• Show Notes

Dear Reader,

Michael Visconti died a few weeks ago. He was 54. When his family first told me, I’ll admit, my first thought was this: please, please, please tell me he wasn’t murdered. Thankfully, he wasn’t. He was sick and died of natural causes. I felt momentarily relieved to learn this, but that quickly gave way to grief – a bit more than I expected, really.

Visconti was a former cooperating witness of mine, from my days as a prosecutor at the SDNY and from his as an ass-kicking, money-making criminal prodigy in the Genovese Organized Crime Family. You probably don’t know his name offhand, though you’d certainly recognize the voice – that gravelly staccato that somehow managed to pull you in – if you listened to my interview with Michael on episode one, season one of my podcast, Up Against the Mob. (Check it here.. If you’re trying to get a visual of Michael, picture Vince Vaughn with a darker complexion and an outside linebacker’s build. 

I chose Michael for that first interview because the arc of his life was so compelling. He was raised in a loving, solidly middle-class family in the suburbs north of New York City. But in his late teens and early twenties, Michael started hanging around with some mob-adjacent tough guys. At one point, he got into a beef with the son of a powerful New York City boss; Michael threatened to slap the shit out of the entitled little mob prince. Worried that he’d come to seriously regret what he’d done, Michael reached out to Angelo Prisco, a powerhouse Genovese captain based in the Bronx. Prisco liked what he saw: Michael’s charisma, his size, his smarts, his guts. Don’t worry about it, Prisco told Michael. You’re with me now and nobody will touch you. 

Over the next couple decades, Michael lived a gangster’s life. He became Prisco’s right hand, and he proved to be the ideal mafia double-threat: he was an earner and a burner, as they’d put it. Michael could make money: robberies, loansharking, stolen property, shakedowns, you name it. And he could take care of business with his hands when necessary. (He never killed anybody, but he told me on the podcast that, if he’d been instructed to do so by Prisco, he would have done it.) As Michael said to me during our interview, “Let me tell whoever’s listening out there, and this is the god’s honest truth: I’m still the same guy. I’m still 258 pounds. I’m fifty-plus years old, I can still bench press over 400 pounds. I’m still a nasty, nasty guy. And if I get a delusion, in any way, shape or form, about my family or me, you better bring your lunch. Because you’re gonna have a big problem.” 

That quote, out of context, doesn’t do justice to Michael. Because, both before and after he said that on the podcast, he opened up, in a sincere and entirely unguarded manner, about his feelings of gratitude and respect to his family, to me, and to others who had helped him turn his life around. 

You see, Michael got indicted by the feds in New Jersey in the early 2000s. And he made the biggest decision of his life: he was going to look out for his family and himself, and turn on Prisco and the rest of his mafia cohorts. 

But there was one problem. The prosecutor on the case in Jersey didn’t want to do the work. (The truth is, some prosecutors – not many, but a few – just want to get the case wrapped up and move along.) So the FBI agent who had worked with Michael and convinced him to flip picked up the phone and essentially cold-called me in New York, having read in the newspaper about my work on other Genovese cases. I told the FBI agent, yeah, I’m interested. The three of us – the FBI agent, Michael, and I – met the very next day at Tops Diner in East Newark. (Best diner in the state, by the way.) We spent three or four hours talking at a back table. (The waitress somehow knew instinctively to seat us out of the way.) By this point, I had developed a good sense for who was legit and who was a bullshit artist. I knew right away with Michael. I walked out of the diner, called my supervisor, and said, “We’ve got a monster RICO case to make from this guy. Let’s bring him in.” 

Michael delivered. He testified at two trials, including one that ended in Prisco’s conviction for murder, racketering, and other crimes; Prisco got a life sentence and died in federal prison a few years ago. Michael’s information also led to the covinctions of Prisco’s entire crew, about a dozen and a half guys in all. Michael withstood cross-examination from an array of defense lawyers, ranging from the skillful masters to the schlocky hacks; none of them made a dent. They couldn’t touch Michael because he was an open book. He had nothing to hide, so there was no attacking his credibility. It also helped that jurors seemed drawn in by Michael’s natural charisma.

A few years later, when it came time for sentencing, I wrote the traditional cooperator sentencing letter to the judge (called the “5k letter” in the lingo). I laid out all Michael had done: the bad he did as a criminal with the Genovese Family, and the good he did as a cooperator. Consistent with common practice, I did not recommend any particular sentence. Just before the sentencing started, the judge’s clerk motioned for me to come to a small chamber, adjacent to the courtroom. Now, this was in New Jersey, so I didn’t know the judge. But the judge said to me, point blank: So what do you want me to do with this guy? I gave the standard response, at first: Well, Your Honor, it’s your sentencing, and I laid out my position in the 5k letter. The judge scoffed and said: Yeah fine, but talk to me. You want me to walk this guy or what? I thought about it for a second and said: If you’re asking, then yes, I do want to walk him. A few minutes later, the judge did just that. Michael was free, and his case was over. (I had never told Michael this story until the podcast; he was audibly moved by it.)

I have a bit of a confession. As you might have already picked up, I tended to grow attached to my cooperators, particularly after their work was done. You’re not supposed to do this, by the book; it’s all business and whatnot. But you can’t help developing some kind of human relationship – or at least I couldn’t help it. I spent hours, sometimes days on end, with Michael and with many other former mobsters-turned-cooperators. Inevitably, I got to know them and, yes, care about them. We’d talk sports, kids, food, all the normal stuff. And I came to see some of these guys not just as gangsters or defendants or witnesses, but as human beings.  

Michael was no saint. He wouldn’t ever try to convince you of that. But when the time came for him to decide about his own future, and his family’s future, he did the right thing. He could never undo the crimes he committed, but he did put a lot of good on the other side of the scale with his cooperation. I think it’s worth it that Michael got a sentencing break in order to solve a murder and take down an entire wing of the Genovese Family. 

Most importantly, Michael enabled himself to live what turned out to be his last fifteen years or so in freedom, as a family man and a thoroughly decent person. I’ll tell you this: not every cooperator makes good. Some of them fall back into old routines, old habits; some discover new vices. Not Michael. He worked, he raised his kids, he coached youth sports, he took care of himself and his family. Fortunately, nobody ever tried to step up to him and test him. (This is why I originally feared he had been killed; he was living fairly openly, and I worried that some wannabe tough guy might have sought retribution.) 

I stayed in touch with Michael after his cooperation, both before and after we recorded the podcast. At first, after the episode came out, he had mixed feelings. He told me he was worried that he had upset his family by being so forthcoming about his life. But he also said he felt that he came through in an honest manner, and said things that he needed to say. I reassured him: you were genuine, you told it like it is, and that matters. After Michael died, his family messaged me in gratitude and said they re-listened to the interview, and that it perfectly captured him, in voice and in spirit. 

I did a strange thing after I first heard Michael had died. Maybe you’ve done the same, I don’t know. I called his cellphone; I didn’t quite believe it, I guess. (In retrospect, I could have just Googled.) He didn’t pick up. Then I looked back at our texts. If you didn’t know better, you’d never suspect the texts were between a former prosecutor and a former mobster. It’s just two regular guys staying in touch: how are you, have you heard from so-and-so, remember when this happened, here’s a funny picture of some people we know in common, how are the kids.  

Things aren’t black-and-white with cooperators, or with any of us. We all make mistakes; Michael made worse ones than most. But, as Michael proved before he died, all too young: there’s always a chance for redemption.