The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
1. James Comey: Mobsters and Monsters
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for a series of compelling conversations with really interesting people from the world of public service. All of my guests share one thing: They took an oath mandated by Congress to support the Constitution of the United States, and to defend it against enemies, both foreign and domestic. I have taken or administered that oath many times throughout my long career in federal law enforcement. And each time I hear it it inspires me anew, because with it we dedicate ourselves not to any person or political party, not to any particular president, but to the Constitution of the United States and to the ideals it represents. On each episode, I speak with someone who fulfilled that solemn vow with the sincerity and dedication that it deserves. Today, my guest is Jim Comey. Over the course of a long and remarkable career in public service Jim has worked at the very highest levels of government in some of its most important roles. He was a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia before President Bush appointed him to be the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It is one of the most important federal judicial districts in the nation. Jim Comey later served under John Ashcroft as the deputy attorney general of the United States the second highest position in the Department of Justice. And in 2013, President Barack Obama selected Jim to be the seventh director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Jim and I go way back. He was my colleague, and then my boss. He has always been my friend. Last year he published a book, A Higher Loyalty. And despite knowing Jim for decades, I learned more about him from that book. James Comey, thank you so much for being my first guest ever.
James Comey: It’s great to be here Chuck.
Rosenberg: Now, I thought your book was extraordinary. I really did. But I was somewhat disappointed that a lot of what you talked about after the book came out had more to do with the last several chapters and little to do with the first several chapters. And I hope you didn’t mind sort of going back with me and talking about the first several chapters.
Comey: I don’t and I was disappointed that more folks weren’t interested in them. I almost left out the Trump stuff from the book and my literary agents convinced me it had to be in there.
Rosenberg: If for instance you wanted to sell one.
Comey: Yeah there was that.
Rosenberg: You were born in Yonkers and I recall you having in your office when you were FBI director a picture of your grandfather on the wall. Tell us about him.
Comey: My grandfather William J. Comey was the child of Irish immigrants and is one of my heroes. His family settled in an Irish enclave in Yonkers New York neighborhood called The Hill. His father was killed in an industrial accident when he was in the sixth grade.
Rosenberg: Your great grandfather?
Comey: Yeah, my great grandfather. And so my grandfather was the oldest of five siblings. In the sixth grade he had to drop out of school to go to work to support the family. And that’s the reason my grandfather, I can close my eyes and hear him saying it, would say over and over again, “never forget an education is no burden to carry” because he never got to carry that burden. He never got an education he never went past the sixth grade but he did something when he became an adult. He joined the Yonkers police department and he rose up through the ranks to become the leader of that department. And at the end of a forty year career. And so the picture I have is a picture from 1929 of him then as a detective walking a subject who’s in custody who’s been in a shootout with the police named Joseph Heel. It’s a perp walk and it shows my pop there who was a tall well-dressed guy.
Rosenberg: And that’s what you called him, pop.
Comey: Yeah. And so pop Comey is walking Joseph Heel past the media on the way to court. And so it hung on my wall when I was director and it’s still on my wall in my office at home.
Rosenberg: Yeah I thought that was a really cool picture by the way.
Comey: Yeah, he was a cool dude. He was a person of tremendous integrity. I remember as a kid being told the stories about prohibition when pop, who liked to drink, ordered his men–he was then a leader in the Yonkers police department–to cut the fire hoses that were transporting beer between the Bronx and Yonkers so the beer just ran into the drains and the bootleggers, the gangsters, were so upset by that. My dad remembers armed police officers having to stand around their home at night to protect my grandfather because he had made this decision and it always struck me even I couldn’t put in these terms as a little kid. That’s an example of putting the standards, the values, that you’re committed to above your personal interests. I’m sure my pop would have loved to have had a beer.
Rosenberg: I’m sure he’s proud of you too.
Comey: I hope so.
Rosenberg: When you were a little kid you moved to Allendale, New Jersey and you also said that you were a bit of a tall gangly kid and a bit of a nerd, I think is your own word. But you describe in your book about being bullied.
Comey: I was in fifth grade we moved from Yonkers, New York to Allendale, New Jersey. And so it was moving from a New York really lower middle class neighborhood to much more of a middle class suburban environment. And I think, I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a slight New York accent and I stuck out because I didn’t wear nice clothes.
Rosenberg: So a New York accent sticks out in New Jersey?
