The path from perdition to righteousness can take a New York City cop to many strange places and here, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in March, the Prince of the City himself, retired detective Bob Leuci, was standing outside Bob Taylor’s, a roadhouse 20 miles north of Vegas that serves a great mesquite-grilled steak. Earlier in the day Bob had been preaching to a choir of undercover narcotics officers, recounting his own pilgrimage from the Police Academy to a parking lot in the Bronx. “It’s the evening of someone’s retirement party,” he said, “and my commanding officer says to me and my partner: ‘You two aren’t coming; I want you to follow these two Cubans around. But, whatever you do, don’t arrest them.’ So we tail these guys as they’re driving from one store to another, picking up bags of money. They wind up parking their car behind some dump of a motel in Riverdale, and we sit there. It’s about midnight when we get a call from the Lieutenant: ‘Where are you? We’re coming over.’ Fifteen minutes later there are about a dozen cops behind the motel, and the Lieutenant says, ‘Go get those guys out of their room.’ They come down and he tells them to open the trunk, and of course one of them says: ‘I swear to God, that’s not our money! But, look, why don’t you just take half of it, and we’ll go right back to Miami.’ We take them back to their room so we can talk without them hearing us, and now the Lieutenant raises the big issue: ‘We turn this money over to the Feds, and it goes to Dow Chemical to make Napalm that bombs some village in Vietnam, and I don’t want that on my conscience; we turn it over to the city, and it goes to people on welfare who buy guns and kill cops, and I don’t want no cops killed. Cubans are very religious people; if these guys swear to God that they’ll get out of town, I believe them. So I want all of you to go off with your partners for an hour and decide what we should do about that money.’” Bob paused, and glanced around the room at the 15 cops attending this seminar. Seven had facial hair; four wore earrings; most of them seemed hung over. They knew that 19 years earlier, Bob Leuci became famous as the subject of a book, and later a movie, about a detective who started working with prosecutors – one of them a young U. S. attorney named Rudolph Giuliani – and made cases against 50 of New York City’s Finest, many of them his friends. Two of them would eventually commit suicide; one went crazy; some went to jail. “If somebody had told me six years earlier, in 1961, when I was graduating from the Police Academy, that I’d be in a parking lot in the Bronx, walking off with fifteen hundred dollars in cash, I would have looked at them like they were on drugs,” Bob said. “The point I’m trying to make here is that the process of becoming compromised is invisible; you don’t see that you’ve moved from one side of the law to the other.” After steaks at Bob Taylor’s, Bob Leuci was drinking a vodka in a bar at the Four Queens, a decidedly downscale casino in the older part of Vegas. Slot machines rattled; neon lights flashed: Bugsy Siegel’s dreams of American greed gone two-bit. A high-as-a-blimp hooker sat down at a nearby barstool, and started talking to the guy next to her; she had no idea that the man to her left used to bust prostitutes and junkies with ease and style, but now spent his days in front of a computer, writing detective novels. “I hate giving that talk,” he said. “I pour my guts out, and they rarely get it. They have no idea what it’s like to wake up and find yourself in a place you never set out to be.”
In my dozen years as a newspaper reporter, I never met anyone whose life story had the kind of biblical heft that Bob’s did. As Robert Daley wrote in his book “Prince of the City,” which Sidney Lumet turned into a very faithfully adapted film, Bob “was the one who stepped forward, and, in so doing, brought on the ruin of everyone else. Like Sampson, he first did penance and then pulled the temple down.” The first time we met, in 1979, he was accompanied by another NYC cop who was detailed to Bob as an armed bodyguard. My sister and I were having dinner with this odd couple at Tiro A Segno, my dad’s social club in Greenwich Village. At some point during dinner, there were glances passed between Bob and someone at a nearby table who was dining with a priest. The guy walked over, the bodyguard put his hand on his gun, and the guy said to Bob, “If I wasn’t having dinner with the monsignor here, you’d be a dead man.” You don’t get intros like that much in journalism. For seven years, from 1965 to 1972, Bob had been an undercover narcotics cop, roaming around New York like a prince of the city, making busts on the one hand and deals with his fellow cops on the other. Many of the people he worked with were of Italian descent, and no phrase was more apt than the old Sicilian adage, “The left hand washes the right and the right hand washes the left and both hands wash the face.” You held back a little dope, you gave a little away, you stuck a little money in your pocket, you bought your kids a new pair of shoes, and you put an extra offering in the collection basket at mass on Sunday. No one in Brooklyn was surprised that mafioso Carlo Gambino had a church funeral: he built the rectory for his parish priests. For better or worse, in 1972, Bob met a New York City prosecutor named Nick Scoppetta. Bob had already pocketed about eighteen thousand dollars, and could picture his immortal soul just the way it had been depicted to him as a kid in the Baltimore Catechism: a pure white milk bottle turned black by the grievous offense of mortal sin. He knew what he was up against. He had seen “The Godfather” three times. He understood that equating silence with honor was part of every Italian kid's DNA. But he also recognized implicitly what Diane Keaton would have to say to Al Pacino in part two of the film: “Michael, this crazy Sicilian thing has got to stop.” Bob sensed that Scoppetta could be a father confessor, would help him do penance. And Scoppetta knew that Bob was one of the best detectives on the force, a guy who knew everything that was going on. And so down came the temple. In 1981, I sat with Bob and his then 11-year-old daughter Santina (she is now a producer for ABC News) at a screening of Sidney Lumet’s film. Halfway through, Santina hugged her father’s arm and whispered, “Daddy, how could you snitch on your friends?” I am sure her career as a journalist has since answered that question. Meanwhile, here in Rhode Island, is Bob with the woman who would become his second wife a few weeks later.
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