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Former 'Capo': 'I Was Underpaid'

About the only place the mafia is doing well these days is in television ratings with the "Sopranos."

Everywhere else, La Cosa Nostra has been decimated by gangland killings and federal prosecutions -- with an entire generation of mobsters either knocking each other off or ratting each other out.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Philadelphia, where a former cop-turned-mobster-turned-government witness has helped send more than 50 "made" members of his family and their associates to prison.

"Big Ron" Previte didn't do it to save his own neck. He did it for nearly a million dollars. And in many ways, Previte's career embodies the waning days of La Cosa Nostra in America, where the only honor left is survival. He talks to Correspondent Steve Kroft in his first-ever television interview.

"My occupation has been crook most of my life," says Previte.

At 6 feet, 300 pounds, with a physical presence and wiseguy persona, Previte certainly fits the stereotype of organized crime. And it's no wonder. He grew up in Philadelphia as a second-generation Sicilian-American, and some of his earliest memories are of gangsters.

"I used to see guys that were bookmaking, doing things, driving Cadillacs. Back then, they used to wear the Fedoras," recalls Previte. "I guess that's what I aspired to be, so to speak. I didn't want to be an astronaut … I wanted to be in that world. I wanted, it's a shame to say, I always wanted to do wrong."

And he did. Even when he was in the Air Force, he was a petty thief and a black marketer. And as a member of the Philadelphia police force, then known for its corruption and brutality, he fit right in.

"I was a crook in the police department. I robbed everything I could. But by the same token, I liked making arrests, too. I got accommodations," says Previte.

"I had a good work record. Except I was a crook. But most of the people I worked with were crooks … I never learned about crime 'til I went in the police department. I always said that I really became an adept thief when I went in the Philadelphia police department."

He learned how to shake down pimps and drug dealers and collect payoffs from bookmakers and mobsters -- pocketing thousands of dollars a week in addition to his regular paycheck.

"It was a nice life. It was good. And plus, I had the badge. I couldn't get any trouble," says Previte.

So why'd he quit?

"Well, I don't think I quit. I think it was a mutual thing. I wore out my welcome, so to speak," says Previte, who left the Philadelphia police department. "I think the next legitimate job I had was at the casino in Atlantic City, the Tropicana."

His job there was security. "Fox in the henhouse," he says.

It was 1981, and gambling in Atlantic City had just been legalized. But there were still plenty of opportunities for the enterprising criminal.

Previte stole truckloads of furniture and bar supplies out of the casino warehouse, cleaned out the guest safety deposit boxes and ran poker games and prostitutes out of unoccupied hotel suites, making what he calls "big money."

"The end result was millions. I took millions from the casino," says Previte. "They couldn't prove it."

His success attracted the attention of two powerful organizations: the mob, which wanted tribute in the form of $500 every week, and the New Jersey State Police, which offered him income in exchange for information about the criminal underworld in Atlantic City.

"I used to meet 'em somewhere and they'd bring me the cash," says Previte. "But don't forget, I'm giving them information, too. They can't operate without informants."

When he developed his relationship with the state police, did he tell them he had changed his ways? "Listen, they didn't recruit me from the seminary or at the parish hall. Why would they want me to go straight," says Previte. What kind of information are they gonna get from me if I go straight."

By the mid-1980's, his lucky streak at the Tropicana had run out, and he was actually paid to go away.

For the next six years, Previte ran his own criminal enterprise with a crew of old buddies from Hammonton, N.J. He recalls those days as the happiest of his life: "I was just like a general practitioner of crime. I didn't specialize in anything."

How did he avoid going to prison?

"Well, I guess I was smart. I used whatever I could to stay out. I used whatever connections I had," says Previte. "Because you're a criminal doesn't mean you have to go to jail, you know? Only the stupid ones go to jail."

Eventually his bookmaking operation caught the eye of mob boss "Homicide John" Stanfa, who wanted a piece of the action. By 1993, Previte was such a big earner for the Philadelphia mob that Stanfa made him his personal driver, enforcer, and a "made" member of La Cosa Nostra.

"Got a lot on my plate. Too much on my plate. Extortions, bookmaking, attempted murder, beating people up. I mean, it was a full day of crime from morning to night," says Previte.

What would he do to intimidate people?

"Different people, different things. Threaten 'em. Hit 'em with baseball bats," says Previte. "Break their legs, break their arms, make them feel pain. Sometimes you have to do it because of, somebody doesn't see it, everybody thinks they can stiff you."

But not many people stiffed Ron Previte. "We had this guy one time, biggest deadbeat in the world. I mean, he had more excuses. I had one of my guys grab him one time. We lifted the hood of the car, we put his face near the fan blade, closed the hood on his head," says Previte. "Then I had the guy go in there and step on the gas. The fan would just you know, nick his chin. It was like giving him a close shave. He paid. He paid real quick."

Does he consider himself a nice guy?

"In what context? Am I a nice guy? I told before that I was a crook. How could a crook be a nice guy? I didn't find it profitable to be a nice guy in my life," says Previte.

Has he ever kill anybody? No, he says. "You know, money's not a reason to kill somebody. You make me mad, I could kill you. You fool with my family, I could kill you. I'm not gonna kill you for money," says Previte.