Comey: Yeah, Northern New Jersey, it doesn’t have the New York accent of the Bronx which is it just just below where Yonkers is. It was noticeable to them at the time and I had a bit of a mouth although I didn’t have the body to back up anything I said. And so people picked on me. And again I’m blaming myself just a teeny bit because I think when I was knocked to the ground I would say something smart when I stood back up. But mostly they picked on me because I was different. It was a huge part of my life because I spent so much time trying to figure out how to walk, where to go, where to dress for gym to avoid them. And the reason it’s in my book is I think it had a big effect on who I am as a person. As painful as it was for me as a kid I think it made me a better person and a bunch of different ways. But it also explains why I, as am sure you did, love the work I did trying to protect innocent people from bullies because that’s what Cosa Nostra is, the mafia. There are just those people who terrorized you on the playground now terrorizing a neighborhood a city, a region, shopkeepers afraid, business owners afraid. The opportunity to free people from that grip is some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
Rosenberg: Speaking of being afraid, on October 28th 1977 you were home alone and this criminal burst into your home. Can you tell us about that?
Comey: Yeah. That summer and fall in northern New Jersey was the time of the Ramsey Rapist. It was the same summer that a killer, known in the media as Son of Sam.
Rosenberg: Which I remember well.
Comey: From growing up in the New York area. Right and so on the other side of the city from where you were in northern New Jersey there was a serial rapist and robber who was coined the Ramsey Rapist because Ramsey was one of the towns were his home invasions and rapes had started. And it got so so big in my area that the Boy Scouts ran a service in the days before cell phone that if a girl was babysitting the Boy Scouts would call every half hour to check on the kid and my brothers who were scouts participated in that. I hosted as part of the student council a dance that fall for incoming freshmen and the lights went out. It was a power failure at the high school and there was mass panic because the rumor started that the Ramsey Rapist was coming to select a target. I remember standing on a desk in that darkened cafeteria telling these freshmen just to chill out that they should stop being so afraid. That was one week before the Ramsey rapist kicked in my parent’s front door where my brother and I were home alone.
Rosenberg: So your parents are out for the evening. Your brother and your sister Trish are also out. You’re home alone with Peter.
Comey: Yep. And I was such a nerd that I was in my bedroom writing an article for a literary magazine about peer pressure and Peter’s downstairs watching television and the Ramsey Rapist was looking in the window and must have seen my parents leave after saying goodbye to a figure in the dark in the basement and the police know this because they found his footprints outside a basement window but also because he kicked in the front door and went immediately down the stairs. He knew someone was down in the basement. They thought, he probably thought that was my sister and thank God it wasn’t.
Rosenberg: That was Peter though.
Comey: It was Peter and so Peter heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Our dog growled and so Peter ran to hide in a corner of the basement. The guy stood at one end of the basement with the gun pointed at him and said, “come out of there come out of there”. So he knew somebody was there and then he led them upstairs to my parent’s bedroom right past my doorway.
Rosenberg: So at this point you still don’t know that there’s somebody else in your house and that Peter is in danger.
Comey: You have no idea. And I hear sounds in my parents bedroom, doors opening and closing, drawers slamming. And so I think, oh my god, my brothers are screwing around in Mom and Dad’s room. So I get up and I slide open the bathroom door. My room connected to my parents room by a bathroom. I slid open the solid wood door and it looked through the dark bathroom and in the lighted bedroom I could see my brother Peter lying face down on my dad’s side of the bed closest to the bathroom with his face towards me but his eyes tightly closed and so, I thought, Chris must have to hit him what are they doing? And so I stepped through the bathroom one, two steps and then into the light and when I stepped into the light I looked to my right and there was a guy wearing a knit ski hat and holding a gun. Looking at my parents closet and he turned and looked at me and I looked at him and a really, really strange thing happened to me. I lost my vision.
Rosenberg: What do you mean you lost your vision?
Comey: In a second. It was almost like my eyes closed like you’re closing some kids toy so it’s dark and then it opened again. I didn’t close my eyes and it was my vision was fuzzy my whole body started throbbing in a way I’ve never felt before. And the gunman looked at me and took two quick steps and jumped on Pete and put he was holding the gun in his left hand he stuck the gun in his ear and said to me, “You move kid and I’ll blow his head off.”
Rosenberg: How old was Peter?
Comey: I was a senior he was a sophomore in high school. And so I froze. The guy looked at me then he looked down at Peter and started saying, “you told me nobody else was home you lied to me.” And Pete said, “I didn’t know he was home.” And then the guy looked at me and said, “get on the bed kid.” And so I got on the bed lying next to Peter and he said, “tell me where money is.” And I gave up everything I could think of. I didn’t know at the time that Pete had money in his own pocket and hadn’t given it up. But I start talking about piggy banks and silver dollars from grandparents and everything I could think of. And the guy left the room to go searching some of the places where I told him money was.
Rosenberg: And left you and Peter on the bed?
Rosenberg: What happened next?
