the first time, defiant in the face of t he risk to his life.
Asked why he is doing this 60 Minutes interview and putting himself out in the public, Garcia tells Keteyian, "Why should I be walkin' around hiding as to who I am? And I know there's these safety issues and all that but you know what? I equate this to like bullies when you're growing up. Bullies will pick on the weak. If I hide myself from the camera, walk around with silly glasses and a hat and blot out face - you know what? I'm afraid of them? I'm not the bad guy here. I'm the good guy."
Garcia acknowledges that there are many people who have wanted him dead. "Could it happen? Absolutely. But you know what? Somebody comes after me, they better come in numbers, 'cause I'm ready for them."
Produced by Pat Milton and Michael Radutzky
for more features.