"He was probably 20 years too late. He'd have been a great gangster in the '50s," says George Anastasia, one of the most respected crime reporters in the country. He's covered La Cosa Nostra for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years.

In fact, he found Previte such an interesting character that he's written a new book about him called "The Last Gangster."

"He knew how to work in the underworld. He knew how to make money. He knew how to use fear, intimidation, and intelligence and sophistication to generate income," says Anastasia.

He says Previte was a throwback to old-style mob bosses like Angelo Bruno and Carlo Gambino, in the days when La Cosa Nostra bragged it was bigger than U.S. Steel.

"In a lot of ways, Bruno in Philadelphia, Gambino in New York, they're probably in another time, in another place, could've been the CEO of a company," says Anastasia. "But you know, the best and the brightest in the Italian-American community are not gangsters anymore. They're doctors, they're lawyers, they're entertainers or whatever. And so you're scrapin' the bottom of the gene pool."

Perhaps the best example of that was "Skinny Joey" Merlino, a particularly vicious mobster obsessed with his own public image. "Joey was a party guy," says Previte. "He liked to go out. He liked to gamble. He liked the high life."

Merlino patterned himself after New York City's John Gotti, and seemed more interested in making headlines than money. He invited TV crews to his annual Christmas party for the homeless, and he was a fixture at the city's nightclubs, restaurants and sporting events.

"Joey was always was calling attention to himself. And he got under the skin of law enforcement. If Gotti was GQ, these guys were Details or Maxim, you know, the MTV gangsters," says Anastasia. "Very, very attuned to the media. Very, they liked the media attention. And it all contributed to the downfall."

To top it all off, Previte says, Merlino and his associates weren't very good at what they did.

"They weren't gangsters. They were crooks, thieves. I always figured I developed crime. I did this, or did that. And I worked it," says Previte. "They didn't work anything. They just wanted to rob everybody and their own people."

Surrounded by what he thought were incompetents, Previte began to worry about his future.

"When he got into the top of the organization he looked around and he said, you know, 'I'm not gonna survive. They're gonna kill me. I'm gonna kill them. Or we're all gonna go to jail,'" says Anastasia. "So being the intelligent individual that he was, and the mercenary that he was, he said, you know, 'I gotta have an insurance policy.'"

That insurance policy was the FBI. His friends at the New Jersey State Police had made the introduction back in 1992, and Previte had been feeding them dribs and drabs of information as a paid informant.

Finally in 1997, the bureau told him that it could not protect him forever, and convinced him to become a cooperating witness. Previte wore a wire for more than two-and-a-half years, recording more than 400 hours of conversations, many with bosses and underbosses.

John Terry, who now heads the FBI's organized crime division in Philadelphia, was Previte's handler.

"It was extremely dangerous. On any given day, if any member or associate of the mob found out that he was wearing a recording device for the FBI, he would have been a target for death. His life was and is in jeopardy," says Terry.

But Previte was well-compensated, cutting one of the best deals in the history of the FBI - $9,000 a month, a car, insurance and various expenses. It quickly added up.

"We've paid Mr. Previte $750,000 beginning in 1992 and ending in 2002," says Terry, who adds that they had no case against Previte, and that he was doing this out of his own volition, for money.

In addition, the FBI gave Previte seed money to pay for criminal operations, including drug-deals, bookmaking and loan-sharking, with the understanding that any proceeds would be returned to the FBI.

"His history is, is that he's stolen from everybody he's ever worked for. Did he steal rom you," Kroft asks Terry.

"No. Not as far as I'm aware of. I mean we calculated what we thought the value of his information and services were to the FBI and we paid 'em for it," says Terry.

And the FBI says it was worth it. With Previte's help, the government managed to convict over 50 made members of the Philadelphia mob and their associates, including three mob bosses and the mayor of Camden, N.J.

"I think I was underpaid. I should have made more money. I took a chance every day. It was like jumping out of airplanes every day," says Previte. "But when I hear people say how much money I made, well, you go do it. You go do it. Strap that thing on and you know, go in a viper's pit every day."

"It's almost if you're going to survive in the underworld today, this is what you gotta do. You gotta look out for yourself," adds Anastasia. "And it's no longer about loyalty and honor and a sense of organization. It's about, you know, I guess in a lot of ways it's like America, you know, No. 1. You know, look out for yourself."

And this is exactly what Previte is doing today. He didn't trust the justice department to protect him - or tell him where and how he ought to live - so he opted not to go into the witness protection program.

Terry thinks he's taking a big risk: "I don't think he felt as though he could live under the guidelines that are in place for that program. They're very strict guidelines … It would be a huge adjustment."

"Are there people out there looking for him," asks Kroft. "I'm not gonna comment on that," says Terry.

"I don't want to sound like a tough guy. Because I'm really not a tough guy," says Previte. "I just never let fear permeate my being. I have no control over what's gonna happen. When I'm gonna get killed, when I'm gonna die. I just have no control. I just say I don't worry about it."

Has he ever felt loyalty to anybody? "Me," he says. "Every time I shave, I feel really loyal."

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