Comey: He came back after the search and stood at the foot of the bed and just pointed the gun at us and didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything. And I… to say I believe is probably not strong enough. I knew he was about to kill us. And I started to panic and I started to pray and then a wave of cold washed over me and I started thinking clinically. OK, if he shoots Pete first I’ll roll off the bed and dive at him, and then I started talking to the guy.
Rosenberg: Of course he shoots you first…
Comey: That’s what I meant, the logic is not all that strong, but it was calm, the reasoning. And I said to him, I just started talking to him and lying to him in a gush. “We hate our parents. We don’t care what you take ,we’re not going to tell anyone you were here, we can’t stand them, they’re terrible parents, just go man, we’re not going to tell anybody you were here.” Over and over and over and over again.
Rosenberg: You’re essentially bargaining for your life.
Comey: Yup. And eventually he says, “shut up kid. Stand up.” And I thought from that moment on, until a little bit later in this night, that I was going to live. And so as he starts pushing us down a hallway I start trying to look at him, turning my head to look at him because I’m thinking I’m going to survive. I want to tell people what he looks like and he starts jamming me with the gun, jamming with the gun. “Don’t turn around, don’t turn around.” And he takes us into the living room and then leads us on a search of a portion of the house he smashes a lamp. He stops and drinks milk from the refrigerator which was really interesting and had I been the prosecutor at the time would have an important piece of evidence. While I was standing there at gunpoint he opens the fridge, takes out a half gallon. An old glass Tropicana container that my mother used to keep milk in. My mother was a bit of a saver and so she would take milk she bought at the store and cut it with Carnation Instant milk. And so it tasted kind of awful. And the gunman said, “what’s this goat’s milk?” And we both tried to explain what our mother does and cutting it and he says, “just shut up, shut up.” And then I started telling him, I could see this was coming to an end. “Just put us someplace Mister, we’ll stay there, put us in place, lock us up we’ll stay there.” And think about the house you grew up in. It’s hard to think of a place that you could be put in that you can’t get out of. But I, in a flash, started lying to him about the downstairs bathroom and told him my father sealed the window. “We can’t get out of there. Just put us in there.”
Rosenberg: Which wasn’t true.
Comey: Right. It was true and that it kind of looked sealed, he had put - to keep a draft down and to save on heating bills - in the fall he would put heavy gauge clear plastic over the window of the small window. But it wasn’t sealed you could get in and out of there.
Rosenberg: When you asked the Ramsey rapist to put you there, you knew that it wasn’t sealed, that you could get out.
Comey: Yeah, but was the only thing I could think of to say at the time and I didn’t know how going to navigate when he checked because the window would open. So he told me finally to shut up because I was saying this so much by this point that I was really annoying, and he took us downstairs and he went into the little bathroom, half bath. And he pressed his hands, one hand still holding the gun, against the heavy gauge plastic and he pushed up on the window and it didn’t move. And the reason it didn’t move is through the plastic he hadn’t seen to turn a little halfmoon thing that locks those old windows. And so it stayed. And so he said, “OK, you’ll be safe in here.” And pushed us into the bathroom and said, “tell your mommy and daddy you’ve been good little boys.
Rosenberg: That’s an odd word, that you’ll be “safe” in here?
Comey: Yeah, safe from escaping I guess. But then he wedged, I didn’t know what he was doing, but he wedged a coffee table between the door and the wall across the hallway so that our bathroom door wouldn’t open. And then he left and we shut out the light and sat down in the dark. I sat on the floor and Peter sat on a closed toilet lid, it’s very small bathroom.
Rosenberg: Were you still calm?
Comey: No. What was starting to happen to me was the adrenaline was wearing off and I was starting to shake, like you’re coming off a fever chill kind of thing, and I’m just looking around it’s dark in the bathroom and I look up at this little window and there’s the gunman’s face. It’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. It took my breath away. He’s looking in at us from the outside. And so I gasped like [breathes heavily] like that and then the face disappeared and… and then I said to Pete, “no. We’re not leaving this room, we’re staying here. We’re staying here, mom and dad will be home in a while we are staying here. And Peter said, “you know who that is.” And I did from the physical description.
Rosenberg: Meaning you knew it was the Ramsey Rapist?
Comey: I knew it was the Ramsey Rapist.
Rosenberg: And you believed he was looking for your sister?
Comey: Yeah and I knew he’d heard a lot of people, girls at my high school had been raped, and and so Pete said, “you know that is. We’ve got to go get help.” And I said, “man, I’m not going anywhere I’m staying here.” We had a little bit of a discussion. And Pete says, “well, I’m going.” And he rips the plastic off the window he turns a little halfmoon lock, throws the bottom board of the window up, he grabs a pipe, swings out, and so there I’m standing with the bathroom window open by myself. It wasn’t a hard decision. I leave and follow him and my bare feet just hit the cold dirt in my mother’s garden, which is right behind there. And I hear the gunman screaming again at my brother, and he’s come back. And so I dived to the left and start crawling into some bushes that are next to the garden and he grabs Peter and drags them over to me and says, “you come out of there kid or your brother’s getting hurt.” And so I stand up and then he starts saying, “you lied to me you little bastard you lied to me.” And I said… this is so stupid. Actually I remember it very clearly. I said, “we’ll go right back in.” And I walked towards the back door next to the window and try it and locked and he says, “too late. Up against the fence.” And so this is the second time that night I thought he was going to kill us.
Rosenberg: He got away that night.
Comey: He did. The scene erupted after he pushed us against the fence, a gigantic dog came running in our backyard. One of our neighbors, a football coach, came running in. It was chaos and confusion and we ended up running from him and hiding in our house. He grabbed two women who were outside and was trying to push them into a neighbor’s house. When the police, who we called from my house, arrived he fled into this big expensive woods that were at the end of my street about three hundred acres and disappear that night.
Rosenberg: Whatever happened to him?
Comey: The police, a week later, arrested a suspect who was held without bail and charged with the assaults and home invasion of my house and the charges were ultimately dropped against that guy and no one was ever prosecuted successfully for the Ramsey Rapist assault. And again, what do I know through the lens of so many years, that but I always believed that we had the right guy. But the most important thing is there were no more assaults. That night the Ramsey Rapist stopped. And so either we got the right guy or if it was the wrong guy whoever was the Ramsey Rapist decided that night to stop attacking young girls.
Rosenberg: There’s a passage in your book Jim, on page 13 the first full paragraph I thought I might ask you to read that.
Comey: The Ramsey rapist taught me at an early age that many of the things we think are valuable have no value. Whenever I speak to young people I suggest they do something that might seem a little odd. Close your eyes, I say, sit there and imagine you are at the end of your life. From that vantage point, the smoke of striving for recognition and wealth is cleared. Houses, cars, awards on the wall. Who cares? You’re about to die. Who do you want to have been. I tell them that I hope some of them decide to have been people who use their abilities to help those who needed it. The weak, the struggling, the frightened, the bullied, standing for something. Making a difference. That is true wealth.
Rosenberg: When you were a prosecutor did you think about also having been a victim having been so close to death?
Comey: I did a lot and it affected me in a couple of ways, one obviously gave me a perspective as you just saw from that part of my book that I think was useful, but also helped me understand some of the pain of victims because people would say to me after this well thank God you weren’t hurt. And that’s right. But I thought about that guy every night, not some nights, not most nights, I’m not exaggerating. Every night for five years and then many many nights thereafter. I still think of him when I go to my parents house. My dad who’s 88 still lives in that same house. And then I think about those girls who were raped. People who are beaten, shot, stabbed, people who are physically hurt as well. And the pain they must feel is almost unimaginable from my perspective except I can touch a piece of it given what happened to me. I think it made me a better, I hope it made me a better person, but it made me a better prosecutor because I could understand a bit of what victims go through.
Rosenberg: What was your first trial? How good we are or how bad were you? And what happened?
Comey: Yeah, it was no good at all. But that’s how we learn, by mistakes.
Rosenberg: I was so bad at my first trial. Jim, I sat on the wrong side of the courtroom. I didn’t even literally know where to sit.
Comey: Starting behind the starting line, right. Well I didn’t do that but I did a lot of other dumb things. My first trial was a case that never should have been assigned to me but nobody else wanted to do it and it was a trial of five Jamaican drug dealers from a Jamaican posse, that’s what they called their gangs the Jamaican dealers did. And the case had all kinds of interesting elements to it. Among them, the informant in the case who was to be one of my witnesses stole the drugs from my evidence cart and fled. It was crack and smoked it all and in a hotel near LaGuardia Airport.
Rosenberg: You mean he actually got out of the courthouse with the drugs and nobody caught him yet?
Comey: He was sitting waiting to be prepped in the lobby of my floor of the U.S. attorney’s office. There were seven federal agents and they were assigned to keep an eye on him. He was not in custody, but also to monitor the drugs which I checked out of the vault but wasn’t using until he went on as a witness. Left them in a witness, in a shopping cart, that we used to go to court. Each of those agents apparently thought someone else was doing those things. So they all left to go get coffee or lunch. And this informant whose nickname was “The Fly” came looking for me. “The Fly” wandered down the hall looking for my office, saw the evidence cart, grabbed the bags containing the glassine envelopes of drugs and took off in the wind. Now this had happened a year after another assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York was prosecuted for stealing drugs from the vault. A guy named Daniel Perlmutter and Rudy Giuliani who was then the U.S. attorney had that guy handcuffed to a chair in the lobby of the U.S. attorney’s office. Sorry, you look…
Rosenberg: Troubled. He was handcuffed to a chair in the lobby of the office while they were preparing the charges against him? What was the rationale behind that?
Comey: Well, he’d been arrested without a probable cause, without a criminal complaint being prepared. And I think, although I wasn’t involved, that the purpose was to humiliate him. And so he was left there crying and then prosecuted and went to jail. So I knew this history, I’m a brand new prosecutor and the drugs are gone from the evidence card. Mr. Giuliani wants to see me so I went up stairs to the eighth floor of the U.S. attorney’s office and met with Rudy who asked me “where are the drugs?” And I said “Sir, I have no idea.”
So I had to sign an affidavit that I had not stolen the crack in the middle of trial. They ended up finding “The Fly” all coked out at this hotel out by LaGuardia Airport. He confessed to stealing the drugs. And we couldn’t use him as a witness anymore.
Rosenberg: What happened?
Comey: It worked out. The jury returned guilty verdicts on nearly all the charges. And I remember sitting with the judge, the judge was slightly pro government, after the trial was over he called me to the bench to give me feedback. And one of the defense lawyers for whom it was also his first trial came up was listening to the judge giving me feedback. And when he finished giving me feedback, this lawyer said to the judge “Your Honor, this is my first federal criminal trial too. I would welcome any feedback.” And the judge said “I don’t do that” and got up and walked off the bench.
Rosenberg: And that’s what you mean by slightly pro government.
Comey: Just a touch.
Rosenberg: Great literature begins with a great first sentence. “Call me, Ishmael.” That’s not yours of course. Yours is “The life begins with a lie.” Why does your book begin with the life begins with a lie?
Comey: Because it says something about the work I did as a prosecutor that shaped how I think about groups and leadership. And it also connected to my experiences in government especially the recent ones leading up to my firing.
Rosenberg: Although you don’t explicitly connect it. You just talk about what it is like to prosecute mobsters, Mafia.
Comey: Yup, but it’s part of a bigger, I hope, a narrative arc that both talks about what shaped me and touches the themes of truth telling that I struggle with throughout my time in government.
Rosenberg: How old were you when you first became an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan?
Comey: I was twenty six.
Rosenberg: How old were you when you were first put on a mobster case, on a Mafia case.
Comey: My first racketeering case started in 1989 or 90. So I was twenty eight.
Rosenberg: What was that like?
Comey: It was fascinating. A lot like what I had read in books and seen in the movies and a lot different. I’ve tried to explain to people that the Godfather doesn’t quite capture La Cosa Nostra it actually in a really strange twist influenced the Mafia the Godfather
Rosenberg: Literally life imitates art.
Comey: Exactly. And I had a witness a mob witness who said he remembers the day he walked out of the theater after seeing The Godfather, in 1971 I think, and looked up and remembers the sun hitting his face and saying to his friends “that’s the life, that’s the life.” Now, it wasn’t really the life but they started talking that way and dressing that way and acting that way. They were much more like what you see in the movie Goodfellas: thugs, and liars, and drunks, and cheats but they aspired to this Francis Ford Coppola model of honor and nice suits.
Rosenberg: And,did it work?
Comey: It worked for them in the very short term. And thanks to the work of a lot of good people of which I was a very, very small part the La Cosa Nostra was crushed, but crushed by their own stupidity and ego.
Rosenberg: But what lie does the life began with?
Comey: The opening lie is the induction ceremony is centered on meeting with the leadership of the administration of your mob family and the bosses there and the underboss and the conciliary, the counselor, and they stand with you in the basement of a club or in someone’s house and say “Do you know why you’re here?” To the person who’s about to be inducted into this La Cosa Nostra family and they’re required to say no. Even though only an idiot wouldn’t know why you’re gathered in the basement of some nightclub with the boss.
Rosenberg: Are they literally told to say no?
Comey: Yeah, because it’s supposed to be a secret, La Cosa Nostra, and they’re not supposed to know what the rituals are and what the rules are and what they’re going to be told so they have to feign ignorance. So that’s what it literally means, “the life” which is how the Mafia members refer to their work and their affiliation, the life begins with a lie. I don’t know why I’m here, when I really do.
Rosenberg: And in your book you mention that the Sicilian Mafia has a different lie.
Comey: There was a rule in Sicilian Cosa Nostra that was one of the oddest I’d ever encountered and it was, you may not lie to another man of honor, Uomo d’onore,
or a made member unless it is to lure him to his death. And I was confused by that rule and when it was explained to me by a Sicilian killer who had become a government witness I said well how does that give you any comfort? That is, Franco, you’re telling me the truth unless you’re about to kill me. And he said well a man of honor may only lie about the most important things and that means in all of our day to day dealings you can trust me. Unless I’m about to kill you.
Rosenberg: Which is a bit of an asterisk.
Comey: It’s a comfort in a way and no comfort at all. The most important way. I was a supervisor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and there was a pending Mafia case against John Gambino and Joe Gambino, two guys who ran the Sicilian wing of the Gambino crime family in New York and we needed to find two new prosecutors to take it over. The prior team for different personal reasons had to step aside. And so Pat Fitzgerald who was a year behind me, he had been there five years, at that point, four years, I’d been there five years.
Rosenberg: And you were already a supervisor.
Comey: A supervisor. That’s the velocity of life in the Southern District of New York. Young people come. They work hard. They leave. And so other young people, like I was, get to be a supervisor. And so I’m a supervisor and I’m trying to help find a partner for Pat to try this case. And it wasn’t going to be me because I was moving to Richmond Virginia, a place my wife wanted to go to get away from New York, a place she hated. And so I was on the phone one day talking to Pat running through names and she could hear me talking about the case and she asked me to hang up the phone. And I did. I told Pat I’d call him back and she said “that sounds like the case of a lifetime.” I said “it is.” And she said “you should do it. I’ll stay so you can do that with Pat.” And so we stayed another year and a half, almost two years.
Rosenberg: Was that the case of a lifetime?
Comey: It was. Both to try a case with a great friend, to try a case the theory of which was that these guys served as the canale, the channel, between Sicilian Cosa Nostra and American Cosa Nostra that allowed us to explore the mafias on both sides of the Atlantic and connect them together. It was amazing and it was a lot of fun. Believe it or not. Just because Pat’s hilarious and also because we had investigators we were very close with who made it feel like a small family taking on them.
Rosenberg: You mentioned one of those investigators, Kenny McCabe, who is legendary in the Southern District of New York. Is he the guy who taught you about the Mafia?
Comey: Yes. Best I ever knew. And one of the best people I’ve ever known. He died when he was 59 and Kenny was a mountain of a person. Youngest person ever to be made a detective in The New York City Police Department at twenty three and then after a career in NYPD working rackets focused on mob. He came to be an investigator at the U.S. attorney’s office.
Rosenberg: He became a detective at twenty three? That’s extraordinary.
Comey: Yeah, extraordinary. He was a he sounded like the streets of Brooklyn which allowed him to work well on the streets of Brooklyn. And he had a memory, matched probably only by Pat Fitzgerald’s, that Kenny could build relationships and remember the details of things he had seen, he had heard, had been said years and years later. He was a master at surveillance. He insisted on spending endless hours taking photographs. And these were, you know, with an analog camera and then developing them of mob funerals and weddings. And he did it because those were the times, he said, when the families come together and who stands with whom and who speaks with whom can help me understand connections. And so Kenny had on his bookshelf in his office binders, black three ring binders, on which using white out he’d written an event and a year. Gallow wedding 1983. You know Gigantea funeral 1979. And he would know, like someone who knows their house well, he’d know exactly what book he should go to to get a picture to show you know Vinny boom bots and handsome Frankie together at the Gallow wedding and the mobsters also knew him, strange as it sounds, and respected him.
Rosenberg: Why did they respect him?
Comey: Because he took the time to treat them with the dignity they thought was consistent with their noble criminal profession. They consider themselves men of honor. There was literally the name of the made people in Sicily. And what he would do is never embarrass them, embarrassment was a big deal for them, so he never served a subpoena at someone’s house.
Rosenberg: Meaning not in front of their children.
Comey: Exactly. Their spouse and their children. He would call the guy and say look, I got a subpoena for you. You want to meet me at the diner at the corner and then meet him there. He would not arrest people in front of their children and their families. He would not, for those he was trying to cultivate a relationship with, allow them to get photographed in handcuffs in a way that might embarrass their kids. And as a result when some of the most significant mobsters wanted to cooperate, Kenny McCabe was the person they reached out to.
Rosenberg: Now who is Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and who are the Gotti’s?
Comey: Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano was a member of the Gambino crime family, one of the people locked out of Cosa Nostra until 1975 by the books being closed, who was inducted into the Gambino crime family as one of a superclass of ten in 1975. And he rose through his street smarts and his ability to threaten and kill people to be the number two the underboss in the Gambino crime family. The boss of that time was John Gotti, another thug who would have been part of that super class of ten in 1975, except he was in jail. And so he couldn’t come to an induction ceremony. So I think Gotti joined the family in 76. The two of them came up together Gotti becoming the boss by killing the boss just before him, a guy named Castellano, killing him in front of a steakhouse on the East Side of Manhattan. He then turned around and made Gravano his number two.
Rosenberg: That first witness who cooperated with you you said he felt mistreated in some way by his Mafia family. How was he mistreated?
Comey: Gravano felt that there had been mistreatment in two respects. First he was housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and they’d put them on the same floor as the conciliary of the family and the boss of the family. So John Gotti is there, Frank Locascio who was the counselor of the family, and Gravano and Gotti liked to sleep late. And so
Rosenberg: Including in prison?
Comey: Including in prison, but they were housed with a bunch of drug dealers from other ethnic gangs, they were particular a group of Dominican drug dealers who were there, and these drug dealers would make sure they saved any extra fruit for John Gotti. Well one day John Gotti gotten up early to go to court and Frank Locascio noticed that the fruit that the dealers collected had been left in front of his cell door, Gotti’s door. So Locascio thought, well the boss isn’t coming back, so he ate his orange and his apple. And when Gotti came back and discovered his fruit had been eaten, he slapped Frank Locascio in the face in front of these other inmates, which Gravano thought was a breach of trust that was unforgivable, first. Second, about that same time Gravano got a chance to get discovery from the government and listen to the tapes.
Rosenberg: And discovery is required. It’s something the government must give to a criminal defendant, really to his or her attorneys, in preparation for trial.
Comey: Exactly. And among the things they were given by the government were copies of tapes made at the Raven Eyed social club and for the first time Gravano was able to hear Gotti bad mouthing him behind his back and that was it for Gravano. First he testified against John Gotti himself in their pending case which was tried in Brooklyn. And then he testified for us in Manhattan, his first time outside Brooklyn as a witness.
Rosenberg: Wanting to cooperate is reasonably common for most common criminals. Was it more difficult in Mafia cases? Or did you find the same level of cooperation when people are looking at a lot of jail time?
Comey: It changed over time. The mafia for decades had as one of its core values, if you could even use a term like that we’re talking about the mafia, that we don’t rat and that was the term they used a lot. They used the term omertà, that you will keep a pledge of silence until your death, that the only way you leave Cosa Nostra is dead. No one leaves Cosa Nostra by becoming a rat. And so the rats, so-called, were the exceptions. It changed over time in that the dam broke in the late 1980s early 1990s. Then once one did and two did the norm changed.Then during the trial the Italian National Police reached out to the FBI and said they had just developed a secret cooperator, a major figure in Sicilian Cosa Nostra, who knew the Gambino brothers and had been involved with them and they thought it be a valuable witness for us.
Rosenberg: And broadly speaking what were they charged with?
Comey: Racketeering, murder, drug dealing, loansharking, gambling. So we flew, Pat and I and some agents, on the weekend to Rome to interview this witness and we went to an abandoned convent where they had the entrance blocked just with vehicles. They backed the vehicles up led us into the convent and staying the convent was one person. This guy named Gasperi Mutola, who was unknown to even to the mafia at that point, had become a cooperating witness. And so we spent the weekend interviewing Gasperi Mutola to find out not only what he knew but what he had done. We knew he had killed a lot of people. To find out whether it was someone we could present in an American courtroom. And it was the oddest experience I’ve ever had interviewing witnesses because he was not in custody. He had full access to the kitchen. He made the food for us he made homemade pasta, which was delicious. And we sat there with this guy who told us he killed thirty seven people. Turned out he killed thirty eight. He killed two guys by the same name was something he remembered while testifying, weeks later Manhattan. And then evaluate him, came back to the United States, began trial Monday morning
Rosenberg: And he was willing to testify he was willing to go to the United States to testify?
Comey: He was.
Comey: Like a lot of people become cooperating witnesses, they become as motivated for this side they’re now on as they were for the other side when they were there. That is, like Gravano, they have the sense that I’m all in. I’m not going to cooperate part way. My mission is to destroy Cosa Nostra. And if the Italians need me or the Americans need me, I’ll go there to destroy Cosa Nostra. And we had another Sicilian witness who first explained that to me that his life mission now was to destroy Cosa Nostra, a guy named Francesco Marino Montoya. And we asked him do you ever get afraid you’ve taken on this incredible mission? And he said “I do, but I overcome my fear by remembering the image of what Cosa Nostra did to my family.” After it leaked out that that guy was cooperating with authorities Italian mafia murdered his mother, his sister, and his aunt in front of his house. And he said that image fortifies me, and then he starts fumbling around with his wallet, I don’t know what he’s doing, and he pulls out and unfolds a picture of his mother, his sister, and his aunt right, after they were killed in front of his house. It’s a newspaper photo and he holds it up and says “this gives me strength when I am afraid.” And so I found that the mafia penitente, and that’s the term the Italians used, penitent, almost to have a religious type conversion and they’ll do what needs to be done in pursuit of the new goal.
Rosenberg: Were you scared. You’re dealing with cold blooded killers.
Comey: I wasn’t and probably should have been more scared than I was but they were just ordinary people. And I always thought that if I met someone who had killed twenty five people or thirty eight people or nineteen, those of the totals of our three main witnesses, that the lights would change or that music would play or something. They’re just people and they tell you something, every one of them that’s it’s a little bit scary. So the first time I killed someone it was really, really hard.
Rosenberg: And then it became easy.
Comey: After that not so much. Now to his credit, Monoya, this sounds so bizarre to say insisted, upon killing people by strangulation and because he said taking another life is such a horrible thing to do. It shouldn’t be easy. And shooting someone is dishonorable because it’s so easy. Whereas strangulation is so incredibly difficult.
Rosenberg: Strange code.
Comey: Very strange and he would describe it took five strong men to kill by strangulation another man of honor because the strength of the fighting and life is at stake requires one each to hold a limb and then the fifth to apply the garrote or whatever it is. And he said it takes so much longer than on television, it’s awful, you never get it out of your head. And he said but that’s the way it should be. I shouldn’t be shooting someone across a field with a telescope rifle. I’m taking a life. And so you got to know these people in a human way that sort of stripped away the sense of, I don’t know, of evil in some sense and of danger and fear. And so that combination of things I was pretty relaxed around these guys.
Rosenberg: But you said perhaps he shouldn’t have been.
Comey: Yeah probably shouldn’t have been. But honestly I was more afraid and I bet this is true of your career too by the people who are too stupid to know that if they killed me they would just be another me. There are a thousand mes out there ready to prosecute cases and it would be a terrible tragedy, be very bad for me personally. But the United States of America would replace me and crush you.
Rosenberg: How did the Gambino trial end?
Comey: The Gambino case ended in a very painful way. The jury hung eleven to one.
Rosenberg: To convict?
Comey: To convict on all of the important counts.
Rosenberg: And I think most people knew this but for a jury to convict or acquit it must be unanimous. And so anything other than unanimity is a hung jury.
Comey: Yeah and it got really complicated because the jurors smuggled out a note to one of the marshals saying “We the jury believe the foreman has been paid off.” And the judge struggled with how to resolve that because they revealed in that note they’re split. And so you know this from trying a lot of cases. Once a judge knows how a jury is split it’s eleven to one for conviction. Any step we take is ripe grounds, as it should be, for an argument on appeal that the judge engineered a conviction by removing a juror. So the judge did something smart. There’s case law that says if you refuse to deliberate in good faith, you can be removed from a jury. So the judge interviewed the foreman but he couldn’t develop anything from that ex parte interview that allowed him to kick the guy off and so the guy also did something very smart. The Gambino brothers had fled before trial. They’ve been let out on bail and they fled and we seized millions of dollars worth of real estate and then captured them at a Fort Lauderdale hotel sunning by the pool. We knew that Joe Gambino fancied himself a ladies man. The FBI sent a very attractive female agent in a bathing suit to hang out by the pool. It attracted Joe Gambino and so we found the Gambino brothers and arrested them. So they were charged with bail jumping. Easiest bail jump in the world. The foreman voted to convict them of bail jumping.
Rosenberg: One count.
Comey: Yes. And so it was the longest bail jumping trial in American history had to be retried. Now the good news is, the lead defendants pled guilty before a retrial, that left poor Pat Fitzgerald having to try one defendant, who was a minor player who insisted on going to trial, and I left for Richmond and dumped that on him.
Rosenberg: I’d like to thank Jim Comey for being on our podcast today. If you liked our discussion, you’ll love his book. I will be talking to Jim again later in the season about his work for Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump. Because my goal is to bring you thoughtful conversations with interesting people about difficult topics, we have lined up some terrific guests for future episodes of The Oath. Leaders in government with unique and important perspectives on the rule of law, intelligence, and law enforcement. In the meantime, if you like what we’re doing, let me know. If you have thoughtful criticisms feedback or questions, hey, please let me know that too. Email me at email@example.com.
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The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC.This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon and Rob Hebert. Lauren Chadwick and Laurel Hyneman provided production support. Our senior producer is Barbara Raab and Steve Licktieg is our Executive Producer. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.